The Cross of Christ Can Open the Door to Peace in the Holy Land

‘As Jesus drew near, he saw Jerusalem and wept over it, saying, If this day you only knew what makes for peace …’ (Luke 19:41-42)

Members of the local Catholic Palestinian parish carry a wooden cross into the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City during the Good Friday procession on April 7.
Members of the local Catholic Palestinian parish carry a wooden cross into the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City during the Good Friday procession on April 7. (photo: Menahem Kahana / AFP via Getty Images)

The day was beautiful. The students in Ann Arbor, having hardly seen the sun for several months, were out and about. I was among those out-and-about students on that spring day in 2003. Some friends and I were seated at a round table in a pizza restaurant. I’d met these friends through the Muslim Students Association. An hour of joking around, eating a late lunch, and not having a care in the world, had elapsed, feeling as though no time had passed at all. A moment that several of us had tacitly dreaded was nigh: time to pay up. 

The waitress handed each of us our bills. We were college students, confident that some of us would one day even be rich enough to buy a pizza joint like this. But we knew that “one day” was still some years away. 

A good friend of mine, a pre-med student, had been seated to my right. He looked down at his bill. This friend also happened to be a drinking buddy of mine, something we’d neglected to mention anything about while in our present company. My eyes caught rapid glances of his bill, and the hesitancy in his face. He put down some cash over the bill on the table, then stood himself up. The amount he’d left was enough to cover the bill, as well as a tip amounting to less than $2. 

I wanted him to leave just a little bit more. There was one surefire way to get him to throw a few more bucks on the table. His parents were originally from Hyderabad, in India, a city that was almost 3,000 miles away from the Holy Land. Geography didn’t matter in this case. “Come on,” I told him. “Don’t be a Jew.”

My friend’s eyes flashed intensely. He animatedly pulled a $10 bill out of his wallet, slapped it onto the table, and nodded at me. 

My own mother was from Pakistan, also part of the Indian subcontinent, thousands of miles from Jerusalem. Desis are not Arabs. Even so, the prejudices which my friend and I had been immersed with since childhood were among those instilled in countless Muslims throughout the world. This friend of mine was a decent person, and very much so. He certainly wasn’t the type who’d just ignore someone that was lying injured on the sidewalk. Most of the Muslims whom I’d ever met were likewise decent people. But commonly held prejudices oftentimes diminished that decency.

Our prejudices were fueled by a familiar narrative, that of a “predatory” people (a “them”) perpetually preying upon an “innocent” people (obviously “us”) under the approval of powerful allies. We understood that the modern Muslim World was fractured, that many of those poor and fractured states also happened to be failed states, and that the glories of the early Caliphate had passed by many centuries ago. Blame was intuitively assigned for this. Much of the guilt for the Muslim World’s shortcomings fell on those who, in our view, had snatched away the great Dome of the Rock. 

The state of Israel was regarded as an occupying force, and an apartheid state, imposed upon what long had been Muslim land. A few of my co-religionists had even expressed belief in some rather wild conspiracy theories — for instance, that the Jews (having a worldwide population well under 20 million) were planning a genocide against the Muslims (having a worldwide population of roughly 1.8 billion). 

The result of so much blame was an ongoing conflict, with no end in sight.

I, for one, had befriended and trusted several Jews whom I knew well enough at the personal level, held my share of suspicions toward the Jewish people as a whole, and typically rolled my eyes whenever a fellow Muslim expressed his or her own suspicions of Jews. As a proud American, I’d had a distaste for whenever any of my co-religionists expressed their loathing of my country (especially when it was from someone who’d immigrated to our country) but still had no problem whatsoever with any loathing of Israel. 

As of Sunday, the state of Israel has survived for 75 years, thus far. This is a feat that merits much admiration. 

My own notions concerning Israel have evolved much in those years since that lunch with my pals. Since that time, I’d deserted Islam (2006), gotten baptized in an Evangelical church (2007), and was received into the Catholic Church (2012). Questioning the true intentions of the faith I’d been reared in naturally went hand-in-hand with questioning the narratives I’d previously been familiar with. It turned out that many facts had needed to be omitted in order for that narrative, regarding Israel, to be kept as a story of good and evil.

