Freedom Is Possible: A Reflection On Easter and Passover

By Rev. Dr. Katharine R. Henderson

My “Holy Week” began a week ago when I stood at the edge of the Sea of Galilee imagining what it was like when the rabbi Jesus appeared to his disciples on the beach as a stranger, offering them fish cooked on a fire and freshly baked bread. As the story goes, in a fog of grief because Jesus had been crucified, the disciples were slow to recognize that the stranger was Jesus himself, appearing to them after being resurrected. He feeds them breakfast and then engages them in consequential conversation, leaving them with these words that continue to reverberate in our ears, “Feed my Sheep.” Although I have heard, read and preached this story dozens of times, I found myself strangely moved to tears in  conviction.

I was in the Holy Land, accompanied by members of Auburn’s President’s Global Forum, on a journey of hope throughout Israel and Palestine to witness many people on the ground who are striving in ways large and small to “feed the sheep,” which is so much more than actually providing food or sustenance to those in need. This simple phrase encapsulates a mandate to allow our hearts to be broken and eyes to be opened to the realities of those who are suffering, to address the systems and structures that perpetuate inequities, and responsibly to use whatever freedoms we have to make the vision of a just and generous world real for all of God’s children.  

We were witnesses to Israelis and Palestinians who are doing just that. Recent news from Gaza reminds us how urgent the need is for people to take a just peace seriously.  Women Wage Peace is a rapidly growing movement of Israeli women who are building a broad based coalition — from the left to the right — marching and working together, saying,  “We’re not stopping until there’s an agreement.” Women Wage Peace partners with Palestinian women who are building a similar movement among their people.

Like the women who followed Jesus and were the first witnesses to the resurrection, or the women who danced and sang with Miriam the prophetess after the Israelites escaped from Egypt, or more recently the women of Liberia who fought for freedom and peace in their country, shouting, “We want peace, no more war,” these women are fiercely fighting for a just and generous future for their children. They embody a value of existential interdependence that none of us is free until all are free.

We were witnesses to the work of Ali Abu Awwad and shared a meal with him in a rural oasis under a tent that has embraced tens of thousands of Palestinians and Israelis who seek a future of mutual possibility. Ali told us  how he had learned about non-violence while imprisoned in an Israeli prison. As the founder of Taghyeer, which translates to “change,” he leads a national movement to promote non-violence to achieve an end to the conflict. We were deeply moved by his commitment to empowering Palestinian leadership, teaching civic engagement and building bridges for change.

Ali would not be where he is without the Parent’s Circle, a joint Israeli-Palestinian organization of over 600 families who have lost loved ones to the ongoing conflict. While he might have been blinded with rage and revenge after his brother was killed, relationship with members of the Parent’s Circle intervened, changing the course of his life and moving him towards the path he is on today.  

We were witnesses to Robi Damelin and Bassam Aramin, an Israeli who lost her son and a Palestinian who lost a daughter. They now speak together as members of the Parent’s Circle, building reconciliation between and among those who have lost a family member to the conflict. Today, they are already living a new reality by recognizing the humanity of the other and working together on the premise that reconciliation is the only way towards sustainable peace.

Seeing these efforts to “feed the sheep” by working for peace and justice across the world made me appreciate similar holy acts closer to home by those who are putting their precious lives on the line. Had I been here, I would have been on the Auburn bus heading to D.C. to join those “marching for our lives” to address the culture of guns that has brutally ended the lives of so many in our country.  They too are connected to the Parent’s Circle of those who have lost family members to violence.

We bear witness to the moral courage of Emma Gonzalez, who has become one of the most vocal and visible young prophets standing for change to policies and practices that give ammunition, literally, to the worst of our instincts and stoke fear at every turn. She and her young colleagues are the moral conscience of the nation right now, and like their counterparts in Israel and Palestine, they seek to turn grief into action, and tragedy into a better future. They are “feeding the sheep,” including myself, with hope and possibility when despair and fear feels like a more logical option.

None of these efforts alone will make all the difference. A cynic might say these efforts are too small and merely a drop in the bucket, particularly in light of the tragic violence and death of Palestinians along the Gaza border last week. But I believe with all my being that when these efforts are taken together, we will prevail. We can bear witness to the moral courage of others, and even summon it ourselves. As Christians and Jews celebrating Easter and Passover, we refuse to acquiesce to a status quo of oppression. We rededicate ourselves to the liberation of all God’s people. All of us are invited and called to carry hope and light in the midst of darkness, and to work for the blessing that freedom is possible.

Rev. Dr. Katharine R. Henderson is President at Auburn. 

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