Holy Land Reflections from Bishop Ortiz

Group 236

In January 2023, I traveled to the Holy Land with a delegation of ELCA bishops and churchwide staff. On that trip, we had the honor of meeting and learning from Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb. Rev. Dr. Raheb is a Palestinian Christian theologian, author, and Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem. He is also the founder and president of Dar al-Kalima University.

Upon my return, I shared a series of blogs where I reflected on our experiences in the Holy Land. This is the first draft of the blog dedicated to our meeting with Rev. Dr. Raheb, a version I did not use and decided to keep for another time. This is that time…

The week prior to meeting, a Palestinian fifteen-year-old boy was shot and killed by the Israeli military for resisting their assault against his community. 

Rev. Dr. Raheb recounted the events through his tears… He spoke of the children and youth who now carry their last words in their pockets with a certainty that one day they will be killed as a result of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Consider the depth and passion behind such an act of resistance; that even upon and after their deaths, they insist on having the last word and speak a truth that denounces the events that robbed them of a full and free life…

The last words in this young boy’s pocket were, “I grew up with many dreams, but I live in a country where my dreams could not be realized.” He was fifteen years old! Fifteen and his dreams were crushed and buried by socio-political conflict. 

Rev. Dr. Raheb processed the events with us and then left us to wrestle with a truth that consumed this young boy and pervades the minds and hearts of the living stones in the Holy Land, “Many Palestinian Muslims and Christians believe in life after death. The greatest challenge is believing in life before death.” 

“The greatest challenge is believing in life before death.” In John 3, we witness Nicodemus asking what would seem to be the opposite of this claim. He comes before Jesus with some certainty about life as he sees it and genuinely seeks answers to how he might have access to life after death. It’s here where Jesus must remind him that first things come first. 

Jesus says, “you must be born of water and spirit… you must be born from above…” The more I read the text, the more I hear Jesus saying, “Worry about, and focus, on how you live and lead your life now, not later. Trust me, life eternal is covered.”

Maybe Jesus’ declaration to Nicodemus is because life that is born of water and spirit recognizes the misguided temptations that want to seduce us away from true life abundant- for us and for all God’s beloved creation. It’s a life that is born from above that insists upon the Spirit being the ultimate guide in a world and culture that kills, crushes, and buries innocence and dreams alike. 

The challenge in Jesus’ words is to worry and focus on the ways we live and lead our lives now. To be clear, this imperative to be born again, anew, from above does imply imminent death; death to what no longer serves us or the world we are called to; death to the ways we used to live and be; death to the flesh that will not live by faith.

Dear friends, so many are just realizing the complexity and reality of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. If we’re connected to the news and/or social media, we may be stumped by the sheer evil the sin of terrorism and occupation can give rise to and justify. In light of the atrocities witnessed this past week, many have formed opinions that are not always informed. There is a prevailing struggle to recognize the difference between Hamas- a terrorist group- and the people of Palestine who have been occupied and oppressed for decades. There is an unwavering support for Israel that many would say, “wishes to rewrite history and pretend this conflict began on Saturday, October 7, 2023.” In the meantime, as Lutheran theologians of the cross we are called to name a thing what it is; innocent human beings, victims of a socio-political conflict, have been attacked, terrorized, displaced, occupied, starved, and killed.

I write this on day ten of the Israel-Hamas War and 4,000 people have been killed and over 10,000 people injured on both sides. It is noted that at least half of these victims of war are women and children. How many of these beloved children of God, Israeli and Palestinian, carried with them a last word in their pocket or on their heart, which we are now invited to hold, grieve, and remember in word and deed as an act of resistance against evil? 

Jesus understood that when we get ahead of ourselves, and look into a self-interested future, we lose sight of the imperative call of the present, which, given the sin of the world, is always to bend our work toward justice in grace and with love. 

Jesus says we must be born again, anew, from above, of water and spirit for the sake of life itself here and now. Might we consider that maybe, just maybe, in the face of terrorism, occupation, war, and undeniable crimes against humanity, we are called to employ not only our knowledge, but our faith- the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not yet seen. And may we consider that maybe, just maybe, with that faith, we are called to become bold and unapologetic proclaimers of the one who IS the last word and empowers us to name a thing what it is… even if, and especially when, our voices shake and our bodies quake. 

Lord, have mercy.

Christ, have mercy. 

Lord, have mercy.

En Cristo,

Bp. Ortiz