The things that make for peace

This piece is cross-posted from Electronic Intifada

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Luke 19:41-42

Dominus Flevit on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem is the name of a church and a site of pilgrimage for many Christian travelers to the “Holy Land.” Literally, Dominus Flevit means “the Lord wept” in Latin and is remembered as the site where Jesus stopped to look out over Jerusalem to weep and ask this striking question to all who would follow him.

An unavoidable question: Do we recognize the things that make for peace? Are they right in front of us, hidden from our eyes?

The language of peace often surrounds us. In a place like Palestine, the language of peace gets thrown around on a regular basis. One can see it when surveying the expanding colonization of the occupied West Bank in recent decades, in particular during those times of “peace” process. Or when one passes through an Israeli military checkpoint and is greeted with “shalom” — the Hebrew word for peace. And one also encounters it on the International Day of Prayer for Peace, where Palestinian Christians and Muslims alike gather to resist the daily violence they experience through prayer and protest.

When I read a text such as this one from Luke’s gospel, I cannot help but feel like Jesus is speaking directly to me, to us. Indeed, these words are a challenge to all of us who would make use of the language of peace.

This is a subversive text. And it reminds me of a story about what the language of peace in Palestine-Israel looks like, a story from Hedy Sawadsky, a relief worker with the Mennonite Central Committee in the Middle East in the 1960s who was challenged by a Palestinian woman: “what you’re doing here is fine, but it is only band-aid work … go home and work for peace and get at the root causes of evil and war.”

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. Matthew 7:3-5

Since my return from Palestine, I cannot help but see the linkages to the work of peace and justice here in the US. Just as that Palestinian woman told Hedy, the root causes are too often rooted here.

I continue to struggle with not being cynical about the situation in Palestine and in Gaza in particular. It is not a healthy place for me to be, spiritually or emotionally. But the Gaza Strip is a heart-breaking catastrophe in so many ways and the people there have been suffering for so long. It makes me think about the ways that we in the US are irrelevant — in the sense that it is less about what we need to do and more about what we need to stop doing. In other words, honestly looking at the ways in which we, the US, have made Gaza into a prison: through our tax dollars, our US military aid to Israel, which includes the military hardware used in Gaza, our US veto power that obstructs United Nations Security Council responses, or our US media representations of Gaza and Palestinians that too often dehumanize.

Honesty in our self-reflection should lead us to confession and repentance of our own histories of violence and injustice on this continent. I once heard quoted a Native American who argued that the best way for people from the US to address the terrible conflict in Palestine-Israel is to deal more seriously with our own history of colonization, dispossession and displacement and work for justice for the indigenous peoples in the US. This would not only address a serious and ongoing historical sin but in the process more effectively help our Palestinian and Israeli brothers and sisters suffering in that broken land. This manner of systemic analysis recognizes that work for justice in Gaza should be part of the work for justice everywhere.

This has led me to seek a “thicker” definition of peace, one that emerges out of a deeper, more systemic analysis of violence and injustice. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about these linkages, particularly in naming the connections between racism, poverty (classism) and war (militarism). Or put another way, recognizing that our work at anti-imperialism abroad must be complemented by our anti-racism and anti-oppression work at home.

Identifying the historical trends of colonization, dispossession and displacement in a place such as the Middle East, how might an accompanying peace issue look like in our communities? How might we identify these linkages? I would argue that immigration is such an issue, an issue all-too-invisible, or at least invisible to some. In fact, wherever you may be right now you would likely not have to look too far to uncover the plight of undocumented neighbors and discover opportunities to recognize “the things that make for peace” particularly as it relates to the biblical call to welcome the stranger (Lev. 19:33-34; Eph. 2:17-20).

Newcomers to the United States continue to encounter an unwelcoming hostility shaped by racism and xenophobia. They are too often met with suspicion, intimidation, isolation, militarized borders, raids and migratory documentation backlogs. In recent years, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) conducted some of the largest workplace raids in the history of the United States, causing fear, separating and terrorizing families, and disrupting entire communities and the lives of immigrants and US citizens. The ongoing construction of the US-Mexico border wall materializes this anti-immigrant sentiment. There are an estimated 12 to 16 million persons in the US with undocumented immigrant status. And the US immigration system continues to be dysfunctional, lacking programs for guest workers and increasing documentation backlogs, and proposing futile programs that do not address the root causes of immigration.

In this context, many Christian communities continue to be ambivalent about how it should respond to immigrants, and in its majority the church remains uneducated on the political, economic and social issues that cause immigration. For example, when coming to the United States individuals are looking for economic opportunities, means for survival for themselves and their families, and fleeing the dire situations that their countries are facing — many of which are directly connected to foreign policies of the United States, including trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that could be understood to lead to the “colonization” of local economies resulting in a displacement that dispossesses whole communities and uproots persons. The economies of neighboring countries, such as Mexico, have been seriously affected by trade policies that promote economic disparity and dependence.

A genuine peace that speaks to all of these forms of violence and injustice is our challenge. This takes us beyond the all-too-familiar and omnipresent language of peace, recognizing that what is required is more than a word. More than holding another peace summit that provides the opportunity for another high profile photo-op. More than another gathering around a peace agency or a peace church.

Indeed, peace in its deepest, thickest, most holistic form always challenges the status quo that maintains the structures of violence that benefit the powerful and privileged. And so, a “thicker” definition of peace requires a thicker, more systemic analysis and approach to peace, accompanied by engaged and engaging theological reflection.

And this is one of the ways that we can engage this issue — seeking a thicker definition of peace through biblical and theological reflection that is life-giving. Challenging nationalistic and chauvinistic biblical theologies such as Christian Zionism that legitimize the violence and oppression of these structures of dispossession and occupation that create a status quo of suffering for Palestinians, Native Americans, or the undocumented immigrant in our midst is crucial.

This sort of reflection and systemic analysis must lead to action and engagement — whether in terms of education, political advocacy, boycott, divestment, or sanctions — whose authenticity will be measured by the ways in which they challenge our lifestyles in a manner that requires we change, transform and heed the calls to confession and repentance that continue to echo from Palestine, Pine Ridge, and across the Global South.

Whether it is seeking a just peace in Palestine-Israel or radical hospitality for the stranger in our midst, how do we look with open eyes and listen with open ears and hearts so that we might see, that we might recognize on this day the things that make for peace?

Timothy Seidel works as Director for Peace and Justice Ministries with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) US He was a peace development worker with MCC in the Occupied Palestinian Territories from 2004-2007 and a contributing author to Under Vine and Fig Tree: Biblical Theologies of Land and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict (Cascadia Publishing, 2007).