There are times when it just doesn’t do any good to make an intellectual argument about something dear to your heart. Writing your heart might not read eloquently or sell a point compellingly, but it would be the right thing to do. If your heart is bleeding with anguish for something you love, you’re not going to let it sit there and stew, creating a combination of despair and paralysis. You’re going to do something about it. You’re going to say something.
Two weeks ago I returned from a month-long study program to the Middle East called the Philos Leadership Institute, a summer study program organized by the Philos Project, a nonprofit organization based in New York City aimed at building positive Christian engagement with the Middle East. The program, whose participants and leaders are now some of my dearest friends, took place in New York, Poland, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories. It was not my first time to the Middle East, nor was it my second. Frankly, on this third trip, I walked in with a vastly misplaced self-assurance that I could only be persuaded, not transformed. I allowed for the possibility of accepting new facts and new arguments about Israel and Palestine, interfaith relations, or the enduring regional specters of poverty, violence and oppression. I did not anticipate that I would be shaken.
I talk a lot. In fact, if you knew me, you would know that I talk a lot more than most people do. But when I got back to New York, still bustling in all its enterprise and cosmopolitan bliss, I could barely speak about what I had seen. In fact, trying to talk about it or think about it would often lead to me to break down completely in tears or be unable to do anything else in my normal capacity. It wasn’t just jet lag, either – something inside me had been broken. I knew that eventually, however, I would have to talk about what I saw, not to assuage my own heartache but because you, my fellow followers of Christ grappling with the difficult questions of faith and public life – you must know these things and gain at least a small sense of what the people I saw and I met go through every day.
So what did I see, then, in this broken Middle East?
I saw the image of God firmly planted on every person
Genesis tells us that all of humankind has been made in the image of God, but when it comes to talking about the policy questions engulfing a volatile region like the Middle East, people’s humanity is all too often abrasively replaced by their utility. A countrywide civil war becomes a game of global superpowers supporting their favorite factions to achieve victory, or the plight of refugees becomes a talking point for ambitious political parties.
This isn’t the way that God views people, though. When I visited the Golan Heights on the border of Israel and Syria, what I heard was the sounds of people dying, sounds that broke my heart as our group prayed over a country ripped in half. When I overlooked the Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated areas in the world and currently under the barbaric rule of Hamas, and walked through the town of Sderot nearby, where resident Israelis have only eight seconds to rush to bomb shelters in the event of incoming rockets such as those fired last week, what I saw were places where real people lived and died, where their children laughed and played and danced. When I visited a camp of Syrian refugees and later spent a day in Amman, Jordan with Assyrian Christian refugees who had fled Iraq to escape genocide at the hands of ISIS, I saw in the eyes of those people the beauty of our Creator, who wept over their pain (John 11:33-35), who suffocated to death for them on a cross, and who is moved every day by their pain and the injustice done them (Psalm 7:11).
God didn’t simply create the world to abandon it to its own confused senses, He intervened in its chaos through the presence of His Son, and even though sin now holds so much of this world captive, in every corner of the Middle East where evil is, there He is also. Christ is with every innocent human being who suffers injustice at the hands of oppression, greed, or terrorism, and just as He so deeply loves His own children, so He deeply loves those who have not yet answered His persistent call of grace and love. People are precious – they’re not animals, they’re not tools, they’re not objects, and they’re most certainly not “issues.”
I saw the footsteps of Christ still lingering in a land precious to Him
It’s difficult to explain what Israel is like without talking about two things: the Holy Land and the Holocaust. The historical Holy Land hosted countless significant political, religious, and social happenings, but the horrific tragedy of the Holocaust ultimately turned aspirations for Jewish return to the Holy Land into a reality. Both of these historical realities, Holy Land, and Holocaust, were on my mind again and again throughout our trip. The sickening aura of the gas chambers and crematoriums at Majdanek Concentration Camp in southwest Poland, only one of the many death sites for Hitler’s targets, six million of whom were Jews, permeated my mind when we left Poland for Israel.
