What does it take to be a peacemaker in today's world? That is the question I keep coming back to in light of our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Bishops' Academy trip to Israel and Palestine several weeks ago.
There were a number of people who questioned whether it was safe for us to be there in the midst of the bombing and invasion of Gaza. Some even said we were courageous to be traveling there at such an unsettled time. The truth is, compared with the courage of many who live there as advocates for peace and justice, our courage was insignificant.
Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God." What he didn't say is how much courage it takes to work for peace and justice in a world that values violence and coercive force in settling disputes. I would like to share with you three examples of courageous peacemakers who touched my life and who have a great deal to teach all of us.
On our first night there, we heard two men who lost immediate family members to acts of violence. Rami Elhanan, an Israeli citizen of Jerusalem, lost his 14-year-old daughter to a suicide bomber who blew himself up in a Jerusalem market. Mazen Farah, a Palestinian refugee from Bethlehem, lost his 61-year-old father when he was fired on by Israeli soldiers in a crowd. Both men shared their hurt, anger and intense grief that they and their families went through.
Eventually, Rami and Mazen each attended a Parent's Circle Family Forum. This organization, made up of survivors who have lost immediate family members in the conflict, is committed to changing the realities that foster hatred and violence in Israel and Palestine. By sharing their stories of pain and loss, Rami and Mazen learned that they could choose to see one another not as enemies, but as brothers, and that they could rise above the cycle of hate and retaliation. Now they visit Israeli and Palestinian high schools, where they share their stories with young people and challenge them to become advocates for peace. They both frequently donate their blood to victims of violence, Israelis and Palestinians, as a sign of their commitment to work for peace. When challenged about this by their own people, they respond, "Isn't it better to give our own blood to protect and preserve the lives of those who used to be our enemy, rather than to spill the blood of others for no good purpose?"
"Blessed are the peacemakers!"
A second group of courageous peacemakers who left a deep impression on me were volunteers trained by the World Council of Churches and the United Nations to observe and record violations at checkpoints. One of their responsibilities is to help ensure that Palestinian children and youths can safely attend their schools. They also record any time Palestinians are harassed and prevented from attending their work on the other side of the wall. They are unarmed and wear special vests with the initials EAPPI, which stands for Ecumenical Accompaniment Program for Palestine and Israel. Literally, these people walk into volatile situations daily to serve as the eyes and ears of the international community and to be advocates of peace and justice. We had four who accompanied us on the day we visited Hebron, and I was amazed and thankful for the courage and respect that they demonstrated.
"Blessed are the peacemakers!"
A third person who taught me the importance of courageous peacemaking was a young Israeli adult named Ivan. He belongs to a group of peacemakers called the Israeli Committee against Housing Demolition. When these peacemakers hear about Israeli bulldozers headed to demolish a Palestinian home, they go and sit down in front of the bulldozers to prevent them from carrying out the destruction. He said that 100-150 Palestinian homes are scheduled for demolition each year over various infractions of Israeli housing codes. We saw where one brand-new Arab apartment complex was bulldozed on the Mount of Olives the day it was scheduled to open, putting the builder into bankruptcy. I was struck by the willingness of this young Israeli man and others like him to become a human shield between a bulldozer and the homes of Palestinian people he didn't even know for the sake of peace and justice.
"Blessed are the peacemakers!"
While there, we also visited Lutheran schools in the West Bank, full of eager children and youths who, as part of their curriculum, have courses teaching tolerance, respect and peacemaking skills for the next generation. There, Muslim and Christian students learn side by side the importance of working through conflicts and differences together, along with faculty members who see themselves as peacemakers of the future. I asked one 17-year-old Palestinian youth named Farris what hope he had for the future in the midst of all the conflict and violence. He answered, "My hope is in the name of Jesus. Jesus will help bring an end to these conflicts." His faith was another encouraging sign for me that God is indeed at work in this Holy Land, despite all the history of war and violence.
I share these reflections with you because I believe that in our world today, whatever our faith tradition or background might be, all of us are called to be peacemakers. We live in a world where force, power, bombs and invasions are the means most often used to try and settle disputes. I am convinced, more than ever, that it doesn't take much courage to fire a missile at one's enemy, but it takes a great deal of courage to sit down to talk and work together to resolve differences. I hope and pray that these stories from Israel and Palestine will challenge all of us not to simply pass the peace in our worship service, but to become courageous peacemakers starting in our homes and communities across racial and religious lines.
"Blessed are the peacemakers."
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