Dedicated to Rachel Corrie, the seven year anniversary of her killing by an Israeli soldier driving a Caterpillar D9 tractor on March 16, 2003, her parents now (March 7, 2010) in Israel for the opening of a court trial (details below)
© All text & photos (unless otherwise noted) copyright Skip Schiel, 2004-2010
A series from my earlier writing, not always directly about Palestine-Israel, this an attempt to understand and express my journey of discovery that continues to enthrall and mystify me.
Originally written for the New England Yearly Meeting sessions (Quaker) keynote presentation on August 6, 2005 (revised February 2010)
(This version is expanded from what I presented at Bryant College in Smithfield RI.)
Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger
Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to gird your loins and go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your arms, and someone else will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go. (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he [Peter] would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
—John 21: 18
Now, what’s the context for this passage? Jesus has been crucified, he’s resurrected and appeared to the unseeing apostles along the shore of the Lake of Tiberius, also known as the Sea of Galilee. They were failing at fishing. What great guys, these apostles, always so human, so foible-filled, so like me. He was hinting to the apostles what following Jesus meant: possible sacrifice.
The story might be apocryphal. For that matter, much of the gospels, much of holy script might be apocryphal, but the teachings are so often true. What can we learn from this passage?
In my experience, is God what carries and directs me, do I seek to learn god’s will and follow it? I have misgivings about the notion of god, especially when used to justify attitudes and behavior. Seeking the will of god is something resolutely I do not do. I’m cautioned by the following statement and by who made it:
I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator…By defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.
—Adolf Hitler, from Mein Kampf
There are too many instances of the notion of god’s will gone bad, that to use this or even seek this guidance seems a fatal miscalculation. Instead, for me, I seek the still small voice—critically understood—in the context of the times and the community.
I am now an older man, 69 to be precise, and my days of self-direction are over. I do not myself independently choose to go on long pilgrimages; I do not choose to wander into zones of conflict such as Cambodia, Bosnia, American Indian country, Cabrini Green, or Israel, or Palestine, or right here on this blog, naked in front of you trying to share my life. I do not choose this mission, nor do I resist it. I am often fearful, I am usually very unclear, I hesitate and demur and find excuses. I’d rather be in bed or the library reading Kafka or watching Front Line on TV or playing with one of my grand children. I would never say, after offering you a slice of my life, go and do likewise, follow me.
Kalandia checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem, 2003
What carries me, and what is my direction, perhaps my fate?
A lead comes from a person I feel might be a latter day saint, a contemporary incarnation of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, St Francis, St Nicherin of the Japanese Buddhist tradition, and George Fox and Martha Fell themselves, and especially John Woolman (the last 3 are key Quaker figures). I am speaking of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I confess, I am a born again Martin Luther Kingian. I’ll explain that in a moment, but first, for me, one of his most important and overlooked teachings:
He said, if a person hasn’t discovered something to die for, that person is not fit to live.
When I first heard or read this passage, I was incredulous, Martin, speaking this way, so harsh, so demanding, so critical? And I checked, yes, he’d said it, or at least he’s widely quoted as saying it.
His admonition teaches the importance of living a life that is pointed, vital, full, meaningful, direct, and at risk constantly of ending because of the course of that life. Not a life content to settle into the easy chair and read a book. Or watch a video. Or even attend a demonstration or sign or circulate a petition, as important as all these can be. Or writing a letter to a congressperson, or even visiting that person. The emphasis is on fronting life directly, as Thoreau put it when explaining his excursion to Walden Pond for two years, and not dying regretting one has not fully lived.
Israeli soldier, originally from Australia, with a Quaker grandmother,
Hebron Old City, 2003
I feel that the value of living fully is timeless, but especially so today with numerous global crises so looming and clear. As Howard Zinn put it recently in a talk referring to the United States Declaration of Independence, we live in hard times, as hard as anything he’s seen. In response to possible impending catastrophe, he actually quoted from memory portions of the Declaration:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men (sic), deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
—US Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
Howard Zinn (L), member of Community Change Inc, and Tim Wise
He emphasized the right of the people to alter or to abolish their government if it is not securing the guaranteed rights. In our age of galloping empire—based on the triplet Martin Luther King taught, militarism, racism, and poverty, have we the people indeed earned the right to significantly transform our political system?
Some might argue that life is always tough, always harsh and violent and full of despots and tyrants and brutality and occupation and invasion and problems for the environment and immigration and poverty and racism. But several features stand out that define the contemporary era: nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, the desecration of the environment, the rise of global corporatization, and the fact of empire. We, the citizens assembled, live in its midst, benefit from its continuance, and suffer from its egregiousness.
While in Palestine, photographing for the Christian Peacemakers Team in Hebron and the nearby southern hills of Hebron, I met another luminary, Art Gish. Art is in his 70s, as is his wife, Peg. Both have been frequently in Iraq and Palestine with the CPT, obviously risking their security to witness and tell their truths. Art encapsulated Martin’s words like this: free to die, then free to live. And he lives his truth, walks his talk.
