Saturday, June 23, 2012

Unity And Alienation And Unity

If you go to a Roman Catholic church in Anaheim, but you're not a Roman Catholic, the priest might not want to serve you Holy Communion. While he's not allowed to refuse if you insist, it's technically against canon law. And yet on Saturday in Bethlehem, all we St. John's pilgrims, though most are Episcopalian, were communicated without any hesitation by an Italian priest during a solemn early-morning mass in the grotto associated with Christ's birth that is sheltered by the Church of the Nativity -- a moment of unity in Christ that felt, at least to me, every bit as powerful as the first Pentecost.

The church is one of three constructed in fourth-century Palestine under the direction of Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. You can still see her workers' beautiful mosaics preserved a meter or two beneath the church's modern floor. Today Roman Catholic and Greek and Armenian Orthodox Christians share its care and administration. It's generally in the news when people are shooting at each other or on Christmas. We St. John's pilgrims celebrated our Christmas early by singing "O Come All Ye Faithful" in the St. Joseph Chapel near the grotto, where pilgrim Damian had a contemplative moment.

Then thanks to our friend Iyad Qumri's peerless contacts, the Franciscans, Rome's traditional stewards in the Holy Land, invited us to attend mass with some pilgrims from Italy. The priest (was he visiting, or based here? I don't know. I didn't ask. This is the Middle East) celebrated in Italian, but the forms of the Holy Eucharist liturgy are familiar enough that we could follow along and say the responses in English. We weren't sure about the gospel reading until the priest said, "Non vi preoccupat (don't be worried)," when we realized we were hearing Jesus's teaching in Matthew 6 about the lilies of the field. Pilgrim Mike, whose fluency in Spanish gives him a good feel for Italian, could tell the first reading, which a nun proclaimed as pilgrims Alexendra and Brenna looked on, was from 2 Corinthians. So we all understood God's saving word, each in our own language. Did the priest know we weren't Catholic? Did he care? What would Benedict XVI think? I don't know. I didn't ask. This is the Middle East!

After the closing prayers, we each touched the star in the floor that stands for the Birth and Incarnation and creation's radical uni
ty under God's perfect, evil-destroying love. This unforgettable moment of Christian unity happened in a town whose Christian population has dwindled to as little as 20% owing to falling birth rates, the second Palestinian intifada in 2000-04, and diminished economic opportunities. God's love may defy alienation, but the region's politics sometimes appear to defy God's love. Edward Tabash, an Arab Catholic merchant whose family have been Bethlehemites for centuries, told me that Israel's separation wall (shown here surrounding and cutting off a single Palestinian home) has devastated the local economy and driven thousands of Bethlehem's ablest, best-educated people to greener pastures, often abroad. So in one morning we experienced the chasm between what God wants and what we deliver. But that's okay, because after our meal in the grotto, we were invested with the power to move mountains and even walls.

Israel Museum Sky

Saturday afternoon in Jerusalem

Thursday, June 21, 2012

What We Do

"It's what they do here." Spoken yesterday in Jerusalem by someone in our St. John's pilgrim band, these were the first coherent words that formed in my mind after I was awakened today at 4:30 a.m. by the Muslim call to prayer. It was really the jet lag, course. At home I'd sleep through the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing in the shower. Our shower. With the door open. So I didn't need a scapegoat for being up before the mockingbirds.

But lest I be tempted to pick on Islam anyway, there was that voice in my head. People believe and worship differently without being different. If we are to experience the reality and even inevitability of our conflicts, let it at least not be because of our love for God.

The comment was made, as I recall, during our discussion right before dinner with Bernard Sabella, a U.S.-educated sociologist and member of the legislative council of the Palestinian National Authority. During our astonishing first full day of pilgrimage, we'd visited the Temple Mount and Church of the Holy Sepulcher and prowled all four quarters of the Old City. We'd eaten fresh cherries and freshly-baked bread sprinkled with spices, drank fresh-squeezed orange juice while gazing at the Dome of the Rock, and dined with the Lutherans in the Christian Quarter. Kathy had stood atop the southern steps of the demolished Jewish temple, one of my favorite spots in Jerusalem, with Herod's wall behind her and, over her head, the al-Aqsa mosque and the arch of a gate Jesus Christ may have walked through -- surely ground zero of the great Abrahamic dialog.

