One of my dearest friends in the Middle East is Sami Awad. I ran into Sami in a small group discussion outside Colorado in 2010, and he described to me the mission of his work at Holy Land Trust. (an organization in Bethlehem that exists to lead in creating an environment that fosters understanding, healing, transformation, and empowerment of individuals and communities, locally and globally, to address core challenges that are preventing the achievement of a true and just peace in the Holy Land.)
When I first met Sami, I didn’t know much about Israeli Palestinian relationships. I thought, much like you, that the people in the Holy Land were involved in an eternal war without any resolution in site. And after years of education now, I’ve found so many variables to the Holy Land equation. Most all of my conversations in the Middle East come back to the struggle in the Holy Land so I thought it important to try to figure it out.
Believe me. This journey is much like Alice and the Rabbit hole. You can only begin to understand if you’re willing to dive deep into the darkness of conflict, and sometimes it challenges everything you know to be true about yourself. Let me be clear: I’m no expert. After all, I have a little Blue Passport that gives me the freedom to travel to and from different places around the world. I’ve found, for Americans, there’s always an way out where we can get on a plane and come home, like an escape hatch which sometimes I feel guilty for. I didn’t decide to be be born where I’m born, and neither do Israeli or Palestinian children today. I’ve been challenged and stretched at such great lengths to see people as people, it has caused me to even evaluate the way I operate in my own sphere of influence. And I believe it has a lot to do with men like Sami.
If you read about Sami on the web, you’ll find several comments trying to put him in a box to re-affirm a lot of whatever worldview people come from. But walking with Sami, I’ve found a man totally committed to understanding people on both sides of the conflict. He’s a Palestinian Christian interested more in bringing people together, than in creating division or violent conflict. He’s been a keynote speaker at The National Prayer Breakfast in the Middle East wing in Washington D.C. He’s traveled with members of Willow Creek Church from Chicago. And is coming to America for the Justice Conference in Memphis in November.
What I’ve learned from Sami and his staff at Holy Land Trust is this: Conflicts are about people, and there are so many ways to usher new exciting ideas about how to allow for people to live together, especially in the Holy Land. Today, there is so much hate, fear, and mis-trust in the Holy Land, that it takes a revolutionary way of thinking both here, there, and in many conflict zones around the world. And it doesn’t take merely a casual observer to see Jesus’ words taught vibrantly when he says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
When I took The KIVU Gap Year students to go and see Sami last March, you can imagine how his message resonates with people who are looking for real solutions. Today’s students are tired of the same old same old conflict, and they’re longing to see places like the Holy Land able to find Peace. They just don’t know where to start, which I suppose is a lot like me. Peacemakers today are full of zeal and willingness to get their hands dirty, but they often don’t have the framework to see people as well…people. We see conflict as one side versus the other side with an ultimate winner and looser, when there might be variations of that linear thinking viable in such a place.
Walking the streets of Bethlehem, eating with local Palestinians, worshipping with friends at their church; all have given me a perspective on humanity there’s no real way to gain without experiencing. I’ve been invited to the homes of total strangers willing to have deep conversations about God, Nationalism, and Pride. I’ve been treated to meals that would make a Golden Coral lover blush. And I’ve seen hospitality like nowhere else in the world. People are people, even in the most unlikely places.
What I find most disconcerting is that no matter who you sit with in the Holy Land, there are large stone walls (both literally and figuratively) that keep people from knowing one another. Hatred for crimes felt deep in history are fueled by the resistance to actually see people as people; longing for the same rights and freedoms given to those of us who hold the blue passports. And as those walls continue to be re-enforced through the linear conversation of “right” and “wrong;” the hatred of “the other” grows deeper into the next generation. The convolution happens when you don’t take into account the history of the land, the people of the land, the governance of the land, the religion of the land, and the basic fundamental human rights for people living in the land.
The Reality of the current conflict are two people groups who feel disenfranchised by everyone else in the world, both crying foul and using an identity of ‘victim’ to create a narrative. The natural tendency to pick the side of a winner and a looser has caused so much elusive behavior, it’s only natural that conflict would arise. Both parties have black eyes in this conflict. But what I would challenge you to think about today is that Both sides have wonderful human beings interested in getting along with one another. There is hope for the Holy Land, but it’s going to take long, hard, sometimes intrusive looks at ways we can lock arms together. Institutions must be challenged. Leadership needs to be held accountable. And overall, the message of Jesus rings loud and clear. “Love God with all your heart soul and mind, and Love your neighbor as yourself. ALL the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.”