In 2008, as I heard the increasing public rhetoric of hostility emanating from the Middle East, I found myself wondering what Jesus would say and do if he were here in the flesh today. It was with that question that I began traveling to the Middle East -- seven times in the last two-and-a-half years. My goal on those trips was simply to listen and learn. I began by asking Arab Christians from Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Israel, and Palestine what they wished American Christians knew about them and about the Middle East.
Thus began my education about U.S. foreign policy, Christian/Muslim relationships, and the conflict between Arabs and Jews in the Holy land. Along the way, I talked with Middle Eastern Jews and Muslims who echoed many of the same themes expressed by Middle Eastern Christians. Their united voice has challenged my perspective on what it means to follow Jesus into the complex world of the Middle East. Their lives and their stories call me to try to be a peacemaker.
Given the increased media emphasis on Israel and Palestine following President Obama's recent Middle East speech and Prime Minister Netanyahu's response, I feel compelled to tell the stories that rarely get told in the U.S. media -- the stories of the Middle Eastern Christians, Muslims, and Jews who are committed to peace and reconciliation in the Holy Land. These are the people "on the ground" fighting nonviolently for security, freedom, equality, and dignity for all Israelis and Palestinians. In the coming weeks, I'll be posting here some articles I've published in other places during the last couple of years, as well as new stories I've not yet told publicly. I'll begin with this article first published in Sojourners magazine, July 2010.
Following Jesus in the West Bank
As a Christian committed to justice, I am glad the Jewish people have a homeland. I long for the day when they can live in Israel -- or anywhere -- in security. I don't hold to a theology asserting that the modern State of Israel represents a divinely mandated return of ancient Israel to the Promised Land, but I do wholeheartedly support its existence as a national homeland for the Jews.
At the same time, I wholeheartedly support justice for the Palestinians. Two years ago at a conference in Amman, Jordan, Arab Christians challenged me to broaden my understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict and to see for myself the current plight of Palestinian Christians and Muslims living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank.
I've traveled to the West Bank three times in the last year. Life under military occupation is grim. A shattered economy, land seizures and house demolitions, Israeli-only roads networking through Palestinian land, and hundreds of military checkpoints on Palestinian roads -- all these make daily life difficult and frustrating.
I've met with both Palestinian and Israeli faith leaders committed to using nonviolent resistance to end the occupation. Most recently I spoke at a conference hosted by Christians in Bethlehem. The conference, called "Christ at the Checkpoint: Theology in Service to Peace and Justice," challenged evangelicals from North America and Europe to stand with the Christians of Palestine. The conference was inspiring, but for me the highlight was the three post-conference days I actually spent with Palestinian Christians.
I loved hearing about the evangelical church that Salwa's husband pastors, and about Salwa's ministry to marginalized women in Bethlehem. Salwa is an old Arabic word meaning consolation. "I love caring for the broken-hearted," she said, "and leading them to Jesus, the source of all comfort." She described the Palestinian Christian community as a secret garden: "Nobody sees us unless they come and look."
I spent several hours with Shireen. Born in the West Bank, she studied English literature and translation at Bethlehem University, then received her M.A. in educational administration at Texas A&M (where she also was homecoming queen). Today she's a wife and mother, a teacher in a Christian college, and a volunteer for a reconciliation ministry. She took me and two other Americans to a women's meeting in the Muslim village of Al-Khader. We were the only Christians in a roomful of Muslims, and we were warmly welcomed.
My friend Christine and I went to dinner with a group of young women we had met on a previous trip. Educated in the social sciences, media, cross-cultural relations, leadership, and reconciliation, they remind me so much of my daughter and her friends: godly, articulate, fun, energetic, and committed to building a better world.
We had breakfast with Munther and Rudaina. Munther received his M.A. in religion and biblical studies from Westminster in Philadelphia. An instructor and assistant academic dean at a college in Bethlehem, he is working on a doctorate in applied theology from the Oxford Center for Mission Studies in England. He is married to Rudaina, an architect. Her name means "the woman who carries armor for soldiers." We laughed when she explained that. Like all the Palestinian women I met, she is on the front lines of the battle for peace.
I met George, a school administrator. Some years ago one of George's daughters -- 12 years old -- was killed by Israeli gunfire that hit the car in which the family was riding. George is now an active member of Parents Circle/Families Forum, Israelis and Palestinians who have lost children to the conflict and meet to share their grief and work for peace.
Sadly, the Christian community in Palestine is dwindling as well-educated young people emigrate because they can't find jobs. But young evangelicals like the ones I met choose to remain in the West Bank because they take Jesus' call to be peacemakers seriously. They understand they have a unique opportunity and calling to bridge the gap between Muslims and Jews as they incarnate the truth of the Prince of Peace.
I am still pro-Israel, but I've also become pro-Palestine. Pro-peace. Pro-justice. Pro-equality for Jews and Arabs living as neighbors in the Holy Land. And bottom line, pro-Jesus.