April 3, 2005

Paradox of Faith:
The more rooted we are, the greater the peace

A few years ago, I learned that peace is more likely to be created if we are firmly rooted in our faith than if we compromise our faith in the hope to achieve peace. I learned about this faith paradox by listening to the compelling personal stories that were coming out of a small village in Israel, Neve Shalom/Wahat Al Salam.

[As I started typing this post, I noticed on the website that there is a U.S. speaking tour this month with two residents of the village, between Philadelphia and Boston. If you can get to one of the events, I highly recommend changing your schedule to do so!]

It is important to me to say and type the entire name of the village, which translates "Oasis of Peace" from the Hebrew and Arabic respectively, and not to Americanize it by saying its English equivalent. Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam is a village and a community that is intentionally half Jewish Israeli and half Arab Israeli. Of the Arabs, some are Muslim and some are Christian. Two years ago, I met the mayor of the village, Abdessalam [he is returning as part of the tour], and a young man who had just completed his military service in the Israeli army, Sagi. Abdessalam, his wife, and Sagi's parents were among the first to settle in the village, which is barely 30 or 40 years old. The stories that Abdessalam and Sagi told seemed to stem from their individual experience of reconciling intense anger and oppression by relying on their individual faith and faith-based values—and respecting those of their neighbors.

Sagi's and Abdessalam's visit to the Twin Cities drew hundreds of Christians, Unitarians, Quakers, Jews, and anyone else who wanted to witness and hear about hope in the making. Their visit began just a few days I think after Iraq was invaded and long before Arafat was to fall ill. I had helped arrange the 4-day speaking tour, alongside a 13-year-old young Jewish woman, and many of us at the events were near tears as we heard story after story about Sagi's and Abdessalam's mutual experience of being able to walk the knife's edge between rage and respect; of being able to honor each other's beliefs while speaking openly and authentically about what was going on in their respective homelands of Israel and Palestine.

This deep respect for their religious differences, along with the solid mutual commitment to live peacefully in Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam, allows Jews, Muslims, and Christians to join in celebrating the holidays of each other's faith—because they encourage each other to continue practicing their own faith without fear of having to blend with one another or of having to worship in private.

It is not their individual spiritual or religious practices that bind them; it is their belief in, experience with, and commitment to Something Larger. Conflicts arise, like in any community, and there are tensions. But the community comes together to labor with one another, to learn from one another, and to witness one another in the process of healing and transformation. They truly are the village that the founder Bruno Hussar envisioned.


P.S. This story would be incomplete without my sharing how the Twin Cities speaking tour came about. I was surfing the net in my despair of what was happening after 9/11 and in the Mideast. I wanted to put my energy and financial donations to some non-political peacemaking effort. I must have Googled "peace jewish mideast," or some such string. I made my way to the website for Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam, as well as to the organization that coordinates the speaking tours, American Friends of Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam [no connection to Quakers... except the current executive director attends Quaker meeting from time to time, and the current board president is herself Quaker apparently].

I learned that American Friends did speaking tours, and I called them, wanting to know if I could talk with anyone from the midwest who had been to the village before I would send a donation, either to the village itself or to American Friends. I was put in touch with the executive director Deanna Armbruster.

When I explained what I was wanting to do and she found out I was in Minnesota, she told me not only did she grow up in a town 30 minutes from the Twin Cities; and not only was she just then trying to convince the board that it might be worthwhile to do a first-ever speaking tour in the midwestern United States; but that also she herself would be taking a vacation in the Minneapolis area in just two weeks! We made a plan to meet in person, since she had been to Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam for extended periods of time over the years, and she was eager to meet someone who was eager to learn more about the village who happened to live in the midwest.

Well, our lunch was a true Opportunity, in the Quaker sense of the word: the Spirit brought us together and moved among us during lunch, and we were changed as a result.

I was able to ask Deanna questions about oppression (of Palestinians among the majority culture of Jewish Israelis) and second-language learning (Hebrew being the dominant language; Arabic getting much less air time) and multicultural dynamics (identity development and related struggles when cultures and faiths clash); Deanna was able to address my questions without sugar-coating the answers: Yes, oppression is a real danger, which is why families have to go through an application process before they are accepted into the village. Yes, Hebrew is the dominant language in the village and in school, and the school is working to have an Arabic-speaking teacher and a Hebrew-speaking teacher team-teach in each classroom... Yes, residents struggle with not blaming each other for the violence that is happening in Israel and the occupied territories; they all have to navigate what to do when violence escalates or when a child of the village is killed by a suicide bomber, for example, and one segment of the village wants a memorial built in town, while another segment doesn't. (I don't quite recall the exact incident, but I hope you get the picture.)

By the end of our lunch, I had freely offered to help coordinate a Twin Cities speaking tour. The tour was a huge success; Deanna and I still keep in touch; and now I am less afraid to learn about other people's faith, because I am so deeply committed to my own. And I learned the power and gift of that because of the people of Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam.

P.P.S. If you do happen to get to one of the April 2005 events and you meet Abdessalam (the mayor of Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam) or hear a red-headed American 30-something woman named Deanna introducing the speakers, I hope you'll especially approach them and tell them you read about them on this blog... and tell them that Liz, the Quaker from Minneapolis, misses them dearly and remembers them fondly.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this wonderful story, Liz. I'm sorry I couldn't meet with these folks when they were here.

I don't consider this to be a "paradox" of faith at all: it is the promise of faith -- in Christ there is no east or west, Jew or gentile, etc.

As you put it: "It is not their individual spiritual or religious practices that bind them; it is their belief in, experience with, and commitment to Something Larger." Even though they call the Something Larger by different names.

Indeed, the practice of universal love and respect for human dignity is perhaps the most important signs of authentic faith: any religion that doesn't reflect (or at least promise) universal love as a sign of being an authentic member of that community can't be true.

It is when a particular tradition that manifests this gift in its members is watered down or derided as "exclusive" that you end up with the insipid universalism that can't discern truth from falsehood and thus ends up with nothing to say that anyone wants to hear.

Liz Opp said...

Thanks, Paul. Is it a wonder that my lack of experience with Scripture leads me to draw the conclusions that I do? I think it is no coincidence, then, that by standing firmly in my faith, elements of and passages from Scripture find their way to me, and I am that much more open to receive them as a result.

While the reframe from "paradox" to "promise" does resonate with me, I sense that there is truth in both the paradox and the promise of faith.