It's Complicated (Holy Land Pilgrimage, Dispatch 7)

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 complicated.

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 elusive.

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 with fixing. 

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.

Posted by The Reverend Sandy Webb at 3:00 PM
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