In 2004 Palestinian farmers and shepherds asked CPT to set up a monitoring site in the southern Hebron hills, while their first site continued in the heart of Hebron’s Old City. Settlers neighboring the hill people—who are my neighbors?—threatened Palestinian school children as they walked past the rural settlements to and from school. The also spread poison over the land, many of their sheep and goats then could not stand and soon died. Within a few weeks, two CPT members, Chris Brown, originally from South Africa, and Kim Laherty were accompanying the children when masked settlers attacked and beat them both. The children ran away but the settlers, speaking American English, punctured Chris’ lung, broke Kim’s leg, and stole cell phones and wallets, The Israeli army then declared CPT could no longer accompany the kids, the army or police would. To this day CPT, aided by an Italian Catholic nonviolence organization, Operation Dove, keep 24-hour vigil, at some risk. Art is one of the mainstays.
Chris Brown (courtesy of Christian Peacemakers Team)
The Palestinians in At-Twani built a new health clinic, initially without building permits which are virtually impossible to acquire. At the last minute and despite threats of demolition, the Israeli authorities granted a permit—unprecedented. The people thanked CPT for their witness.
Rachel Corrie, a young woman from Washington state, tried to block a Caterpillar tractor driver from demolishing a home in Rafah, the Gaza Strip. The driver did not stop, despite Rachel wearing an orange glow vest and speaking thru a bullhorn. Her witness in 2003 and that of CPT and many other individuals and groups in Palestine and Israel inspire me. Once I am willing to die, knowing why I might die, not when and where and how—the exact conditions of one’s death can be hard to predict—I am free to live. How did I reach this state, if I am in this state?
My mother, Pearl, died
Fran and Pearl Schiel
In 1977 my father died, age 65. I’ve outlived him by 4 years. Upon retirement he assumed he had many miles to go before he slept. My mother, Pearl, died in 1978, age 63, exactly nine months after Fran. I’ve outlived her by nearly 7 years, I was with her when she died, making films at that time, and in fact making a film about her, never guessing she was about to die. My sister Elaine and I accompanied her during her dying. It was a painful death from ravaging cancer that commandeered her body. She did not die easily or peacefully. But she said to us in her last moments, Elaine, Skip, you won’t understand what I’m about to say for many years, but my death will be a gift to you both.
She never spoke like this before, as if an oracle, but she spoke true words. From her death sprang for me—as if a lotus springing up from the muck and mire of the pond—Buddhism, Quakerism, and my turning from filmmaking which was becoming fruitless to photography and my continuing witness with camera. That story of transition is for another time.
The deathwatch for Pearl lasted 3 days. We then sat with her body. As she lived her last moments, I noticed her jugular vein throbbing, tried to show this in my movie. Now that she was dead, I looked at that jugular again, it was motionless. She was indeed dead, gone who knows where. But I soon discovered where I was directed—into adulthood. After the funeral home people came for her body—it was June 24th, a stormy night—I left the house and walked thru the dark wet streets of Arlington Heights Illinois. I felt for the first time in my life a full and complete adult, with all the responsibilities of adulthood, not only for my 2 young daughters, but for a wider community. Slowly, beginning with this moment when I was 38 years old, I had a daunting responsibility but I didn’t know then what it was or how to undertake it.
A second discovery from her death was that once I’d faced the reality of death it lost some of its sting. I find that fearsome matters at a distance are abstract, and my mind amplifies the threat, but when I face the trouble directly—in this case the loss of my mother, in many other cases going to places like Israel and Palestine during conflict—the fear lessens. It rarely evaporates, but it diminishes to become bearable.
Israeli bus bombed by Palestinian suicide militants (courtesy of the internet)
What doesn’t kill me strengths me
And a third discovery, first with my parents’ deaths, but recurring whenever I face danger. If I’m grounded in clarity and community support, I’m ultimately strengthened rather than weakened by adversity. Returning from the Holy Land in one piece nourishes me, builds my muscles, proves to me that if I can survive in Palestine/Israel, I can survive most any threat. As Napoleon put it, quoting Seneca, “What doesn’t kill me will strengthen me.” Witnessing is good medicine, it rejuvenates, it revitalizes, it clears the brain and body and spirit, pushes away sluggishness and prevarication, tans the body and makes it alive again, reborn and invincible. As for the individual so for the global community. The planetary body is healed, or can be, with the correct form of witness, done by enough people.
Palestinian men on their way to school, Jerusalem, 2003
Fruits of my photographic witness? As with teaching, as with making art, as with fostering children, no one knows what fruit will issue from the seed of witness. The seed never sees its own fruit. I hope to plant the seed in good soil—But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop. (Luke 8: 15)
I and the witnessing community labor, pray, and persist.
TO BE CONTINUED