Easter peacemakers and pilgrims

By Harry Hagopian
11 Apr 2009

Being a peacemaker is part of being surrendered to God, for God brings peace. We abandon the effort to get our needs met through the destruction of enemies. God comes to us in Christ to make peace with us; and we participate in God's grace as we go to our enemies to make peace.

Glen H. Stassen & David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics

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I am busy multi-tasking this evening: I am sitting in front of my laptop listening to ‘The Next Step’, a weekly pod-cast with Fr Vazken as he leads his listeners into Holy Week and helps us overcome our crosses by understanding Jesus’ desire to walk in our shoes. I am also watching Journey to Jerusalem, an imaginative Christian Aid project which accompanies thousands of men and women on a virtual journey through the Holy Land. With an input from people who have travelled in the region - and those who live and work there - we cyber-pilgrims have not only been visiting the biblical sites but have also been hearing what it means to live and witness in this broken part of the world and to toil for peace despite innumerable challenges. The virtual journey which culminates this week in Jerusalem, began on the first day of Lent, 25 February 2009, from the Mount of Temptation near Jericho and has already stopped in Bethlehem, Hebron, Gaza, Sderot, Jaffa, Tel Aviv and Nazareth amongst many stations. Along the way, there have been reflections on what Jesus’ example can teach us about making a difference in the world and short YouTube blogs which have underscored the spiritual dimension of peace-building.

But why did Christian Aid undertake this journey? In a nutshell, it provides an opportunity to hear directly from both Israelis and Palestinians about their rich narratives of optimism and pessimism, of joy, fear, uncertainty, violence, suffering, frustration or ultimately hope. I suppose viewers would have their own special moments during this virtual pilgrimage. I was particularly gripped, for instance, by the virtual time I spent in Gaza and saw the devastation and discrimination suffered by ordinary Palestinians in this strip of land, or by the way one film-maker, Nour al-Halaby, challenged the stereotypes we bear in our minds of the peoples of this region. But I was equally inspired with hope when I watched a blog visit to Neve Shalom / Wahat al-Salam midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as ordinary people laboured for understanding and reconciliation, or when I heard bereaved families who are part of the Parents Circle - Families Forum sharing their anxieties as Palestinians and Israelis who have lost kith and kin and yet have come together to struggle for peace.

Let me paraphrase Simon Barrow, co-director of Ekklesia, who commented on this Journey to Jerusalem, by pointing out that it will contribute to the movement for hope and change in Israel-Palestine as well as opening our eyes and hearts to what is going on in this land and its significance in human and spiritual terms. He also added, and here I quote, “This imaginative initiative captures the true spirit of Lent, which is not just about detaching ourselves from the selfish impulses which end up dividing human communities; it also positively unites us to the dream and struggle of ‘a new world coming’ in the midst of tension and fear.”

For me, Lent reflects multiple facets, but it is principally a period for meditation, mirroring the time Jesus spent in the desert and on the Mount of Temptation, wrestling with the call on his life. So I see this virtual journey - with its comments, images, witnesses, and prayers from the likes of the Rev Naim Ateek in different towns or villages - as another opportunity to introduce largely uninformed “pilgrims” to the faith-based truths and cutting realities in a Holy Land of two peoples and three faiths - Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Christians and Muslims. In the political hurly-burly of all the regional conflicts, some of us tend to forget that Christians - the “Living Stones” to which St Peter refers in his epistle (1 Peter 2.5) - are indigenous to the land, with co-equal rights and obligations and are an indissoluble part of the wider universal Christian fellowship. We need to wake up to this fact, recognise it, not tuck it away or ignore it, and act accordingly in our lives.

Two thoughts constantly criss-crossed my mind whenever watching this virtual journey. The first is a powerful statement in a blog by an Israeli-Jewish woman who underlined the deep-rooted difficulties of peace-building between Israelis and Palestinians but added that we should not give up hope, even if progress is as slow and frustrating ‘as taking water out of the sea with a teaspoon’! The second evocative thought is attributed to St Augustine of Hippo, reminding us that hope has two children: anger and courage, anger at the way things are in the world, and the courage to do something to change it.

Today, my own Lenten faith journey forces me to pause first in front of the daunting shadows of death on Good Friday (or, appropriately enough, al-joum’a al-hazina / Sad Friday in Arabic) to recall, sense and also mourn the heavy significance of the crucifixion. Otherwise, how can I truly move on toward the glorious joy of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday? But even now, the journey does not end with the empty tomb. This perplexing space of nothingness so replete with meaning is a living witness to the reconciliation between God and humankind and yet it also highlights our abject collective failure to date to make peace with each other. No surprise then if I recall Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as he blessed peacemakers (Matthew 5.9) and wish all Palestinian and Arab Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere a real - not virtual - Easter.

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© Harry Hagopian is Ecumenical, Legal & Political Consultant to the Armenian Church in the UK. Former Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches and a recognised regional expert, Dr Hagopian is a coordinator of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF) and a lobbyist for recognition of the Armenan genocide. His website is: http://www.epektasis.net/

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