This past week, I had the opportunity to take a couple days off work and attend a conference. Before I get too much into what this conference is about, I want you to take a minute and imagine the following scene.
Imagine you live in a society which is made up of two distinct types of people. For simplicity, we call them tribes, and these distinctions have great meaning. The two tribes speak very different languages. The two tribes have different types of roads; certain tribes can use these roads, where the other tribe must use different roads. Oh, and it’s tracked by the color of your license plate, green plates for this tribe, yellow plates for this tribe.
If you are of one tribe, the property you own can be forcibly taken from you by the other tribe. Your home can be there one minute and demolished the next and you get the pleasure of paying the other tribe for destroying your home. If you own a farm, the other tribe can come destroy your crops, and by extension, your livelihood.
If you are of one tribe, you can work for people of the other tribe, but only if you have a card that allows you to travel about the land. Of course, you need to go through checkpoints with armed guards. Your children will be subjected to humiliating searches, as they go to a school that is probably overcrowded and underfunded.
As I paint this society for you, you may conjure up visions of an America before it’s awakening in the Civil Rights Movement. You may conjure up visions of South Africa in its own struggle with apartheid. Maybe even this stirs up thoughts of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
You may also be thinking that these are horrible circumstances and cannot believe that this is happening in this world today. The fact of the matter is that this is happening, right now, right this very day in Palestine.
And right there, by saying that world, Palestine, it ignited a whole surge of emotional responses. But “Palestine” is more than just a word — it’s a place, with real people, with all-too-real struggles for daily life.
For decades, the world has watched as Israel and Palestine have existed in a world that is a toxic mix of traditions, religion and politics. We throw terms around like “Jew” and “Arab,” we talk about places like Israel and Palestine. Just like with most everything in American society, we peel back the context to try to get the heart of the matter; and with that we develop strikingly simple solutions using basic labels to explain conflicts that are, in reality, agonizingly difficult.
At this recent conference talking about the plight of Palestinian Christians, I learned that people of all faiths, Christians, Jews and Muslims, are subjected to difficult living conditions in a land that they call their home, but whose rights are always marginalized.
And at this point, you may believe I am a Muslim sympathizer or anti-Semite. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that there is plenty of shame to go around in this situation. Can we say that the State of Israel could do more to secure a better future for the people that live on a land that they occupy? Of course. Can we say that the people of Palestine could find better and more cooperative ways to work with Israel, rather than sending rockets over their heads? Yes.
The most important lesson I learned from this conference was stated by Michael Slaughter, Pastor of Ginghamsburg Church in the conference’s plenary session. Mr. Slaughter stated, “We must be very cognizant that we don’t demonize the people who are committing these acts. We can demonize the acts, but not the people.” Fewer words have been on target.
For nearly seven decades, ever since the modern State of Israel was created in the late 1940s, peace has been elusive and ever since then we have demonized one side against the other. Heaven knows, I have been guilty. But this conference opened my eyes to a new reality. The pain, the suffering and the consequences of this conflict does not exercise prejudice of one label over another. People of all faiths and traditions have been negatively impacted by this ongoing violence.
While I can’t say I have all the answers, I can say I have a deeper appreciation of the human suffering that has been occurring for all these years.