Checkpoint Echoes

Reflections on Israel/Palestine Trip, part 1

A suicide bomber blew up a Jerusalem bus approximately 72 hours before I left for Israel/Palestine.  I will admit, my heartrate accelerated a bit when I heard the news break on the radio.  Inevitably the phone calls began rolling in—“Are you really sure you want to do this…?”

I sat with that question for a couple of days, holding it beside a lingering sense of personal unease.  In my experience, it’s rarely beneficial to dismiss fear out of hand.  After all, fear serves at least two positive purposes.  First, it helps keep us alive.  It’s the way a nerd like me, allergic to athletic exertion, set an Olympic sprinting record before even consciously registering that rattle by my foot. The second useful thing about fear is that it has a way of clarifying values. We learn what we truly value by what we fear to lose.  We also learn what we truly value by what we dare to risk.

The problem with fear is that it’s not very discerning.  It constantly misfires.  It can’t consistently and accurately distinguish between “danger” and “difference.”  It catches a glimmer of newness out of the corner of its eye and immediately assesses it as a glaring threat.  It’s like the quick-trigger dorm room smoke detector that sent the entire fire department to rescue me from the steam from my Saturday morning shower.  (True, humiliating story.)  Its default assumption is that there’s never enough–food, water, affection, respect, safety–for everyone to have what they need.

The other problem with fear is that it echoes.  One person sends it out, and it reverberates off the other, and soon it is bouncing back and forth between us, more amplified each time, until everyone is deafened by its roar and no one can recall any longer how it first began.

Passing through an Israeli road checkpoint provides an almost paradigmatic experience of the echo-chamber of fear.  I went through dozens of these checkpoints this past week, in vehicles and on foot.  A baby-faced soldier inspecting vehicles on a West Bank roundabout has hands that are visibly shaking on his automatic weapon. He’s been told Palestinians are nothing more than terrorists with a single-minded mission of exterminating his people.  Meanwhile a Palestinian shop owner shows us a video on his phone of a prone, unarmed man at a checkpoint being shot in the head by a solider.  He’s been told Israelis are monsters who will gladly take his life or the lives of his children for nothing more than an ill-timed sneeze.

Hebron checkpoint

Neither one of these narratives are true, yet when myth is added to endlessly-reverberating fear, it has a tragic way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecy.  It is our fears which make our monsters, not the other way around.

Americans know this story as well as anyone in Israel/Palestine.  We see it play out on our own streets every day with police shootings of unarmed black men.  Tragedy is born in violent collisions of mutually reinforcing fears.  It would actually be easier if we really had monsters—frothing, scaly Godzillas we could vilify and smite without apology.  But instead what we have is just many-shaded versions of us—flawed and fragile humans, each with our own dreams and loved ones and keen awareness of all we have to lose.

It’s no good pretending the fear isn’t real.  Denial does us little service.  It seems to me that the only real answer to fear is to acknowledge its presence in ourselves frankly and then dare to live lives in purposeful defiance of it.  The only solution is to deliberately trespass the boundaries of our fears to discover the truth of what (or who) lies beyond them.

I never imagined that just a week after the bus bombing in Jerusalem, I would find myself crossing a barbed, militarized wall to walk through the refugee camp where the bomber grew up.  I definitely never imagined I would meet people who knew him personally.  I didn’t expect to hear of families living up to 70 in a house.  Of 60% unemployment for college graduates.  Of an entire generation who have never seen the sea, despite living their whole lives just 30 miles away.  I certainly didn’t expect to learn that the trigger for a young man to throw away so many lives (including his own) was seeing his cousin and best friend shot to death for simply throwing a stone.  I didn’t expect it, but I crossed and saw and learned.  And in that act of trespass, fear was transformed into something much more complicated—into questions, and into grief.

Aida wall

The great enemy of peace is not hatred or conflict; the great enemy of peace is fear.  The essential first step toward peace, I’ve become convinced, is an act of purposeful defiance.  The path to peace starts with each of us staring honestly into our fears, stripping them naked, and exposing them to the light of Reality.

Someone must stop the reverberating fear that is at the root of violence by refusing to echo it back.  Someone must act as if that one called “thug” was really just a scared teenager.  Someone must act as if there actually were enough resources and safety for all.  If we act this way, it might just turn out to be another self-fulfilling prophecy.  We might find that saints and heroes, much like monsters, largely are not born but made.

Who better to begin this “uprising” of deliberate defiance than the people of resurrection?  We who call ourselves Christians have been reborn into a new world of relative consequences.  We can afford to take great risks because Death, that cruel Slave-master of fear, has been broken.

The challenge for each of us is to start by identifying that person, that place, which generates fear within us, and then to cross that boundary in an act of holy defiance.

Even if all we can do at first is take a short walk over the line, that is a place to begin.  Take enough walks beyond the line of fear, and you might just wake up one day with the courage to stay there, to actually set up residence on the other side of the wall.  And that’s when the world really starts changing—when so many people are coming and going in daily defiance of the line that the boundary begins to get blurry for everybody else.

This, I begin to suspect, is the mission of the resurrection community—to muddy up the fear-lines so thoroughly through our small acts of daily defiance that the rest of the world, even if only by accident, begins to stumble into the glorious  freedom of the children of God.

(For more information about participating in peacemaking learning labs in Israel/Palestine or the US/Mexico border, see The Global Immersion Project)

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