by: Katie Kallam
Going into my pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I knew that I would encounter holy places, sites where Jesus walked, where he lived and died, but I knew very little about the modern Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
I learned very quickly upon arrival that this wasn’t going to be your typical Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and looking back, I couldn’t picture it any other way. I can’t imagine going to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Mount of Olives and Sea of Galilee without also visiting Aida Refugee Camp and the Palestinian village of Taybeh or the Tent of Nations. To me that experience would feel like visiting the Epcot version of the country without its nuance, conflict, and complexity.
It’s important to see where Jesus was. But it’s important, necessary even, to see where Jesus is. Where is His heart in this? What do His life and death and resurrection tell us about how we should approach the current conflict?
I’m under no delusions that I could write something about this that hasn’t already been written or that I have something novel to bring to the table or that I could even offer a solution. In fact, I was deeply humbled on my pilgrimage and reminded that I am but a blip on the radar of history. But what I can share is what I learned. And what has weighed on my heart since my return.
For the past year, my prayer has been that the Lord would give me empathy. Empathy and compassion have always been qualities that I struggle to live out. I tend to think in cause and effect. I link consequences to action. But as I have prayed for this trait to develop within me, I’ve begun to put myself in other people’s shoes and recognize the nuances and complexities of their individual narratives. There are not simple solutions to complex problems.
So it’s no surprise that two of the main themes that kept popping up on my Holy Land pilgrimage were empathy and narrative.
From day one, I felt empathy and compassion for both Israelis and Palestinians. I admired their long view of history and connection to their heritage. I felt the pain of the cycles of violence perpetrated on both sides. It was amazing to me that anyone could sympathize with one and not the other, or promote the flourishing of one and not the other. And yet I became more and more discouraged as we met with individuals who represented opposing viewpoints. I couldn’t imagine a world where they sat in a room together and saw the other’s point of view.
But then we met with the people that are doing the difficult work of peacemaking, building bridges between the chasms that divide. And I was encouraged. They talked about loving their neighbors and refusing to be enemies and relating to each other’s suffering.
My eyes were opened to injustice. After Yad Vashem, I looked at the images of boats full of Holocaust refugees, Jews fleeing death at the hands of the Nazis, and I thought that surely the United States must have done something to help them, but I learned that they were refused. I was appalled and indignant at the lack of U.S. intervention in the Holocaust. How could those bystanders have allowed such a thing to happen on their watch? And then my mind went to the images of boats full of Syrian refugees, fleeing a similar fate. And what have I done about? Who am I to look at history in judgment when there is injustice happening on my watch? Am I one of the bystanders exposed at Yad Vashem, complicit to what’s happening by my inaction? How will history look back on me – going to movies, eating at nice restaurants, and living a comfortable life while others languish?
“’What can I do?’ is an attitude that will destroy the world.” – Robi Damelin (The Parent’s Circle) The day that remains on my heart was the day that we met with members of The Parents Circle. The Parents Circle is a group of mothers and fathers who have lost children to the violence between Israelis and Palestinians. We met with Robi, an Israeli woman whose son was shot by a Palestinian sniper, and Bassam, a Palestinian man whose 10 year-old daughter was killed by an Israeli soldier outside of her school.
By any measure, Robi and Bassam should be enemies. They should hate each other for the pain and suffering their peoples have caused each other. But that was not true of them. Robi and Bassam laughed together, poked fun at each other, and truly knew and loved each other. They talked about how the pain of a parent losing a child is universal. Instead of seeking revenge, they comfort and care for each other, they laugh and cry together. They leave victimhood behind and seek an end to the seemingly endless cycles of violence. They know it must end with them.
When we met with Robi and Bassam, I was incredibly inspired by the empathy that they have for each other. So I asked them – how can we replicate what you have? So many of the problems in our world could be solved through empathy, through seeing the humanity and dignity and image of God in those that we perceive to be Other. Robi’s answer came easily – It comes through storytelling. Allow people the chance to tell their stories, or tell them on their behalf. There is healing in memories. Put enemies or those that are different from each other in a room together to hear each other’s stories. Teach people to listen. Meet the other side face to face. Become a mirror of each other. Believe that people can change.
Yes, Lord. Yes, Lord. Make it so in my life.
So when I come home and feel discouraged and ask myself that destructive question, “What can I do?” I will remember Robi’s words. Yes, I will sacrifice my time and talents and privilege to help those that are oppressed. But I will also be a storyteller. I will tell their stories. I will listen to their stories. I will tell my story of what the greatest peacemaker of all, Jesus Christ, has done in my life –how he has made peace between me and the Father. I will be slow to speak and eager to listen. I will seek out those that are different from me. I will see myself in them and see their struggles in my own. Empathy means storytelling. I will allow their stories to change me and the way that I view the world.