The events that transpired over several decades leading up to 1948, the unanticipated outcome of the first Arab-Israeli War, and all that has occurred in those years since, are in all much too complex to be explained away by simple narratives. The waves of Jewish immigration (Aliyah) which had been occurring even before Hitler ever came to power (which had brought more than a few economic benefits to the area), the overwhelming Jewish acceptance of UN Resolution 181 in 1947, and major concessions which Israel had willingly agreed to in exchange for recognition and security (the Camp David Accords of 1978 being chief among them), were among those details which were glossed over, or outright ignored, by that black-and-white narrative. 

The military doctrines of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were likewise as they were for a reason. Israel, being as small of a country as she is, and having relatively few resources, could hardly be expected to endure a surprise attack or a sustained war. If war is imminent, she must strike in her own defense. That was how the Six Day War, an event considered catastrophic and humiliating throughout the Muslim World, had unfolded.

The Jews turned out not to be particularly “good” or “bad” people. They’d wanted a homeland, a place where they wouldn’t be dominated by others. They were doing whatever it took for that country to survive. They were just as human as anyone else. 

The hardships that many Palestinians have endured since 1948 are very much real. The Holy See recognizes both the state of Israel (having formal relations since 1993) and the Palestinian state (having formal relations since 2015).

That narrative I’d grown up believing in gladly blamed Israeli action, as often as it could, for all of the sufferings of the Palestinian people. That narrative likewise excluded any of the actions taken by neighboring Arab states, as well as the ineptitude of the Palestinian Authority, which exacerbated any Palestinian suffering. Why did our narrative ignore our shortcomings? Must it always be a “them” that caused all of our hardships and failures? 

Was our concern, as Muslims, really about “justice” for the Palestinians’ sake, or rather driven by resentment that Jerusalem wasn’t under Muslim rule? When considering Islam’s history of conquest and domination, and that early Caliphate’s exploits had been catapulted by our role model himself, wasn’t it understandable that the Israelis were reluctant to agree to arrangements we’d called “justice” if those demands could have been our stepping-stones toward reclaiming dominance? And how was the destruction of any of Islam’s “enemies” magically supposed to make the Muslim World so much more productive?

Narratives that rely on blame poison minds, as well as souls. They cause men and women to fall prey to the illusion that their own misfortunes are always caused by forces without, rather than anything within, thus absolving them of accountability. Unfortunately, such narratives are very much common.

One narrative blamed “the Jews” and “the West,” whereas another narrative blamed “the bourgeois,” and yet another blames “the deplorables” today. They’re all the same: excuses to hate and destroy.

The landmark case of Grutter v. Bollinger, concerning the University of Michigan’s rather sloppy affirmative action policies during that time, had been heard before the Supreme Court during that same spring of 2003. Political Correctness, which was tossing a victim’s mentality around like it was currency, was very popular on campus. The word “justice” was being used by many as though it were going out of style. That word, “justice,” has become even more chic on campuses since then. It’s an incredibly pliable word, as the attempts to define it in the opening chapters of Plato’s Republic (an important, yet remarkably boring, book) demonstrate, which is conveniently used to justify all sorts of nonsense in our day. Whose convenient definition of a very pliable word are we supposed to accept as true? 

Several relatives of mine struggle with mental illness. Diagnosed bipolar disorder is unfortunately rather common in my family. I’ve had several chances to witness how this pathological way of thinking, of considering oneself to be completely “innocent” and others to be completely “guilty” for any trials that one faces, can lead to much destruction, much of it being self-destruction. It’s a glimpse of what hell really might be like. And I often wonder whether the difference between an ideology and an individual case of mental illness is merely one of scale.

Should we ever expect hating others for their “faults” to inspire them to mend their ways? Do we each not have enough faults of our own which we can acknowledge and even do something about? Do we each not have our own contribution to the world’s madness which culminated in the crucifixion of Our Lord?

I wonder what changes the world would immediately see if each and all of us just agreed to abandon the practice of always blaming others, and acknowledge our own faults instead, saying: “I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault…”

I’d wager that, if everyone were suddenly to agree to this, the world would begin to find true peace within a matter of days. The Sacrament of Reconciliation offers us the opportunity to do just that. It was the Church which has guarded the integrity of this sacrament for 2,000 years that I ultimately gravitated toward in my own faith journey. 

A lasting peace in the Middle East is a legacy that has eluded so many political figures in recent memory. How many of our Caesars are under the impression that peace simply means to put the guns down, at least for the time being?

A capable Caesar can persuade opposing parties to agree to treaties, but he has no power to remove the hatred festering in our hearts. Jesus Christ alone has that power.