“How good it is, how pleasant for God’s people to live in unity.” – Psalm 133:1
The first time I experienced a gathered meeting was at Mid-Year Meeting of Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative. We were in an old meeting house up on a hill that overlooked the prairie. It was a windy day. As we sat in meeting for worship, the wind whipped around us. The silence was deep and rich. As the wind swirled, stirring up dust and bringing a breeze into the meeting house, I could sense the Spirit also moving in the room. I felt as though we were one body, coming together.
I don’t remember the messages given that day, but I do remember the sense that we were of one Spirit, and that many people could have been the vessels for the different messages shared. The experience shook me up and grounded me, helped me to see that unity is possible and can be powerful. When the Spirit brings unity on purposeful action, it can work like a strong wind to bring change.
A couple of years ago AFSC hosted a revolutionary nonviolence training series. In one conversation the idea of whether nonviolence was only a strategy or a deeper philosophy was discussed. I was reminded of the Tribe One song, “The saddest thing is that I will do what you have done to me.” My sense is that trauma, whether from war or from other forms of violence, causes people to seek revenge, to want to make the person who has hurt you feel what you have felt. This is such a human and understandable response; it arises from the impulse to defend oneself, from the impulse to resist. Sometimes the act of violence is transferred to others--not to the perpetrator that has hurt you, but to those who are weaker than you, to those who you encounter after the act of violence.
Repeating patterns of violence holds the person who has been the original target of the violence in the grasp of the act of violence, reacting to what he or she has experienced. This is a kind of prison of its own, as the target is still reacting to the act of the perpetrator, held in the grip of the act. The condition of one’s heart matters in struggle. How you hold the struggle for justice matters if we are to create a new way of being, if the cycle of violence will be interrupted. The means inform the ends. Nonviolence is not only a strategy, but a philosophy of living, a way of liberating oneself from the acts of others.
When we were in Gaza, we met a young woman Ayah, who is working with AFSC as part of our Palestinian Youth: Together for Change project. Ayah told us that during the Cast Lead assault her four-year-old brother asked her if the bombings would happen again that night. Ayah told him, “no” and stayed up each night that followed covering his ears so that he wouldn’t hear the bombings. Every time the house shook, she worried that he might wake up.
Ayah said her dream is to drive from Gaza City to Haifa, to be able to move freely in Palestine. She said that she reaches back in her memory, in her unconscious, for images of Haifa and Nazareth and cannot find them, they aren’t there. Because of the occupation and the siege on Gaza, she has never seen the cities her grandparents called home, even though they are not far from Gaza.
Ayah said she wondered what it would feel like to be free. She seemed so hopeful, joyful even despite all she has experienced. Though I heard determination to work to end the siege on Gaza and the occupation of Palestinian land, I heard no bitterness in her voice, no desire for retribution, only a desire for freedom, for peace with justice. Ayah can’t leave Gaza, but in the sense of having an open and resilient heart, she is free.
When we left Gaza, we walked the half a mile through the fenced in tunnel, past the ominous remote controlled machine gun perched on the separation wall, through the sequence of four metal sliding doors that buzzed slowly to let us through, to the long conveyor belt where we deposited our bags to be checked. We walked past the soldier with the submachine gun who stood watching us as another soldier with plastic gloves unpacked and checked our bags.
It was hard not to think we were walking through the enclosures of unhealed trauma, of a people who were victims now perpetuating the violence they experienced by putting up walls and checkpoints, limiting the movement of Palestinians, believing that guns and armaments will protect them. Walls that separate us are created first in the heart.
It was hard to leave Ayah behind. I wept, knowing that we could leave, but she could not follow. I wept because I didn’t know when we might next see her and the other amazing people we met there.
What will it take to knock down the separation walls, the checkpoints, the intricate restrictions that Palestinians experience every day? As I’ve met Palestinians and Israelis working to end the occupation, I have felt the Spirit rising, have felt a powerful nonviolent commitment to come together to knock down the structures that separate, that dehumanize, and that imprison. To accompany their witness, what’s needed is a worldwide hurricane of the Spirit like the unified Spirit that moved through the meetinghouse in Iowa that day. What’s needed is coming together to knock the physical walls and those in our hearts down, to restructure society so that all are free to travel, to move, to work and to love.
I hope one day soon to meet Ayah in Nazareth or Haifa or Gaza City after the blockade is lifted, after the separation wall is gone, after the checkpoints are dismantled. When I see her, I will ask her how it feels to be free.