From our genial, hard-charging guide, Canon Iyad Qumri, we pilgrims had heard somewhat more historical and archaeological data than we had retained. And now it was time for the intricacies of Israeli-Palestinian politics? Before dinner, did Iyad say? But Sabella kept it light. This wasn't his first encounter with jet-lagged pilgrims. "I don't like Israel, I don't dislike Israel," he said with a smile and shrug. His Palestinian Catholic family was displaced by the 1948 war of independence and settled in then Jordanian-controlled east Jerusalem, where his father reinvented himself as a tour guide for pilgrim groups like ours. One day he sat waiting for his group to regather in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, his fez in the palm of one hand while he wiped his brow the other, and someone put a dollar in his hat.

As he told the story, Sabella laughed without resentment. And he evinced little if any irritation about the nearly four-year stall in negotiations for a Palestinian state nor even about the steady growth of the Israeli settler population. Perhaps he is among those who believe that his people's long-term prospects are good given the growth of Arab populations inside and outside Israel. "We need a political solution," he said, "but if comes, it will because of relationships and trust between people, not because of governments and bureaucrats."

He sounded most discouraged after pilgrim Bob Hayden described his Chicago boyhood, when children of all backgrounds and races played easily together and judged one another on the content of their characters and, knowing Bob as I do, the quality of their fastballs. Sabella replied that Israel's faith-based educational system increasingly discouraged relationships with Muslims and Arabs. That didn't ring entirely true given the secular outlook among many modern Israelis. Muslims and Arabs throughout the region also commit their share of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish curriculum.

It's a shame if anyone is teaching children to hate, either the Jewish children we encountered having a snack in the Old City or the Arab kids who walked by us yesterday morning, joyfully pounding their feet on the hard-packed ground of the Temple Mount. Under them and us was 3,000 years of history, buried but unquiet -- Muslim and Christian conquests, Jesus sitting at the feet of the rabbis and lashing out in anger at those who were selling salvation, two great temples, pre-Davidic Palestinians. What a story! The roots of centuries of conflict and all western civilization. We may not figure it all out in the next ten days, or in our lifetimes. Maybe the children will. At their best, it's what they do.

Three From Day Two

Our first full day of pilgrimage in Jerusalem? Priceless. Summing it up at the end of the day in a blog post? Thanks to jet lag, impossible. I've posted a raft of photos over on Facebook. If we're not friends, friend me. The sky above the Western Wall below was the first of three favorite sights of the day (not including the curious, sometimes transfigured visages of my fellow pilgrims).

These crosses were made centuries ago in the soft Jerusalem limestone deep inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, carved by crusaders and other pilgrims. The arrangement of smaller crosses nestled in the quadrants of the larger, known as the Jerusalem cross, has been taken to stand for the four evangelists, four points of the compass, and four European nations that participated in the first Crusade in the 11th century. Our friend Canon Iyad Qumri, who's showing us around between now and July 1, offered the best explanation of all. The smaller crosses may stand for pilgrims' family members who couldn't make the expensive, arduous trip.

And these girls were heading for school this morning in east Jerusalem. If we can't make peace for ourselves, then for them.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Biden, Our Time

We should’ve guessed that we were waiting our turn while someone rendered unto Caesar. Instead, when gate personnel announced Tuesday afternoon that our El Al flight to Tel Aviv would board an hour late, we St. John’s pilgrims confined our speculations to the commonplace.

Twenty minutes before the announcement, the flight crew had arrived and hopped the shuttle bus from the departure lounge to the aircraft, so we knew the equipment must’ve been there already. Pilgrim Mike thought it might be a delayed connection into LAX, but on second thought, who connects to a 14-hour flight to Israel out of Los Angeles? Still, we kept our eyes peeled for a contingent of vacationing Tel Avivans in Hawaiian shirts and leis.

Then I spotted the gleaming white and blue aircraft emblazoned with the words “The United States of America,” taxiing in a stately fashion toward takeoff position without another plane anywhere near it. Color me Sorkin, but it’s always a thrilling sight. A quick Google search revealed that the vice president had just given a speech at an AFSCME convention in LA, whereupon he boarded the only airplane available that shines as blindingly as his teeth.

We didn’t mind. Leaving an hour late on a sunny day without the prospect of a plane change beat our January 2011 pilgrimage experience – four hours late out of Atlanta after being deiced at two in the morning.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Over And Up To God's Holy Mountain

A diverse group of lay and ordained ministers, including three school-age children (also ordained, though so far only by God Most High), we 20 St. John's pilgrims gathered this morning at LAX's Bradley International Terminal. This photo was taken just before the seasoned pilgrimage leader was gently reminded by security that photography isn't encouraged at the El Al check-in desk.

