We reached Hebron yesterday, which has seemed to be the pinnacle we have been building to in the first days here. The talk was always “Now, when we get to Hebron…” So we knew that when we got here, it would be a bit different, more drastic. Driving here, no one had to point out the difference between the settlements and the Palestinian villages. Hebron is like any other city I have encountered in the Middle East; smelly, crowded, loud, vibrant, beautiful. We got off the vans in the heart of the Old City and walked about a mile to the apartment. With every step, I felt a bit more awake. The first hard slap in the face was when we walked through a military patrol. It was as if the soldiers actually believed these people were dangerous. The same people who had shared their houses with us, who broke bread with us, who cried with us and poured out their heart in joy just for our presence with them. What were the soldiers afraid of? Why were they peering cautiously around every corner?
Had to pause and weep as I wrote that. What did these soldiers have to fear? I am learning that slowly. And it scares me too.
After we made it through the market, past the military outpost, we got to the CPT apartment, ironically adjacent to the little Army base. It was simple and quaint, no bells or whistles. Immediately after introductions to the long term CPT team and their interpreter, we set out for a house on the other side of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. This family is close to the CPTers hearts, as they have been subjected to home invasions with them and are like family in every sense of the word. On our way there, as we came past the Tomb, we were nervously ushered through the open area by the CPTers as they noticed a large settler family gathering to leave the Tomb after Shabat (Sabbath). We have been told the settlers are not shy about hurling insults and even the occasional stones at CPT, accusing them of meddling in their affairs and sympathizing with terrorists (an accusation I am well acquainted with). We received more than our fair share of disappointed glances; some even seemed quizzical and offended that Americans were walking with a Palestinian. I noticed Eisa, our guide, habitually gravitated toward the center of our group as we passed settlers. One extremely disturbing, and frightening, image that will remain with me until the end of my days is that of one small settler family; just a mother and a young baby being pushed by her dad in a stroller. Beautiful image, if only I fail to reveal to you the automatic rifle slung over Dad’s shoulder, set on ‘Fire’ as he strolled home from a day in worship to the God of Love and the Author of Life. What does he have to fear? What is he protecting his young family from? I am getting there.
We finally got to the home we were walking to, the home of the Dana family (Dah-na, or Donna). Their family home is backed up against the settlement. Recently, the house had been stoned, likely from settlers on a hill behind the house, leaving broken windows and frightened children. The head of the household took us behind his house to see this after treating us to his endless hospitality and exposing us to his beautifully graceful and polite family (even the boys, who were at the prime rebellious age were the picture of considerate engagement of strangers).
We talked for over an hour about how he has been coping with the hardship both from the Army and the settlers, who have an appalling reputation even from the soldiers’ perspectives. They never revealed, even subtly, signs of hatred or contempt for the Israeli settlers and soldiers, only a very clear desire to be seen as human. I was slapped hard in the face again as we spoke to the Dana family father. I saw many Iraqis’ faces flash before me, countless and obscenely unforgiving. His dress changed with every breath, reflecting the infinite number of others who shared his story, minus precise details. His voice, posture, mannerisms, and setting changed ceaselessly as I listened attentively and warily to what he had to share. My mind’s eye was out of control as I watched the man change from one individual to another. I flew from Iraq to Palestine and back again in fractions of a heartbeat. As I glanced around me at other delegates and CPTers, their dress changed as well. I saw their red caps melt into various Islamic headdresses, into sand colored Kevlar helmets and back again. I saw their hands bound in zip-ties and in an instant, administering zip-ties. From being cuffed to cuffing those around them. Other times I saw them with mint tea in their hands, serving the delegation/platoon around them. Reality fluidly melted into my past and became reality again until the line between the two blurred into one. With each change, as soon as I recognized my surroundings it vanished or led into a new setting. What was I experiencing? I’ll get to that.
We left before dark, to avoid harassment from the soldiers for skirting any kind of curfew that may be in place for that day. We passed another patrol on the way, and I fought off the urge to shake my head in disgust. I refused to meet them eye to eye or offer my greetings. I wanted to believe that this was because they were falling short in their duties; poor tactical behavior, loose formations, unkempt dress, lack of discipline. I told myself that I expected more of the Israeli Army. This is why I rejected their glances, their appeal to my humanity. I could feel them seeking a brief glance, a ‘Shalom’ or a reassuring nod.
Wept again. Realizing more with each word I type. These soldiers needed but a brief assurance of their humanity. It would cost me nothing, but I withheld.
I internally accused them of all sorts of wrongs. I turned my face from them because I did not wish to humor their fantasies of who I might be or where I might be from. I did not internalize all this until I got back to the CPT apartment and someone had asked me what I felt like. I lied to her and said I did not know yet. I promised her I would tell her when I knew; another lie. On the roof later, speaking to another delegate, I spoke something without knowing what I had said. It came out so easily, like it had been there the whole time, waiting to escape, so that I might hear it with my ears, since I had blatantly ignored it in my heart.
