Isaiah 9:6-7; Matthew 5:9; John 14:27
The Rev. Tom Herbek
December 9, 2018
The Hebrew word “Shalom” can be translated into a number of English words and phrases. It is often translated as “peace,” and that is a good translation. But it also holds within it other concepts that, for us, are not usually considered a part of our understanding of the word “peace.” Shalom can also mean “health” in the sense of “wholeness,” meaning fully-integrated, congruent in what we say and do, how we think and believe and act. And when someone says “Shalom!” to you, it also conveys a blessing, as in: “The Lord bless you and keep you.”
In our world today, we need more of what shalom can mean, more openness to the variety of meaning and reality seen by people who are different from us. John Kennedy once said: “If we cannot now end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.” As much as in Kennedy’s day, we need that safety today.
Parker Palmer, in his latest book, On the Brink of Everything, writes that:
Diversity makes our lives more vital. Regular experiences of “otherness” not only bring blessed relief from the tedium of endlessly recycling the same ideas with the same people. They also dial down the fear of “the other” that keeps us from feeling at home on earth, sapping our vitality.
People who wall themselves off from diversity in gated communities and lifestyle enclaves become increasingly paranoid that encountering the other will put them in harm’s way. But folks who have daily experience in “the company of strangers” learn that it just isn’t so. Up close, it becomes dear that people who don’t look and sound like us don’t have horns, and some have haloes.
In my late twenties, on vacation in a distant state, I took a hike in the woods while my young family enjoyed the beach at a state park. An hour later, I was hopelessly lost and in a panic, worried about the setting sun and my family’s well-being.
I stumbled into a small neighborhood at the edge of the forest and began knocking on doors. Four times I was turned away by people who were clearly afraid of me and my breathless plea for help. At the fifth door, the gentleman said, “Hop into my truck. I’ll have you at the beach in five minutes.” My Good Samaritan was black; the others were white.
One story does not good sociology make, but I’ve seen that pattern play out time and time again, driven not by genetics but by social experience. The white folks who turned me away either had never been lost and scared, or were afraid of someone who was. But in America- with its history of slavery, Jim Crow (old and new), and “sundown towns”- people of color learn early in life what lost and scared feels like, and the result can be compassion.
Diversity makes us smarter and more creative. People from different backgrounds know different things and have different ways of interpreting what they know. As we come together in a “dialogue of differences,” the collective becomes smarter than any individual in it.
That principle applies to everything from practical problem solving, to scientific inquiry, to speculating on the eternal mysteries: all of us together are smarter than any one of us alone. Ask any high-tech company CEO whose creative teams look like a good day at the United Nations.
Diversity ups the odds that we will enjoy the benefits of the human comedy. Cross-cultural misunderstandings are not always train wrecks. Some of them generate healing and life-giving humor.
I once spoke at a Jewish Community Center built around a beautiful garden dedicated to the memory of Jews who had been murdered in the Holocaust. After sitting quietly there for half an hour, I met with the Center’s director and told him how moved I was by this powerful witness to the suffering and the resilience of the Jewish people.
He told me that the Center also tried to witness to the importance of interfaith relationships- which meant, among other things, hiring a religiously diverse staff. Then he said, “Occasionally this leads to some laughable and loveable moments. We recently hired a Gentile as our front office receptionist. We told her that when we answer the phone we say, ‘Jewish Community Center- Shalom.’ I happened to be in the office when she took her first phone call and said, ‘Jewish Community Center- Shazam!’”
The goodwill laced through stories like that help fortify my hope that we can emerge from these dangerous days on the diversity front with our humanity intact.
Perhaps we all need to experience the shalom that comes from shazam!
I recently finished a book by Sally Kohn entitled The Opposite of Hate. In it she tells the story of Bassam Aramir.
I first heard Bassam’s story through a friend, who told me how the former terrorist had eventually renounced violence against Israelis and, in 2005, founded Combatants for Peace, a group made up of Palestinians who had engaged in violence against Israelis plus former Israeli soldiers, all now working together to promote under standing between the two sides. Today, Combatants for Peace has about six hundred members. The group regularly stages nonviolent rallies, holds meetings where former combatants share their perspectives and victims of violence tell their stories, sponsors tours of the West Bank for Israelis, and rebuilds playgrounds in the territories that have been demolished by Israeli security forces.
Kohn writes about something called competitive victimhood, the idea that each side has what seem like very rational reasons to believe that their side is the worse victim in the conflict. Although no one was hurt, and Bassam was not even present at the time, he and his friends, all teenagers, were convicted of terrorism and went to prison. During his time in the Israeli prison, something happened to Bassam that changed his life. Kohn describes it:
One might expect that going to prison, especially at such a young age, would intensify one’s hatred. Indeed, incarceration often only worsens criminal behavior- one of the biggest perversions of our disastrously expansive prison-industrial complex. And in fact, initially when he was in prison, Bassam would indulge in hateful fantasies, imagining “every day, maybe, to kill thousands and thousands of lsraeli soldiers.” Then sometime around the middle of his prison term, the Israeli guards showed a movie about the Holocaust. Bassam decided to go watch, because, frankly, he wanted to see Jews being killed- he was sort of trolling the prison and the guards for even showing the film. “I wanted to enjoy,” Bassam confesses to me, “to see someone killing and torturing them.”
