After she was released at the border of Egypt by her Hamas guard on Monday, eighty-five year old Yocheved Lifshitz took a step towards the Red Cross worker who was present to help her, then paused. She pivoted and reached her hand to the person who moments ago had been her captor. “Shalom. Shalom.” she said.
Video: https://youtu.be/3Cj3Sq9eG04?si=Y7rql7udBLxkZ4rF&t=13 (Start at 13 seconds, end at 23 seconds)
Can you imagine offering peace to a former captor? Or to a member of a group whose stated purpose is to kill you and the people you love because of your religion? Can you imagine offering peace to a person in your life who you believe has wronged you?
It is one thing to join hands in a beautiful sanctuary like this and to sing “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” It is another thing, under duress, to speak and take actions that foster peace.
Today people all over the world are praying for peace. We pray for peace between Israelis and Palestinians; between Russia and Ukraine; for the grieving people of Maine, between people of different races, religions, and political parties; between members of our families. We pray for peace in our hearts.
But, do we know how to be peacemakers? Do we know how to take our aspirations for peace and make them real?
Often, we mistakenly think that peace is the absence of conflict. I grew up in a household, perhaps like some of you, where the operating philosophy was threefold: “Children should be seen, not heard.” “Don’t rock the boat” and “Ignore it, and it will eventually go away.”
Problems were not discussed openly. They weren’t discussed at all. Voices were rarely raised in my childhood home, so there was a certain kind of peace. But it was a false peace. This was not sound preparation for dealing with the inevitable conflicts we experience in life – in our relationships, workplaces, churches, and society.
Avoiding conflict doesn’t make it go away – it just takes another form – emotional distance, resentment, division, anger, separation. Avoiding conflict undermines healthy relationships.
Keeping the peace – especially a false peace – is not the same as peacemaking.
Jesus teaches “Blessed are the peacemakers” not “Blessed are the peacekeepers.”
Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “Peace is not simply the absence of violence; it is the cultivation of understanding, insight and compassion, combined with action.”
To build vital, peace-filled relationships, we must want more than our own peace. We must desire the peace of the other person or group, too. And we have to want to understand the other person or group more than convince them of the rightness of our point of view.
This idea “We will seek to understand before being understood.” is at the heart of our updated, proposed church Covenant (which could be retitled “Instructions for Peacemakers.”)
If I am just arguing for my position and you are just arguing for your position, what happens? Energy rises. Maybe even anger. Voices often get louder. We become more focused on getting across our “brilliant” point and less open to actually hearing what the other person has to offer. We can get caught in the heat of the moment and say and do things that we later regret.
But, in the midst of a conflict, something totally different, something profound, can happen if we take a deep breath, look each other in the eyes and recognize one another’s humanity – which is what Mrs. Lifshitz appeared to be doing.
And. if there is a person with whom you are at odds and you share a spiritual perspective, praying or meditating together can help create a safe space where you both can feel respected, appreciated, and heard. (Which is why trying to solve a problem through email or texting will likely be deficient – these forms of communication lack the opportunity to look the other person in the eye and connect spiritually.)
Have you ever had the experience, in the midst of a disagreement, of the other person saying to you: “I really want to understand where you’re coming from” and then actually listens? (pause) How did that feel? Receiving that intention and attention can be transformational. Even if we are unable to agree, we know that the other person cares. This can be the difference between staying in relationship and walking away.
If we, as a community, take the proposed church covenant to heart, we will grow in our ability to become the peace we pray to see in the world.
Founded in 2006 and nominated for the Nobel Prize in 2017 and 2018, Combatants for Peace is a group of ex-combatant Israelis and Palestinians, men and women, who have laid down their weapons and rejected all means of violence. Their purpose is to end the occupation of Palestine, bring just peace to the land, and demonstrate that Israelis and Palestinians can work and live together.
To create their organization, they began by sitting in the same room, telling each other their personal stories, enabling them to learn about and understand each other. To help increase understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, members of the group travel together to give presentations. Their stories allow their audiences to put themselves in their perceived enemies’ shoes, to see reality through their eyes, to feel pain and hope instead of numbness. Through encouraging attentive listening they invite their audiences to care about one another’s stories and lives and, then, to join in writing their next chapters together.
One member, Palestinian Ahmed Helou, grew up in Jericho hearing his grandparents’ and parents’ stories. His grandparents told him about the 1948 War – how they ran 82 miles to Jericho, seeing many people killed in front of them, passing many dead bodies on the road. Ahmed heard his parents’ story about the 1967 War. How they ran to Jordan and saw people killed in front of them. These stories made him angry and want revenge against the Jews. At the age of 15, Ahmed joined Hamas.
In 1993, after he spent 7 months in prison, the Oslo Agreement was signed. Palestinians shook hands with Israeli soldiers and exchanged flowers. But, three years later there was more violence. Close friends of Ahmed’s died.
Then one day in 2004, a friend asked Ahmed to participate in a workshop with Israelis. He was shocked. He started shouting: How could you ask me to meet my enemy? To meet the people who killed my people? Who took my land? Who made me a refugee? Who put me in jail and occupied my hometown? How can I meet these bad people?
Out of curiosity, he decided to go but not talk with any Israelis. But, on the second day, he started talking. By the third day, he not only talked with Israelis, but drank and smoked with them. On the fourth day, he began asking, “Seriously, are you really Jews? Are you Israelis?” Before this, he never had a chance to talk with Israelis about human rights, Palestinian rights, two states, or the future. Because of this experience he wanted to know more about the other side, to make relationships, to understand Israelis.
Friends, whether in global or interpersonal conflicts, peacemaking begins with a caring intent and a desire to understand the other. For most of us, this requires a breath, a sacred pause, a moment to unhook from our attachment to our own deeply held narratives and dramas and positions so that we can attentively listen to someone else. Dropping our own agendas and being fully open to another person’s perspective is a courageous act. A saintly act.
Understanding the other person or group is key to peacemaking. As Thich Nhat Hanh realized, “When you understand, you can not help but love. You can not get angry. To develop understanding, you have to practice looking at all living beings with eyes of compassion. When you understand, you love.”
Is there someone with whom you are having a conflict? Or do you identify as a member of a group where you feel attacked by another group? First, ask yourself, do I really, like Mrs. Lifschitz, wish for the well-being of the other? If the answer is no, why not? It may be time for some soul-searching.
But, if the answer is yes, ask yourself – do I really understand the other person’s point of view? Have I made it safe for them to share their story and their feelings with me? Do they believe that I really want to understand them or do they think I just want to change their minds or their actions? Or worse, to harm them for thinking or acting differently than me?
Yes, the path of peacemaking can be difficult – it takes time, patience, commitment, understanding, and love. But, at what cost is the alternative? The evidence is all around us. May we seek to understand more than to be understood, and in so doing, be the peace in the world we long to see. Amen.