My heart is heavy today as I think of my brothers and sisters in Palestine. Less than two months ago, I was there meeting with them and hearing how God has been and is continuing to use Palestinian Christians in their part of the world.
Upon returning from my time in Israel and Palestine, I was overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions. I had gone into my trip knowing so little about the conflicts in the region. In my time working with Open Doors, I have traveled to Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt twice and thought I knew what I was going to see when I arrived.
But so much caught me by surprise.
Dead stones vs. living ones
As I tried to prepare for my trip, I read Light Force: A Stirring Account of the Church Caught in the Middle East Crossfire, a book Open Doors Founder Brother Andrew and Al Janssen wrote over 10 years ago, which introduced me to the complexities of the situation. But nothing sheds light on a situation like experiencing it firsthand.
In Light Force, Brother Andrew wrote, “It bothers me that millions of Christian tourists come every year from Western Europe and America to see dead stones. I want to see the living stones [Christian believers].”
This statement quickly rang true in the course of our travels.
On our first day in Bethlehem, we attended church, enjoyed lunch in a local restaurant and walked the streets wandering aimlessly. We had no itinerary, simply wanting to take it all in. The next morning, we heard from a Palestinian believer who shared similar sentiments as Brother Andrew.
“Many Christians from around the world come here to follow the steps of Jesus,” this believer said. “However, they think that means going from site to site. What it really means is stopping and hearing people’s stories.”
As I thought about our Sunday afternoon outing, I pictured the coffee shop owner we met who shared with us how he was “born, died and reborn” in Bethlehem and the joy he expressed in meeting us, his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. He is one of the living stones Brother Andrew was talking about.
In continuing to share from the Palestinian perspective, our new friend talked about how the tourists that come to see the “dead stones” ride in their tour bus to see the Church of the Nativity and then immediately get back on the bus and ride back to Jerusalem. As it so happened, that afternoon we rode on our bus to the Church of the Nativity and, as we made our way through the streets of Bethlehem, I couldn’t help but think about what he had said.
I also noticed those large tour buses that place the rider high above the street, with riders looking down on those on the street. I reflected on the fact that the day before, I was on the street. But now I was one of those tourists failing to interact with the people of Bethlehem almost as if I was better than them. Beginning to feel uncomfortable, I tried to put myself in their shoes and wondered how it felt to be “looked down upon” every day.
A humble earning from Micah 6
As our week-long trip continued, the underlying lesson we kept learning focused on the fact that the complexities of the Middle East conflicts are not easy to understand, much less solve. Traveling to other parts of the world I have learned that things are not always as clear-cut as they seem. It’s is easier to ignore the challenges faced by others on the opposite side of the world or to dehumanize the issue than it is to take the time to understand the full story. The conflicts in the Middle East have gone on for generations and will more than likely never come to a peaceful resolution, but that does not give us permission to ignore it or sit on the sidelines.
Reading Micah 6:8-9, I was recently challenged to bring the prophet’s word into the picture: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
As Christians, we must fight for the truth in love. So how do I as a follower of Jesus do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God when it comes to the conflicts in the Middle East? I fight against the temptation to ignore the situation or to dehumanize either side.
This seems to be what Brother Andrew would have suggested as well.
At the conclusion of Light Force, he provides the first step to a solution, sharing a message he received from Palestinian Christian leaders: “Don’t stop loving Israel, but love us as well.”