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Glory to God in the Lowest: Journeys to an Unholy Land

Noushin Darya Framke reviews Donald E. Wagner's latest book, published August 30, 2022.

Interlink Publishing, 288 pages
Published August 30, 2022

Reading Don Wagner’s memoir took me on his pilgrimage of “downward mobility” in search of justice. I first encountered Wagner’s prophetic work in 2004 when the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) began to reconsider investment in companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territories. Almost 20 years later, even after much activism, I am still a human rights newbie compared to Wagner.

Glory to God in the Lowest can also be read as an instruction manual on finding grace through the pilgrim’s path of risk, humility and faith. Wagner’s remarkable journey first made me wonder if he was the Forrest Gump of the movement for Palestine — like the titular character in “Forrest Gump,” he shows up at so many important moments! We join him in the 1960s with “the combustible blend of liberation theology, anti-Vietnam War rallies, and the civil rights movement,” and move through major historical events and turning points in Israel/Palestine as Wagner navigates the ensuing decades. Wagner’s justice journey is gripping and often astounding; it took him from marching in Washington behind Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to serving in an urban Black church and then to the Middle East, where he witnessed mass burials at the massacres of Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

This, however, is no serendipitous Forrest Gump journey; it is the result of intentional choices. Wagner repeatedly chose the path of most resistance, from a place of White privilege to the “paradox of downward mobility.” Wagner inherited values such as “a strong sense of patriotism, respect for the military, duty to the country, and the racial prejudices that can accompany a sense of white privilege, often overt but usually subtle” from his comfortable, evangelical childhood in Buffalo, New York. By the age of seven, he was fully immersed in end-time theology, “complete with the Rapture, Battle of Armageddon, and the role of Israel, God’s chosen people.” But the upheavals of the 1960s led him to encounter liberation theology; when he saw that Jesus stood in solidarity with those on the margins, the traditional top-down approach of his upbringing no longer resonated.

Reading works of theologians and thinkers new to him, Wagner’s world was turned upside down in a single seminary semester. After Princeton, he was hired into Elmwood Church in Newark, New Jersey, where he saw what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “beloved community” in action. He didn’t know it at the time, but his four years pastoring a Black church in Newark prepared him for his leap into Palestine advocacy where he later saw clear parallels.

When Wagner was hired by Elmwood Church, he was a “post-Holocaust supporter of Zionism” and this position was strengthened during his years in that church, as his congregation was twinned with a Newark synagogue. But moving to a church in Evanston, Illinois brought another dimension to his life; for the first time, he came across a “clear, passionate and compelling” Palestinian narrative about the events that led to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Wagner realized the Palestinians were delegitimized as terrorists just as the Black Panthers were in his Black Church experience. He delved into learning more about the Palestinians, especially the Christians, and learned that Western missionaries had weakened the indigenous churches there, not only because they brought colonial politics and interests with them, but also because they “stole sheep” for their new Protestant churches. In the early 1970s, Wagner took his first trip to the region and the first step on a journey into the “troubled waters of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.”

Wagner visited Cyprus, Cairo, Beirut and Jerusalem and began to connect liberation theology with what he witnessed. For example, in the embroidery workshops of a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, Wagner saw an effort to generate income for the poorest families, which also helped maintain an ancient art form. Each Palestinian village had its own unique embroidery pattern, or tatreez, which the refugees brought with them to the camp. By serving a marginalized population of women and girls, the poorest of the poor, Wagner saw the embroidery workshops as liberation theology in action and a way to engage with those on the fringes. He also saw these connections in Cairo’s Zabbaleen district, where the church cared for the poor who lived on the garbage heaps on the city’s outskirts. In each case, Wagner saw “humble servants confronting systemic poverty, racial and political injustice, and the legacy of colonialism and settler colonialism.”

On his “path of most resistance,” Wagner led a tour in 1982 to a Beirut hospital where injured Palestinian schoolgirls arrived following the Israeli bombing of their United Nations Relief and Works Agency school bus. The visitors witnessed unbearable grief; the girls’ parents beseeched them to go home and tell everyone what they had seen. It turned out the tour group had a “ringside seat to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.” During heavy shelling from Israeli fighter jets, they hid in a hotel basement as the hotel vibrated. Wagner looked across the room and saw “…a beautiful Palestinian mother wearing a hijab, gently rocking her baby, quietly singing in Arabic. …a beautiful image of inspiration and hope in the midst of a deadly situation.”

Later that year, Wagner was present at another tragedy: a mass burial of Palestinian victims of the Israeli attack on the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps where hundreds, perhaps thousands, perished. He arrived only hours after the strike:

“I looked for somewhere to sit and pray for a moment so I could gain control of my emotions. Ahead of me was a mound of dirt where a few others were sitting. I took a seat and tried to center myself in silence. But there was no escaping the horror, whether from the smell of death, the piercing screams of loved ones, or the destruction around us. Trying to find peace within myself, I reached out to God in prayer … My prayers became wordless as the appropriate language escaped me…. We were sitting above a mass grave as Red Crescent workers carried body bags to the bottom for burial.”

As he engaged with the Palestinian struggle for justice, Wagner developed an entirely different theological, spiritual and political model. His journey became a pilgrimage, a method of spiritual discernment, because a pilgrim was one on a risky journey. He encountered a “downward mobility toward humility and vulnerability before God and others.” Doors and windows closed as he lost jobs and income because of his advocacy for Palestine. But as a pilgrim, he always knew another door would eventually open, and like the medieval pilgrims, the trials he faced brought him grace.

Glory to God in the Lowest describes the “liberating grace” of Wagner’s downward journey, as well as the inspiration he takes from the steadfastness of the Palestinians. Wagner notes, “(M)any Palestinians choose to remain and resist. They give me the hope against all hope, the hunger for justice and truth.” This memoir of a justice pilgrim reminds us that “the power of liberation theology and the call to be courageous in the face of oppression demands a liberated mind, heart, and soul.” By turning his personal lens on historical and current events, Wagner lights the way forward in a thickly wooded forest.

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