Handling Artifacts | unearthing Christian-Muslim engagement
Like a review, only less standard-issue, Handling Artifacts comes as an occasional, reflective post. Here, I attempt to place my unholy hands on an artifact from the inter-religious or intercultural landscape on which Christians and Muslims interact—with history's textured and tortured currents behind us and the modern, urgent moment before us.
The artifact might be a novel or a film, podcast or video, essay or album, artwork or architecture, article or poem. You get the idea. Join me in the finding.
In February, on the day after my beloved Arsenal were knocked out of the English F.A. Cup by Blackburn, a second-tier side, a loss contributing to an eighth consecutive season for Arsenal without a trophy, I read a postmortem by one of The Guardian's football pundits. In short, the piece argued that Arsenal's manager, Arsene Wenger, needed to come to better terms with the actual events of the last few seasons—if Arsenal were going to break the hex and win something going forward. Events will often conspire against ideals, the writer opined.
President Barack Obama's recent first-visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories conjured this precise sentiment about the relationship between ideals and events. In Israel-Palestine, hopes are always caught up in an ever-changing, ever-stagnant whirlwind of happenings. And this, more than anything, is what the documentary film Budrus (2009), named for the West Bank village which features in it, aptly shows us—and in human images that bear an alarming degree of poignant realism.
I have no doubt that your own personal, visceral, emotional, theological, political responses to the film will display an alarming realism as well.
For instance, the context for my first viewing of Budrus was experiencing it as an “Awareness Film” sponsored and hosted by a Virginia Baptist church in Richmond. Asked to facilitate the reflection and conversation afterwards, I encountered a range of responses by now quite familiar from my travels in, around and through American evangelicalism: "I've never heard/seen that side of the story"; "Well, isn't that a nice piece of Palestinian propaganda?"; "I didn't know there were any nonviolent Palestinian Muslims"; "The US must support Israel because the Bible tells us so."
Budrus unearths these reactions—and more—channeling, for this Christian, the comments of an Israeli student who heard Obama's speech at the Convention Centre in Jerusalem: "I'm still digesting it. We need to focus on the future. There is no guilty or innocent side." He must mean, of course, that there is no purely guilty or purely innocent side within this extraordinarily complex human equation.
For all the drama, however, in Budrus,it must be said: the reality that a wall—a “separation barrier”—serves as the most prominent character in the film's story is, profoundly, poetically, irreversibly sad. Ironically, only humans could pull this off. In the village of Budrus no metaphors seem large enough to contain this breadth or depth of feeling.
At one point, an Israeli army captain tells the Palestinian protesters who are lamenting destroyed olive trees and confronting large bulldozers: “This is not going to stop the building of the wall.” The event of the wall is conspiring against even the ideals of a Palestinian nonviolent movement. You sense there is no getting past it; there is only the character development around it.
In this regard, then, despite all the carry-on baggage you might bring on board Budrus, Ayed Morrar, the community organizer, and Ayed’s teenage daughter can potentially catch some of your sadness right before it hits the ground of this disputed land.
You’ll witness Ayed’s personal sacrifice as a Palestinian Muslim peacemaker convinced that only nonviolent means of protesting injustices are the way forward. You’ll stand impressed, if not confused, by his principles of inclusion and unity as he encourages Hamas to join the Budrus demonstrations: "[I am] the most ardent critic of the ideology of Hamas. However, they are an authentic part of Palestinian society." And you’ll get a spiritual sense that his peacemaking actions are inspired by a very real-world dream of “world-making”—the power of creating what is possible in spite of ourselves. Here, Ayed’s hope seems to resemble the Christian hope toward reconciliation, which is, according to Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice, “a vision…grounded in the unseen.”
Through Ayed’s teenage daughter, Illtezam, you’ll feel the lively current of gender consciousness flowing within the heavy-laden religious and cultural structures of Islam. She lobbies her dad, successfully, to include women in the risk-filled demonstrations in Budrus. You’ll watch her step courageously into a recently-dug hole in order to prevent an Israeli army bulldozer from tearing into more of her village’s olive trees. And you’ll hear her admit, in a critically telling moment near the end of the film, that she can now conceive of friendship with Israeli Jews because she has seen that not all Jews are “the enemy.” (She encountered Israeli Jews who protested alongside the Palestinian Muslims of Budrus).
Yet, for me, the post-film reflection and conversation in the Baptist church lingers—with all its assumptions, biases and side-picking. Here, as with Budrus, we have another reminder that the walls we construct—from any number of materials, really—are, at first, immaterial, cutting to the heart and to what can bind the heart for good, bad or ugly.
In a post-9/11 essay included in the newly released The Routledge Reader in Christian-Muslim Relations, Religion Watch editor Richard Cimino describes the role of fundamentalist interpretations of biblical prophecy which account strongly for the still-dominant negative view of American evangelicals regarding Islam and Muslims, especially in connection to the conflict in Israel-Palestine. This view often manifests itself in the tenets of Christian Zionism. Speaking at last year’s Evangelicals for Peace summit in Washington, D.C., Pastor Bob Roberts, Jr.—in his bold and disarming Texas manner—passionately urged American evangelicals to move beyond all this "speculative theology." Roberts said that committed Jesus-followers are compelled time and again to return to a truly Christian vision of Muslims—one that is more influenced by the concrete and central gospel teachings of Jesus.
Going a step further: Perhaps like Adam Estle, the executive director of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding, maybe American Christians could eventually arrive at the place where we humbly say: “My sense of urgency to be part of a just, secure, and peaceful resolution is multiplied.” Budrus is, if anything, an urgency-multiplying film, in the directions of reconciliation and peace. Sami Awad, a Palestinian evangelical who directs the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, has said recently: “Peace is not just negotiated agreements between politicians. Peace is the process of building trust and respect between the peoples of the land.” Respect and trust both take virtue, diligence and perseverance.
Maybe then, when events conspire against ideals, what is built might stand the testing. Which begs the question of walls and their materials.