Blessed are the Peacemakers – A Pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine

Last month, I had the opportunity to participate in a study tour hosted by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. Every year or two, JCRC Boston takes some Christian clergy to Israel and Palestine to get to know the complexities of that land’s past, present, and future. Part of the tour is a visit to historical sites of the nation of Israel as well as sites of Biblical significance. 

For me, this trip proved to be a pilgrimage, an opportunity to journey out of my regular routines, deepen my prayer life, and seek the Spirit of Jesus anew. I thought about Jesus’ ministry of teaching, healing, and deliverance, as I swam in the sea of Galilee, dipped my feet in the Jordan River, and visited Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, and Jerusalem. When I saw the Temple Mount, I looked at the spot where the Court of Gentiles was located in the first century and could vividly picture Jesus, having ascended up the hill and through the gate, flipping the tables of commerce there, longing to restore a place of prayer for all nations. I then prayed at the Wailing Wall, part of the first century temple wall still standing, and knelt there, bringing my deepest longings to God through tears in this sacred space.  

I am aware, though, that this place holds different meanings for different people. For me, it was a place of Christian pilgrimage, as it has been for many others these past two millennia. For others, Jerusalem is a beautiful, ancient, somewhat exotic tourist destination. For some, it is a fascinating historical site where one can imagine the Biblical stories of the First Temple (Old Testament) and Second Temple (New Testament) periods come to life. For many Muslims, they see the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the largest mosques in the world, and the cite where Islam believes the prophet Adam was created and the prophet Muhammad began his great night journey of revelation. Many Jews see the absence of the Jewish temple and their inability to pray at the historic geographic center of their faith.

Our tour was not only spiritual pilgrimage but an invitation to consider different perspectives and the depth and intensity of the conflict in Israel and Palestine. We met with Palestinians and Israelis who in different ways are working to secure the safety and well-being of their own people or who are also working to secure just and lasting peace for all peoples of that land. 

Our group moved in and out of East and West Jerusalem, areas of that city that center either Jewish or Palestinian life and culture, and where different people live in rigid segregation. We went behind the wall to the West Bank, once part of Jordan, now occupied militarily by Israel but primarily home to Palestinians, who live there without nation, citizenship, or freedom. We traveled to the fence along the Gaza Strip and to the Golan Heights, by the borders of Lebanon and Syria. 

In these travels, we met with people and saw evidence of culture I can not fully comprehend or respect – ultra-orthodox religious conservatives in retreat from the complexities and diversity of the modern world, right wing Jewish settlers seeking to claim the West Bank for their people and country, and Palestinian militants who seek to claim to whole of the land for themselves and expel or marginalize the Jewish people. It was important for us to grapple with these experiences and worldviews, even if I can not understand and certainly can not endorse them.

We also met, though, with peacemakers whose bold actions for love and justice inspire. 

We met with two members of the Parents’ Circle, Israeli and Palestinian parents whose children have been killed in the conflict between their people. They have joined in grief groups with one another, have started intercultural summer camps for the siblings of their slain children, and educate others around the power of relationship across enmity and the possibilities for peace when we honor the dignity and humanity of our enemies.

We met with Mohammed Darawshe, the Director of Planning, Equality, and Shared Society with the Givat Haviva Center. Like 20% of his fellow Israeli citizens, Mohammed is a Palestinian Arab living in his ancestral hometown. He is a national leader in diversity, equity, and inclusion work that elevates the rights and standing of the Arab citizens of Israel.

We walked in Bethlehem with Rami Nazzal, an internationally published Palestinian journalist, to discuss the longings for freedom for the Palestinian people and the possibilities of securing freedom and justice without hating or seeking to eliminate the Jewish people. We also walked with Jewish activists for Palestinian land rights in East Jerusalem and ate with young Jewish environmental justice and food access entrepreneurs, to consider what solidarity and peacemaking from a position of privilege looks like. 

