I stared out the window of my cab, soaking it all in. I’d spent the past few days in Bethlehem: the city of David, the birthplace of Christ, and today, the purgatory-like, “temporary” housing for thousands of Palestinian refugees, who long to go home. I think I knew going in that I would be deeply affected; the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is, after all, probably the most famously complicated, diametrically polarizing struggle in the world. But I didn’t know it’d be like this.
My hotel was a stone’s throw from the wall (I know, because I watched several boys measuring — er, well, throwing stones at it). Armed Israeli guards, with their sights set on me, watched from the tower as I walked down the street one night. The looming structure of the wall didn’t go unnoticed. It was ominous, impassable, and always within view. It made me feel claustrophobic and trapped, even though I had the privilege to come and go as I pleased. I can’t imagine the psychological impact of never seeing the other side of the wall, yet that’s reality for most of the people who live here. Chanting crowds, yelling, “BUILD THE WALL” echoed in my head. “This is what walls look like,” I thought back to them, wishing they could hear me. “This is what walls do to people.”
Being penned up turns people into animals.
Let me back up.
I was here with a beautiful opportunity to release Heaven’s joy in a place of brokenness and hopelessness. That’s a privilege I treat with a lot of gravity, so apologies if the picture I paint in my story is a bit vague. We got to honor people who are often treated with distain. We saw the sick healed, the hungry fed, and joy break into hearts of despair. We fed widows in some of the UN refugee camps throughout the West Bank, the portraits of martyrs in the Conflict painted on the walls surrounding us. Places that a lot of Christians would call dark and oppressive, I heard freedom and laughter ring out, breaking the heavy silence. In camps designed almost 70 years ago to accommodate 3000 people, there are now more than 15000 refugees living in about 1/10th of a square mile.
In that place… joy broke out, light broke in, and the Kingdom came. Singing turned into joy tunnels, joy tunnels turned into dancing, and dancing poured out into the street. An impromptu parade danced through the camp and out into the streets of Bethlehem, locals jumping in and laughing with us. Leaders at the camp told us that nothing has ever happened like that before. It was beautiful.
These were the thoughts pouring through my mind as I stared out the window of my cab. I was on my way to a music store to pick out an electric piano, a gift for the camp, so that the kids could learn music. One of the camp directors we talked to explained that he believes “too many people love their country enough to die for it. We want people to love their country enough to live for it.” I was significantly moved by his words. He continued, “we have so much love, we have no room for hate.” He challenges people in the camp to channel their pain into art instead of violence, and let their paintings, not their bodies, be their protest.
The wall runs right by their camp — the ominous, impenetrable wall — but it has become their canvas for the world. Powerful statements and beautiful images cover the wall, and I found myself connecting with the artist in a way I don’t think I could have done otherwise. I felt their pain, their hope, their resolve. Time after time, as I chatted with the people in the camps, they explained that they have no issue with Jewish people — they long for peace, to live side by side — instead, their protest is with the Israeli government’s occupation in what they believe is their homeland.
One of the most powerful Palestinian symbols is the key. They paint them on the wall; they wear them around their necks; one of the camps even features (as a sign over the doorpost welcoming you through the gate) a huge steel key, weighing almost a ton, that is made from the shell of a missile. The key represents the homes they had to leave, the homes they hope to go back to — the homes that represent the only inheritance their children may have. The key is the symbol of hope for Palestine, and it’s easy to feel compassion for their plight.
So here’s where it get’s really crazy for me. Palestinians cling to the hope of a “Right of Return,” their sacred right to go home. Soon after Israel was founded in 1948 (the same time that the refugee camps were founded), the Israeli government enacted the “Law of Return,” which allowed Jews from all around the world to move to the country and start their new lives there. Both groups want the same thing, in almost the exact same words. And both have really justifiable reasons for their claim. The things suffered by the Jewish people in the holocaust are unthinkable. Yet I still found it hard to justify Palestine being displaced to make up for the Nazi’s actions.
So while I might sound pro-Palestinian, that’s probably because I’m writing about my time on that side of the wall.
In Israel, I met the same heavy-heartedness and the same longing for shalom. In an almost equally unimaginable situation as the parade, joy broke through in an Israeli hospital, and we were taken to throw an impromptu (and mandatory) party for all the soldiers at a nearby military base. The day’s responsibilities were canceled. Some of the most hardcore soldiers in the world were suddenly breakdancing and going through fire tunnels, laughter taking over the base.