“I see myself in them”
You see, in April, when I was converted from one way of looking at the world to a much different way; I had been a suspended pendulum, finally being released to sway at will (not my own, but God’s). I began my pendulum-swing seeing the world as a soldier saw it; needing justice, accountability, strong men to fight courageously its wars. As the months progressed, the pendulum slowly swung to where I saw the world in a different light; as a broken world that needed love and caring above vengeance and retribution. I was accused of being everything that is against that military frame of mind. I was assigned to rear detachment and the pendulum glided almost imperceptibly past remembering what I knew of being a combat soldier. I took terminal leave and said goodbye to the US Army, the pendulum sure in it’s path. I found myself in Israel and the pendulum had rested gently in the center, having finished it’s tumultuous back and forth motion. Certainty and complacency soothed my troubled mind. I was done swinging, I had found my center. Unbeknownst to me, that was my center, not God’s.
I was struck flat on my back when I realized, while writing in my journal, how horrifically wrong I had been. I began to shudder and shake as the reality broke through the walls I had set up in my mind, the walls that I had painted very pretty so that I may be protected from the truth. This wall is startlingly similar to the Israeli Separation Barrier, which often has landscapes painted on one side, trying vainly to reassure those inside that their bliss is not ignorant in nature, that they do know (or do not need to know) what lies on the other side. Meanwhile, on the other side, the wall is littered with prophetic graffiti and statements of solidarity for the oppressed and outcast, in their hopes of bringing the wall down. The wall must fall, just as it’s predecessor in Berlin has fallen; to unite and bring truth and reconciliation.
As my walls fell, as my veil was taken away, I could not deny the truth that I saw. In each of the soldiers, I saw myself. Not just ‘saw,’ but really saw. With italics and bold. It broke my heart that I had seen them as despiteful and unworthy of my glance. I saw them as they truly deserved to bee seen, as I see myself. I realized in seeing myself in them, I was acknowledging that I had not forgiven myself; for Iraq, for pride, for apathy, for everything. God had forgiven me the moment I sought his intercession, but I had not forgiven myself. I cannot pray myself into forgiveness, I must confront my demons and overcome them. I must show the soldiers and settlers just as much love as I show the Palestinians, even if that love is not reciprocated or is outright rejected at the end of a stone’s long arch. Jewish theology reminds us (yes, Christians too, since we are grafted into the vine of Judaism) that every human being must practice ‘kidush hashem’ or the work of sanctifying God through their actions, by being a good witness to the glory of YHWH. Anyone who harasses, humiliates or harms another is guilty of desecrating the divine image inherent in all of us. They defile God by being a poor witness to His glory. I was guilty of such a blasphemy when I refused to look at Israeli soldiers, but worse, I refused to acknowledge their very humanity. I denied that they were just as entitled to civil existence as I was.
I realized my pendulum had not ceased to swing, but now flew mercilessly to whence it had come. God had ferociously thrown my pendulum back to its original position. I was once again made to see the world through those old eyes, but He had shattered any measly remnants of what had remained of my former reality. This time, God had placed me on the other side of the rifle’s scope. I was offered the opportunity to see the true damage I had caused, just by being a warrior in a temporal battle, a willing participant in an oppression of other human beings, no matter how blissfully ignorant I had been. I learned that ‘ignorance’ fails as an excuse for anything. I had utterly denied that my pendulum could find it’s way back. I wanted to believe that it would stop where and when I wanted it to. I did not want to be shown my true nature, no matter how unknown that nature was to me. I wanted to destroy the possibility to be brought to the truth, to throw it in the soldiers’ faces like the stones I saw around me, to hurt them, to crucify them. How dare they remind me of my brokenness, my pain, my sin??!! They have no right!! They need to be punished for their contempt, their ignorance!
`Now I will get to what I have been putting off. Fear is the answer I have alluded to thus far. We are afraid of what we will see when the veil is removed from our eyes. So we willfully remain comfortably numb, blissfully ignorant with whatever picturesque scene we have painted on the inside of our veil. Jesus has the power to lift that veil, but He hands you a mirror. The mirror He hands you is the Word of God, against which none are without fault. Those who see the disgusting image in front of them and deny that it is their own image effectively fail the test Jesus puts to each of us. That disgusting image, the one with boils and scars and puss and sin; IT’S ME!! Not them, me. The men and women who, in fear, throw accusations and hatred, insist upon punitive justice instead of restorative justice, and who throw stones horribly fail that test. They do not realize that they are speaking to themselves, to the innermost depths of their own despair.
I am guilty of sin, just as my enemy is. In acknowledging this, I pray that I am capable of seeing the image of God in their eyes. When I am able to see myself for who I truly am, Jesus takes the mirror from in front of my eyes and I am able to come to see others as I see myself. He has removed the scars and sin and we come together beautifully restored. That is our commission; to remind others that they are beautiful, truly lovely and lovable; to remind each other of our shared brokenness, our shared humanity, our shared divinity. Once we are able to accept that message of true beauty and love, we realize Jesus never took the mirror away, but we see Him looking back through the looking glass, He is now our lens. We are able to accept Him within us and within others. The stones fall from our hands.