A Foolish Waste of Effort?

In May 2009 Pope Benedict traveled to the Holy Land on pilgrimage, bringing a message of peace and dialogue.  One of the many people that he met with was Nora Carmi, a Palestinian Christian.  Nora is a long-time friend and colleague of mine, and I could not help but feel proud and happy for her, being recognized with the distinguished honour of addressing the Pope in a small gathering in Jerusalem.  Through Nora, I felt connected to these historical events, and once again I found myself profoundly thankful for her courage and witness and for the blessed opportunity that I have had to take this journey with her.

For the past 20 years I have been part of an ecumenical Palestinian Christian organization called Sabeel that is working for a just peace through non-violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  I stumbled into this work completely by accident (or one might say through the Grace of God!).  Shortly after we were married in 1992, my husband and I realized a desire to live overseas and engage in some form of mission.  Finding a situation that engaged both of our skills and interests proved to be more difficult than we originally thought, and our expectations of going to Latin America were soon replaced by an opportunity in Jerusalem.  We had very little knowledge of what we were embarking on.  Looking back, I feel incredibly blessed that an opportunity to work in this part of the world came to me, since I had never planned to go to it.

At Sabeel in Jerusalem Nora and I were two staff with a part-time Director and volunteer Board.  She was responsible for local programmes and I contributed to the international work (producing a newsletter, hosting pilgrim groups, networking with international church bodies).  Back then Sabeel was a small organization, but it has now grown to have an international presence.  This has brought new challenges.

Taking a stand for peace and non-violence is not an easy position in Middle East politics.  You can be viewed as an obstacle by people on all sides whose interest is not peace, but rather promotion of their own position.  It has sometimes been a lonely, scary and heart-breaking mission.  Standing in the middle of the conflict, you are witness to all the violence and hatred, some of which is religiously motivated.  It is not difficult to feel that you are in a very dark place.  But this is also precisely where I find grace.  To have the occasion to put one’s person, one’s voice, in a place where everyone is looking, to be able to relay a message of peace, non-violence, reconciliation and hope where it is needed most and where it matters most.  This is the opportunity that I have been given and this was Nora’s opportunity.     

And so what did Nora say?  She affirmed the courageous stand of the Vatican, in its previous denunciation of the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and its support for the Palestinian Christian community and for peace and justice.  She also called attention to the fact that while there was a small group of Palestinian Christians meeting with Pope Benedict on that day, there were many who were not present, unable to be there because of the denial of permits and countless other restrictions and difficulties imposed by the separation wall and checkpoints. 

Nora’s words are a call to all of us to not be discouraged, to continue to strive for justice and peace, even where it seems the least likely to be attained.  I have often been told that my active part in bringing an end to this conflict is a foolish waste of effort.  Sometimes it does feel that way.  But it is also an opportunity to be a witness.  There are so many problems and obstacles in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict:  violence, hatred, racism, militarism, greed, environmental destruction, poverty, religious fundamentalism and exclusive theology.  This is what keeps so many people away and uninvolved, not wanting to be drawn into a muddy mess like this.  But this is also where many are called to be.  This is where I have learned that sometimes it is not the promise or even the possibility of a positive outcome, but the journey and the relationships formed along the way that sustain us.  This is also where various issues related to living in right relationship come together in a foundational way.

The Core Committee of JPIC is committed to exploring a way to have a role and a voice for justice, peace and the integrity of creation in this conflict.  While we are yet to discover what concrete form this will take, we are confident that the particular charism of Visitation Province will have a significant contribution to make.  From the Chapter Mandates (1996, 2001, 2006) we have the guiding words “we commit ourselves to protect our planet and to participate actively in the transformation of church and society for a more just world.”  These will truly be words of comfort and hope to the Palestinian Christians of the Holy Land, who are living in wait. 

Monica Lambton is the Coordinator of JPIC.  She lived in Jerusalem from 1993-4 and has worked with Sabeel there, and in Canada, for the past 20 years.  Here is a copy of the full speech to Pope Benedict by Nora Carmi.