The wind is howling against the house, and I can hear it creaking in response. Rain is pouring down and it patters against the water tank on the roof. All I see is gray through the windows, a perfect day for a cup of tea next to the fireplace. This may be the last big rain of the season. The land needs it.
Friday was my last day with Musalaha after almost six months of work. I still think it strange that I have been here that long, and even stranger that those six months disappeared so quickly. My last day was spent stuffing newsletters into envelopes and enjoying a meal with the Israeli and Palestinian staff. Over lunch, Ryan, another volunteer who finished that day, and I participated in a quiz in which we were presented with awkward quotes said by Musalaha’s director, guessing to whom he said it and what he meant by it. This workplace is the perfect basis for a new version of The Office.
The past six months have been challenging, frustrating, and nourishing. Nourishing because I have developed several meaningful friendships; frustrating because I have seen an NGO handcuffed because of a desire to appease exceedingly conflicting groups; and challenging because in many instances I have extremely divergent ways of embracing God and the world, because I have been challenged by the complex relationships of the Israelis and Palestinians with whom I interacted, and because I have felt those same handcuffs on my wrists. Perhaps my most difficult challenge has been working with editors in an organization who have different standards than my own. And this experience has also been nourishing because it has forced me to rethink and reword some of my writing. All writers squirm when people stab a red pen onto their pages. I agreed with some changes to strongly-phrased statements or to factual inaccuracies, but the greatest challenge came when I felt like the quality, mood, and message of the stories were altered. Controversial statements made by the interviewees were deleted and gentler words took their place. In the midst of my frustration I recognize that Musalaha attempts to walk a string-thin line. They are in an extremely volatile situation as a non-profit organization funded mostly by Evangelical Christians, many of whom still ardently sympathize with Israel. The director says he has “an itch for justice” and is ready for Musalaha to speak more. But if they cry justice too loudly, most Israelis won’t come. But if Musalaha continues a more neutral stance on political issues, Palestinians will consider their stance as normalizing the Occupation and they may not come much longer either.
When I first arrived, I was asked to write stories about people struggling in the tension of this conflict. Through the editing process, however, some of the stories have become more sentimental accounts of Musalaha’s success. Some of those interviewed were concerned with their depiction. Some were angered by what I recorded them saying; but, interestingly, most asked for changes because I described them washing dishes, talking about family, twirling a candle on the table. One lady asked us to remove her story because of my literary descriptions. At the end of the day, I was told, these people determine what form of their story is published and if it will be published. If this book was journalistic, written outside of Musalaha, expectations would be different. But Musalaha feels forced to primarily consider support and involvement. I am glad I don’t have to make those decisions.
I hope to write a longer post about my experience with Musalaha. I have copied below the introduction to the almost-completed book, which will probably be published later this year. I have used some of my own words from previous stories on this blog:
“You have heard it said . . . but I tell you . . .”
These are some of the most life-threatening, and life-giving, words I’ve ever heard. They strip me of my securities, they rob me of my comforts, they take away my preconceptions. They tear down my strongly-held religious and political convictions. They tell me to look, not higher, but deeper, toward the heart, toward my heart, toward others’ hearts, toward the heart of reality. They tell me that deconstruction is an act of love. Jesus disturbs our settled words because he tells us of a radical kind of God; radical in the more common meaning of “revolutionary,” but also in the Latin origin which means “to the root.” Radicalizing is more important than liberalizing.
These words tell me to look again. Without that respect, which means “to look again” in Latin, we will not see.
I came to volunteer with Musalaha for six months, beginning in September 2009 through the end of February 2010. Between September and December, I conducted approximately thirty interviews with people, Israeli and Palestinian, who are involved with the organization. I traveled from Jerusalem to Haifa, from Bethlehem to Nazareth, meeting in coffee shops and offices and homes, asking a few questions to serve as a framework and allowing the conversation to evolve from there. For the next several months, I incarnated my skeletal notes as stories about encounters with ‘the other’ and events of reconciliation. The project was not a comprehensive biographical endeavor; I had only one interview with each person. Because of that, I am not completely satisfied with all the stories, which is inevitable when writing. Interviews in coffee shops and homes, divorced from action and interaction, provide a limited palette of descriptive hues. And this project was not an attempt to relate the history of the conflict. Much better and more educated people have dealt very extensively with that subject. These stories were meant to be small windows into the ongoing transformation of specific people.
Some stories are short, some are longer, and some are told together because the accounts were marked by a specific encounter with each other. In each story, I gave the last word to the main character. I certainly do not agree with or condone every perspective shared, but this book was not intended to explicitly counter each disconcerting point of view. These stories are an attempt at conversation, allowing different thoughts and opinions to unsettle and unhinge our own thoughts and opinions. To at least make us look again. Tensions are preserved and several of the endings seem abrupt because those tensions have not all been resolved. Transformation is a never-ending journey.
Not every reference to history or to current events is factual. Those interviewed were speaking from memory, without reference to verifiable sources. They, like all of us, speak out of their framing stories which provide legitimacy for why we think, feel, and act the way we do. We need framing stories. We cannot help having them, but we can help which ones we live out. We need a new one that speaks of justice, reconciliation, and peace. And the first step is to open ourselves to listening to the stories of others.
National defense strategies and political resolutions have never created true peace. They cannot. Oppressive systems and extremist violence must be confronted, but if people are still tied to the destructive mindsets that engendered these violent systems, then little will be changed, and the brutal cycle will continue. Maybe the way to overcome the oppressive political and societal systems is to dismantle the racial prejudices and uninformed worldviews held fearfully by so many people. To transform hearts. Many would say this is foolishly naïve. And it is. “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” Like Hercules fighting the Hydra monster, we can chop down the countless destructive systems forever, because they will always grow back like biting heads unless the people in the systems rethink everything. We can only ignore the source for so long.
I hold no illusions of being or wanting to be a politician, at least not in the typical sense. I have no grand theories or clever schemes that if implemented will end this turmoil. I want to be a storyteller; I have stories I want to tell because I foolishly believe in their transforming power. There will be no peace without conversion through reconciliation and justice. I do not mean justice characterized as “getting what you deserve,” justice as the antecedent to “the American way,” or justice as an “eye for an eye.” The Holocaust cannot justify the Nakba and the Occupation; the Nakba does not justify suicide bombings and rockets. In the Jewish worldview, peace, shalom, is not the absence of difference or disagreement, but it is the presence of the wholeness of God. Justice is about rehumanization, because justice, as Dr. Cornel West says, “is what love looks like in public.” The Arabic word translated as “goodbye” is ma’a salaama, but a friend once told me that it literally means “with health,” and comes from the same root as the word for “peace,” salaam. Peace is healing, and healing brings wholeness. Justice is the arrival of that healing presence which washes away oppression and dehumanization and conquest; and mercy and compassion always flow within the mighty stream of true justice.
Frederick Buechner wrote that “In Hebrew the term dabar means both ‘word’ and ‘deed.’ Thus to say something is to do something . . . Words are power, essentially the power of creation. By my words I both discover and create who I am. By my words I elicit a word from you. Through our converse we create each other.”
Words and actions create stories and stories create meaning. Stories say something and do something. May these stories create an open space for the sacred event of what seems like the impossible to happen, because stories not only describe reality, they transform it. They tell us to keep looking again.