We met with some amazing people -- powerful peacemakers -- from both sides of the checkpoints. People dedicating their lives to the pursuit of justice, mercy, and transformation.
And I am in awe.
I hope to introduce you to some of my newfound heroes over the course of the next few days and weeks, as well as, perhaps, some of my thoughts and reflections from the time there.
After spending the night with host families in Bethlehem, the first meeting of our trip was in Jerusalem with Salim Munayer, founder of Musalaha, who've I've had the great honor of meeting once before.
The man is a powerful speaker, with a powerful story, and a powerful vision for reconciliation -- a vision he is taking concrete steps to fulfill.
I hope his thoughts challenge you and give you hope.
[Hopefully this won't be too confusing, because the following is taken almost directly out of my notes. However, please remember that this is my interpretation/memory of what Salim said, and not a transcription (I may be a writer, but I am not a journalist), so don't hold him responsible for what I say he said (if that makes sense).]
"From the land of strife to the land of reconciliation."
That is Salim Munayer's vision for his country. Reconciliation, he says, is not compromise, and it is not win/lose. It is identity transformation. For identity is the first casualty of conflict -- the destruction of how we see ourselves, how we see God, and how we see others.
The heart of peace is not behavioral change but identity change.
Salim Munayer is a refugee within his own country. Driven from their homes in '48, his family remained in their hometown of Lydda, but was forbidden from returning to their land. Given citizenship by the Israeli government (though initially denied freedom of movement and still denied the right of return), Salim attended a Hebrew high school along with his Jewish neighbors -- a school which informed him that his history was a lie.
Palestine, he was informed, was desert, the Jews turned it green, and then the Arabs moved in. Never mind that he could see his ancestral land from the windows of his classroom.
An Arab-Israeli and a Palestinian-Christian, his identity was in conflict, and he grew up asking the hard questions that his community of faith must still face: What would Jesus do if forced to cross through checkpoints multiple times every day? What application does the Sermon on the Mount have to the Palestinian reality? How does one (especially a Palestinian-Christian) resist aggressively, for justice, in the name of love?. And, hardest thought of all, are Palestinian-Christians (members of the universal body of Christ) an obstacle for the return of their Messiah (as so much Western theology seems to teach)?!
Teaching at Bethlehem Bible College he faced the similar conflict of his students: "We don't want to learn about the people who inflict pain upon us." Spiritual heritage in conflict with cultural heritage. The Bible they loved being used to justify their pain.
Years later, does he have the answers? Perhaps not all, but he believes he has been chosen for this task. Uniquely placed, within the conflict of his identities, to bridge the gap between Arab and Jew, Israeli and Palestinian.
As Christians, he challenges, how do we see God? Burning holiness that demands isolation and perfection? Absolute sovereignty that justifies fatalism and prophetic blindness, without thought to individual responsibility or communal justice? Or do we see the crucified God, the lion and slain lamb, the Christ who wept?
Such a God forbids our involvement as jihadists or modern crusaders. Forbids, also, our allegiance to political agendas which destroy our sacred calling to be salt and light in society, drafted only to the love of God and neighbor.
This is the foundation of peacemaking. And because God is a God of relationship, Salim believes we must build relationships to build peace. Must build relationships to destroy the destructive patterns of conflict:
- Division between "us" and "them" (self and Other)
- Dehumanization (the necessary step in justifying self-protection against the "enemy")
- Failure to see plurality (all of the Other is exactly alike -- a strong basis for collective punishment, which is considered a war crime)
- Self-fulfilling prophecy (treating the Other as the enemy leads the Other to behave as the enemy)
- Moral superiority
- Perceived victimization (the dangerous tendency to claim pain as uniquely ours, whether 9/11 or the Holocaust -- the refusal to see suffering as a universal human experience)
- Demonization (attributing absolute evil to the other side -- often uses religious language and labels [i.e. "terrorist"])
Salim believes that this desert encounter is integral to the process of reconciliation, because no dominant culture will choose to relinquish power. The desert, however, strips power without the realization of the powerful, forcing people to become dependent on each other as people -- humans in need, not oppressor and oppressed.
In the Bible, he reminds us, the desert is a place of transformation and renewal. A place where the world fades away and God is met. But it cannot happen without pilgrimage.
He leaves us with some challenging thoughts:
- While peace and reconciliation are happening in Israel on the relational level, where all real change must start, full reconciliation, which must also involve structural change, is stunted by a lack of vision. What is the end goal for Palestine/Israel? What are we struggling for? For S. Africa it was the abolition of apartheid. For the U.S. it was the end of discrimination. What is it for Israel? No one seems quite sure.
- It is not the American Jews (many of whom are actively seeking justice) keeping the U.S. from interceding in Israel, but the American Christians. As an American, and a Christian, this is a sobering, convicting, and painful thought.
- Finally, and most importantly, as third parties who desire to be involved in advocacy -- holding up mirrors to those in power -- we must not allow ourselves to be drafted into the conflict. We must not take sides. Advocacy without reconciliation, states Salim, simply feeds the fire of strife, and that they do not need.