Before we left for the Holy Land, our pilgrims had a
briefing with someone who knows a great deal about Middle East politics. We
asked him what one thing we most needed to know, and he said: “It’s complicated.”
He was right.
Up north, we met with two professional women, each in
their middle forties; one works in education and the other in technology. They
introduced themselves to us as Arab Palestinian Christian Israelis. It’s
This is how I understand the words that they used, though
I could very well be off: “Arab”
indicates their ethnicity, descendants of Ishmael and cousins of the other
people in this region with a similar heritage. “Palestinian” indicates their
nationality, linked to the people who lived in this particular land before the
State of Israel was created in 1948. “Christian” indicates their faith, as
opposed to the many other faiths represented within the Arab ethnicity and
Palestinian nationality – Muslim, Bedouin, Druze and others. “Israeli”
indicates their citizenship, the country whose passport they carry. It’s
complicated, and each one of those words has a direct impact on the way that
these women live their lives every day.
Back in Jerusalem, we went to the Mount of Olives and
looked out over the city. We could see places that are called different things
by different people: East and West Jerusalem, the West Bank, the security wall,
the occupied territories and the Israeli settlements. It’s complicated.
The words and phrases that I just used are not so easily
defined. As is so often the case, what you call something betrays your
perspective, or the perspectives of the people who taught you about the situation.
What we know is this: Two very different people feel that they have a claim to
inhabit and possess a very small piece of land, and peaceful coexistence has proven
For more than a week, we have struggled with the
divisions that are apparent all around us. Our host and guide, the dean of St.
George’s Anglican College in Jerusalem, gave us some good advice: “Don’t take
sides.” The situation is complicated, and involving more people in the debate
will not make anything better. Our role is to be present and to learn, not to
resolve. When I was training as a hospital chaplain, my supervisor offered similar
advice: “Don’t just do something. Stand there.” Easier said than done.
Good people want to get involved when they see other good
people suffering, but most serious pastoral situations are not easily resolved.
There are no magic words to fix decades-long conflicts between separated
spouses, estranged siblings, or parents and their grown children. These
relationships are complicated, and serious conflicts within them simply cannot
be repaired overnight.
As I continue to journey in this sacred and deeply-conflicted
land, I have to keep my fix-it instincts in check. I am not involved; my
opinions about Israeli security or Palestinian equality are not relevant, nor
are the opinions of my political leaders back home. What is relevant is my
ever-deepening appreciation for the nuances of this situation: Not all Arabs
are Palestinians, not all Palestinians are Muslims, and not all Muslims are
terrorists. Not all Israelis are Jews, and not all Jews are Zionists. We cannot
make generalizations about these people, nor about a conflict that dates back
to Old Testament times.
Life here is complicated, but it is a privilege to be
present with people of faith and goodwill, to share a bit of their lives and to
bear witness to their stories. If there is a solution for peace in the Middle
East, I suspect that it will have a lot more to do with listening than it will
It is a great pleasure for me to announce that the dean of St. George’s Anglican College in Jerusalem, the Very Reverend Dr. Greg Jenks, has accepted my invitation to teach and preach at Church of the Holy Communion on Sunday, May 29, 2016. Please make every effort to be part of what I am sure will be a very rich morning.