By the grace of God we'll take off at 1:15 this afternoon and arrive in Tel Aviv Wednesday afternoon, when we'll begin our drive up to Jerusalem by reciting one of humanity's most mysterious texts, Psalm 87 -- God's voice singing out of a primitive and warlike time into another (ours) that our differences with one another are imaginary, that we all come from and are bound for the place our creator loves most of all, a timeless city we are called to share:

On the holy mountain stands the city he has founded;
the LORD loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwellings of Jacob.

Glorious things are spoken of you,
O city of our God.

I count Egypt and Babylon among those who know me;
behold Philistia, Tyre, and Ethiopia:
in Zion were they born.

Of Zion it shall be said, "Everyone was born in her,
and the Most High himself shall sustain her."

The LORD will record as he enrolls the peoples,
"These also were born there."

The singers and the dancers will say,
"All my fresh springs are in you."

Singing Our Zion Song Again

Twenty pilgrims traveling under the auspices of St. John's Episcopal Church will gather at LAX this morning for a nonstop flight to Tel Aviv and the journey up to Jerusalem Wednesday afternoon. We are Ed, Cathy, Fr. Michael, Debbie, Cindy D., Pastor Lisa, Allana, Alexandra, Bob, Kathe, Steven, Brenna, Jerry, Cindy K., Christian, Shannon, Damian, Remy, Kathy, and Fr. John.

On Sunday morning at St. John's, we were commissioned by our 2009 and 2011 pilgrims and the whole congregation with this prayer:
God of Zion, who through his blessed Son called the people of God to take up their crosses and follow in Christ's Way: By our prayers today and in the days to come, in the name of Jesus Christ we commission and ask your merciful blessing on the pilgrims of St. John's Episcopal Church, who set their faces for Jerusalem on Tuesday. Prepare their hearts to be turned forever toward your holy city. Prepare their minds to be enlightened by new teaching and relationships. Prepare their feet for the steps down to the cave in Bethlehem, the rocky shore of the Sea of Galilee, and the rough cobblestones of the Via Dolorosa. Keep them safe and return them to us with spirits afire. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ our LORD. Amen.
Between now and July 1, we'd be blessed if you would follow along with us here and on Facebook.

Monday, June 18, 2012

When A President Helps Save Millions

Americans are ambivalent about George W. Bush (shown here on a visit to Tanzania). Africans aren't, Jim Landers reports:

In Africa, he’s a hero.

“No American president has done more for Africa,” said Festus Mogae, who served as president of Botswana from 1998 to 2008. “It’s not only me saying that. All of my colleagues agree.”

AIDS was an inferno burning through sub-Saharan Africa. The American people, led by Bush, checked that fire and saved millions of lives.

People with immune systems badly weakened by HIV were given anti-retroviral drugs that stopped the progression of the disease. Mothers and newborns were given drugs that stopped the transmission of the virus from one generation to the next. Clinics were built. Doctors and nurses and lay workers were trained. A wrenching cultural conversation about sexual practices broadened, fueled by American money promoting abstinence, fidelity and the use of condoms.

“We kept this country from falling off the edge of a cliff,” said Mark Storella, the U.S. ambassador to Zambia. “We’ve saved hundreds of thousands of lives. We’ve assisted over a million orphans. We’ve created a partnership with Zambia that gives us the possibility of walking the path to an AIDS-free generation. This is an enormous achievement.”

Bush remains active in African health. Last September, he launched a new program — dubbed Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon — to tackle cervical and breast cancer among African women. The program has 14 co-sponsors, including the Obama administration.

That He Should See No More Evil

My St. John's friend Andy Guilford took this photograph of a disconsolate savior in Oklahoma City, where the statue stands in a churchyard, its back to the memorial to victims of the 1995 terrorist bombing.

He Put A Donut In Our Tea Party

My blogging buddy Maarja Krusten, historian and former Nixon tapes archivist, says David Ferriero is the coolest archivist of the U.S. in history. Here's proof: He recently hosted a jelly-filled replay of the War of 1812, pitting great American donuts Dunkin' and Krispy Kreme against Canada's Tim Hortons.

Don't be comfited by the U.S.'s home town advantage. We frittered it away yet again. We didn't get Canada after winning the war (we probably should have; just sayin'), and now Tim Hortons has won the great taste test -- oddly enough, since the U.S. judges outnumbered Canada's two to one, literally. That really sticks in my cruller.

