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Prepare Our Hearts

Prepare our hearts to be vessels of peace and understanding, granting us the wisdom to speak with humility and the courage to listen with empathy. ~ John Habibi 

The prayer above by John Habibi was shared during one of our weekly Wednesday prayer gatherings at Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) that we started after October 7, 2023. Since then, we have been meeting together weekly - praying for peace and asking for God’s intervention. We pray that He would make a way for there to be an end to death, killing, and suffering… that hostages might be able to be returned home… and that there might be a pathway and a clear way forward toward safety, security, justice, and peace for all people living in the Holy Land.  

Lent in the Christian calendar is a time of preparing our hearts, minds, and bodies to understand better what is known in the history of the church as the “pascal mystery”—the life and story of Jesus, his work of redemption, and what was accomplished on the cross through his death, resurrection, and glorious ascension. This is the work of Lent. Many Christians seek to look inwardly and reflect on our own failings and what needs to be transformed in our behaviors, actions, and lives so that we might be more like Christ. Transformed into the image of God so that we might love and live better as witnesses to the Gospel of Christ. 

It is in this spirit of Lenten reflection that I would like to invite us to spend some time entering into the pain and suffering of others in Israel and Palestine. Saturday, October 7, 2023, changed the course of human history - not only for Jews in Israel who lost loved ones who were killed or taken hostage by the brutal massacre and atrocities committed by Hamas on that day - but also for Palestinians. On October 7, about 1,200 Israelis and other internationals were killed in the attacks on South Israel, and more than 240 hostages were taken into Gaza. For Palestinians in Gaza, as of today, more than 31,100 people, mostly civilians, have been killed, mainly as a result of bombings and military invasion, and more than 72,700 people have been injured - the majority of whom are women and children. More than 1.8 million of the 2.3 people living in Gaza have been displaced since the outbreak of Israel’s war on Hamas. 

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. The most profound type of empathy is experienced when someone seeks to understand the feelings of someone outside of their community. One of the things that became very clear after October 7th last year is that there was very little room within both Israeli and Palestinian society for either community to experience empathy for the “other.” One of the unique roles Christians play in the Holy Land is that they live in both Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). The Christian community in Israel is comprised of both Jewish Christians and Palestinian followers of Jesus. Christians in the city of Bethlehem in Palestine and throughout the oPt make up less than one percent of the overall population. In Gaza, prior to October 7th, there were only about 1,000 Christians living in the enclave. In addition to general society, there have been very few places where Israeli and Palestinian Christians have shared empathy for one another as well.      

Lent is a time for reflection - a time of preparing our hearts to consider ultimately “the ways of Jesus”

After the horrors of October 7th, Jewish Israelis were reeling. The attacks have been described as the single worst atrocity since the Holocaust. Many Jewish Israelis felt their government had failed them. They were promised security and assured protection by a military regime that not only was caught unaware on October 7th, but their government also failed to keep them safe. In addition, as weeks have worn on, the rise of global anti-Semitism has been a real threat to the Jewish community in Israel and around the world. The October 7th attacks further entrenched the belief that Jews in Israel and around the world are not safe. 

Palestinians felt continually dehumanized - not only by the Israeli government but also by world governments like the United States. Rhetoric from Israeli government leaders provided evidence used by the South African legal team that brought forth the case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which determined that Israel’s actions in Gaza could constitute genocide

The details of all that has transpired since October remain beyond the scope of this brief reflection, but I hope I might encourage all of us - whatever our perspectives. Lent is a time for reflection - a time of preparing our hearts to consider ultimately “the ways of Jesus” and very specifically, the ways of Jesus as he journeyed toward the cross. 

There is little room for empathy between Israelis and Palestinians - but Christians have an opportunity. Empathy is a precursor to compassion. Compassion literally means to “suffer together” - that feeling that arises when we are motivated and compelled to come alongside others and do our best to relieve their suffering or pain. Compassion is not the same as empathy - but instead includes the motivation to engage and contribute to the alleviation of suffering - to take action. 

2 Corinthians 1:3-5 says, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all of our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.”

If we truly desire to be followers of the Prince of Peace - we must be willing to open our hearts to the pain and suffering of both Israelis and Palestinians. To have empathy and compassion for all who have suffered and are experiencing pain and trauma as a result of violence and war. We must be willing to move out of a zero-sum game mentality that demands we choose the well-being and benefit of one people group over another people group. 

In my book Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World I write extensively about how compassion is a great starting point, but it too is not enough. Compassion allows us to show care toward people who are hurting, but we must be willing to address systemic causes and root issues. Showing empathy and compassion does not mean ignoring power differentials that are present every day between Israelis and Palestinians. Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza have been living under military occupation - without civil rights and basic dignities and civil liberties for decades - since the occupation began in 1967. These injustices cannot be ignored and must be addressed. 

Every day since October 7th, an average of well over 100 Palestinians a day are being killed in Gaza. We are talking about civilians – 12,000 or more who are children, thousands and thousands of men and women who are not guilty of the crimes against humanity that Hamas committed on October 7th. We must condemn the massacres committed in South Israel on that day - and we must come alongside our Jewish neighbors in our commitments to standing up against anti-Semitism and advocating for their safety and protection. And we must also say, enough is enough – to have empathy and compassion – and speak out boldly against the killing of tens of thousands of Palestinian lives in Gaza. Empathy, compassion, and justice … seeking solutions that will allow for equality, human rights, safety, and security for all who are living in the land that we call Holy. 

All the while asking God to transform us more into His image and His likeness … as Lent continues and as we prepare for Holy Week, keep in mind Jesus’ graciousness in His last days. Even to the very people who placed him on the cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34). And as he was crucified next to the convicted criminal, a murderer, when asked, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus showed the greatest act of kindness, empathy, and compassion in his response, “Truly, I tell you, you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:42). 

Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) and our more than 30+ member communions have been consistently calling for a comprehensive and complete ceasefire where all warring parties lay down their weapons and violence is brought to an end. We call for the release of the hostages in exchange for prisoners, immediate and adequate humanitarian aid into Gaza, and that the core causes of the conflict be addressed.

Photo by David McLenachan on Unsplash

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