Stephanie SaldañaMay 14, 2021
Members of Sror family inspect the damage of their apartment after it was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip over night in Petah Tikva, central Israel, Thursday, May 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Yesterday, I walked through the Old City of Jerusalem to Calvary. I could not think of where else to go. The shops were shuttered, and there was a ghostly quiet as I passed through the alleys towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. On the way, a few young girls, dressed in sparkling new clothes for the Muslim feast of Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, came into my line of vision, and the sight of them, threading their way through the quiet streets, broke my heart. There is a war in Gaza. Mob violence was breaking out all over Israel: both Palestinians and Israelis attacked in the streets, shops and synagogues set on fire. Every day brought news of more and more dead, more and more wounded.

The church was open.

So I began writing these lines at the foot of the cross because Jesus crucified is the only place I know where to turn, the only person I can think of to ask for help right now. I gazed at the cross, to try to understand what to do in crucified times such as these.

I began writing these lines at the foot of the cross because Jesus crucified is the only place I know where to turn, the only person I can think of to ask for help right now.

Jesus nailed down, loving the thieves beside him. Jesus forgiving those who killed him. Jesus offering himself: “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Jesus, loving beyond love, loving when it should not be possible to still love, loving until the end.

At the foot of the cross, I learn again. Love is the hardest and only path forward.

•••

I should begin by trying to explain the events that sparked this latest cycle of violence in Jerusalem, where I live, as best as I am able.

There are many places to begin telling the events of the last tense weeks, and where someone begins telling the story inevitably impacts what the story means. From my vantage point as one who lives here, tensions were sparked by the looming expulsions of Palestinian families from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. At the beginning of this week, the Israeli Supreme Court was scheduled to hold a hearing that might have given the final decisions on whether or not they would forcibly evict families from their homes in this historic neighborhood of Jerusalem.

The Palestinian families in question had lived there for generations, resettled by the Jordanians after they were expelled from their homes in Palestine in 1948. Jewish settler groups were trying to claim the houses, using an Israeli law that said that Jews could re-claim land that belonged to them prior to 1948. But there is no similar Israeli law that allows for Palestinians to reclaim their own land, confiscated in 1948. It is therefore a law selectively applied.

Jesus, loving beyond love, loving when it should not be possible to still love, loving until the end. At the foot of the cross, I learn again. Love is the hardest and only path forward.

For Palestinians, it was not only these houses in Sheikh Jarrah that were at stake in this legal battle. It was the very character of the city of Jerusalem itself. By placing their claim on a historically Palestinian neighborhood, still recognized as occupied territory by international law, these Jewish settler groups were making it clear that they hoped to change the makeup of the city, slowly taking over Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem. Christian leaders—Palestinian and non-Palestinian alike—were also concerned with the outcome, both in solidarity with their Palestinian neighbors but also because they saw in it a threat to the multi-religious and multi-cultural fabric of the holy city. Many sympathetic Jewish Israeli activists were also regularly demonstrating against the coming evictions, calling out an unfair legal system.

As the court date approached, tensions continued building in Jerusalem. On the last Friday of Ramadan, clashes broke out between Palestinians and Israeli police forces inside of the al-Aqsa mosque, where thousands of Muslims had gathered to pray.

On Monday, the day that the court decision was scheduled to go forward coincided with Jerusalem Day, the day in which some Israelis celebrate what they call the reunification of the city, when Jerusalem was captured by Israel during the 1967 war. On this day, Jewish nationalist settler groups parade through the Muslim, Palestinian quarter of the Old City, protected by Israeli police, waving Israeli flags. Every year the day is tense. This year, the tensions in the city could not have been higher.

That morning, Israeli police raided the al-Aqsa mosque compound, the third holiest site in Islam. More than 300 Palestinians were wounded in the clashes, along with more than a dozen police officers.

None of this was unexpected. No, it was all like watching a slow-moving train.

