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The Rev. Jason Poling is Pastor of New Hope Community Church in Pikesville.

Amid the many difficulties faced by anyone writing about the events in the Middle East of the past few days is what to call those aboard the Gaza flotilla. Many news outlets have referred to these "passengers" as "pro-Palestinian activists." In its plainest sense, the term denotes someone advocating a political or social cause by means of deliberate "action." But in common parlance the term connotes a particular type of action -- namely, non-violent action. (We do not refer to the 9/11 terrorists as "activists," though they certainly were taking deliberate action to advocate a political cause.)

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For those aboard five of the six boats, this name makes some sense. According to reports from both sides, the passengers on these boats did not offer violent resistance to the Israeli armed servicemen who boarded their ships. Their ships were commandeered and sent to the Israeli port of Ashdod, where the humanitarian goods on board were unloaded and prepared for shipment to Gaza. The activists were processed to ensure they did not present a terror risk, and released.

This, I submit, is exactly what John Lewis would have done if he had planned the mission.

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Most readers will remember that John Lewis, currently a Democratic congressman from Georgia, was among the "Freedom Riders" who through their fearless activism brought down legal segregation in the Southern states. Though he was arrested and beaten on multiple occasions, he held unswervingly both to his political goal and to his nonviolent principles. For good reason President Obama gave him a signed picture from his Inauguration declaring, "Because of you, John."

Now, I do not know anything about Congressman Lewis' position on the State of Israel beyond the fact that he co-sponsored a resolution congratulating Israel on its 60th anniversary (along with over half of his House colleagues, including Roscoe Bartlett, Albert Wynn and some 264 others in between). His few public statements on the Middle East have stressed the need for peace in the region, and urged all parties involved to seek nonviolent resolutions of their differences. I had the privilege of taking a class on the civil rights movement in college with Julian Bond, whom Lewis defeated in a 1986 Democratic primary to win that House seat; Bond had a number of things to say about Lewis but I don't recall that any of them involved Israel. So I could be wrong about this, and I will gladly clarify if the Congressman or his staff say so.

The point of the Freedom Rides, as with all nonviolent action in the civil rights era, was to demonstrate the injustice of Jim Crow laws by firmly, respectfully and nonviolently breaking them, then suffering the consequences. The idea was that by receiving unjust punishment for breaking unjust laws, they would shame the nation into upholding the civil rights of all its citizens.

Many trace this strategy to the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus says that if someone tries to sue you for the shirt off your back you should give him your pants, too (Matt. 5:40, my (broad) translation) – standing there naked, the interpretation goes, will demonstrate how outrageously you are being treated and shame your persecutor (or a just judge) into ensuring that the basics of human survival aren't wrested from you in a parody of justice.The Freedom Riders would be met by local mobs, whom local police would allow free rein for a time before dragging activists like Lewis into prison. Although the Kennedy administration called on them to observe a "cooling off period," the Freedom Riders continued their work and enlisted more and more people to join their efforts, including such prominent figures as Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin. Throughout, they continued the disciplined pursuit of their ends by nonviolent means.

So, it seems did those on five of the six ships in the Gaza flotilla. They were warned not to proceed by the Israeli Defense Forces, but continued to do so in hopes of bringing attention to a blockade they considered unjust. But the "activists" aboard the Mavi Marmara had another strategy in mind. IDF commandos landing aboard that ship were swarmed by "activists" wielding knives, metal bars, slingshots and projectiles. Some of these "activists" actively repelled them, throwing soldiers off the boat or to a deck 30 feet below, even taking their firearms and turning them on the IDF forces.

If you don't like a blockade, you can break it by applying either military or diplomatic pressure. Five of the boats were involved in "activism" of the second kind (though it does take some hair-splitting to claim that you're being nonviolent while the guys on the lead ship aren't … it's not as if the Freedom Riders traveled with a bunch of Black Panthers). The Mavi Marmara was involved in the former, though. This was not activism. This was a military action. The fact that the "activists" attacked the IDF forces with primitive weapons does not mean that they were not employing deadly force; indeed, the videos available across the internet gives every impression that their efforts were aimed at kidnapping or killing the Israelis.

And if you take military action against military forces you can hardly expect a nonviolent response, whatever you call yourself.

Yet my colleagues in the World Council of Churches have joined the rogue states of the world (as well as those that ought to know better) in reflexively blaming Israel for the tragic loss of life that resulted from this "protest." For its General Secretary, the Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, the people carrying envelopes full of cash but no passports, with stashes of bulletproof vests and night-vision goggles, attacking armed commandos with lethal weapons, were "civilians," "innocent people who were attempting to deliver humanitarian assistance."

One can agree with the WCC that the blockade of Gaza is unjust, even worthy of nonviolent direct action in hopes of ending it. But to call an armed thug a "civilian" is to decisively abandon reality, and to thus betray Jesus' command issued only a few verses earlier that we are to let our yes be yes and our no be no (Matt. 5:37). And it is, furthermore, to besmirch the good name and great deeds of heroes like John Lewis to lump them in with the "activists" on the Mavi Marmara.

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