As an outsider to the particulars of this space, I could only weep and rejoice with these singularly courageous and bold peacemakers, marveling at their courage and ingenuity and hope, as they seek to bring into being the ancient prophet vision of a world where “the wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat,” where “they won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain,” but instead where “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, just as water covers the sea.” (excerpts from Isaiah 11)

As an American disciple of Jesus, I also was haunted and inspired by Jesus’ words, “Happy are people who make peace, for they will be called God’s children.” As I shared this past Sunday, I believe the Beatitudes of Matthew 5 not only introduce Jesus’ greatest teaching on ethics and the good life, but are a pathway toward following Christ and to the survival and flourishing of the human race. 

I wonder where the peacemakers are among us, those of us who doggedly look for the dignity and humanity of our enemies, both personal and political. I ask Jesus for love and perseverance in making peace with friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and family members where conflicts have strained or distanced us. And I hope for a movement among Jesus’ followers to not minimize the conflicts of our nation at war with itself but to imaginatively and charitably and humbly learn to share space and pursue just peace amidst our differences.

Embodied, Holistic Faith

A Whole Body Approach to Mental Health

This summer I read a book on exercise and the brain that helped me think about how my own understandings of faith and human flourishing have grown over time.

The book is by the highly acclaimed psychiatrist Dr. John Ratey. It’s his work Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Ratey stars his book in an innovative high school physical education program and ends with a rousing call to a more rigorous personal exercise regimen. In between, he reviews a great deal of research on the benefits of exercise for the health and resilience of our brains, including how exercise can help us learn and reduce troubles associated with stress, anxiety, depression, ADHD, addiction, and aging.

Wow, I thought – that’s good news! And the work confirms my experience with the role running plays in my own mental health and managing of ADHD, and with the help it’s been to a number of my friends in recovery. I think running gives me clarity and focus, just as a number of my friends find it helps them be less inclined to return to their drug addictions.

Turns out there’s science backing this up: Ratey affirms the value of therapy and of medication at the center of his field but is clearly wanting to broaden our approach to and understanding of mental health. He writes:

The problem with the strictly biological interpretation of psychology is that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that the mind, brain, and body all influence one another. (119)

We needn’t treat mental health issues as disembodied problems we talk or medicate ourselves out of. We can explore how the use of our bodies is integrated into our mental health as well.

Ratey also quotes his colleague, the psychologist Dr. Robert Pyles, who says:

Exercise saved my life. I think running really put me back with the unitary nature of body and mind – it’s all one thing. We’re not split into pieces. (83)

For Ratey, exercise was part of his way out of a serious lymph system disease that was accompanied by immense stress and significant depression.

We’re all one thing – we’re not split into pieces.

Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that the mind, brain, and body all influence one another. We are whole people, embodied people.

What About a Whole Body Faith?

What Ratey wants for psychology and psychiatry, I want for faith and religion.

For good or for bad, people of faith have had lots to say about matters of the spirit. Wonder about how to go to heaven when you die? Where and when and why to pray? What it means to be a good and righteous person? Religious communities have an answer for you, or at least a direction to point you in.

Those are not the questions my friends and I are asking about our lives. Being saved doesn’t make the kind of intuitive sense to us as being well. Tending to our spirits doesn’t make sense apart from tending to our minds and bodies as well. If faith is going to speak to my life, it’s going to need to speak to my real, authentic self.

I’m serious about my exercise, but I put more into my practice of faith. Not because I’m afraid of hell or particularly motivated to a more moral or spiritual person. No – for me, faith centers, grounds and nourishes my whole, embodied person.

An embodied, holistic faith gives me resources to make peace with my past, so I can live a freer future.

An embodied, holistic faith helps me accept mental and physical disabilities, navigating my own and others’ with more compassion and grace.

An embodied, holistic faith gives me tools to be more connected and at peace with others.

An embodied, holistic faith moves my experience of sexuality beyond shame or pleasure and into intimacy.

An embodied, holistic faith validates my anger in the face of injustice and fuels passion and courage to act.

If we’re all one thing, all whole and embodied people, we need an experience of faith, a practice of spirituality, and an approach to God that validates and nourishes the whole of our bodies and life experience, and equips us to flourish and be agents of the flourishing of our neighbor and our world too.