Tonight I had the great pleasure of attending a screening of the Salt and Light movie called Across the Divide. I can't say enough to really summarise it (you really ought to see it if you can), but it features the students and staff of Bethlehem University and its unique place in the middle of the conflict between Palestine and Israel. This documentary was educational, inspiring, and difficult. At the end of the documentary, as well as the discussion panel that followed, I was left with one overwhelming thought: The conflict in the Middle East will not be resolved by some sort of deus ex machina like in a play, it will be resolved by educating the youth and raising them up to be the leaders of their generation who have a thirst for peace.
During the question period, a woman asked what exactly the makers of the movie were doing to help resolve the conflict. The truth of the matter is that as a Church we can speak of peace ad justice, but we can't bring the people who really need to hear our message to the table. We also can't become another side in the conflict, waging a war with guns, bombs, and foot soldiers. Even if we had the manpower, the resources, and the skill to win a physical war, we as a Church are not called to that mission. As Jesus was in the garden about to be taken away to be tried and eventually crucified, Peter struck one of the soldiers with his sword. Rather than encouraging Peter to fight bravely for his faith by any means necessary, Jesus rebuked him and said that those who live by the sword die by the sword. Jesus didn't come to be a warrior, He came to be the Prince of Peace, and peace isn't found at the end of a sword.
As we read back through the Scriptures, we read of the longing for the Messiah, who will come and free God's people from slavery and oppression. It's understandable that over the ages the image of the Messiah became one of a warrior: Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, Joshua and the Army bringing down the walls of Jericho, David and Goliath, and the list goes on... Our God is a God of action. He's changing regimes, taking down walls, freeing slaves. So then Jesus comes on the scene. Contrary to all expectations, He's not going to lead the Zealots to take out the Romans. At best He turns over the tables at the Temple and curses a fig tree. When questioned about paying taxes, He says to give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's. Insofar as a political, warrior Messiah is concerned, Jesus is an outright disappointment.
The truth of the matter is that Jesus didn't come to fix the complex political situation of the time. That isn't to say that He didn't come to wage a war, because He did. He came to wage a war within our own hearts and minds. He is fighting to change us, to make us more like Him, so that we can be His hands and feet to the rest of the world. In that light, we can look at the work of Bethlehem University as an essential work for peace in the Middle East. You might wonder how a University in the midst of so much turmoil can be an agent for peace. I think the most impressive aspect of this University's curriculum is that they require all of the student population, (which is 2/3rds Muslim and 1/3rd Christian) to take a course together on both the Christian and Muslim faiths as taught by a priest and an imam. In that setting both the Muslim and the Christian students get to learn, without propaganda or misunderstandings bred by lack of understanding, the fundamental aspects of each other's faith traditions. That knowledge, as well as the friendships they develop, makes it possible to remove the "us and them" mentality that is essential to any conflict.
One student at a time Bethlehem University is helping to raise up a new generation of young people armed with the understanding that the peace is possible. While they watch their leaders struggle, they have the memory of the peace that they lived on their campus. War found its way to their doorstep and beyond. There are holes in the walls of one of their buildings from direct missile hits. But within the minds of the students who learned alongside each other, the University is at its heart an oasis of peace. Just like Christ, they will overturn a few tables, but at the end of the day it will be their voices speaking an authentic message of peace and true justice that I hope will spread as they stand up to become the leaders of their generation. It may be hard to see the holiness in the Holy Land these days, but the Prince of Peace became flesh in Bethlehem, and out of the University founded in that Ancient town can come peace that will still speak to our hearts and minds today, as it is entrusted to these young people.