“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Having just returned from another amazing U.S tour with Daoud Nassar, a Palestinian farmer, I am inspired to write a piece that I think captures the many spiritual moments that occurred once again during the spaces of the featured events of the tour.
Daoud tells a story which I find even more profound the more I hear it, usually at the end of selected meetings or presentations of this tour. He says,
“A few years ago, after working on the farm late into the evening, my children, mother and I were returning home to Bethlehem on a cold, windy night in our 1972 Volkswagen bus. As we slowly bumped along the road, leading from the barrier installed by the IDF in 2004 near our farm, suddenly Israeli commandos sprung out of nowhere in combat gear with full metal jackets, hidden faces, and automatic weapons. The officer of the patrol shouted an order for me to get out of the car and to hand over my Palestinian ID. I could see the laser beams reflected on my chest and felt the terror of the moment. After several pointed questions, the young officer told us to empty the vehicle so that they might search the car.
It was a very cold and windy night, and I explained that my children were asleep and that they would be traumatized at seeing the guns pointed at them, and would have such a memory for a long time, as many Palestinian children do after such terrifying similar encounters. I offered that the VW bus with windows all the way around would enable them to investigate without disturbing my children. The officer didn’t see it that way, and shouted more loudly for my family to get out of the car, and to do so urgently.
As I bent over through the car door windows, I spoke to my children in English, so that the soldiers could hear what I was saying to them. I don’t know why these words came to me but the conversation was a game changer for what happened next. I said, ‘you will wake up and see soldiers with guns. You shouldn’t be frightened because they are good people.’
A few minutes later, the officer called me over to return my ID and said, “Sir, I feel we need to apologize to you and your family, for what we did was not right.”
Now, who knows what lasting memory of that statement the officer and his patrol might have, but it is for certain, they were not the same after the exchange. For when people encounter the “other” at such moments, they connect as human beings in the goodness of our best sides, and move to new spaces.
What if the young officer returned to headquarters that morning and said, “I can no longer continue to hassle innocent people under such conditions, and am resigning from the army?” Or, “I am no longer able accept orders that require me to cause emotional harm to innocent civilians, and refuse to do so”. Or, at the very least, the soldier in another similar encounter somewhere in the West Bank on a cold winter night, doesn’t make such demands to another father and his children. Might that make a difference?
The message that “we refuse to be enemies” continues to be the main theme in our US tours with Tent of Nations, and members of the Nassar family. That phrase was even used as the theme of the Sabeel Conference this past week in Pittsburgh, and it was acknowledged by a conference speaker that it was a borrowed phrase from Daoud Nassar and his work with Tent of Nations at the family owned farm just south of Bethlehem. Daoud was asked then to stand and receive the recognition by the entire conference.
On October 22nd, 2,000 “pro-peace demonstrators answered a call by a new Israeli peace group and gathered in the center of Jerusalem, under the banner “Jews and Arabs Refuse to Be Enemies.” Who knows if the words also originated from someone’s experience at the Tent of Nations. The point is that more and more people around the world are searching for another way.
As we say along the tour, “it is a simple idea” that has such resonance to our audiences as we criss cross the country having completed our 16th tour in now 22 States, and 63 cities and towns in an eight year history. We have spoken at over 370 venues including 162 faith-based organizations including churches, seminaries, mosques, and temples; 64 University/college and high school campuses, 33 Peace and Justice groups, 25 regional and national conferences, and 21 private house parties. We made our first presentation during this recent tour to members of the local “J Street” chapter in Pittsburgh who applauded at the end of the presentation as many do.
How do we love our enemies? Martin Luther King in his essay on “Loving your Enemies said,
“First, we must develop the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive, is devoid of the power to love. It is impossible to begin the act of loving our enemies without the prior acceptance of the necessity, over and over again, of forgiving those who inflict evil and injury upon us. It is also necessary to realize that the forgiving act must always be initiated by the person who has been wronged, the victim of some great hurt, the recipient of tortuous injustice, the absorber of some terrible act of oppression….. that as with the return of the prodigal son with his palpitating heart returning down the road in desire for forgiveness, only the injured neighbor, the loving father back home, can really pour out the warm waters of forgiveness.” King goes on to say, forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means the act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship.”
Daoud’s words in English to his children lying asleep in the back of the VW bus, was an act of forgiveness in recognizing the goodness in the person, rather than the evil of the acts of the Israeli officer and his patrol. Daoud, the victim, initiated the act of forgiveness, which perhaps led to the acknowledgement by the young officer later on when he said, “Sir, I feel we need to apologize to you and your family, for what we did was not right.”
For the victim, acts of forgiveness are not passive, because in the face of the confrontation of loving your enemy, the victim is in control of the moment. By recognizing the good elements of the soldiers, and with the firm belief that all humanity possess both good and evil, Daoud stripped away the barrier between them. They were both human. By being vulnerable, not passive, Daoud was really in control of his own destiny, not the soldier. It was that non-violent act of resistance to the control of the soldier, the refusal to be an enemy that was the strength of the moment.
Walter Wink in his book: “Jesus Christ, The Third Way,” describes several examples of non-violent resistance during the Roman Occupation. One of those included the law requiring citizens of Rome to carry the gear of the soldier for a mile. Jesus called for carrying the weight an “extra mile” which was a defiance of the law and an embarrassment to the soldier. The servant was in control.
Finally, Jesus on the cross and in agony, cried out these words as an act of forgiveness for those who persecuted him, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” He calls each of us do the same. Therein lies the power. As Wink says:
“YOU LOVE YOUR ENEMY when you show them how they are being unjust and when you give them the opportunity to grow and learn from that experience and to be open to God’s grace to change their violent and unjust and oppressive ways.”
May we find moments in our lives to do the same.