Soon, Hamas warned that they would begin firing rockets from Gaza if Israeli forces did not remove themselves from the al-Aqsa compound.

And now, at the end of the same week, we are in the middle of a war in Gaza, with casualties mounting, the worst fighting Palestinians and Israelis have seen in seven years.

None of this was unexpected. No, it was all like watching a slow-moving train.

And now I am writing this to you. At the foot of the cross.

•••

I recently read a definition of contemplation by Walter J. Burghardt, S.J., who called it “a long, loving look at the real.”

I have been trying my best, since all of this started, to lovingly look at the real.

I will begin, then, with this reality: This latest round of violence has only reinforced what so many of us have long known: that the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians must end. It simply cannot continue. I refuse the logic that insists that, by saying this out loud, I am with the Palestinians and against the Israelis. There is a third place, which is not “for” or “against,” and that is the place of love, a love rooted in justice, a love that understands that no one here will be free until the Palestinians have their freedom, and that until this happens, these cycles of violence will continue, over and over again, and that it will be the children who pay the highest price.

This latest round of violence has only reinforced what so many of us have long known: that the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians must end.

The Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah should not lose their homes. Nor should Palestinians anywhere lose their homes or be subject to checkpoints or the wall or loss of access to their holy sites or house demolitions or the daily humiliations that exist living as Palestinians under occupation. Nor should the Palestinian citizens of Israel have to live as second-class citizens, nor should Palestinian refugees continue to be ignored. There is no avoiding these wounds. I am not a politician, and it is not for me to lay out what a solution to the conflict might look like that would allow both sides to live in safety and security. But the occupation must end. I say this with love. I am certainly not the first to say it.

Pope Francis recently called for an end to the violence, saying that “the Holy City’s multi-religious and multi-cultural diversity should be respected.” The Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem also issued a statement, noting that: “The special character of Jerusalem, the Holy City, with the existing Status Quo, compels all parties to preserve the already sensitive situation in Jerusalem.”

As Christians, we must continue to insist on the holiness of Jerusalem as a shared sacred city for Muslims, Christians and Jews, for it is this very shared nature that gives the city its sanctity. It means nothing for the mosques and churches of this city to become only museums and tourist sites. Indeed, it is the daily devotion of the local Christian and Muslim communities that animates these places by their faith, that gives them their deepest holiness. As a Christian in Jerusalem, I live it as a vocation to be in dialogue with my Muslim and Jewish neighbors while living out my faith as a Christian among local Christians. When the multi-ethnic and multi-religious character of the city is threatened, then this is not only an affront to the families involved—but to every single person, Muslim, Christian or Jewish, who is committed to living in this city as one for all of its people.

As Christians, we must continue to insist on the holiness of Jerusalem as a shared sacred city for Muslims, Christians and Jews, for it is this very shared nature that gives the city its sanctity.

As a Christian, I also ask for an end to violence. Not only the violence of war, not only bombs and rockets and the inter-communal violence taking over cities, but also structural violence. And not only that, the violence that seems to have taken over so many of our hearts.

So I return to Calvary. To Jesus on the cross. To a love that seems impossible.

•••

As I write this, Israeli forces have been bombarding Gaza from the air for days. Palestinian militants have fired some 1,800 rockets from Gaza into Israel. Palestinian health officials put the Palestinian dead in Gaza at 126 people, including many children, with hundreds wounded and thousands displaced. Israel reports that eight Israelis have been killed.

As always happens, it is ordinary, innocent people who are paying the highest price.

I have always been reluctant to write about this conflict, despite the fact that I have lived here for many years and have raised my children here, despite the fact that the people here, Muslim, Jewish and Christian, are those I love. In so many ways, I am an outsider to this conflict. I do not carry the same wounds that those who live here carry. I have learned, long ago, that these wounds bring with them an authority I do not have.

I have heard people say: “All I can do is pray,” as if prayer is inconsequential. Maybe it is time to say, instead: “I can pray.” When we have no other power, we are called to return to prayer.

