Thursday, June 12, 2014

Are There Any Answers?

I'm spending one last quiet night in Antakya, looking at a few online maps, and catching up on some of the bewildering (and somewhat terrifying) news coming out of Iraq.  The bitter feuding there, between parties and religious traditions, is beyond my comprehension.  The sickening sense that my own country has played a part, a deliberately self-interested part: it moves me beyond sadness, almost to rage.  Are there any answers at all for these kinds of hostilities, grievances?  Do the 'great' religions of the region--whose evolution owes so much to these parts--offer anything more than petty hope and simplistic jargon?  Is there a moral authority anywhere, one that can stir visions of reconciliation, new purpose, the possibility of peace?

You look at the Middle East these days, you read the papers, and you do wonder.  I know I do.  More and more, it seems like Sunnis are listening to Sunnis, and Shiites to Shiites, and extreme Israeli Zionists to extreme Israeli Zionists, and so on.  Who will create the space, the imperative, the imagination--that makes possible a broader, wiser kind of hearing?  I really don't know.  I want to say "prophets" or "artists" or "poets."  This is what my faith tells me.  This is what my heart wants to say.  But the heart wavers in the presence of so much bad news.

I sat with a young Turkish couple this morning for a little bit.  They invited me for tea, and we visited on their stoop, talking about Turkey and its future, about Antakya and its diversity.  They worry for their futures, aware of Syria to the east and fearing the hardening line of their own government.  "We have a beautiful city," the young man said to me.  "We all get along, we visit with each other.  It can be this way."  But there was in his tone the hint of an almost unspeakable fear: chaos, conflict, neighbors on the edge.

It seems quite possible that the Gospel of Matthew was first written here, in ancient Antioch on the Orontes River, in the 70s or 80s of the Common Era.  I'm moved, walking these old streets, by this history and by the history of Matthew's narrative.  Who will bring the Sermon on the Mount to life in our own divided generation?  Who will make plain and compelling Jesus' call to turn the other cheek, moving creatively and bravely to interrupt terrible cycles of violence and rage?  I love these texts so much, so much that I can't yet give up on them.  But where will the light come from?  Who will shine it once more on the Sermon or the Parable of the Last Judgment?  Without a beloved community, without communities of praxis--is the Sermon on the Mount meaningful anymore?  In Damascus?  In Mosul?  In Jerusalem?

But even that's simple-minded.

What about my own people?  What about my own Christian community?  What will the US church do to repent of our American addiction to violence and oil and hubris in foreign affairs?  Will we read and read and read the Sermon on the Mount--as sweet counsel, interesting ethical insight--but turn from practice and discipline and the cost of it?  From afar this month, I'm praying for my Presbyterian friends and colleagues who are, at the very least, making an effort to struggle with these questions in relationship to nonviolent witness in Palestine and Israel.  It's a messy and complicated endeavor, this gospel life.  And there are indeed hurt feelings and bruised relationships along the way.  But I want so much to cast my lot with Matthew's Sermon and with Jesus' courage.