His eyes burned green and his hands shook as he gave me my first history lesson on the Six-Day War. Somehow at 22-years-old I had managed to find myself sitting at a moonlit beach restaurant in Aqaba, Jordan having hardly ever learned a thing about Israel. I felt ashamed, and my dinner companions offered me more hummus in consolation. That night I learned, among many things, that Jordan had absorbed 40 percent of the nearly 5 million Palestinian refugees who were forced to leave their homes after Israel was established as a state in 1948.
Learning is one thing, but seeing is another. The next day while trying to find the Roman ruins of the city of Jerash, we got lost in one of the largest Palestinian refugee camps. I stared out the dusty window of our car and looked directly into the dark-coffee eyes of the ragged faces that we passed. The piles of splintered wood stacked into makeshift houses screamed of biblical exile, and the irony stung a bit too deeply.
A mere few days after we left Jordan, my husband Brian and I ventured into Israel. As our tour guide, fittingly named Moses, led us through streams of emotional tourists I felt my palms begin to sweat and heart race. I thought my heart had belonged to Jordan, but now I found myself deeply identifying with my fellow Jewish traveling companions. I could not fathom the horrors of World War II, and I hoped that if my new Jewish friends had been with me in the refugee camps of Jordan that they would feel profound empathy for their displaced Palestinian brothers and sisters.
But we were no longer in Jordan; instead we were meandering through clean swept Israeli streets toward giant bricks burning in the sun. Suddenly I found myself standing before the Wailing Wall thinking only about my parents’ divorce and how much four-year-old Kari had hated that they just couldn’t get along. “Same to you, Israel and Palestine,” the 22-year-old Kari thought.
“I love you both, but I hate the way you treat each other,” I wrote on a small piece of white paper and shoved it into the cracks of the wall. As I walked away I held my breath hoping that my words could crumble at least a metaphorical wall.
Almost three years later I find myself still haunted by that summer. As I finish my last year of my Master of Divinity I find myself wrestling deeply with my role as an ordained Lutheran pastor and my participation in world events. I hail from a long tradition that claims that pastors should be as apolitical as possible since politics at best distract from the Gospel and at worst manipulate people into destructive narratives that pit “us” against “them.” In other words, my tradition (a specific brand of Lutheranism) argues that a pastor’s only job is to preach the Word alone.
I am quickly realizing, however, that the apolitical pastor is not only a misnomer but an impossibility. The Christian church is political. I say this not necessarily as a normative argument (that the Christian church should be political, which is a whole other essay) but simply as a mere description. In the case of Israel, one need look no further than the work of the World Council of Churches (WCC), an organization representing some 580 million Protestants worldwide. The WCC has been active in the Israel-Palestine conflict since its inception in 1948, and most recently in 2009 published the Kairos Palestine Document, a work authored by Christian Palestinians calling for a boycott of all Israeli goods in hopes of dissuading the Israeli government’s ethically questionable treatment of Palestinian refugees (especially those living on the West Bank).
The WCC’s decision to publish the Kairos Palestine Document on its website has been met with great criticism, especially from some leaders of the Jewish church. In their article Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper essentially call the WCC “anti-Israel” and go so far as to say that the actions similar to those taken by the WCC will “embolden terrorists and anti-Semites, and cast carefully nurtured interfaith relations into darkness and disarray.”
Though I do not necessarily agree with the claims made by Hier and Cooper, their comments remind me that the church is in fact political, I am a part of the church, and if I do not speak for myself, organizations like the WCC will speak for me – for better or for worse. Much more, if I do not choose to participate in world events especially by way of interfaith dialogue, I do a great disservice to my calling, my brothers and sisters, and my God.
In short, I reject the myth of the apolitical pastor. As a person called into a ministry of profound honesty and authenticity, I believe that there are no limits on what parts of me are used for God’s work in the greater world. My experiences in Jordan and Israel absolutely prohibit me from ever being apolitical because my story is deeply impacted by the people I have met and the stories I have heard. And so with great humility, love, and faith, I brace myself for the difficult task of moving forward into conversation with my interfaith brothers and sisters. I only pray that what I have seen and heard in this world will help bring hope, light, healing, and ultimately greater understanding.
Kari (24) is in her third year of a Master of Divinity from Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, MN. Her passion for interfaith dialogue has emerged while traveling to over 20 countries in the past five years, and she currently lives in Oxford, England with her husband Brian.