Foreword: "Letters from 'Apartheid Street'"

We're delighted this week to feature the foreword to Michael McRay's new book, Letters from "Apartheid Street," written by our own Lee C. Camp. When I began my teaching vocation here in the buckle of the Bible Belt thirteen years ago, I realized quickly that teaching theology and “Christian ethics” is a daunting task, a task freighted with possibilities for despair. So I spoke to my new colleague Richard Goode about my already developing sense of frustration.

He pointed me to two sources of encouragement: one, the agricultural metaphors scattered throughout the New Testament, in which the Apostle Paul clearly specifies our task, a simple and humble one. We are called to plow the ground, sow seed, water seed in our ministry of reconciliation. Sometimes we are but preparing ground upon which others, we trust, will sow seed. Sometimes we are privileged to water seed, seed that others have previously sown, upon ground that was previously plowed by yet others.

Two, he pointed me again to Oscar Romero, that faithful witness to the Gospel who was murdered because he insistently spoke truth to oppressors. Romero, too, said on various occasions that liberation comes in knowing that we cannot do everything ourselves. Romero reminds us that we are only workers in God’s great plans.

As one of Michael’s teachers, I am grateful to say I got to water some of the seed that had already been sown by others, and I am grateful to our friends at Cascade and Wipf & Stock for bringing Michael’s recounting of his experiences in Israel and Palestine to publication.

But more than that, I am grateful to see herein his own struggle to embody a life of sowing the seed of God’s Kingdom. I am grateful that this journal—one which I encouraged him to seek to have published—allows us to see his own struggles. It is worth noting that even though Michael often speaks and acts boldly, he is as riddled with questions as the rest of us. So I am grateful he refuses to come to too easy conclusions. And I am grateful for his willingness to acknowledge forthrightly that even his own peace-making work carries with it an inescapable air of white, male privilege, especially significant when carrying a U.S. passport through Palestinian checkpoints.

Embodying the Gospel is not, of course, an exercise in self-righteousness. Thus these pages, perhaps because of the ambiguity and questions herein, bear witness to a faithful attempt to practice the Good News of a Kingdom described on the Galilean hills also described herein.

I have seen many of the streets, shops, and walls Michael describes here. I have also seen the tension between oppressor and oppressed. Those of us at ease in the American Zion must needs hear the stories: a family whose home was destroyed by heavy machinery while the family was still inside, killing children and a pregnant mother and a grandparent; olive groves, cultivated for generations, uprooted to build a wall of separation; domesticity and labor and child-rearing constantly threatened by arbitrary-but-all-too-well-imposed systems of check-points and confiscation and arrest, maddening to even the casual observer; heartless mechanisms of colonialism and occupation. I walked, some years ago, only a half-day the streets of Hebron, and only a half-day the markets of Ramallah, and only brief stints in other locales in the West Bank, and I found my anger to be boiling and accompanied with cursing. You will see the same frustration herein, and for good reason.

But it is that temptation to self-righteousness which is so dangerous: we begin to tell, as Michael so well puts it, a “single narrative,” in which all the wickedness is on one side, and all the righteousness on the other. And—this is something I learned herein—we have a felt-need for a “perfect victim,” the victim in whom there is no guile, before we will commit ourselves in empathy for oppressed.

Michael’s own questions and inner arguments about narrative and victim show the seed of the Gospel at work in his life. In his epilogue, you will hear Michael call to mind the word of Will D. Campbell, himself angry over the death of a good young man, murdered in the height of the Civil Rights movement, in which we Americans struggled with our own systems of apartheid. Campbell realized that he was demonizing the white-man, the murderer. A friend, an agnostic Jew, sensing the inconsistency in Campbell’s demonization of the white racist, pushed Campbell to summarize the gospel in ten words or less. Campbell insisted that that was a useless exercise. The agnostic insisted. Campbell blurted out, “we’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.”

Surely Campbell’s eight word aphorism is an insufficient summary of the Gospel, but it points, nonetheless, at an indispensable truth which we must carry with us in our work of sowing and watering the seed of the Gospel: we are all broken, sharing together in the woundedness of the world and the fundamental alienation that marks human history. And so you will hear herein not only tales you must be sure to hear, of the oppression of Palestinians, but the humanity of Israeli Defense Forces, nineteen and twenty year olds many of whom hate, too, the drama of hostility into which they have been caught up, wanting to go home and return to their own visions of domesticity and olive trees and child-rearing. So I am very glad Michael sought to carry on conversations about tennis and celebrities and life-goals with young men carrying M16’s who were doing the work of the occupying forces.

As he reflects—both upon one moving account of a particular protest, complete with tear gas canisters and rubber bullets and tanks and jeeps, and also in his own epilogue—it’s not always clear why we do such things: why we protest injustice; why we seek to make peace; why we bear witness to a Galilean who was also murdered in Palestine. That is, it’s not clear why we do such things when we can see no clear fruit.

I suspect that there are at least two good reasons, and probably many more: one, our continuing to sow seed, which we cannot ensure will yield a harvest, is one way of keeping our own souls tender enough to receive in our own lives the ongoing work of God’s Spirit of reconciliation and peace-making. “The life you save may be your own.” And two, what else is there to do? We have heard the call of Jesus, to follow in the way of truth-telling and suffering-love and doing-justice, and to listen not to the siren song of power and might and imposition. If we are not to fall prey to the various manifestations of oppression ourselves, then all there is to do is to continue such good work, together, one day at a time, trusting that the Lord of all creation will do what is right.

Letters from "Apartheid Street" is available from Cascade Books.

Lee C. Camp, Professor of Theology & Ethics at Lipscomb University, in Nashville, Tennessee, is the host of WWW.TOKENSSHOW.COM and the Dispatches from the Buckle Podcast, and the author of WHO IS MY ENEMY?