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Prophets Must Protest the War. But How?

Weekly Video Recap of Below the Bible Belt

I want to talk about protest. How and Who and When to speak up against war, and against governments, while war goes on. It isn’t simple. 

These final chapters of Ezekiel the Prophet of Exile, on this ongoing Below the Bible journey is the context for today’s reflection, which is brief. Ish.

People ask me why I bother going on with this daily bible project as this brutal war keeps raging, disrupting so many lives, rupturing relationships, this grief and rage seems endless.  The hostages still in Gaza. Thousands of innocent Palestinians lives, millions of refugees, trauma for a generation or more — 

Well. Not only does it  give me distraction and some time away from news to find refuge in the ancient - it also does the opposite - I feel Im deciphering the DNA of the Judaic story and how the biblical assumptions made it - for better and for worse - into the way not just Jews and Israelis operate - but the modern world - with Islam and Christianity deeply fed by these chapters. So there are deep life lessons here - for the personal possibilities of finding hope within the horror and also making sense of some of what’s happening based on history and how our stories were handed down and why. 

Today, as we wrap up 2023, I’m in Jerusalem, and thinking about criticism. 

Who can offer a legitimate criticism of society during wartime? How can tough and sometimes critical rebuke be heard by people in the midst of trauma? What can help reverse the course of vengeful violence and bring about a chance for pause, a shift, repair?

Next week we wrap up the journey with Ezekiel the Prophet, he too wrote mid-war, a refugee homesick for his native Jerusalem, and his voice in today’s reality can help us consider the protesting prophet’s role, and that of other prophets likewise challenged with truth-telling.  By prophets I mean poets and writers, thought leaders and artists, activists and anybody brave enough to claim to be speaking for truth - even if mad, and when making others madder. 

Ezekiel, exiled in Babylon speaks to his people back in Jerusalem, criticizing the king and leaders and the political choice to favor alliance with Egypt over surrender to Babylon, national pride over submission and survival - the approach that will indeed lead to destruction. 

At around the same time, the Prophet Jeremiah, still in Jerusalem, shares Ezekiel’s concerns and political viewpoints, but as he is among the people - and not far away - his outrage has a moral and strategic advantage. 

Jeremiah is desperate to pause the war machine - to convince the king and people of a different path. Jeremiah’s prophetic criticism, coming from a place of solidarity infuriated his listeners who put him in prison and tried to kill him - -- but he was heard, and his voice served as an important moral corrective. It lives on, passing the test of time as a legitimate protest abasing political hubris and self reliance. 

Ezekiel railed against the King of Jerusalem and the people who forgot their moral ground, but his listeners back then, on the rivers of Babylon, were his fellow distraught refugees and exiles. He had no real way to impact the power center. He spoke up for the record. It’s almost a sort of virtue signaling. 

What chance did he have of changing the minds of Jerusalem’s people - or even those of his fellow exiles who had no agency or voice? 

Which of the prophets has a more important voice - the one standing with their people mid war or the one far away? While this too is not an either/or preference and all voices matter it does make me curious to consider the efficacy and lasting impact - of prophetic protest - from within or from without. 

This is not an academic or historical question. Many of us - on the ground in Israel and Palestine, online and all over the world, are exposed to positions, petitions and protests, criticism and complicated stands that try to handle the complexity of this evolving horror and to prevent further bloodshed. Many of these protests are noble and honorable, coming from a deep place of pain and responsibly to humanity, and to peace. Some resort to rage and hateful rhetoric that blames entire groups and people in ways that do more harm than good. 

As I go back and forth between New York and Jerusalem, for the third time here since October 7, reading the Prophets, and torn between all the traumatic truths, petitions and proclamations, positions and protests - I too wonder about my own role and voice as someone who sees both sides - here and there, local and global, trying to expand the sense of ‘family’ and ‘people’ beyond the more actually familiar, with empathy that is seen, tragically, for some, as betrayal. 

Like Jeremiah - close to the war, there with his people - there are words I want to say to my traumatized and still determined family members here in Israel - fighting for their lives and homeland, torn between the need for defense and the horrific cost of lives, the impossible moral failure, the ongoing fractures.

But like Ezekiel, already in the diaspora, there are words I feel I do not have the right to speak up — not while I am not living here, nonstop, all the time, fully feeling the complexity and harshness of the situation. What to say, and if to say, and when and how — for what purpose — towards what goal — are questions  today in my heart and mind. 

Whoever are our prophetic moral voices of today, the ones on the ground and the ones who claim to know what’s happening from a distance, the ones deeply and directly implicated and others hurting from a safe distance -- maybe we are invited to carefully consider today which voices matter more to us right now- and what attitudes and intentions can not just signal painful rebuke but also offer a glimpse of responsible vision towards sustainable solutions and some ray of hope? 

This Shabbat we say goodbye to 2023, and almost to Ezekiel, fusing journeys past and present, hopefully learning how to adapt our past paradigms towards a bit of better. The prophets - the Bible - a text written in response to trauma, is here for us to learn from, talk back to, reimagine and wrestle with, as we are do with every aspect of our lives. 

From Jerusalem - Shabbat Shalom, A hopeful new year of healing and better news.