Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Taking Both Sides in the Middle East

(This op-ed appears in The Charlotte Observer, Aug. 6, 2014)

     Is it possible to be friends with those who are enemies with one another? Can you support both sides in an intense conflict? Don’t you have to choose sides?

This seemingly theoretical inquiry has become real for me, and I suspect for many of us, over the past few weeks. I found myself downtown on a Sunday afternoon recently, showing up, as I very much wanted to, at a rally in support of Israel. I learned there was another group in Freedom Park, braving the blazing sun just like the pro-Israel group, but in support of the Palestinians and advocating for peace. I would have liked to join their group too.

I’m no expert on military policy, or security measures, or the best way to fight back if you are oppressed, or attacked. I harbor a few private, amateur opinions like everyone else. But as a theologian, and as someone who dreams of finding a way to love people on both sides, I can only grieve, and never cheer, when rockets are launched and then tanks roll in response – and innocent civilians and even gutsy soldiers die. It must grieve God’s heart, it must be appalling to all people with a shred of compassion in their hearts, when weapons clash and life is lost.

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Whose fault is this? Blame is the bugaboo of hardened hearts. Ask the little children of divorcing parents, Whose fault is it? The children are not much interested in such a question. They love mom and dad. They want peace in the family.

We want peace in the Middle East, and in all the world’s distressed, agonizing places. Not that Hamas or Netanyahu or anybody else in power will listen, but we still must think and talk out loud about the way to peace, and hope more people join in, and work for peace, demand peace, refuse to settle for anything less than peace.

Too much blame to assign

Peace cannot begin until we stop placing blame – and this is the hardest part of all, not because the blame belongs over there, or over here, but because there is just so much blame all over the place. We live in a broken world. We are fallen people. The enemy is us, the enemy is them, the enemy is all of us, the enemy is a world out of sync with its Creator and one another.

Peace requires us to stop picking sides. Peace begins when we join both sides. Peace goes off-sides, and listens, and understands. Israel and Gaza, like husbands and wives and kids on playgrounds, have their deeply felt reasons, fears and wounds. There has been immense injustice.

Peace can’t happen without forgiveness, and we aren’t skilled at forgiving. Forgiveness is having the right to blame or even inflict punishment, but instead choosing compassion, and frankly, peace.

That day in downtown Charlotte I tried to think about Reconciliation. How do Israelis and Gazans reconcile, especially after so much abominable and evil bloodshed? This is humanly impossible – like so much that bedevils us, be it addiction or rancor or our culture run amok with greed. We need some power beyond ourselves, namely the God whose good name gets trampled in the mud on the world stage. God is invoked on this or the other side, but I wonder if this is what Moses had in mind when he told Jews, Christians, Muslims, and whomever else not to take the Lord’s name in vain. The true God is the God of all people.

Or if we cannot invoke the power of God, I wonder if we can invoke the shattered, shriveled hearts of mothers who have lost sons, husbands, fathers, friends, daughters and sisters. Ask them the way to peace. Some would raise a fist demanding more war. But most would plead for an end to the fighting.

And then we might turn to the wisest among us, not the political ideologues, but the aged who have thought deeply, and have befriended those on both sides. Get at why everyone is so angry. How did we get into such a mess? The humble sage knows there is no perfect solution. Only the na├»ve hunt for neat fixes. We live with the mess, we right what wrongs we can – and then we live on, and refuse to continue to kill. This “we” is elusive, but our bargain with the universe is that we will finally choose life over death, for ourselves but also for others.

I love the people of Israel. I love the people of Gaza. I love Jews and Muslims here in Charlotte, friends who have enriched my life, and deepened my faith in God and in the future of a very broken humanity. Maybe, just maybe, peace can begin in my heart, in our friendships and families here, and become some kind of contagion that leaps around the world, and maybe in a few years we’ll have that peace declared impossible by the cynics, but believed in passionately by those who dare to dream. I see dreamers who are broken but still hopeful on both sides, and so I can and will support both sides – and so then there are no longer sides. I believe it is so in God’s heart.