January 16, 2006
-- Martin E. Marty
Sightings was originally conceived as a means for calling the attention of more of the public to the roles religion plays in public life. That was a few years ago, when coverage of religion was comparatively slight and rare. Today, by contrast, it is all over the front pages and on prime time, for better and/or for worse. Still, we keep our sighting-eye out for overlooked and under-covered events and trends.
Among them are the people and incidents affecting the lives of Palestinian Christians. I get to Israel/Palestine now and then—though not recently—and spend most of my time with Israelis. Occasionally at conferences or worship, Mennonites, Lutherans, or Orthodox and Catholic Palestinians, an ever-declining and certainly besieged set of believers, will be in range. Monitoring the religious press as I am called to do, and doing sightings in the secular press even more, I can come up with a very safe generalization: The vast, vast majority of Americans and the vast majority of American Christians know virtually nothing about Palestinian Christians. This year a few Christmas Eve camera shots of nearly empty souvenir stores in Bethlehem got some play, but these Christians don't much show up—and before long there may not be any to show up, as more and more are driven into emigration and exile.
At many secular as well as Jewish- or Muslim-related meetings there comes a point where one or another person will say, "But you have never heard my story." We've never heard enough, but theirs receive regular attention. Now and then at a meeting someone will finally speak up in a question of rejoinder: "Have you ever heard mine? My grandparents were farmers who lost their land in 1948 and had to go into exile, eventually to the United States, where I was born, so ...." What they say comes as a revelation, often courteously received, by mixed audiences.
I thought of all this over the holidays when the Martys stoked up the DVD rig for all-thumbs Grandpa Marty and we watched Salt of the Earth, a documentary film on "Palestinian Christians in the Northern West Bank," by Marthame and Elizabeth Sanders (from Salt Films, Inc., which also offers a downloadable study guide). And we watched only because I knew the Sanders, now a ministerial couple in the U.S., as Chicago Divinity School students before they did a several-year ministerial stint among these Christians.
A film critic would find the camera work charmingly naive; kids being filmed look up now and then to the camera; there are bumps and jumps between scenes; it's in Arabic with (clear) English titles; plot-lines collide with each other at times. And that, paradoxically, is all to the good. The whole venture is amateur enough to win the confidence of viewers. The cinema verité is very verité. If readers think that I think that DVDs like this will "solve" Israeli/Palestinian issues and lead to detraumatization on all fronts, I've not done my op-editing very well for years.
No, this is a human portrait of ordinary people doing ordinary things, at worship and in church schools (mainly Orthodox and Catholic), playing around, being families. And all the while they lose land to "the wall," a horrendous insult in their backyards. And their homes get leveled, their churches get bombarded, their dignity regularly gets assaulted.
Yet, there are tables-full of food surrounded by people with smiles, people who pray and who hope, against all odds. The question comes during such viewing: "Have you heard their story?"
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.