It was amazing.
Because I think we all want the same thing.
The cab wound its way through the streets of old Bethlehem and I realized what had been bubbling up in the back of my mind for a few days: this place was nothing like I expected. Palestine had captured my heart, and I wasn’t sure what to do with that. As a Christian, I know the Bible tells us that if we bless Israel, we will be blessed, but I started to wonder who, in the New Covenant, is Israel? Is it the political nation? Is it the Bride of Christ? Either way, Jesus also says: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you, and persecute you.”
So no matter how I could answer that question, I had a feeling that Jesus would be sitting here in the refugee camp too — playing piano with the Palestinian children, feeding the Palestinian widows, comforting the hurting Palestinian artists. He would sit there among the thousands of Palestinian Christians, and among the thousands more who have never encountered His love. I think He would even sit here heartbroken, pouring out His liquid love on the ones whose pain and anger were making them susceptible to extremist ideologies and the plans of the enemy to kill, steal and destroy. He would sit there not to stand against the Jewish people, but to stand against oppression, and to sit with those who mourn, and comfort them.
Over and over throughout this trip, it was like the two-dimensional coloring book pages of the Holy Land from my childhood became 3D, gaining depth, color, dimension, and shading. Each new person I met was like another layer of nuance and context. I travel a ton (Israel was my 55th country to date), so I’m pretty good at getting off the plane, figuring out the local time, and being good to go. I get impacted most places I go, but in a way that folds into everything else going on in my life. Israel and Palestine feels like this whole other thing entirely. I think it’s the fervor you feel in the air there.
Jerusalem is this small city, that’s somehow at the crux of the world. It’s one of the holiest sites for three of the most influential world religions. It’s been at or near the center of global politics since at least 1948, and it’s both ancient and modern all at once. I can see how it gets to people.
It’s easy to see the tension as binary, but there are layers upon layers of these binary oppositions (Jew/Arab, Israeli/Palestinian, orthodox/non-religious, secular/sacred, ancient/modern). And I guess I write all this to say that it gave me some perspective about my own nation and people, in a time where things feel more tense, and more split down the middle than I’ve ever felt. The same “us vs them, fighting for the same turf” sort of feeling seems to bleed through every conversation these days, dividing us into camps that most of us don’t want to be in.
The tendency is to think that if we ignore all the dimensions and nuance that complicate things, and only focus on not being like the “them” on the other side, then the “us” over here can win by strength of numbers. I guess I just wonder if that kind of win is really a loss, and that if we lose sight of all the dimensions that define us, we end up with bad options in the end. I see complexity, dimension, and nuance as beautiful, far more organic and human than any binary 1s or 0s ever could be.
So whether it’s about Israel and Palestine, or President Trump and the wall he’s promised, let’s decide to zoom in to see past the big picture of our ideology and look into people’s faces — because if Jesus is truly hidden among the least of these, then those people are the even bigger picture. A friend of mine recently put it this way: “we must always put people over policy.” That struck a chord in my spirit, because while those issues are important, if they cause us to lose sight of the most vulnerable among us, then policy is failing us. If we set the bar based on the ones who thrive and ignore the ones who suffer, then we miss the opportunity to do what Jesus did so many times throughout his time on earth, when he wandered out of the company of the respectable and found Himself sitting with the outcasts, full of compassion, and treating them with dignity and love.
Drop the stones.
Pick up a paintbrush.
Listen to somebody you think is a “them” and find out all the beautiful things you have in common.
+ I recently heard a really moving episode of one of my favorite podcasts, NPR’s Hidden Brain. The episode was called Tribes & Traitors: What Happens When You Empathize with the Enemy? and they explain: “In order to get at this question, we talk with Israelis and Palestinians who took the radical step of empathizing with the other side.”
In my time there, I felt God’s burning heart of love for the people on both sides of the wall, and hearing the stories of these brave, compassionate people, I’m full of hope for the future of the beautiful Israeli and Palestinian people.
You can listen to it here: http://www.npr.org/2017/03/06/518786831/tribes-traitors-what-happens-when-you-empathize-with-the-enemy