I lack a compelling “conversion” story. I always wished for something dramatic, a miraculous turn from prodigal lostness, and rescue to a new life. But that takes a healthy dose of prodigal wandering, a challenge for one who relates more to the older brother in the story.
I lacked a conversion story, that is, until I went to the West Bank and Gaza. But my Holy Land conversion was hardly what one might expect.
As I have grown older and my theology has deepened, I have become a proponent of the “gray area” in most issues. I continually frustrate friends who are firmly entrenched in their positions, because I refuse to write off one side or the other entirely. I want to find a third way, a middle road, a place of reconciliation. Coming from a “conservative” background and then being immersed in a “liberal” milieu, I have found that both are a part of me and I am not willing to discount either.
So I was shocked a few days into my visit to the Holy Land to find myself adamantly one-sided. Of course I recognize that there are two sides to the story of conflict in the Middle East. There are no easy answers. But on the scales of justice, the amount of oppression I witnessed in seven days didn’t just tip the scales, it knocked them over.
I agreed to this trip knowing that our group of 25 internationals would spend the first week with Sabeel, an organization working to bring awareness to the plight of Palestinian Christians. I knew that four of us would spend the second week visiting World Vision sites in the West Bank and Gaza. Because World Vision is a Christian relief agency that works with the poor, I realized that our interaction would be heavily slanted toward spending time with Palestinian Christians.
Prior to the trip, I knew only that there was a conflict in the region and that it had been going on a long, long time. I assumed that I would, as usual, see the gray. Admittedly, I was quite ignorant. I had heard about Israel and Palestine on the news, but was not sure I could distinguish an Israeli settlement from a Palestinian refugee camp.
During the two weeks, we met primarily with Palestinian and Arab Israeli Christians. We listened to their stories. We heard about the separation wall that Israel is building to secure its territory from “violent Palestinians,” and saw how that wall winds through Palestinian territory in what seems like an arbitrary fashion. The town of Bethlehem, almost exclusively Palestinian, is encircled by the wall, and boasts the highest percentage of Christians in the occupied Palestinian territory. Prior to the wall, many of the Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem worked in Jerusalem. Now they are not allowed through without a permit. One must apply for a permit in Jerusalem. In order to get to Jerusalem, one must have a permit. This circuitous logic is just one example of what Palestinian Christians (and all Palestinians) deal with daily.
Could one power really do this to another people? With the backing of the world? With significant financial support from the United States? With so few people talking about it?
In light of what I was learning, I was amazed that we as Americans and we as the American church were not more disliked by the Palestinians I met. But again and again they told me, “You must not know. The American people must not know. The Christians in America must not know what is happening. Otherwise, they would do something to help us. Wouldn’t they?”
One day we were at lunch in Nazareth, technically within the borders of Israel. We met with local Sabeel representatives, Arab Israeli Christians. One woman told me that even among Arab Israelis there is a curious ambivalence toward acting on behalf of their Palestinian brothers and sisters in the West Bank and Gaza. I was shocked. They are right there, so close, and they are denying that there is an issue.
“It’s easy,” she responded. “You see, if they believe it, then they have to act. It is easier not to believe.”
It’s easier not to believe.
But I can’t deny it. I was there. I saw with my eyes. I heard with my ears. I was a witness.
The situation is so complex. It is a weaving of family and land and religion and power and politics and water and territory. There are no easy answers. People are suffering, on both sides, Palestinians and Israelis. I don’t believe that violence is the answer, no matter what the question. But there is serious injustice going on, and we as Americans and we as Christians are implicated. I cannot wash my hands and say it is someone else’s problem. It is mine.
I feel a bit like the TV evangelist threatening hellfire and brimstone to force a conversion. I am a bit more intolerant than I would like to admit regarding those who do not see things my way, who are resistant to being converted, who are more balanced, more gray, in their approach. It is an uncomfortable place for one who prides herself on her moderate and balanced views. Yet as with any conversion, I am compelled to tell the story.
And so I declare to you what I have heard, what I have seen with my own eyes, and what I have touched with my own hands. z
Erin Dunigan is a 2003 graduate of Princeton Seminary and lives in southern California.