Bethlehem Diary 1: Remembering the past isn’t enough to break down division

Day 1: Arrival in Tel Aviv

I was wondering what it would be like. It’s about 20 years since I was here. I remember the long drive from Tel Aviv airport all those years ago. Alongside the road there were relics of the Yom Kippur War – rusting tanks and the like. There to remind people of what war can do to people and to encourage a new peace, if I remember correctly, these relics stood out against the softer landscape of Israel. But not today. Today the drive from Tel Aviv, through Jerusalem and on to Bethlehem is contoured by walls. Crafted, architectured walls to keep the right people in the right place and the wrong people in the right place.
I found it staggering. I know walls, of course. You can’t live in Belfast and not know walls. But these walls cut through communities, cut through peoples lives, influence and dominate lives in a way that I haven’t seen before. It occurred to me, as I listened to the taxi driver, that when we attempt to ghettoize others we are ghettoising our own spirits too. Hemming people in, putting them where we know they will be, keeping them apart, puts them in a place from which we fear them. We fear the possibility of a day when they will burst from their ghettos and make us pay for what we have done. So the natural instinct has to be to further ghettoize them so they will not be a danger to us. Minds and spirits become cut off from each other and the human family is, both literally and emotionally, divided.
The rusting vehicles beside the road didn’t do their job. They were to serve as a reminder of what human beings can do each other. It was not enough. It is a stark warning. Unless something is done to remake relationships after violence then there will be return. Reminders of what is past are not enough to stem the bleed into inhumanity in the future. There has to be something else to resist the human tendency to protect self by dominating, oppressing or victimising others. The work is deep and slow but essential.
The Biblical teaching about Christ as the well-breaker screams into play. Here is a message about peace between peoples but also of peace for all people, whether they be believers of not. It is not enough for Christian people to stand with each other. Christian people, sharing the ministry of Jesus Christ, have everyone in view.

Christ has made peace between Jews and Gentiles, and he has united us by breaking down the wall of hatred that separated us. Christ gave his own body 15 to destroy the Law of Moses with all its rules and commands. He even brought Jews and Gentiles together as though we were only one person, when he united us in peace. 16 On the cross Christ did away with our hatred for each other. He also made peace between us and God by uniting Jews and Gentiles in one body. 17 Christ came and preached peace to you Gentiles, who were far from God, and peace to us Jews, who were near God. 18 And because of Christ, all of us can come to the Father by the same Spirit. Ephesians 2 14-18

While Christians may and should view themselves as one in Christ we also face the calling to preach peace to all, and that means living peace with and for all. Walls separate and build up hatred. They destroy human community and undignify both the builder and the enclosed. The dynamics of human relationships have to be considered within the political arrangements we make, supposedly to sustain us. If they are not then the walls which divide become the walls by which we pressure cooker difference to the point of explosion.
I missed those rusty tanks by the road. They had so much to say about remembering how not to be with each other. The walls, beautifully architectured and all as they are, spoke of hopelessness and separation and the affront to human dignity on both sides. As I write there is trouble in the street outside the hotel – tear gas, soldiers in a stand off, young men throwing stones, loud music to raise the temperature. The walls aren’t doing the job. Human dignity, persisting in the quality of human relationships, needs to take centre stage.

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