The Profanity of War—Acts 10: 1-28
(23rd Sunday after Pentecost-Remembrance Sunday-November 5, 2023)
There’s this joke, admittedly kind of a dad joke, that the golden rule of social media is to “Tweet others the way you want to be tweeted.” Popular or viral social media posts at the best of times fall far below the golden rule standard. But, lately in the face of the attacks by Hamas in Israel and the retaliation by Israel in Gaza things are even worse.
These viral voices cause me to despair. My hope comes in voices that aren’t friendly to the algorithms that increase the profits of some. Voices that aren’t designed to get clicks, likes, and shares in the outrage machine that is much of social media. But rather, voices that take the pain of the moment and seek to transcend it, by offering their own vulnerability, extending compassion, and offering a way that might hold possibility.
One such voice is that of Rabbi Alissa Wise of Philadelphia in the U.S. who says, “It’s critical for American Jews to stand up and say, ‘never again’ is never again for anyone….If we’re going to learn anything from history, it’s that the things that we stand for are for everybody, no exception, and that includes Palestinians,”1 Another such voice is that of Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian by birth, currently in Toronto. It’s in 2009 that he loses family in an Israeli airstrike on Gaza. Last week he writes, “I am profoundly saddened and extend my deepest condolences to both Palestinians and Israelis who have lost loved ones. Because I know the meaning of loss; my daughters Bessan, Mayar, Aya, and my niece Nour, were all tragically killed. We must heal our wounds and find peace within ourselves and then between us… The cycle (of violence) does not bring us security and peace and kills hope and life. Each of us retreats to our corners, justifying our perspectives while consumed by anger, anxiety, and suffering.”2
Both Rabbi Wise and Dr. Abuelaish, American Jew and Palestinian-Canadian Muslim, embrace their identities, are proud of who they are ethnically and religiously. But, to them, it seems to me, these identities are not walls needing a defense against outsiders but rather part of the larger, more expansive human identity. Their stories prompt us, I think, to ask, “how do we move into an identity that embraces and encompasses the wisdom that we belong to each other?3
in the concrete choices and details of daily life.4 As well, and this seems obvious to say but we seem to need reminding—Jesus is a Jew, he is circumcised at birth, follows the dietary laws, keeps Passover and other observances. As are his first followers. Thus, the dilemma Peter and the early church face. Following the way of Jesus is a straightforward religious affair when all the followers are Jewish. But, what to do when non-Jews, gentiles, like Cornelius want to become Jesus followers? Do you insist that they become Jews as well and keep to Jewish observances and laws?
This is a tough enough question for Peter, but then the dream. Peter is famished and tired; it’s exhaustion that wins out. Even as a meal is being prepared, he falls into a trance, that middle state between sleep and wakefulness. Perhaps it’s the smells of food, intermingling with this dilemma about the gentiles that spurs it. Has that happened to you, two things going on in your life converging into one single, strange dream? The dream presents Peter with a vision of all the foods that he, as a Jew, is not to eat, with the baffling heavenly instructions, “Get up Peter, kill and eat…What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”5 Three times this happens, and three times, even though hungry, Peter refuses. This is no small matter for Peter and for Jews in the first century: a minority population clinging to their identity under Roman occupation. Yet, here is this vision challenging Peter and the Jewish followers of Jesus to go deeper into their identities.6
It’s a compelling story for us on this Remembrance Sunday. So much of violence and war comes from narrow identities, failing to see what we share, failing to see the sacred in the other, calling what God has created, profane. A few years ago, I come across a shocking example of this, it’s a revealing comment by the Russian General Maslov during World War I. Maslov describes German children crying as they search desperately for their parents in a blazing town. ‘What was surprising,’ Maslov writes, ‘was that they were crying in exactly the way that our children cry.’ After Nazi propaganda that dehumanises the Russians, referring to them as Untermenschen (inferior people), Russian revenge propaganda convinces its citizens that all Germans are heartless beasts.7 The general cannot fathom that the other side’s children are anything like his own. But, then again, this story doesn’t have the same shock value as even a decade ago. We have Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu characterizing the current war as a battle between the children of the light and the children of darkness,8 between the forces of humanity and the forces of animalism.9 Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas official says the attacks like the one a few weeks back will continue until the country of Israel is annihilated.10 What God has made clean, let no one call profane.
