Dozens of Christians arrested after shutting down Senate lunch in protest of Gaza famine

Demonstrators with Christians for a Free Palestine protest the Gaza famine in the U.S. Senate cafeteria on April 9, at the Capitol in Washington. — RNS photo/Aleja Hertzler-McCain

“Woe to you who eat while others go hungry,” shouted two lines of Christian pastors and laypeople. With arms linked, they stood between the food and cash registers in the U.S. Senate cafeteria and brought lunch to a standstill for about half an hour before U.S. Capitol Police quickly completed arrests.

Between 50 and 60 demonstrators demanding a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, as well as aid for the ever-shrinking food supply in Gaza, were arrested Tuesday (April 9) in the cafeteria. The interdenominational protest, organized by Christians for a Free Palestine, followed a Communion service held on Capitol grounds.

“This table is a reminder that we are called to live in a way that may in fact hasten our death,” the Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart told protesters before she presided over Communion. “Because we are enemies of injustice, because we embarrass the state by our refusal to accept its ways.”

More than 25 children in Gaza have died due to complications linked to malnutrition, according to the World Health Organization, which has warned that the region could face a full-blown famine by May.

Humanitarian officials have urged Israel to allow more food to enter Gaza. After an Israeli military airstrike hit a World Central Kitchen convoy April 1, killing seven humanitarian aid workers, President Joe Biden said Israel had not done enough to protect aid workers or civilians and called on Israel to do more to facilitate humanitarian corridors. But critics point out that the same day of the drone strike on the WCK convoy, Biden had signed off on the transfer of thousands of bombs to Israel.

“Starvation was weaponized against our people to bring them on their knees,” the Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian theologian and founder of Dar al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, told the group gathered for Communion ahead of the cafeteria protest.

“I wonder actually, if not one of these bombs that were donated to Israel was the one that actually destroyed our campus in Gaza,” Raheb said, referencing the destruction of the Dar al-Kalima University outpost in Gaza during Holy Week, days before the WCK attack.

Organizers of Tuesday’s protest repeatedly denounced Christian Zionism, a belief that Jews must return to Israel to bring about the return of Jesus. 

Rabbi Alissa Wise, lead organizer for Rabbis for Ceasefire, also spoke to the small crowd, telling the protesters their actions were a “sign of solidarity and friendship” with Jews “by sharing the burden of the ways that our religious traditions have been instrumentalized to establish and maintain the state of Israel,” adding there are more members of Christians United for Israel than there are American Jews.

The group’s leaders also called for a permanent cease-fire, an end to the provision of U.S. weapons to Israel, the restoration of funding for the U.N. aid agency for Palestinian refugees and the release of captives held by both Israel and Hamas.

At the Communion service, Larry Hebert, an active-duty airman on the 10th day of a hunger strike, joined the Christian protesters. Hebert said he hopes to get other members of the military to speak up about the starvation in Gaza. 

“The Christian tradition is one of incarnation and embodiment,” Washington-Leaphart, who was among the protesters who decided to risk arrest, told Religion News Service. “Living out my faith is a matter of complete embodiment. It is putting my body in the way of injustice and oppression.”

The Rev. Margaret Ernst, a United Church of Christ minister and leader with Christians for a Free Palestine, said those arrested included 30 ordained clergy, as well as Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Unitarian Universalists, Quakers and members of the United Church of Christ and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Tuesday’s civil disobedience marked the second largest group of Christians arrested in protests at the Capitol since the war began. About 130 Mennonites were arrested at the Capitol in January after they held a hymn sing sit-in calling for a cease-fire in Gaza. And on Oct. 18, about 300 or more interfaith protesters, most of them Jewish, were arrested as part of a demonstration organized by Jewish Voice for Peace.

Leaders with Christians for a Free Palestine said they drew direct inspiration from Mennonite Action, which organized the January hymn sing, including collaborating with some of the group’s leaders.

Jonathan Brenneman, a Mennonite and Palestinian American who has long worked with Palestinian and Israeli peacemakers and the Mennonite Church USA, took a leadership role in both actions. “Movements inspire more movement,” he told RNS. “And that is what this moment calls for.”

Adam Ramer, one of the coordinators of Mennonite Action, had served as California Rep. Ro Khanna’s political director until Ramer resigned when Khanna refused to sign a cease-fire resolution in the weeks after Oct. 7. Khanna backed a cease-fire on Nov. 21.

Christians for a Free Palestine leaders said they are drawing on many of Mennonite Action’s tactics, including organizing mass mobilization Zoom calls and days of action where Christians take local action at their elected officials’ offices.

Tuesday’s protest follows a worldwide day of rallies on Sunday commemorating the six-month anniversary of the Oct. 7 attacks and demanding the release of the 133 hostages still held by Hamas, some of whom are presumed to be dead.

After Tuesday’s protest at the Capitol, a spokesperson for the U.S. Capitol Police told RNS: “Approximately 50 people were arrested for illegally demonstrating inside the Dirksen Senate Office Building this afternoon. It is illegal to demonstrate inside any of the Congressional Buildings. The charge is D.C. Code § 22–1307 — Crowding, Obstructing, or Incommoding.”

Ernst said Nichola Torbett, an Oakland, California-based organizer, helped the group plan the protest through a concept called liturgical direct action, where organizers started with Scripture and asked questions such as “What moves us in Christian worship?” “What’s powerful about the Christian story?”

The protest’s leaders said their nonviolent direct action comes from biblical tradition, pointing to the midwives who refused Pharoah’s command to kill infant Hebrew boys and Jesus overturning the money changers’ tables in the temple.

Both the Communion service and the obstruction of the cafeteria were designed to draw attention to the “urgency of the famine” in Gaza, Ernst said, explaining that Christians for a Free Palestine followed the advice of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights in focusing Tuesday’s action on the famine.

Ernst said organizers wanted the protest to be “a transformative faith experience,” and many spent the day before in Bible study, prayer circles, community-building and workshops.

For Washington-Leaphart, Tuesday’s protest was about discipleship.

Jesus’ “work navigated a tension between comfort and safety that one may find in faith and disruption and risk and adventure that one finds in faith,” Washington-Leaphart said. “If I’m not taking enough risks, then I’m not really pushing myself to the limits of my faith.”

Aleja Hertzler-McCain

Aleja Hertzler-McCain is a writer with Religion News Service.

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