by Rebekah Sears
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1964).
Last month I had the pleasure of attending a conference entitled Prophetic Action: Christians Convening for Palestine, hosted by Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA) in St Paul Minnesota. It was energizing and stirring to gather with so many others focused on justice and peace-focused solutions, coming from across the US and Canada sharing information, strategies and stories of hope.
What really stood out to me was the strong emphasis from the presenters and organizers on the natural connections between peace and justice issues and the work in the US, Canada, and Palestine and Israel. This emphasis elevated the voices of people standing up against systemic oppression and injustice from Canadian and US governments – Standing Rock and Ferguson, including Black Lives Matter, to name a few – and how these voices for justice so easily connect to the voices of Palestinians working for justice.
As the conference was based in the US, the specific examples were from the US context, but it doesn’t take much to make the connections to issues in Canada, especially of Indigenous peoples.
However, the focus of this conference was not to draw attention away from the important and urgent work in Palestine and Israel, but to:
- Encourage people in Canada and the US to see and act against injustice in their own backyards as well as in Palestine and Israel;
- Gain a deeper and personal understanding of the injustices facing Palestinians by seeing similar patterns and actions of oppression closer to home;
- Seek solidarity around the world in the fight against oppression, including from a faith perspective, as something prophetic – with liberation theologies movements popping up around the world, unified in their goals of human dignity for all, especially for those who are oppressed.
These proclamations were clear throughout the conference, but I especially want to focus on two presentations early into the conference. In both, personal experiences of injustice at home lead to a greater understanding, empathy and solidarity with those in Palestine and Israel.
In her keynote address, Reverend Traci Blackmon, representing the United Church of Christ in Missouri, took us back to 2014 in Ferguson, particularly the aftermath of the shooting on an unarmed black young man, Michael Brown, by police officer Darren Wilson. What followed was a rising of justice-focused indignation from the community of Ferguson.
Reverend Blackmon witnessed police forces constructing walls, barriers and checkpoints around community protestors across Ferguson. Meanwhile the protestors were also met with police in riot gear, with tanks and with tear gas.
At the same time, Reverend Blackmon, and other witnesses talked about a phenomenon happening on social media. Peace and justice activists from Palestine and Israel began reaching out, first to show solidarity with activists in Ferguson, but also to offer non-violent practical advice. They shared how protestors could protect themselves from the effects of tear gas attacks, among other things. For Reverend Blackmon and others this was a turning point, opening not just points of connection, but a deep understanding for the situation and work of others half a world away.
Reverend Jim Bear Jacobs, member of Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation and parish associate at Church of All Nations Presbyterian Church, gave the opening remarks of the conference. Before he started thinking about the situation in Palestine and Israel, he first had to come to terms with his own history, a history of colonialism, oppression, land loss, and erasure of the history of his people. The faith tradition where he grew up did not acknowledge any of this and emphasized that he needed to be Christian first, and to downplay his Indigenous identity and history.
When coming to terms with his own history, Reverend Bear’s faith also shifted, to focus on what Christ and the Scriptures say about standing with the oppressed. It helped solidify his own involvement with Indigenous justice movements in Minnesota, and across the country, leading to his involvement at Standing Rock.
While standing in solidarity for the protection of Indigenous lands and resources, demonstrators were met with water cannons, tear gas, and police in riot gear. At the same time messages of support for Indigenous communities came in from around the world, including from Palestinians. As with Reverend Blackmon, this opened a whole new perspective for Reverend Jacob to see the similarities of the struggle, and the urgency to speak out.
So, what does all this mean for our responsibility and possible response? I will bring in a quote from Reverend Traci Blackmon as a guide: “People are becoming disposable in the policies. We must see people. It’s not just physical or political constructs, but theological constructs.”
In light of this, may we see the humanity in others, at home and around the world, including in Palestine and Israel; may our actions and policies at home and abroad be informed by human experience; and may we have the eyes to see injustice in its many forms, all while continuing to challenge ourselves to speak out wherever we see it.
Rebekah Sears is the Policy Analyst for the MCC Ottawa Office.