But somehow, witnessing the brutality of the Holocaust shocked Bassam and tore open a seam in the story of hate he’d believed up until then. The film made him weep, opening his eyes- and mind and heart- to the suffering of his enemy.
Startled and searching for answers, Bassam befriended an Israeli guard in the prison. “It’s forbidden for him to talk to you,” Bassam explains, but nonetheless he “succeeded to open a dialogue.” Bassam peppered the guard with questions about Israel and religion and life in general. It was the first time he got to know an Israeli not just as a threatening apparatus of the state (though of course he was also that) but also as a human being. And it was the first time Bassam recognized the suffering of the other side.
“It’s not the Israelis’ fault,” Bassam tells me. He has come to see “how it’s difficult to grow up as a Jew everywhere around the world- everywhere,” because of that deep history and psyche of persecution, believing that everyone hates your people.
Bassam has clearly decided to consciously and deliberately reject hate, even after suffering a tragedy that would seem to make his compassion for Israelis unfathomable.
In 2007, one of Bassam’s six children, his ten-year-old daughter, Abir, was walking home from school arm in arm with her little sister. By then, Bassam and his family were living in Anata, a town in the West Bank that is technically in East Jerusalem but that is carved up by the separation wall on three of its four sides. Abir and her sister were on their way to buy candy when an IDF jeep turned onto the road nearby. As Bassam understands it, a group of other children from the school threw stones at the jeep. Through a small hole cut in the jeep’s window, the IDF opened fire. Abir was hit in the back of the head with a rubber bullet from a distance of thirty yards or so. When she was shot, Abir’s small body flew several feet into the air before falling sharply to the ground.
During the civil trial, he spoke to the soldier who killed his daughter. The soldier didn’t apologize. Arguably, he couldn’t even if he wanted to or he would be punished by the military. But Bassam said to him, “In any time in your life, if you come to ask me to forgive you, always, you will find me there. I will forgive you, but not because of yourself, at all. It’s because of myself. I want to clean my heart from this anger, because I discovered that I belong to the mankind, and the human being, and because I loved my daughter very much.”
Then Bassam told the soldier, “I don’t ask for revenge, because I don’t take revenge from victims. You are the victim.”
“Believe me, it’s very difficult to say, but he’s a victim,” Bassam tells me that afternoon, sitting in his apartment a few blocks away from where Abir was shot.
He takes a deep breath, then in a voice even more quiet than usual, almost as though it’s a prayer, he says about the soldier who killed his daughter, “He is not less of a victim than his victim.”
Bassam understands at some deep level what I now at least grasp intellectually: no matter how justified it seems, hate is never truly rational. We all have our reasons to hate, but that doesn’t make hate reasonable. Our own suffering will never be addressed by competitively denying- or causing– the suffering of others. As Coretta Scott King once said, “Hate is too great a burden to bear. It injures the hater more than it injures the hated.” Bassam doesn’t just understand these ideas; he lives them.
The opposite of hate also isn’t some mushy middle zone of dispassionate centrism. You can still have strongly held beliefs, beliefs that are in strong opposition to the beliefs of other people, and still treat those others with civility and respect. Ultimately, the opposite of hate is the beautiful and powerful reality of how we are all fundamentally linked and equal as human beings. The opposite of hate is connection.
So, especially at Christmas, let us not lose hope of peace. Let us do all we can to enable connection between people, to bring shalom to our world and our relationships.
Poet Maya Angelou describes our yearning for peace at Christmas in a world of fear and apprehension:
Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.
Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.
In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.
We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.
We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.
Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you, to stay a while with us.
So we may learn by your shimmering light
How to look beyond complexion and see community.
It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.
-“Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem”
What we all hope for, what we all desire is a halting of the hate time. It is our dream- all of us. It is the way we would really like the world to be.
It was the hope of the Hebrews, as voiced in Isaiah 4,000 years ago. It was the hope of those early Christians, as voiced in Luke and John 2,000 years ago.
What can we do? Should we just give up on this dream– so unrealistic, yet so compelling, and so enduring? The dream lies innate, deep inside our humanity. After all, it has still not been snuffed out, even after all these years. But we tend to ignore it, believing that our deep hopes are far too unrealistic. The nightly news confirms that we are hopelessly unrealistic.
And yet, at Christmas, our hope still sneaks to the surface. The Prince of Peace coming into our world, the birthday, becomes a catalyst for our hopes and dreams of peace. Perhaps we cannot do anything about the nightly news, and that is depressing, but we can do something to enable peace in our corner of the world.
We must not give up our dreams of shalom. Less than a year before he was killed, Martin Luther King, Jr., ended his last Christmas Eve sermon with these words: “I still have a dream today that one day justice will roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream. I still have a dream today that in all of our state houses and city halls people will be elected to go there who will do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with their God. I still have a dream today that one day war will come to an end, that all people will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, that nations will no longer rise up against nations, neither will they study war any more.”
So let us not give up on our dream. Let us seek peace and connectedness between people who are so different, and yet who share our common humanity. Let us wish peace and health and wholeness for all– even our enemies. Let us do our part to make the world– and our small corner of it – safe for diversity.
And may the Lord bless us and keep us.