Above photo: Jonathan Brenneman and Sarah Thompson with their grandmothers on their wedding day in 2018. © Peter Ringenberg, 2018
by Jonathan Brenneman
My name is Jonathan. I am a Mennonite Christian Palestinian US American. My dual identities as a Palestinian and as a white US American offer me insight to Christianity both as an indigenous wisdom tradition, and as a religion serving as a tool of global imperialism. I write each entry of this two-part blog post from the first person, as a Palestinian Christian and as a Western Christian.
The Jordan River plays a huge part in Christian mythology: the river crossed by the Israelites, the river Elijah and Elisha performed miracles in, the river in which John performed baptisms, the river whose watershed hosts all of Jesus’s ministry.
The Jordan is one of the most significant natural or ecological characters in the Bible, so it’s natural that those who practice watershed discipleship connect deeply to the mythology of the Jordan River, diving into its metaphors and finding the confluence between our own watersheds and that of Jesus. But the river isn’t merely mythical. It did not dry up after the canon was chosen. It is a real river! And it is still flowing…barely.
From its banks in the Middle East, the River Jordan has grown into a symbol of freedom; for example, it forms a central trope in many hymns and spirituals. Michael rowed the boat ashore (hallelujah) across “Jordan’s stream wide and deep.” People hope to hear “roll Jordan roll.” The singer wants to cross over that Deep River because, “home is over Jordan.” And, as any child of the ’90s knows, Michael Jackson wanted to be held “like the river Jordan” (#FreeWilly). The sign of hope the Jordan has come to symbolize is inspiring.
These are but a few examples of the epic meaning the Jordan represents in the global imagination; it flows beyond mere metaphor. It has become synonymous with freedom, salvation, and paradise. But as this spiritual meaning has spread in Western Christianity, connection to the physical Jordan has been lost.
This is not the case for Christians in the region of the Jordan River Watershed. For many Palestinian Christians, the Jordan River and its watershed are first and foremost physical, with the metaphorical meaning springing from knowing it in their particular geographic context. This in no way diminishes the importance of the Jordan in their theology, but instead adds to it. All Palestinian families have stories of the Jordan to add to the canon—my own family included. In order to bring this ecological character from the Bible to life, and to share about the social, ecological, and political situation in my home watershed, I will describe a story that has become legend in my family relating to the Jordan River in this part of my tale. I will share a second part next week, discussing the ecological situation of the Jordan River and the plight of those who live near its banks.
As a Palestinian Christian, my family’s story is inextricably bound up with the new political meaning the Jordan River took on in 1967: as a border. The State of Israel, which only 20 years earlier had ethnically cleansed 700,000 Palestinians out of their land, expanded again. It took over and occupied lands on the west bank of the Jordan River (among others), of which the nation of Jordan had previously been in control. My Tata (Grandmother) Frosina, who has Jordanian roots, could no longer cross the Jordan to visit her family, because she lived in the West Bank with my sido (grandfather) and their six children.
A few months after the 1967 war, the Israeli government made an announcement: they would reopen the border for two weeks. People could come and go across the Jordan River. My Tata could visit her family! She made plans to take her youngest daughter, Grace, who was still breastfeeding, across the border to Jordan for a couple of days before returning to what was left of Palestine.
Along the route she asked the Israeli guards at every checkpoint if she would be allowed to return. They all reassured her that she would. Yet three days later, when she was ready to return, the border was closed. A line of cars a mile long stood stalled at the bridge that crosses the Jordan. No one could go back. The false promise was part of Israel’s strategy to further ethnically cleanse Palestinians from that land. The scheme by the Israeli government and military was to claim Palestinians “abandoned” their land, use that as a pretext to take it away, and to say the Palestinians who left have no right to live there. My grandmother found herself with her nursing daughter on The Far Side Banks of Jordan to her husband and five other kids. As if in a literal rendering of the old spiritual, she said, “My home is over Jordan, I Got to Cross the Jordan River.” She did not, like the song, have to cross it by herself. A relative offered some guidance on the safest places to travel. A friend of the family who found herself in a similar position joined Tata Frosina and baby Grace.
Braving mountainous terrain, wild animals, landmines, and snipers trained to shoot first, they made their way. Thankfully, unlike the songs would have you think, the Jordan is not a Deep River. They found a place in the north where the river was fordable. They Waded in the Water, and Crossed Jordan (literally, not metaphorically). On the far banks they hoped to find a bus (the day’s low-swinging chariot), to carry them home. To their dismay, as they climbed the hill toward the rendezvous spot, they saw the bus pull away.
Disheartened, they stopped to care for baby Grace. Two young Israel soldiers found them there. The soldiers started questioning them. “What are you doing here!?!” They demanded.
My Tata did not want to lie, but did not want to be sent back. She replied, incredulously, “What does it look like I’m doing? I’m changing a diaper!”
“Where are you coming from?” the soldier went on.
Tata responded simply, “I come from the land.”
The soldiers had heard enough and conferred amongst themselves. Tata Frosina only prayed. The soldiers returned. “We know where you come from, and we know what you are doing. We won’t stop you. Don’t take this route, and don’t go by foot,” they advised and walked away.
The travelers started down the alternative path, where they would soon meet a Palestinian farmer willing to give them a ride to their homes. As they were walking, they saw the bus they had hoped to take driving back along its route, military vehicles surrounding it, sending all of its passengers back across the Jordan.
This is my family’s miraculous story at the banks of the Jordan: set in a time of severe repression, family separation, a babe floating across Jordan in its mother’s arms, Tata Frosina’s courage and faithfulness, and the softening of the Israeli soldier’s heart. This story easily resonates with many biblical stories relating to the Jordan River.
And yet, these true, modern stories — so similar to the experiences of the faithful characters in the Bible — are ignored by many Christians, including the millions of Christian tourists who visit the Jordan River Watershed and flock to the Holy Land each year. They prefer the relics of Christianity to a true, living rendition. Their effect on the watershed will be the subject of part 2, which will appear next week.