But donut holes are better than canon balls anytime, especially when the AOTUS capped the evening by screening his favorite movie, "Strange Brew." Ask most intellectuals to name their pick flick, and they'll say "Rashomon" or "Richard III." As inflexible, impractical, unimaginative ideology squeezes more and more joy out of our civic life (like if you dropped a phone book on a Boston cream), it's a blessing when top officials dare to be cheesy.

Still, I want a rematch. How about you? As Lady Gaga might say, show your bear claws, little monsters.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Schools Of Watergate

Richard Nixon's operatives -- especially Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Dwight Chapin, and Don Segretti -- are the southern California angle on Watergate, having learned their dirty tricks in their pretend politics at USC and UCLA. Clancy Segal, then a left-wing editor at UCLA's Daily Bruin, writes about a primitive era of gentile and Jewish fraternities; getting beaten up by frat boys for dating the wrong women, just like in "Animal House"; his jailhouse interview with Haldeman, when the disgraced former chief of staff candidly admitted his festering resentment of "Jewish liberals" on campus; and a fascinating moment when Alexander Butterfield, another Bruin, chose for whatever reason not to deny that he was a CIA plant in the White House, ordered to protect the agency from Nixon's interferences:

Tall, handsome and bronzed, Alex gave me that old Sigma Nu smile while refusing to deny, "Write it the way you see it, Clancy. Remember, there was nothing personal." Meaning, he played the game and Bob and John simply were collateral damage to a larger scheme.

Anna Another Thing On Watergate

Ken Hughes argues that Richard Nixon ordered a break-in at the Brookings Institution in 1971 not because of his rage over the leak of the Pentagon Papers during wartime, as I've always contended, but because he was worried about what his political opponents might've known about his effort to torpedo the Johnson administration's Vietnam peace process.

The Brookings break-in never occurred. Still, Hughes asserts somewhat dramatically that if the House Judiciary Committee had known about the Brookings tape segment in 1974, and it had led investigators to the Anna Chennault file (she told the South Vietnam they'd get a better deal under Nixon), the articles of impeachment drawn up against Nixon might have included treason (based on the law against private citizens interfering with official U.S. diplomacy).

Hughes says there's no evidence that presidential politics were behind Lyndon Johnson's ordering a bombing halt in Vietnam a few days before the 1968 election, when Nixon was running against Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey. About this, Nixon's advocates beg to differ -- for example, Conrad Black:
[P]erhaps the all-time nadir in American presidential-election ethics was achieved in 1968, when Lyndon Johnson tried to salvage the election for his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, with a completely imaginary claim of a peace breakthrough in the Vietnam talks a few days before the election. LBJ announced an enhanced bombing halt and more intensive talks in which the Viet Cong and the Saigon government would be “free to participate” (i.e., Saigon declined to attend since there had been no breakthrough).
So who did worse playing politics with war: The candidate or commander-in-chief?

Maarja Krusten reflects on Hughes' startling allegations here.

Presidents Are Acting Not Illegally More And More

When Richard Nixon told David Frost in April 1977, "When the president does it, that means it is not illegal," he was talking not about political burglaries and campaign dirty tricks (though his operatives did all that, too) but a leader's sovereign powers during wartime. That Ron Howard and his screenwriter, Peter Morgan, suggested otherwise in "Frost/Nixon" was one of the few disappointments in an otherwise fine movie. Continuing his argument, Nixon said:
[I]t has been...argued that as far as a president is concerned, that in war time, a president does have certain extraordinary powers which would make acts that would otherwise be unlawful, lawful if undertaken for the purpose of preserving the nation and the Constitution, which is essential for the rights we’re all talking about.
Tom Campbell, Chapman University's law school dean, battled President Clinton over Kosovo when he was serving in Congress. He argues that when presidents grasp for broader foreign policy and war-making prerogatives, judges and Congress wax timid, and especially so since Sept. 11. On the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, John Dean, who turned on Nixon during the the Watergate investigations of 1973-74, says recent presidents have widened the realm of "not illegal" far more than 37. The Los Angeles Times reports:
Executive orders issued by President George W. Bush in the aftermath of Sept. 11 claimed power for the Oval Office to ignore U.S. laws and international treaties.

President Obama has retained some of those extraordinary wartime powers, and his use of drones to attack terrorist suspects has drawn accusations of international law violations.

"I don't think Richard Nixon, in his darkest hour, would have authorized torture," said Dean...