Is ‘peace on earth, good will to all humankind’ a cruel fantasy? Are we destined to live in increasingly walled off environments, afraid of losing the little advantage we think we have?
I have recently returned from 10 days in the Palestinian Territories. The highlight was my journey to Nabi Saleh in Palestinian area C, north of Ramallah, the home of the Tamimi family and totally under the control of Israeli forces. Bassem, the father, shot to publicity when his visa was suddenly cancelled by the Australian government at Amman international airport en route to Australia. Ahed, the young daughter, gained even more publicity through the photograph of her slapping an Israeli soldier on the face as soldiers attempted to enter her house after her cousin was shot in front of her. The campaign ‘free Ahed’ became a global movement.
Meeting the Tamimi family reminded me of meeting Xanana Gusmao for the first time, or of the precious week my wife and I hosted Desmond Tutu in our home. There was a powerful dignity to them. They live in the rarefied atmosphere of those who have resisted intimidation and oppression and have gained a depth of humanity that alludes most of us lesser mortals. Rather than being filled with resentment they have a passion for the freedom of all humanity and have a vision for global peace and equity that is inclusive even of their oppressors. It was a very deep privilege to be with them. All this despite the fact they live with a demolition threat on their 1964 house, built on land that has been their ancestral home for generations. They rhetorically asked, “who is the freest? We who have stood up to oppression, or those of you in Australia who so easily are cowered and avoid telling the truth”?
I spent four days in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. The intimidating security wall, more than twice the height of the Berlin wall, curves deeply into the city around Rachel’s tomb. Directly opposite the wall is Banksy’s ‘Walledoff hotel’. Banksy’s art and the wall graffiti use the powerful weapon of satirical image to point to the reality that those who promote fear and oppression are the real prisoners and that even a little girl with a handful of balloons can scale a wall of division.
Humans are created to relate: being isolated or isolating others is to become inhuman. Humans are born to be hospitable: to be greedy and self-focussed is to be less than we can or should be. Humans need the company of the stranger who can become a friend: alone we are nothing; in company we are everything. In recent years the Wise Men have had to take a circuitous route to enter Bethlehem, indeed have had to face the humiliation of check points and the probable confiscation of their precious gifts. But come they still do and in arriving they are still amazed. As Bishop Peter Chrysologus in the fifth century wrote: “God saw the world falling into ruin because of fear and immediately acted to call it back with love. God invited it by grace, preserved it by love, and embraced it with compassion”.
There is so much in our contemporary world about which to be disappointed, indeed about which to despair. But into this despair true humanity can and does break through and the light of what we are intended to be becomes visible again. This last week has seen the extraordinary act of strangers observing a family swept out to sea off the NSW coast. It turned out they were an Indian family. These strangers swam out approximately 700 metres through turbulent water to rescue some of them. There was no obligation or responsibility other than the responsibility of shared humanity. No reward was expected other than the satisfaction of knowing that they acted to save the lives of others.
The Old Testament wisdom writers famously said: “without a vision the people perish”. (Prov. 29:18). There is little doubt that if given a vision which enables a less selfish, less greedy, and a more harmonious, sustainable, just and peaceful world, the general population will respond selflessly. At the moment that vision is not on offer, or leadership provided. At present the vision offered is that we are the sum of all that we accumulate or possess and therefore competitive consumption is the only game in town.
The vision emanating from Bethlehem is very different. Sadly, it is a vision that has been lost under the haze of self-promoting and self-aggrandizing religious practice about which the general population has rightly become dismissive.
But if for a moment the smoke can be lifted, and we can see and hear afresh, the vision is as powerful today as it was for those who lived and were transformed by it in the first century.
Grace and humility are more powerful and life transforming than wealth or position. The world and all its creatures need to be viewed not as a market for exploitation and profit, but with awe and wonder. We are to judge our achievements not by that which is most spectacular, but by the plight of the poorest and most vulnerable amongst us. What is freely shared multiplies, what is withheld diminishes the withholder.
Either there is a story, a narrative, which frees and emboldens all humanity to new heights of shared and sustainable living, or we must all live in our walled environments attempting to protect from the enemy outside the little we have gathered or inherited. But the narrative tells us the enemy is within. If we build the wall, we enclose within us that which has the capacity to undo us.
If we are open to embrace the world and all its complexity and recognise we are no more but no less than a tiny part of a wonderful whole, then the future can truly be: ‘Peace on earth, goodwill to all humankind’.
George Browning: Retired Anglican Bishop Canberra Goulburn