Rami Elhanan is an Israeli who grew up in Jerusalem. While serving in the army, during one battle in the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, his unit set out with 11 tanks and returned with only 3. He lost friends and, even worse, lost his innocence. He was broken, angry, bitter – and filled with hatred. In time, he got married, started a career and a family. On the evening of Yom Kippur 1983, he held in his hands his beautiful baby daughter, Smadar. But on the afternoon of September 4, 1997, Smadar was killed by two Palestinian suicide bombers who took the lives of five innocent people in browing the shelves in a Jerusalem bookstore — one of them Rami’s beautiful 14 year old daughter.
Bassam Aramin grew up in the West Bank city of Hebron. At the age of 12, Bassam saw one of his friends fatally shot by an Israeli soldier. For him, revenge was a palpable, dark force. He joined a group who called themselves freedom fighters, but those in power called them terrorists. They threw stones, at first, and empty bottles but one day in 1985 he found several discarded hand-grenades in a cave. With his friends, they threw them at Israeli jeeps. Two went off; no one was injured. Bassam was sentenced to seven years in prison.
After his release, Bassam began to build a life for himself, which included a family. Sadly, however, on January 16, 2007, Bassam’s 10-year-old daughter, Abir, was shot in the head with a rubber bullet by an Israel soldier. She was standing outside her school. She died two days later.
Following such unspeakable tragedy, both men chose to do remarkable things. Both men chose to stop the strife and warfare and anger and bitterness. Both chose peace.
For Rami, Smadar’s death brought back his old, unprocessed anger. But he couldn’t stir up enough even to reignite revenge. A group called the ‘Parent’s Circle’ invited him to a session. ‘Parent’s Circle’ brings together families who’ve lost children and loved ones in the conflict and yet still want peace. From that session on, Rami’s world, he says, was turned upside down. Those whom he once hated embraced him and loved him. Former enemies were the source of his greatest consolation.
In 2005, Bassam founded ‘Combatants for Peace’ – an organization which brings together those who fought on opposite sides. ‘Combatants for Peace’ evolved into a movement of individuals who yearned to simply talk with those whom their states told them were enemies. As Bassam once remarked, “Abir’s murder could have led me down the easy path of hatred and vengeance, but for me there was no return from dialogue and non-violence. After all, it was one Israeli soldier who shot my daughter, but one hundred former Israeli soldiers who built a garden in her name at the school where she was murdered.”
We don’t do so very well in resolving conflict and finding peace with our enemies. Even our best attempts fall flat. Oscar Wilde famously instructed: “Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.” Godfather Michael Corleone gave what is, to many, sound advice: “Keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer.” Abraham Lincoln once offered a poignant line about making friends out of enemies but it, still, carries notes and scars of battle: “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends,” Lincoln remarked. Even when we try to make nice, we are often our own worst enemy.
That’s why Rami’s and Bassam’s stories are so unique. It didn’t take decades and increasing maturity. It didn’t require the passing of years to realize that what once tore apart their souls with bitterness and revenge is now just water under the bridge. Within moments – moments not years – of unspeakable tragedy, they responded with peace, dialogue, empathy and understanding. Immediately: peace.
That’s what’s truly remarkable about the earliest Christian movement, as well. In Acts chapter 10, there’s a famous story about Peter and a Gentile named Cornelius. God tells Cornelius his prayers have been heard and that he should send for Peter, who’s staying in Joppa, a nearby village. In Joppa, meanwhile, God presents a rather strange vision to Peter – a large sheet comes down from the sky with all kinds of animals. In the vision, a voice says “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” But Peter’s a good law-abiding Jew. Understandably, he says, “By no means, Lord! I’ve never eaten anything profane in all my life.” “What God has made clean,” the voice says, “you must not call profane.” Peter comes to just as a knock comes on the door. It’s the men whom Cornelius sent. Peter goes with them to Cornelius, they have a wonderful heart-to-heart and the Holy Spirit immediately descends upon the room. Peter feels it and baptizes the whole household, right then and there.
