Friday, January 5, 2024

What Do We Do? The War in Israel by Reverend Tom Capo preached on 10/15/2023

This has been a nightmare week for the people of Israel and of the Gaza Strip.  And for me and for those I care about in Miami, well, our hearts are breaking.  I have Jewish, Muslim, and Christian friends who are all feeling pain, fear, and uncertainty how we might best respond to the war in Israel.  As I have listened, offered pastoral care, comfort, and what advice I had to offer, the last line in our chalice lighting in one form or another kept running through my mind: “Let us bring this Unitarian Universalist heritage into our world and our lives today.” How do I, how do you, and in a broader how do we Unitarian Universalists bring our heritage of peace, justice, compassion, respect, and love into the world and our lives in this time of war and division.  

Hamas attacked Israel a little over a week ago.  An unprovoked attack that was devastating in its effectiveness.  I will not go into the details, because we have all been inundated with the horror of it over the past week.  And Israel’s response has been in kind, devastating.  Both sides continue to suffer losses.  Hamas still has hostages.  Friday Israel rained down leaflets telling Citizens in Gaza to get out—millions of people told to take their belongs and go south within 24 hours.

This war impacts us here in Miami.  There was a peace panel set to happen today at Coral Gables UCC.  It has been canceled due to the concern that having both Muslims and Jews together on the same stage would be too difficult, too painful, the trauma too fresh in the minds and hearts of those people.  A friend of mine talked to some of the leaders in the Islamic community.  They are hurt that the peace panel was canceled.  They are fearful of a return to being treated like outcasts, as they were after 9-11.  They say that that women in Hajibs are already being harassed here in Miami.  The Jewish community is in fear of attacks on synagogues, and have increased their security.  And members of the Jewish community are gathering supplies for the troops in Israel as well as humanitarian supplies for the citizens.  There are protests and counterprotests about this war going on in the streets here in Miami and around the world.   

And I wonder, as I guess you wonder, how do we live our UU values at a time like this?  How can we make a positive difference, at least locally?  Friday I received an email from Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East.  This organization has been siding with love with the people of Palestine/Israel since 1971.  The email called for an Action Alert!  It said, “Multiple truths are coexisting at the moment. Yes, horrific acts were committed by Palestinian fighters against Israeli civilians. And, yes, the Israeli government and military are conducting what can be accurately named as genocidal attacks on the Palestinians in Gaza.”  This UU organization has stated that “It is absolutely urgent that Biden and Congress demand a de-escalation and call for a ceasefire, and demand that humanitarian assistance be allowed into the Gaza Strip.”  UUs are encouraged to contact their congressional representatives, and ask them to do what they can to restore electricity and water to the Palestine.

Our UU president, Sophia Bettencourt, put out a statement that said, “Beloveds, I invite you to stop what you are doing if you can and sit with me in the depth of this tragedy. How to reconcile the cost of occupation and of war? How to nuance two very real histories of oppression and violence? I am holding close the words of U.N. Middle East peace envoy Tor Wennesland who said: ‘This is a dangerous precipice, and I appeal to all to pull back from the brink.’”  She went on to say, “We as a people of faith can condemn violence against civilians while at the same time engaging the full legacies and histories of oppression that shape such devastating conflict. As a faith tradition, Unitarian Universalists have long worked for peace, and our principles and values call for the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. At the same time, we have not engaged the tangled issues surrounding Israel/Palestine in community since 2018, and our last engagement resulted in severed relationships, and deep pain.”

In 2010, while serving Peoples Church Unitarian Universalist in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, conflict between Israel and the Palestinians erupted.  And the local Jewish and Muslim communities were in deep pain.  One Imam was so distraught that he wrote on social media that the attacks on the Palestinian people were like the Nazi’s attack on Jews during Holocaust.  And the situation in our little town escalated.  The Interfaith community gathered to try to de-escalate the tension.  Myself and a few other faith leaders personally, face to face, went to both the Imam who wrote the Holocaust statement and to one of the local Rabbis who had responded—saying something to effect that comparing what was happening in Israel and Gaza to the Holocaust was an outrage to the Jewish people. We invited the Imam and the Rabbi to come to a peace rally at my church.  And while they were both hesitant and still deeply hurt, they agreed.  This was a moment that I will remember for the rest of my life.  The Rabbi prayed for the children in Palestine, for their peace and safety.  And then the Imam stood up started to shake the Rabbi’s hand, but then they hugged.  The Imam proceeded to offer blessings and prayers to the children in Israel.  

