Recently, I've been teaching an adult Sunday School class on the Holy Land. Entitled, "The Fifth Gospel," the class has focused on the geography, climate, topography, history, and spiritual significance of Palestine/Israel. For me as the teacher, preparing for the class has been both overwhelming and deeply rewarding. As I mentioned to someone this fall, it feels to me like I've been living in the Holy Land for several weeks now.
As I've taken the class into the modern period and explored with them some of the complicated and painful issues in the current Arab-Israeli crisis, I've found myself standing on the edge of a swirling vortex, which threatens to suck me deeper and deeper. As I get closer to the chaotic arguments, the swirling currents of rhetoric and politics, the pain and confusion at every twist and turn, my mind reels; I get dizzy with the details and contradictions. I admit I sometimes long for the quiet comfort of ignorance, of living distant from the vortex and its pull. How easy it is to settle for stereotypes on all sides, for half-truths which offer the illusion of a calm eddy.
I could write reams about what I'm learning. I could also share with you some growing passions I feel about biblical justice and some suspicions I have about a few of our foreign policies regarding the Middle East. I'll save that for another time. Besides, as a pastor, sometimes it's risky speaking your mind in things "political" (though I'm finding that biblical convictions, when they affect real life, have an inevitable "political" component, especially as they speak to circumstances in the public square).
But I will tell you of one insight I've had recently about Israel and walls. Most of you know that there's a security wall being built by the Israeli government, ostensibly to protext its citizens from further suicide bombings. What most people don't know is that in many cases, the wall has been built well within Palestinian lands inside the West Bank. It's like your neighbor deciding to build a barbed wire fence--ten feet into your property! When it cuts through your orchards and groves, when it abuts your apartment or cuts off your storefront, when it (and the security checkpoint) prevents you from going to your doctor or hospital or job or relatives in nearby Jerusalem, it's a pretty dehumanizing experience. Walls can be very painful, even as they seek to be protective.
In a recent trip to Washington D.C., I attended a conference on the Holy Land Christian Church (yes, there is an ancient Arab Christian Church in the Holy Land!). We heard about this Israeli security wall and its demoralizing effects on the Palestinian people (and especially on the Arab Christians in the vicinity of Bethlehem). It was very sad. At the end of our trip, I took my oldest son to the National Holocaust Museum. I really want to be attentive to the painful stories of both Jew and Arab and this seemed like a good balance. One exhibit in the museum stayed with me: it was the wall erected by the Nazis to create the Warsaw ghetto. It penned in a people the Nazis suspected of undermining their way of life. It was a prelude to ethnic cleansing. It was a violation of human rights and international law. It was a cruel despicable act.
Walls--in Warsaw, in Bethlehem, along the U.S. border with Mexico. Walls reveal a lot, don't they? They're a sign of suspicion, fear, and hostility. I'm so grateful that Jesus has come to break down the walls that divide us and that in him we can find justice, peace, and reconciliation for all peoples.