Double trees

Fifty years ago, some of you remember that summer, on June 21, 1964, three young men volunteering for the voter registration drive disappeared in Mississippi. Their names were Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Earl Chaney.

About six months earlier, President Lyndon B. Johnson, speaking before a Joint Session of Congress, had said, “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.”[1]

The bill passed the House in February of ’64, but it was debated in the Senate for sixty working days, including seven Saturdays with several attempts to filibuster the bill. It still is the longest Senate debate in history. On June 19, the Senate adopted an amended bill which was sent back to the House (Martin Luther King, Jr. was in a county jail in Florida that week after attempting to integrate a restaurant). The House adopted the Senate version of the bill on July 2, 1964 and President Johnson signed the bill into law that same day. A month later, on August 4, the FBI found the bodies of the three missing civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi. They had been shot and buried beneath a dam, and they weren’t the only ones who gave their lives in the struggle for justice.

When I read the texts the lectionary of the churches recommends for this Sunday I groaned a little under their weight. Persecution. Killing. Fear him who can destroy both body and soul. Take up the cross and follow. Not worthy of me. Three times! Not worthy of me. Heavy stuff. I got a little break when I read again Jesus’ words, “I have come to set … a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

“Well, Lord,” I said quietly, “that won’t take much, will it?” Sitting at my desk, chuckling at my own joke, I knew I was laughing because I felt more than a little uncomfortable. The world of Christian witness this text addresses seems so far away from my world. I am free to proclaim the good news of God’s Messiah Jesus. In my world, the men and women who want to build a mosque for their Friday prayers face way more opposition and more threats than a preacher who loves the Lord Jesus. The only time I ever received some mildly threatening letters and emails was after arsonists burned a small Islamic center in Columbia. After that incident I stood with Muslim friends because that’s where the Jesus I know and love stands.

Perhaps the point is not whether or not we recognize our life, our little world in this heavy passage from the gospel. Perhaps the point is whether we will have the wisdom and the courage to stand where Jesus stands when the moment of decision comes and he’s looking for us. Perhaps the point is whether our sons and daughters will know Jesus well enough to recognize him on the bus and get on to ride with him.

The gospel words on the page seem heavy at first, too heavy almost for a sunny summer morning, but the word they speak comes to us embodied in the lives of witnesses like Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, Dr. King and James Earl Chaney.

In 1998, the authorities at Westminster Abbey in London decided to fill ten niches on the West Façade, empty since the fifteenth century, with statues of Christian martyrs. The Rev. Dr. Anthony Harvey, one of the leaders of the effort, said, “There has never been a time in Christian history when someone, somewhere, has not died rather than compromise with the powers of oppression, tyranny and unbelief. But our century, which has been the most violent in recorded history, has created a roll of Christian martyrs far exceeding that of any previous period.”[2] Among the modern martyrs remembered for standing firm in their faith against the perpetrators of the acts of violence and injustice dominating their world are Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, and we know that each of them stands for countless men and women, and even children whose names we do not know.

Bonhoeffer wrote in his 1942 Christmas letter,

“We are not Christ, but if we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ’s large-heartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes and showing real compassion that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. Christians are called to compassion and action, not in the first place by their own sufferings, but by the sufferings of their brothers and sisters for whose sake Christ suffered.”[3]

On April 5, 1943 Bonhoeffer was arrested, along with his sister, Christine and his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, all on suspicion of treason. On Easter Sunday, April 25, Christine, still in jail, wrote a letter to her sons, Klaus and Christoph, and I want to read from it, because we have so many good and inspiring words from men like Bonhoeffer, King, and Romero; we rarely hear from ordinary people, women in particular, who know and show the fearless love of Jesus. Christine’s letter to her boys ends with these words,

“Now I want to tell you one more thing. Don’t carry any hate in your heart against the power that has done this to us. Don’t fill your young souls with bitterness; that has its revenge and takes from you the most beautiful thing there is, trust.... it is after all only a really small and meager part of the human being that one can put in jail.... I embrace all of you.[4]

Stories and even snippets of stories of faithful witnesses help us to imagine how to follow Jesus when it becomes crucial.

