Rachel Corrie and the wrath of God

An Israeli court ruled today that there was nothing negligible or criminal about the March 2003 death of American peace activist Rachel Corrie who was crushed by an Israeli Caterpillar bulldozer while standing in front of a house the bulldozer was about to flatten. Rachel had gone to Gaza as part of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), an activist organization that put Westerners in Palestinian neighborhoods to prevent the Israeli military from using live ammunition and bulldozers against civilians with impunity by creating international diplomatic consequences for doing so. None of the activists had died before Rachel did. Nobody thought the Israelis would dare to kill an American. The assumption was that Americans and Europeans could use their privilege to protect Palestinian civilians from bullets and bulldozers. This tactic had worked throughout the eighties in Central America. I did exactly what Rachel was doing in the summer of 2000 in a much more boring and peaceful Zapatista village in Chiapas, Mexico that was theoretically under threat by the Mexican army. When Rachel died, I was doing media support for ISM from the Tri-City Action for Peace office in Saginaw, Michigan, forwarding their press releases to US media outlets and calling news desks to save them international phone costs. Rachel’s death was part of how I discovered the critical importance of the wrath of God.

Before Rachel Corrie died, I would say I was somewhat of a liberal Christian. I didn’t really believe in the concept of divine judgment and hell. God seemed like the supernatural version of all my psychotherapists, showing everyone “unconditional positive regard” and being infinitely “understanding.” The liberal, anger-free God works as long as you live in enough of a bubble not to be exposed to any actual injustice. But when you see really evil things happen and the wrong is silenced and bulldozed over in a world where the loudest voice gets to be the truth, then God’s wrath starts to boil like lava in your gut. That’s how I have come to understand what God says to Cain in Genesis 4:10: “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”

Blood really does cry out from the ground. You can spin-doctor it all you want. You can make martyrs like Rachel Corrie into “communist agitators” and “irresponsible brats.” You can dig up all sorts of reasons to discredit and dismiss them. But you can’t stop their blood from crying out. And people who have heard it cry out are haunted forever. They experience a form of what Jesus called metanoia, the word that is translated “repentance” but really means “changed utterly” in the sense in which William Yeats wrote. That’s how God’s wrath is essential to the process of establishing His reign on Earth as it is in heaven. He afflicts His people with it so that they hate whatever dishonors His name (Psalm 139:21) and experience such zeal for His house (Psalm 69:9) that their fury drives out the moneychangers and false prophets.

When we witness cruelty that is unaddressed and unpunished, the rage that fills our hearts is the wrath of God. Hopefully, it doesn’t cause us to do hateful things, but it keeps us from being able to make peace with the injustice we have witnessed. Rachel’s death filled my heart with God’s wrath. I had been troubled by the injustice suffered by the Palestinians before that, but Rachel’s death made it into a permanent blister in my soul. She would be disappointed in me for needing a white girl’s martyrdom to set me off instead of being outraged by the hundreds of Palestinian civilians who have been killed as “collateral damage” whenever Israel bombs a whole apartment complex to kill a single militant. Or the Palestinian families who are given five minutes to clear their homes before an Israeli bulldozer flattens them often for completely arbitrary reasons. It took Rachel’s death to pierce my heart, but the end result is that I cannot rest until there is justice for Palestine.

I’m not going to play the moral equivalence game, by the way. Yes, I realize there was a Holocaust. Yes, I agree that Jewish people need a homeland. Yes, I understand that I have no idea what it’s like to get on a bus and not know if it’s going to blow up before I get off. Yes, I recognize that Palestinians live in very close quarters and the line between civilian and militant is very fuzzy (just like it is for Israelis who are all cadet, active duty, or veteran). But none of these realities cancel out the suffering that has been created because our government refuses to hold Israel to any sort of accountability since my people, the Christian Zionist evangelicals, have made it political suicide to say anything critical of Israel, because they assume that following Jesus is about rooting for the “right team” rather than working to build a kingdom shaped by the hesed and shalom of YHWH which Jesus came to establish. Nothing makes me want to tear my clothes and cover my head in ashes more than knowing that my people are the greatest obstacle to the accountability that might allow for peace in the Middle East.

Part of the way that we paint over the evils that God is actually wrathful about is to make our God wrathful about something else. That’s why the evangelical God gets boiled up about sex more than any other aspect of human behavior. It’s a great distraction from facing the injustices in which we actually participate. We like a God who’s angry at other people’s sins because then we can get credit for believing “tough truths” about God without actually facing any personal challenge from them. But what if God is angry at us for not being angry about things that hurt people God loves? What if it turns out that part of “visiting the prisoner, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, etc.” in Matthew 25 is Jesus’ expectation that we will stand up for people who are punished for existing?