But now, the price of remaining silent has become too heavy. I will not speak for my neighbors—I can only speak for myself, one person in a Christian community that is between 1 and 2 percent of Jerusalem’s population. I have no power. In times like this, I can tell myself only this: Perhaps there is some power, after all, in this powerlessness.

I have heard people say: “All I can do is pray,” as if prayer is inconsequential. Maybe it is time to say, instead: “I can pray.” When we have no other power, we are called to return to prayer, to believe in it again, to have faith that our prayers do not go unheard and that they matter. We pray at the foot of the cross.

•••

There is something else that I can do from where I stand, and that is to look and keep looking. Over time, I have come to believe in a love that is made possible only by paying attention. I cannot love anyone if I refuse to see them, and I cannot see them if I keep them outside of the frame of my vision. To recognize Jesus of the Gospels is to be aware of how wide his vision is: Jesus sees everyone, without exception.

So in prayer, I can try my best to widen my vision. To see the dead children in Gaza, their parents, their neighbors. The brothers and sisters and parents now gone. To confront the collapsed buildings and schools. The wounded in the streets. And to mourn.

To see the Israelis who have died in border towns, some while seeking shelter, to confront the fear of mothers running to hide with their children. To try to take in how this violence cannot but traumatize yet another generation.

It is only in conflict that we discover the freedom that comes in loving every single person. That is the love of the cross.

To keep pushing the frame wider, from those who have been killed and wounded and traumatized to those who are sowing fear, and even those who are killing. To keep widening and widening, until there is no one outside of the frame. To recognize in every single person the image of God.

It is only in conflict that we discover the freedom that comes in loving every single person. That is the love of the cross. 

Many people outside of conflict will say that to stand in the place of love is an evasion, is too easy. But anyone who lives in conflict knows that this is not true—that to love without exception is a lonely place.

I believe that the particular vocation of a Christian is to make a home in that loneliness.

•••

In a famous story, Blessed Christian de Chergé, one of the French Trappist monks who chose to stay in the monastery of Tibhirine in Algeria during the country’s brutal civil war and was eventually martyred, was visited on Christmas Eve by Emir Sayah Atttiyah. An armed extremist who had killed several foreigners, Attiyah asked for medicine, which de Chergé insisted that they could not give him. Eventually, Attiyah left, leaving the monks unharmed.

When he later reflected on the events, de Chergé wrote:

What prayer am I able to make for him? I am not able to ask to God: kill him. But I am able to ask: disarm him. Afterwards, I ask myself: Do I have the right to ask: disarm him, if I don’t start by asking first: disarm me and disarm us as a community? That is my daily prayer.

Disarm me. Disarm them. This became de Chergé’s prayer. It has also become my own. If war teaches us anything, it is that all of us carry hatred inside of us, that none of us are outsiders to the violence that we live in. I do not pretend to be any better. All of us need to be disarmed. Otherwise, we risk simply adding hatred to a fire that is already burning.

To love is not to remain neutral. To love is to call out injustice. But to love is to refuse to dehumanize anyone in this conflict and to not allow ourselves to lose our own humanity.

As I write these words, I am well aware of the strong opinions many have on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For all of us who engage in the conflict, from our universities, from our computers, from our friendships: Is love the starting point of our engagement with this conflict? Is love the ending point of our engagement? Is love the spirit that animates our actions when we speak about the conflict?

I do not mean a weak love. I mean a strong love, a love that longs for justice. But love for everyone involved.

To love is not to remain neutral. To love is to call out injustice. But to love is to refuse to dehumanize anyone in this conflict and to not allow ourselves to lose our own humanity. When we speak from a place that is not a place of love, then we no longer give witness to the one who we seek to follow. We risk adding more hatred to a situation that, in these days, has already seen enough.

Disarm me. Disarm them. Disarm us.

We stand at the foot of the cross. We seek to love. We say our prayers.

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