by John Howard.
Some years ago I arrived at a farm just after Israeli troops had left having demolished a home in the Jordan Valley. Around me was a scene of devastation, not just the remains of the building strewn across the land, but every item of possession that helps make a house a home. I helped the family recover some of the objects and then, with their lives desecrated around us, the wife and mother of four small children asked me if I would like a cup of tea. Despite the tragedy all around us Palestinian hospitality had to take over – despite everything this was their home and I was a guest in it.
The memory of this incident was brought back to me this week when the news came through of the multiple house demolitions in Sur Baher, East Jerusalem. After a ruling in the Israeli Supreme Court that these buildings were too close to the Separation Barrier, despite having been built legally with permission from the Palestinian Authority, the court ruled that the demolition orders on the buildings should be upheld. These demolitions are the first to have been carried out for this reason, by the Israeli Military in Palestinian controlled area A.[i] This now leaves many hundreds of other homes vulnerable to such treatment.
What does a home mean? What makes the distinction between a house and a home? For many of us there is an experience of home – we know when we feel at home. Returning home is a different experience to arriving anywhere else – places may be very comfortable but that doesn’t mean they are home. That family in the Jordan valley knew their home had been violated and their hospitality to me affirmed their sense of what was still their home despite the best efforts of the Israeli Defence Force.
The Bible is clear in many places that hospitality is a virtue. The writer of the first letter of Peter encourages “practice hospitality ungrudgingly” (1 Peter 4:9). But the virtue of hospitality is closely linked to home. How do you practice hospitality if you have no home? The family offering me tea after their house had been demolished were not only practicing hospitality – they were also offering non violent resistance. Despite the wrong that had been done to them, they were affirming that this was their home from which they could still practice hospitality. They were demonstrating sumud – the Arabic word for “steadfastness” that has come to mean so much in the struggle for justice in Palestine.
The Bible doesn’t reflect upon the nature of what makes a home as such, however, the context of the many references to “home” illustrate that it is a place to be revered, a reward that is linked to good life. Proverbs 3:33 says, “The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the abode of the righteous.” One of the rewards of peace is security at home. Isaiah 32:18 says that in God’s reign, “My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.”
In the Gospels, again, we see that the home is a place of comfort and security. Jesus rests in Mary and Martha’s home (Luke 10:38). After the crucifixion John takes Mary “into his own home.” (John 19:27). When in the Acts of the Apostles, in Macedonia, Lydia, a new convert, is accepted into the church, she immediately invites Paul and his companions to stay in her home. She is showing the virtue of hospitality, but this incident is more than that. By accepting her offer, Paul and his companions are accepting Lydia. In Matthew 8:20 Jesus laments “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” The absence of a “home” is clearly a reason for sadness.
This very brief set of biblical examples could be expanded upon with many other references that illustrate that a home is a blessing, a place that is special. Is it too much to say that there is a sanctity in a home and its violation is an especial sin? In Micah 2:2 this is addressed quite specifically: “Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it because it is in their power. They covet fields and seize them; houses and take them away; they oppress householders and house, people and their inheritance. Therefore thus says the Lord…..”
Homes are special. To violate them in any way is wrong. Violation can come in many forms but the deliberate destruction of Palestinian homes such as we have seen in the last week is especially sinister. Such destruction is explicitly condemned by Hebrew scriptures.
[i] In the Oslo Accords most of the West Bank was divided into three areas, A, B & C. Area “A” was in full Palestinian control, area “C” in full Israeli control and area “B” in shared control. This was meant to be a temporary measure in 1993 for up to five years but it still applies today.