Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Crisis of faith in lands split by walls

When Sol Kelley-Jones was writing her powerful play about the people on the margins in the West Bank and on the U.S.-Mexican border, religious themes were only a subtext.

These, after all, were the stories of the people she encountered during a three-month stay in Palestine last spring and then a summer near Tucson working on the border. They were stories that often have a political edge, which is not surprising given how much politics affects the realities of life in these regions.

There are walls that separate people in both places, walls built by governments seeking to keep people out in the name of protecting those who are on the inside. The walls divide people in ways that the best of religious traditions would not accept, even though religious reasons may well be cited as justifications for the walls.

But for someone coming to this play – The Birds That Are Your Hands -- with a sensitivity for the religions dimensions at work in these two places, Kelley-Jones has managed to bring issues of faith into a sharp focus.

(You can read more about the play in my column in the Cap Times. The play is running at the Broom Street Theater through April 19.)

She said in an interview that in both Palestine and in the border region, she found that it was people working in faith-based aid groups that performed amazing tasks, often putting themselves at risk. What motivates her is progressive politics more than a specific religious commitment, yet she shows in the play her deep understanding of the religious tensions at work in these societies and in the lives of individuals.

There is the Jewish commitment to living an ethical life reflected in the ruminations of an old Jewish man who ponders what his country is doing to the Palestinians in their midst.
“Europe has always has a habit of hating Jews,” he tells the audience. “Now we can be colonizers. It is the Palestinians who pay the price for Europe’s anti-Semitism.”

He shakes his head in disbelief. “Jews – my people – are pondering the merits of concentration camps. I have live too long.”

Later, Jewish woman who is a rabbi talks about losing her faith in the Holy Land after witnessing what was happening there, then finding her faith restored when she began to bond with women in refugee camps – “my Muslim sisters.”

When the Palestinians face a crisis, they cry out the traditional Islamic prayer, “Allahu Akbar.” This is usually translated “God is great,” which often seems odd in a moment of tragedy. Kelley-Jones offered a more nuanced translation: “God is greater than this.”

But for a priest in the Arizona desert, the notion that God is great is mocked by the dead baby he finds. It is one of the heart-wrenching scenes in the play. The priest is kneeling, holding a rosary in his hands, reciting Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew about how “I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink.”

Then he looks up in anger at what people who call themselves Christians are doing to the immigrants who are dying in the desert. He mocks their words: “Who does this Jesus Christ think he is? He’s not with the program.”

As the priest’s despair over what he sees deepens, his posture shifts to the Muslim position for prayer, head touching the ground. He still holds the rosary, reminiscent of the Muslim prayer beads.

“I pray and I doubt,” he cries. “I pray for forgiveness for my doubting. God will care for you ... and the desert fills with bodies.”

Kelly-Jones does not offer any easy answers to the doubts of the priest or the rabbi or the Islamic characters in her play. She simply poses the questions for people to weight against their own faith traditions. It is provocative theater at its best.

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