There are many reasonable people in our world today who reject Christianity because of how most Christians misrepresent God’s wrath. It certainly doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if we think that God’s wrath amounts to a picky perfectionism about an arbitrary set of laws that don’t have anything to do with human flourishing. But God doesn’t get mad at us for abstract rule-breaking. God gets mad out of solidarity with His children who get hurt. That’s why He says: “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me… Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24). Or… “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood!” (Isaiah 1:15). I could go on and on with many other examples. All of the Israelite prophets called out the Israelite people for thinking that God wanted to be glorified through elaborate gestures of “worship” at their praise stadiums instead of through their living out the simple formula of Micah 6:8 — “Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly.” And we do the same thing today, mocking God every time we try to “love” Him without loving our neighbors.

I spent all this time talking abstract theology, when I wanted to write something about Rachel. So I thought I would close by sharing some excerpts of Rachel’s emails from Palestine to home. They remind me of Anne Frank’s diary in a way. Reading these and seeing her playfulness and humanity in the most inhumane of circumstances is what originally broke my heart and made me burn with wrath for her. Perhaps God will afflict you in the same way.

Today, as I walked on top of the rubble where homes once stood, Egyptian soldiers called to me from the other side of the border, “Go! Go!” because a tank was coming. And then waving and “What’s your name?”. Something disturbing about this friendly curiosity. It reminded me of how much, to some degree, we are all kids curious about other kids. Egyptian kids shouting at strange women wandering into the path of tanks. Palestinian kids shot from the tanks when they peak out from behind walls to see what’s going on. International kids standing in front of tanks with banners. Israeli kids in the tanks anonymously – occasionally shouting and also occasionally waving – many forced to be here, many just aggressive – shooting into the houses as we wander away…

When that explosive detonated yesterday it broke all the windows in the family’s house. I was in the process of being served tea and playing with the two small babies. I’m having a hard time right now. Just feel sick to my stomach a lot from being doted on all the time, very sweetly, by people who are facing doom. I know that from the United States, it all sounds like hyperbole. Honestly, a lot of the time the sheer kindness of the people here, coupled with the overwhelming evidence of the willful destruction of their lives, makes it seem unreal to me. I really can’t believe that something like this can happen in the world without a bigger outcry about it. It really hurts me, again, like it has hurt me in the past, to witness how awful we can allow the world to be. I felt after talking to you that maybe you didn’t completely believe me. I think it’s actually good if you don’t, because I do believe pretty much above all else in the importance of independent critical thinking…

You can always hear the tanks and bulldozers passing by, but all of these people are genuinely cheerful with each other, and with me. When I am with Palestinian friends I tend to be somewhat less horrified than when I am trying to act in a role of human rights observer, documenter, or direct-action resister. They are a good example of how to be in it for the long haul. I know that the situation gets to them – and may ultimately get them – on all kinds of levels, but I am nevertheless amazed at their strength in being able to defend such a large degree of their humanity – laughter, generosity, family-time – against the incredible horror occurring in their lives and against the constant presence of death…

Last thing is an excerpt from a letter that an Israeli sergeant wrote, thanking Rachel for her work:

Please document as much as you can and do not embellish anything with creative writing. The media here serves as a very convincing spin control agent through all of this. Pass this letter on to your friends. There are many soldiers among the ranks of those serving in the occupied territories that are sickened by what they see.

There is a code of honor in the IDF – it is called “tohar haneshek” (pronounced TOWhar haNEHshek). It’s what we say to a comrade who is about to do something awful, like kill an unarmed prisoner or carry out an order that violates decency. It means literally “the purity of arms”.

Another phrase that speaks to a soldier in his own language is “degle shachor” (DEHgel ShaHor) – it means “black flag”. If you say, “Atah MeTachat Degle Shahor” it means “you are carrying out immoral orders”. It’s a big deal and a shock to hear it from the lips of “silly misguided foreigners.”

At all times possible try to engage the soldiers in conversation. Do not make the mistake of objectifying them as they have objectified you. Respect is catching, as is disrespect, whether either be deserved or not. You are doing a good thing. I thank you for it.

I pray that God would leave you without peace until there is peace in Palestine and Israel. May you burn with His wrath and at the same time glow with His mercy. Malach mishpat v’hesed adonai.

4 thoughts on “Rachel Corrie and the wrath of God

  1. “Before Rachel Corrie died, I would say I was somewhat of a liberal Christian. I didn’t really believe in the concept of divine judgment and hell….When we witness cruelty that is unaddressed and unpunished, the rage that fills our hearts is the wrath of God. ”

    Yes, but the problem is it becomes like the boy who cried wolf. There must be a hell for people who do such despicable things. But when you start populating with people who were good moral people but just didn’t believe on particular of your theology, then you make it into a silly superstition. What truly exists for the punishment of the monsters who walk around in human flesh then becomes something that children’s cartoons make fun of as myth. The concept of hell is necessary, but Christianity (thanks in large part to doofuses like Augustine) tends to ruin it with its pettiness.

  2. Great post, Morgan. Going up on UM Insight. God’s wrath is upon the UMC for being on the wrong side of this issue, as it is on so many other issues of injustice and oppression. God have mercy, and give us both wrath and courage to act upon it.

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