I was awed by the now-fulfilled Jewish dream of “next year in Jerusalem, a home that the Assyrians and Babylonians in the 6th Century BC, then the Romans in the 2nd Century AD, had desecrated and destroyed almost most in its entirety before renaming it as Aelia Capitolina (and the whole of the land as “Palestine,”) just as Turkish and Arabic empires would later destroy the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem. At the same time, I grappled with the desire of Arab Christians and Muslims, Druze, Bedouins, Arameans, and so many other people groups to live in peace in the Holy Land, a land they might call Palestine instead. I don’t have any clearer idea on how to bring peace between Israel and Palestine, whether one or two or many states present the necessary answer to the decades-old dilemma. I only know that the land is holy. To stand in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and at the Garden Tomb, to pray at the Western Wall and celebrate Shabbat with dear friends, to listen to Muslim clerics on the Temple Mount and marvel at the Dome of the Rock, all these memories tell me that this land is holy to so many. Even if they don’t all know the correct reasons for its sacredness, they each recognize in their own way the presence of God in a physical place near and dear to His heart.
I saw hope even as my own heart broke
When I woke up the next morning after arriving home and thought about how impossible the Middle East is with all of its pain and complexity, my initial impulse was to give up. “Don’t ever read or write about it again,” the voice in my head said. “If it hurts that much to care, then just don’t care.” Obviously I knew that was a lie, but trying to come to grips with that lie only by acknowledging its existence wasn’t enough – the lie had to be replaced with the truth. Everything I had seen and heard on this all-too-short but remarkable trip to the Middle East had convinced me of the beauty and dignity of every human being, of the persistent efforts to overcome conflict and poverty through creativity and authenticity, and even of the hope for true reconciliation between peoples and faiths.
People often think that they can only taken in so much tragedy, but the limits of our capacity to empathize are much greater than we realize. And empathy isn’t always politically defined – my revulsion at the security barrier between Israel and Palestine is separate from my belief that it is a necessary evil that has saved the lives of countless Christian, Jewish, and Muslim citizens of Israel. My frustration over the plight of Assyrian Christians whose safety is compromised in majority-Muslim refugee camps does not prevent my from mourning with the grieving Muslim fathers, mothers, and children fleeing the Syrian Civil War to some safe haven where they will be loved and accepted, not ostracized or feared. The more I empathized, the more I grieved, and the more I grieved, the more the grief dulled and turned into despair, subconsciously, unknowingly. I told myself that a new fire had ignited inside of me and my love and compassion for the region had increased, as had my knowledge and understanding, but for a time, I secretly mourned without any real hope of seeing light at the end of the tunnel.
I can’t really explain exactly how hope materialized in my thinking about the Middle East, but there was no flash of light involved. Frankly, I’m not really aware of the moment I decided I believed that a better future existed for Israel and her neighbors or that there was a chance that the Gospel might really triumph and heal wounds of poverty, conflict, and oppression across an entire region. I only know that my belief in the restoration of the world rests in the security of knowing that Christ will one day rule in love, truth and power, exercising perfect justice and extending His mercy and grace in a way that will leave our most incredible visions of utopia in utter shambles.
And each day since I’ve begun to recover from the shock I initially felt post-Philos, I’ve realized more and more that the hope I have isn’t just an anticipation, it’s also a budding reality. The world’s ignorance of anti-Semitism is changing after the events of the Olympic Games. Western organizations that have severely undermined the Israeli-Palestinian peace process are beginning to be exposed for their negligence (or conniving, depending on whom you believe). Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria are being acknowledged as targets for religiously motivated genocide after centuries of having their persecution ignored. Repressive regimes in Turkey and Saudi Arabia are receiving international scrutiny at unprecedented levels. And similar small but significant victories in addition to those we read about in the news are being carried out through interfaith reconciliation efforts between the three Abrahamic faiths in Jerusalem, centers in Nazareth dedicated to encouraging entrepreneurship by Israeli Arabs, or the incredible efforts of Jordan to accept so many refugees of all faiths when other Middle Eastern nations have turned away these innocents fleeing the ravages of war.
I know that this rambling, emotive collection of words can’t possibly give you a clear picture of what the Middle East looks like in all of its pain and beauty. I know that I haven’t laid out any arguments for a political stance or cited Bernard Lewis or Edward Said. I’ve only shared with you a piece of my heart, and I hope that if you’ve glimpsed anything about the Middle East through what I’ve written, you’ll feel the urge to know more, to see more, or, perhaps most important, to pray more. God is among His children, both those who have received Him as their God and those who have yet to know Him. He will return soon and redeem the whole world, including the land in which He once walked. Until then, I remain sincere and hopeful about the Middle East. I pray we will all share that hope. Weep over Jerusalem – and pray for its peace.