Blessed Are The Peacemakers
By Shelby Mathis
Next week marks three years since I first boarded a plane bound for Ben Gurion, bound for the Holy Land, bound for a journey I didn’t know I was asking to take.
How I ended up on the plane isn’t a long story. A friend asked if I’d go work with her in Palestine, and I said yes. I didn’t agree because I had a deep, holistic view of the conflict there. I didn’t agree because I had a pilgrim’s obligation to see the holy places of my Christian faith. I simply said yes. Because Jesus said to simply love God and love others. Because blessed are the peacemakers. Because I am called an ambassador and entrusted the message of reconciliation. Yes.
I arrived at immigration and was questioned: who do you know? Where will you stay? What will you do? As it was my first visit, I said I’d see the holy sites. As far as any official itinerary went, it was a tour of the churches, the Garden, the Mounts. It felt true, but I sensed it wouldn’t be. I may have arrived ignorant, reactive, and in it primarily for the passport stamps, but when you go to see sacred places and you discover holy faces and stories and real suffering instead, you don’t get avoid conviction or leave unchanged.
It was not long after I left the airport that I was first stopped in my tracks, literally at a checkpoint into the West Bank. It recalled the controlled gates at the entrance of U.S. military bases where my husband worked, except more militarized and humiliating for those subject to the restriction.
The next time I was stopped in my tracks, I was watching a Christian Palestinian farmer and founder of Tent of Nations named Daoud Nassar plant trees on his land – surrounded by settlements, road access blocked for miles in every direction, and under imminent threat of confiscation – as a form of nonviolent protest. I watched him invite visitors from all over the world, including Israel, through his farm gate, past a boulder reading "WE REFUSE TO BE ENEMIES".
I was stopped in my tracks just days later when the Church of Multiplication, built only a few towns over on the site where Jesus performed the miracle of multiplying the loaves and fishes, was burned to the ground by extremists, a scorching reminder that Christian churches in the region are not only facing violence but extinction. That same day I read on the news about an assault on a Charleston, South Carolina church where nine men were killed for their skin color and how the two, though worlds apart, were unified by acts of hate and injustice and sin and I thought, "is peace even possible?"
I was stopped in my tracks one morning on our way to church in Jerusalem Old City when a radical violently attacked an Israeli soldier and the soldier fired 10s of merciless bullets through the man in an act of self-defense and retaliation, and my ideals of peacekeeping and peacemaking shattered right in front of Damascus Gate. I fell on my knees and cried, "how long, O, God?" I was stopped in my tracks later that morning when an American man lead a worship song in English for the mostly Arab congregation and they all sang the old hymn "How Great Thou Art." I couldn't sing praises yet. I sobbed at the goodness of that truth in a language I could understand, despite what I had just witnessed, despite the war raging around us. The tune would become the song of my weary, broken heart when I couldn’t pray because I was too mad and sad and helpless in this conflict. It still brings me back to truth when I’m unsure how and why God saw fit to set me on a path of peacemaking: how great Thou art. I know then that I can – we can -- keep stepping into the tension toward justice in not our own strength, but His.
In my last couple weeks in Palestine I began to understand what was meant by "We Refuse to Be Enemies." I began to believe again, “God, how great Thou art” in this confusing, difficult, traumatic conflict. Because I found Dauod and his community of activists, peacemakers, ambassadors of Christ. Because I saw a church full of people worshipping on the day of the attack I witnessed, like they've got no other hope but Jesus. Because I didn't easily pass through security leaving Israel because they suspected I'd been radicalized and was a threat to security. And they weren’t wrong. I was armed with the knowledge and belief that God is working through and around me through his holy church. That's certainly the biggest threat to injustice there is.
A few months ago, I was in Washington D.C. attending a summit called Choose Hope, a gathering of diverse young adults interested in or working toward reconciliation in the Israel/Palestine conflict. We went to Capitol Hill to speak with elected officials to advocate for humanitarian aid to Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. Talking policy with policymakers is not my forte, and I wanted to say no. I wanted to say I was not equipped to speak on legislation or about the radical gospel of Christ in such a setting. But if I've learned anything, it's that risking my comfort for justice is always worth it when doing nothing is no longer an option. Because despite the political climate, despite the presence of war, despite perception of my own inadequacies, justice looks like getting water and electricity and dignity to innocent civilians.
We ended the summit asking, “where do you see hope?” Around the room gathered activists from the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions: a beautifully diverse picture of what's required for reconciliation of relationships, especially in the Middle East. I see hope there, in gathering with people who don't look, think, or pray like us. I see hope in Beirut and Beyond, preemptively loving Palestinian refugees through relief and relationship and reconciliation with a holy regard for collective human flourishing. I see hope when we do this work of caring for refugees, not because it's about politics, but because it’s about upholding Jesus’ command to love.
May we be brave enough to step out of confusion and paralysis and into healthy, constructive engagement. May we realize engagement isn’t secondary to love; it is love. May we be everyday peacemakers who need God to show us how to embrace pain and use it as fuel to fight for justice in love. May we not forget that loving our neighbor should cost us something. May we remember that refugees are our neighbor. May we have the humility to open-handedly invite God to use us: use what we have, where we are, and keep stopping us in our tracks when He has something to teach us. May we keep saying "yes" to the invitation to be ministers of reconciliation.
Shelby Mathis is a creative and communicator who has worked and traveled across the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East. She now sojourns in Denver with her filmmaker husband where they happily trail one another into the artistic and actual wilderness. She is passionate about design, writing, community, and travel.