We are not immune to this phenomenon in Canada. In the cause of defending a narrow Canadian identity we label and treat Indigenous people, Japanese, Black, Italian, Muslim and 2slgbtq+ Canadians, as the other—profane, blemishes on the purity of the white, straight, Christian, Canadian ideal. The reaction to this can also close us in our identities unless we’re intentional about not letting it happen. Groups who feel under siege coalesce around their identity in a bid for empowerment, support and to mobilize for change. It is an understandable reaction to political, religious, and cultural imperialism, when one group of people tries to dominate another. Just as the Romans did to the Jewish people. But the focus on difference, while needed, only takes us part of the way on the road to healing. At the heart of scripture this morning is a deeper message. Our differences contribute a piece to the Truth, but none of us encompasses the whole Truth. That is the deeper truth that lies beyond all our differences.
Remembrance Sunday’s value doesn’t lie in just honouring sacrifice. It’s also about calling into question the path that leads to war. Remembering calls us to live beyond our small, narrow identities and open ourselves up to a larger, shared identity. I’m wondering this week about Peter’s dream, trying to come up with something comparable in our time, something that is prompting us to embrace a larger identity. What comes to me is that first image of our home, the Earth taken from the moon. That paradigm altering image places us all, all our differences, all our history, all our creations on a singular sphere floating in space. Now though, we have images of our galaxy, the Milky Way, in which we are a far-flung outpost, a tiny dot among billions of tiny dots.
And our galaxy itself is one among billions. Our differences seem so trivial compared to what unites us. Our need to pull together becomes so obvious in the face of such fragility and vulnerability.
The vision is there, God’s new dream calling us to a deeper, more enduring identity, in which our differences are part of a larger Truth, a deeper Reality, a profound Wholeness, in which we are a part of something expansive and beautiful. This is also something worth remembering on this day. What God has made clean, we shall not call profane, we shall accept as gift and grace. That is God’s dream for us, may we listen to the voices who proclaim this hope.
Rev. Joe Gaspar
1 Alaa Elassar, ‘Not in our name’: Jewish peace activists across the US call for immediate ceasefire and justice for Palestinians, October 23, 2023, https://www.cnn.com/2023/10/23/us/jewish-palestinian-protest- israel-gaza/index.html
2 Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, Dr. Abuelaish, Who Lost 3 Daughters and a Niece in Gaza, Calls for Humanity To Prevail, October 29, 2023, https://themedialine.org/news/opinion/dr-abuelaish-who-lost-3-daughters-and- a-niece-in-gaza-calls-for-humanity-to-prevail/
3 Jean Vanier, video from the Work of the People (no longer available online).
4 Rabbi Ruth Sohn, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-purpose-of-kashrut/
5 Acts 10: 12-15.
6 William Willimon, Acts (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 1988, p. 95-96.
7 Antony Beevor, Berlin: The Downfall 1945, p. 199. Found in a sermon by an unknown author, Preached at St Margaret’s Newlands, Glasgow, November 2012, https://cmethuen.wordpress.com/2012/11/,
8 Edward Luce, Netanyahu is an albatross around Biden’s neck, October 31, 2023, https://www.ft.com/content/fbf48dcf-09f1-408e-825a-cc7bd6b1913e.
9 Carrie Keller-Lynn, Netanyahu to Knesset: Fight with ‘Nazi’ Hamas is war between light and darkness, October 16, 2023, https://www.timesofisrael.com/liveblog_entry/netanyahu-to-knesset-fight-with-nazi- hamas-is-war-between-light-and-darkness/
Times of Israel
10 Hamas Official: We Will Repeat October 7 Attacks Until Israel Is Annihilated, November 1, 2023, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/2023-11-01/ty-article/hamas-official-we-will-repeat-october-7-attacks- until-israel-is-annihilated/0000018b-8b9d-db7e-af9b-ebdfbee90000.