On Thursday of this week, I wondered aloud to my friend at Mosaic Miami about how we might help the Muslim and Jewish communities during this time.  We came up with a plan that includes starting with just one Imam and one Rabbi, in hopes of finding a path forward, before bring in more people to find a path for peace and reconciliation here between these two faith traditions.  But here is the concern, with so much grief, pain, trauma, with hostages still being held, and bombs still being dropped, when is the right time to move forward with this plan?  We both decided all we could do is simply ask the local communities if or when they would be ready to begin a healing process.

I have been telling you about an interfaith potluck that we are hosting here a UU Miami next Sunday night.  I will tell you right now that many members of Beth Am and other Jewish communities have RSVP’ed that they will join us, as will people from the UCC, the Quaker, the Catholic and other protestant communities.  We may have some Hindu friends that join us.  Also, the Mayor and/or one of her representatives will be present.  However, at this point none of the Islamic community have signed up.  We are planning not only to eat together, but to invite everyone present to get know one another by offering questions for conversation.  Now the war is influencing what the Jewish communities would like to be talked about.  They have asked if we could invite people to talk about their response to attack by Hamas on Israel.  I am clear that I do not want that to be a focus of this gathering.  But I also know that ignoring the war may cause hurt feelings from our Jewish friends.  And I also do know that of the faith communities in Miami, a Unitarian Universalist one is the best setting for imitating an opportunity for our communities to begin to heal together.  But it’s just too son now.

Listen for a moment to this verse from the song that our choir sang a few minutes ago:
Oh if the world were ours for evermore,
we’d have to fix mistakes we’d made before;
What would we reap? What would we sow?
What would we stop? What would we now begin?
What would be different now
if we had to plan ahead
for longer, for longer?
What will we reap at this Interfaith Potluck next Sunday?  What will we sow?  What will we stop?  What will we begin?  What will be different?  My hope and my resolve is to keep the focus next week on peace and relationships, on learning about one another and learning how to be unbiased with one another.  And I ask your help with that.  For all of us present to keep the politics out and embrace healing and bridging as we eat with one another.
I offered you a reading earlier.  Do you remember it?  It ended with “Only extremists would have us believe civilizations are clashing. Don’t believe the lie.”  I believe this, but I also know that extremists have already set off bombs.  The people who have been hurt and traumatized are responding, causing hurt and trauma themselves.  It is hard to call for peace, so many people are held in the thrall of retribution.  The vision of normally peaceful people on both sides of this war has been colored by the atrocities each side has visited upon the other.   We, my friends, must hold peace in our hearts, hold a place for healing for our Jewish and Muslim siblings, and hold hope.  It’s hard and can feel ineffective, I know.  It’s easier to point to something tangible, live bombs and destruction, and say that’s the most effective way forward.  But it is not.  We must be a reservoir of peace and hope that we can offer to our Jewish and Muslim friends who are feeling so hopeless right now.  To our Jewish and Muslim friends who are suffering so terribly right now.

One last note.  This week I struggled to put out a statement regarding this war.  I didn’t want to cause more hurt and pain.  I didn’t want to alienate Jewish or Muslim friends.  I started with “The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami offers its love, compassion, and concern for those people in Israel and the Gaza Strip who are embroiled in war.  Many adults and children are suffering loss of life, agonizing trauma, and profound grief from the impact of this war.  We pray that safety and peace return soon to this region.  Here are a couple links if you wish to offer resources of humanitarian aid:  American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC): Emergency in Israel and Islamic Relief USA.”  And after hearing some feedback from our leadership and from some other faith leaders, I changed it to: “In the wake of the brutal Hamas attack on Israel, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami suggests these two vetted humanitarian aid organizations:  American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC): Emergency in Israel and Islamic Relief USA.  Countless adults and children are suffering loss of life, agonizing trauma, and profound grief from this war.  The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami holds all those impacted by this awful war in the spirit of love, compassion, and concern.   We pray that safety and peace may soon come to this region.”  Was one of these better or worse?  Was one too neutral or one too blaming?  I really am not sure.  I can tell you that I have talked to some local protestant faith leaders, and they are coming down on one side or the other.  I don’t see a right side in all this.  I only see pain and a need for healing, when the time is right.

We have an opportunity here.  And it is a risky one.  We can hold a space for peace and hope for those in need of peace and hope, knowing that both sides are not in a place right now to offer it and may not be in a place to accept it.  But still this is the call as we live our Unitarian Universalism in the world.  We say UUism is a beacon of hop.  That’s our heritage.  Please, please find a way to be that beacon of hope for someone who is in a very dark, painful, and scary place right now.

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