What happened in that moment for Peter and Cornelius, like that which followed Rami’s and Bassam’s tragic losses, was immediate. No study period, no checking with the elders, no consulting scripture or thinking about what’s been done before. God swept in and peace happened. And it happened immediately.
But that’s not exactly our situation. Flip to Acts chapter 11 and you see the after-effects, the angry backlash. The leaders of the Christian movement – a still Jewish movement – heard that a Gentile was baptized without first having to become circumcised. They’re angry. They call Peter to headquarters. There, he tells the whole story: the sheet, the animals, the voice, the trip to Caesarea, the presence of the Holy Spirit. What else could I do? Peter says. It was so very clear, so very immediate, and I responded.
Like Peter, we don’t live in communities which quickly and altogether respond to immediacy of any kind, let alone an immediate turn from revenge to love, from being enemies to friends, from separation to unity. In fact, I learned of the story of Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin from a 2012 documentary entitled, Within the Eye of the Storm. It tells the story I told you, about their lives and the processes they both undertook to find peace. They became friends. But the film is also about the experience of introducing one another to their communities – communities which were not prepared and did not necessarily, automatically, immediately respond with the same kind of love and forgiveness and peace. Imagine it. An Israeli sitting with Arabs who quite literally – and, you might say, for good reason – hated him simply because of who he was. An Arab sitting with Israelis who literally and, again, you might say, for good reason, saw him as a terrorist. Forgiveness doesn’t come easily in this world. Peace is not won swiftly. None of this is ever immediate.
The world in which we live is not geared towards wholeness and healing; it’s not designed for love and forgiveness. American theologian Reinhold Neibuhr outlined in his now-classic 1932 book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, what’s called “Christian realism.” Power and positioning and pride lurks everywhere in this world, at least this side of heaven, Neibuhr argued: sin is at the bedrock of the foundation of this world. That’s why even our attempts to play nice sometimes turn out so rotten.
Being a person of faith, in general, and a Chrisian, specifically, involves the hard work of scrutinizing that which comes from within. It may be of God; Jesus said the kingdom is near you. It may not be of God. Israelis and Palestinians are trained to hate. That’s their base reaction. A good law-abiding Jew like Peter was formed to avoid, at least, and by no means accept a Gentile like Cornelius. That’s Peter’s gut reaction, in spite of the fact that he lived with Jesus all those years. Even the apostles and elders of the Christian movement had a resistant gut reaction, a frankly reactive, bitter resistance. What kind of person do you dislike, and for what reason? What do you abhor and on what scriptural or political reasons do you base your opinion? In it may be God, and it may very well be not of God.
It’s a certain truth that when God shows up he keeps shattering the boxes we make, blurring the lines we draw. But when we take the risk to love and live as God so clearly does, the world says you’re unrealistic, naïve, and at the very least that you’ve gone about it all too immediately.
And yet ours is a faith that makes us try, still. No doubt you’ve seen a bumper sticker with a quote from Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Problem is, he didn’t say that. Not exactly. It sounds like a self-help magazine, and awfully, well, like a bumper sticker. What Gandhi actually wrote was this: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in this world would also change. As a man changes his own nature so does the attitude of the world change towards him. We need not wait to see what others do.”
We need not see what others do. Rami and Bassam, early in their lives, did what others did and they paid for it. In time, they chose to live differently. When tragedy struck, again, they did not wait to see what others did. Peter didn’t wait to see what others did, either. And that community, the church, which called him to task – they, too, were a little bit odd, a little bit strange, a whole lot spontaneous. The moment in that room was hardly silent after Peter recounted his story, for the Holy Spirit was moving and sweeping in her delightfully spunky and, you might say, radically upsetting way. Immediately, they praised the God who shattered their prejudices and destroyed their small-mindedness. Immediately, they rejoiced that theirs was a kingdom not of this world. Immediately, they did a bold thing and were given the grace of God to do it with courage. They may have looked back, they may have been afraid, but immediately they were also transformed.
From a sermon preached at St. George’s Church on Sunday, 28 April 2013.