The Perkins Perspective | Glo(cal) | Winter 2013
This Is a Desert Road ...
By Bruce Baker, PhD
As America prepared to celebrate Thanksgiving, missiles were flying over the desert between Gaza and Jerusalem. Thousands of rockets were fired by both sides. At least 140 Palestinians and five Israelis were killed in the one-week war before the cease-fire was agreed on November 21.
The missiles have stopped now for a while, but the conflict continues to spill out in other forms. In a contentious UN vote Palestine gained observer-state status. Israel responded with aggressive plans to build new settlements in the disputed E1 region of the West Bank, effectively cutting the territory in two.
The cut-up, gerrymandered shape of the settlements, and the snaking separation wall that cuts through neighborhoods, are visible signs that people in this land are continually taking sides ― and are even being forced to take sides by the physical and emotional walls of distrust passed down from generation to generation.
Obstacles to peace
On each side of the wall families are raising children who will grow up learning to distrust and fear the people on the other side. Distrust breeds distrust. The cycle repeats and more walls keep going up. Our natural instinct to think in categories of “us” and “them” becomes an obstacle to peace. There’s a sad irony in defining ourselves in opposition to others, rather than in recognition of that which makes all of us human.
When the missiles began encroaching upon Jerusalem recently I thought of my friend, Salim, and his family there. What must it be like to live in the middle of a society so fractured that daily life includes checkpoint harassment and the unpredictable threat of missile attack?
I remembered the warm hospitality Salim and his wife had shown me when I visited them in Jerusalem a few years ago. I wondered what they were doing now. I wondered if they had heard any outgoing or in-coming rockets, or if war sirens had sounded in their neighborhood.
I gave Salim a call and was happy to see his face through the Skype video connection. “What has it been like?” I asked.
“Not bad, we had a couple of missiles fall not far away, but nothing serious, and it didn’t affect us. It was bad for a few people, but we’ve been fine. The recent events," he added, referring to the ceasefire, presumably, "might actually be a positive turning point. You know, surprising things happen. God works in surprising ways. I have hope.”
The right to hope
Now I want to ask, by what right does Salim have hope? On the surface of things, he of all people would seem justified in being cynical. He was born into this conflicted land, caught in the political and military crossfire. His Palestinian grandfather, the pastor of his church, was evicted from the family home by the occupying Israeli army in 1947. To teach his classes at Bethlehem Bible College, Salim has to pass through the checkpoint at the wall guarded by soldiers with machine guns. He is surrounded by “us-them” conflicts on all sides, all the time, and yet he has hope.
Of course I know the source of Salim’s hope. He hopes in the crucified and risen Lord. This is the reason he has been able to devote himself to what would seem to be the world’s most intractable problem — peace-making between Israelis and Palestinians. He has hope because he knows the words are true: We are called to be ambassadors for Christ; we are called to the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:11-21).
Without hope, I cannot imagine anyone doing the work Salim does. He faces conflict every day, and yet has devoted his life to bringing Palestinians and Israelis together in reconciliation.
This is a durable hope that withstands every hazard. That’s why the road between Gaza and Jerusalem is a sign of hope for me. This is a desert road, the Bible tells us, a wilderness road (Acts 8:26). It takes a vision of the destination to walk that road. Reconciliation is like that too — it takes hope in the as-yet unseen vision of a greater reality to walk the desert roads of reconciliation. It takes faith in God’s redeeming grace to overcome the conflicts and heal the hostilities, because we can feel pretty barren while walking that road. Things will look pretty bleak to worldly eyes.
Reconciliation is a desert road, but it’s also the source of living water.
A reconciliation "Encounter"
It’s the same in all our lives, whether we face physical threats or less violent insults. It takes hope to walk the road of reconciliation. Each step of the way takes hope. And the ceasefire isn’t the end of the road to reconciliation; it’s the beginning. It creates breathing room for us to seek the greater reality.
Hope transcends the categories which divide. Hope offers a new category that the world has not yet seen, or has seen only partially and proleptically — the church, that is. That’s why Jesus Christ is the source of hope and the embodiment of reconciliation. He ushered in a new humanity, wherein God broke down all the walls that divide us from one another (Eph. 2:14).
Back to my friend Salim and the ministry of Musalaha. This is what they do: break down walls, and then build bridges to bring people together. For 20 years now, Musalaha has been leading the “Desert Encounter” as a way to work for reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis. They lead young adults in a trek through the desert wilderness. Palestinians and Israelis are paired up, and each pair shares a camel between them. Salim jokes that they are more afraid of the camel than of each other. That’s their first invitation to see each other in a new light. Over the next few days of cooperating in the desert and worshiping together, the walls of distrust begin to crumble and the greater reality begins to sink in, that we are reconciled as brothers and sisters in Christ, adopted into God’s family.
Musalaha participants have mainly come from Christian churches on both sides of the political and ethnic divide — Palestinian Arab and Messianic Jewish congregations — but in recent years programs have begun to include Muslims and secular Israelis also.
I’ve been blessed to participate in a Desert Encounter, and I have seen no more powerful witness of reconciliation. As we stood in our desert campground singing praise songs in three languages — Hebrew, Arabic and English — Muslim men from nearby campsites came to stand in awe, and then to ask who this God could be that brought us all together. This is the new reality breaking into the fractured world. This is what reconciliation looks like — people who have a hope that transcends us-versus-them categories and the grief of past and present strife.
These vivid memories of the Desert Encounter remind me that the road of reconciliation is a wilderness road that runs through the desert places of our lives. I have seen the dividing walls come down, one person at time, through faith in Jesus Christ. His is the only power we can ultimately trust to bring true reconciliation. We may not be able to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at the political level, but we can bear witness to the greater reality ushered in by Jesus. We can bear witness in our own lives, in our families and relationships, and in our prayers. The world needs to see that reconciliation is the sign of our faith. Then when we press for peace at home and abroad we can hope that the greater reality of the reconciling God of grace shines through.
Rev. Dr. Bruce Baker teaches Christian ethics and theology in the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University. He was a general manager at Microsoft before attending seminary and becoming an ordanined pastor. He is the founder and president of Reconciliation Ministries, which supports Musalaha to bring reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis.
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