By Salim J. Munayer
The visit of U.S. President Donald J. Trump to the region last week affected those of us living in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, even though we are quite accustomed to visits of dignitaries.
Then there are the live updates and non-stop news coverage with commentary upon commentary about every word, gesture and location (in this case) of the Trumps. It doesn’t matter which channel you watch or what newspaper you read, they are all influenced by the bias of whatever media outlet the writer or commentator represents.
The visits of presidents and VIPs can have much influence, but within our context of conflict, the expectations are not always realistic. Some people remember the visit of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter who was instrumental in the peace agreement with Egypt, yet it took years of hard work for the agreement to be finalized. Dignitary visits following President Carter’s did not yield results of the same magnitude.
I encountered many different perspectives on President Trump’s visit. There were those who were indifferent and couldn’t care less. They just wanted to carry on with their everyday lives. Then there were the cynics, who always had something to say about what and why President Trump was really here. I also encountered the hopeful. These were people placing their faith in the political leaders to bring peace to the region and a solution to our conflict.
With all the talk of a renewed peace process, there are still others who have developed a fatalistic and pessimistic view of the conflict. Those with a fatalistic view hold certain positions about end-time theology that discount any peace initiatives while anticipating the end of the world. This theology asserts that it is therefore futile to be engaged in peacemaking. Those with a pessimistic view link themselves to a process of dehumanization, where the other is perceived as evil. They describe the other in racist and derogatory language. We hear and read about how Jews define Arabs and how Arab Middle Easterners describe Jews or Westerners. The other is inherently evil and incapable of coexisting or seeking peace.
We know that politicians have power, but they also have limitations. A fundamental lesson we have learned from conflicts around the world is that peace, in many cases, does not come from the top, but rather from grassroots movements and community leaders who join together to pressure political leaders to make peace.
Many times throughout history, we have seen conflicts that, at the time, were deemed unsolvable. This was true with the conflict in Northern Ireland between the nationalists and the unionists. Many people thought the Berlin Wall would never come down. But we know from these situations that significant progress has been made. Conflicts are hard. It takes much time, effort and often times includes a great deal of pain. However, history has proven that change is indeed possible.
With these things in mind, how should the people of faith respond? For the believer in Jesus, it is necessary to look at his teachings on peace. The challenges he confronted are similar and sometimes even worse than our own, yet he presented a catalytic way of dealing with violence, hatred, and enmity. It is catalytic because it does not encourage retaliation or complacency, but introduces an antithetical approach to the ways of the world. The way of the cross of Christ is the way of patient, faithful, self-sacrificing obedience. We remember the words of Jesus as he turns the way of the world on its head: “I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:44-45)
There have been countless examples, told and untold, of people who have followed this path. Martin Luther King was a minority at a great disadvantage in his culture, but he walked in courageous obedience to Jesus’ approach and experienced a monumental societal change in his lifetime. Gandhi is another example of grassroots peace that has impacted our thinking today.
Too often we look to political and religious leaders to solve our problems, when really what Jesus taught was responsibility and initiative of everyday people in the context of the community of believers. It is not solely up to leaders to determine what happens in the world. In the economy of God’s kingdom, we learn that we are responsible for our own actions and that these actions can have life-transforming outcomes.