Clarence Jordan was a Bapist preacher with an agriculture major from the University of Georgia and a PhD in New Testament. I mention him because his story is very much part of the story of the civil rights movement in the South; he was also very serious about the gospel and very funny. He heard the call to the ministry of reconciliation, and he answered it by founding the racially integrated Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia in 1942. As you can imagine, not all the neighbors were thrilled about that project or the people involved in it. When the Koinonia folks set up a roadside stand to sell peanuts the Ku Klux Klan threw a stick of dynamite in it and blew it to smithereens. Jordan didn’t retaliate; he put up another stand. It got blown up too. Finally, the Koinonia Farm resorted to mail-order ads: “Help us ship the nuts out of Georgia.”[5]

Jesus said, “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! So have no fear of them.” No fear. No retaliation. But real compassion that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer.

I want to tell you one more story with a farm in the middle of it. It’s in a part of the world where keeping hope alive is the biggest challenge for all who live there. It’s a small farm, just outside Bethlehem. Bishara Nassar was a child when his father bought the land in 1916. It was a time of massive change. World War I was transforming the Middle East in ways still not resolved to this day, the Ottoman Empire was limping to an end, and Palestinian Christians were beginning to leave.

After the war of 1948 the Christian exodus from the West Bank quickened, and Bishara, who was a preacher and a musician, began to travel round the nearby villages, singing songs and leading Bible study in family homes. Music and stories, he thought, might deepen the faith and lift the spirits of Bethlehem’s Christian children, encouraging them to stay. Bishara also came to believe that the Christian community had a special role to play in building a more peaceful future on that wounded land, and he taught his own children the principles of non-violence rooted in Jesus’ teachings.

In the years since his death in 1976, the family’s commitment to non-violence has been tested in ways he could never have imagined. Jewish settlements began to be built on the hills around the farm, all of them considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this. As they watched the settlements rise around them in the 1980s, the Nassars began to worry. Their farm was in a great location, close to the main north-south road through the West Bank and on high ground. Prime real estate.

In 1991 the military authorities declared that more than 90% of the farm now belonged to the State of Israel. The Nassars, though, refused to leave, and they had the documents they needed to launch an appeal in the Israeli courts. In 1924 Bishara Nassar’s father had registered his property with Palestine’s new imperial rulers. The British issued land deeds that specified the size and borders of the farm, and almost 70 years later, those papers became the basis of a legal case that has been in front of the Israeli courts for 23 years. It remains unresolved.

When the Nassar family was informed, after 10 years in the military courts, that their Palestinian lawyer was not eligible to contest the case in Israel’s supreme court they found an Israeli firm willing to take it on. When they were told to provide a land survey, they hired an Israeli surveyor, and sent him, at great cost, to consult maps and documents in the imperial archives of London and Istanbul. “Every time they see you are ready to meet their demands, they ask [for something] more and more difficult, [so] that you say ‘I am fed up’,” one of Bishara’s children said. “Yes, this [is] always the process. We know it. It’s a game to push us to leave.”

Last month, a BBC reporter watched Daher Nassar, one of Bishara’s sons as he picked apples from the ruins of an orchard he had planted years ago. The fruit was scattered across ground freshly opened and imprinted with the tracks of a bulldozer. Tree trunks and branches had been pushed into a muddy pile. On May 19 a shepherd from a nearby village had been out at first light and had seen the bulldozer at work in the field, guarded by Israeli soldiers. By the time Nassar arrived the whole orchard was gone. His English was far from fluent, but there was no mistaking the pain in his voice when he said to the reporter: “Why you broke the trees?”

A spokesperson for the Israeli military authorities in the West Bank said the trees were planted illegally on state land. Nassar’s sister, Amal, has a different explanation. The government, together with the Israeli settlers who live around the farm, is “trying to push us to violence or push us to leave,” she says. Amal insists that her family will not move from the land, nor will they abandon their commitment to peaceful resistance. “Nobody can force us to hate,” she says. “We refuse to be enemies.”

Her brother walks across a scarred and empty field. He looks around and says, “I will plant more trees. Double trees.”[6]




[3] Letters and Papers from Prison, as quoted in Kelly, Geffrey B. and F. Burton Nelson. The Cost of Moral Leadership: the spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publ., 2003, 46.

[4] Sifton, Elisabeth and Fritz Stern. “The Tragedy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi”. The New York Review of Books. October 25, 2012. Emphasis added. 

[5] See Millard Fuller’s foreword to Ann Louise Coble, Cotton Patch for the Kingdom: Clarence Jordan’s Demonstration Plot at Koinonia Farm (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 11.

[6] Adamson, Daniel Silas. The Christian family refusing to give up its Bethlehem hill farm. 17 June 2014.