Bethlehem, West Bank. Evangelicals have never been keen on political protests. Especially the sort that includes rifles and grenades -- in the hands of your opponents.
I was attending the remarkable Christ at the Checkpoint conference in Bethlehem (West Bank) in March when I learned about a problem brewing in the village adjacent to Bethlehem: Beit Jala.
On Sunday, March 14, the three cities of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour were calling a non-violent demonstration to protest the Israeli destruction of 200 olive trees in Beit Jala. This is a Christian village west of Bethlehem. Remarkably it is surrounded by a 30 ft cement wall and the soldiers come inside the wall to destroy the livelihoods of the Palestinian Christians here. I was invited to join them. I did. It's a privilege to join people in their protest of their occupation.
We joined 75 Palestinians and a handful of Europeans and Americans. There were seniors and children. Banners and flags. The leader gave us a speech about nonviolence (the Arab attorney Jonathan Khuttab translated). "If you come here to throw stones, leave now. We will approach the soldiers in peace even though they have weapons." He then announced: "Now. All older men in the front!" What? And he was looking at me! So there I was, walking between an attorney and an Arab pastor (they locked arms!) -- and down the road you could see a line of Israeli soldiers unloading from two jeeps and two trucks. Their goal: keeping us from the threatened trees and the bulldozers. The Arabs started singing: "Bring down the wall." "Stop our occupation." It dawned on me in a new way, I wasn't in Wheaton anymore.
This is street theater. Political drama. TV cameras followed us from a number of networks. Everyone had a role. But at 50 yards from the military line, the soldiers chose violence. They launched five or six rounds of concussion grenades right into the 75 of us. These explode with a small ball of fire and a concussion that almost knocks you over. One hit next to me and bounced past a little boy and exploded. Smoke was everywhere. But these villagers knew it was coming and they regrouped and kept walking. I figured: well, I've come this far -- let's read the next chapter.
In 10 minutes we had walked right up to the soldiers who were blocking the street. They wore body armor and were heavily armed. Two men stood 10 yards behind them with very heavy guns. They were backup.
And there we stood. The Palestinians asked the soldiers questions like this: "Are you proud to be here?" "Why are you in our village?" "Why build walls and destroy our lives?" A young American woman disguised in sunglasses and a black kafia asked: "Do you understand that what you do is illegal?" It is surreal to watch unarmed people stand inches from armed soldiers and make their case. It was like a picture right out of the movie "Gandhi."
I wondered what happens next. If anyone pushed through the soldiers they would either use tear gas or arrest them. But I tried to collapse the whole thing down to one soldier: the guy in front of me with his rifle and body armor. I was 12 inches from him and simply asked him his name because I could tell he understood English. (Soldiers are ordered not to talk to demonstrators. Of course, no one wants a human face on this thing.) But he spoke. "Jonathan." From New York. 19 years old. One year of military service so far. So young. So seemingly gentle. And he seemed really conflicted. Aiming a rifle at a crowd with kids does something to your heart.
I asked him why he was doing this. He summed up everything in a sentence or two: "These people are dangerous. We must be safe. If we don't do this to them, who knows what they will do. Besides, I'm just following orders."
I talked to him about how complicity in violence will collapse his soul. And "just following orders" is an echo from other times and other bad things. But he was breaking orders by talking. The lieutenant pulled him away after 15 minutes. Soldiers cannot risk making a human connection with their "enemies." When it all broke up, I said goodbye to Jonathan and told him he was probably a good man who may want to think about what this sort of thing is costing him. He surprised me. "You don't know me or what I could do." "No," I said. "I want to believe that this great sadness does not represent you."
I kept wondering what was accomplished. The trees don't have a chance. The poor have little power in front of violent power like this. But we hoped to awaken the consciences of the soldiers. More, I noticed how the Palestinians seemed encouraged as we went back. Their sobriety was changed to an odd elation. They had done something, found their voices, and they kept their peaceful ideals. They were not just passive victims. And it was all nonviolent.
Families encouraged their kids to show up and I suspect it has something to do with teaching them how to handle fear and anger. They refuse to let their children see their parents afraid. One friend told me his daughter had come to her first demonstration when she was 6 months old. I met her there. Today she is 7. And this little girl wasn't scared one bit.
I wish all of my students could have marched. It is a privilege to join a righteous protest. To just do this once and see it up close is transforming. And the lessons can be transferred to countless places in the world. And one more note: You'll also learn if your adrenaline system works. Mine was. Just one concussion grenade will zoom it into overdrive.
Gary M. Burge is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Chicago, IL. He has recently authored Whose Land? Whose Promise?: What Christians Are Not Being Told About Israel and the Palestinians (Pilgrim) and Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to "Holy Land Theology" (Baker Academic).