During this trip, I’ve been reading “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas à Kempis. While the book itself is full of wisdom, the cover of the edition I am reading shows an ancient depiction of a sullen Jesus, with eyes staring vacantly into the distance. His countenance overall appears disconnected and even bored, and the halo above his head seems to offer a holy excuse for Jesus’ implied passivity with humanity. This morning, my attention was drawn to the cover and I couldn’t help but wonder—is this really the Christ that we are to be imitating?
Today our group met up with the Holy Land Trust group and went to another protest. This time around was quite a bit more intense than the last protest we took part in. The Israeli soldiers lined the top of the wall high above us, and as soon as our group started marching towards the wall, even before we began yelling/chanting or anything, tear gas was immediately shot towards us. Some in the group got closer to the wall than others and were immediately immersed in the tear gas to the point that they couldn’t see and fell to the ground. Several olive trees caught on fire from the tear gas explosives. It was a scary and mind-boggling thing to experience/witness, and only became moreso when I saw a handicapped Palestinian in a wheelchair wheeling his way through the rocky terrain and the ashes of other olive trees that I’m sure he had witnessed the burning of. When I saw him, my heart went out to him and the people he represented with his extreme courage and perseverance. He did not go to throw stones, as some mistakenly believe is synonymous with being Palestinian. He, along with the other Palestinians who do this week after week, went with the full knowledge that they would once again experience the burning and choking sensation of tear gas, witness their land being burned and soldiers s with indifference, risk being put in prison or even their lives, and leave after all of this with the Wall still intact. However, the spot where we protested today has had the separation barrier pushed back quite a bit (I’m not good with distance, but it was a decent amount) simply due to the persistence of the Palestinians in making their voices heard. Little by little, it is doing something, and this brings cause for hope.
As I was taking all of this in, and pondering it afterwards, I thought of the typical Christian response and realized it just doesn’t cut it: “If Jesus were here…”—let’s re-phrase that, because he is here. He lives in each of us, and we are his ambassadors. Does Christ really look upon this conflict and the many other injustices in the world with that detached, “just leave it at the altar and pray the Rapture comes soon” look on his face, like on the cover of my book? I think not. There is a time and place to practice quiet reverance, to be sure, but sometimes the sacred is not found in church buildings, holy sites, or Scripture. If he walked into the Church of the Nativity or Holy Sepulchre, would we recognize him? Or would we back away, scared because he doesn’t fit in the pretty little box we’ve made for him and he doesn’t match all the portraits that the artists surely got right. The reverse of this should be true. We should be scared out of our minds if we ever dare to believe we fully understand God.
Sometimes the sacred is found in dirt. God created us with it, Jesus healed people with it and washed people of it. Sometimes it’s found in feasting and celebration…Jesus went to weddings and parties, often with some of the most disliked people in Israel. And, sometimes, the sacred is found in turning over tables and calling people out in their wrongdoing.
My personal depiction of Jesus on the cover of “The Imitation of Christ” would be of a really sweaty guy with kind of tangled hair and maybe a smudge of dirt on his shirt, with a smile on his face and ferocious love in his eyes, holding out his hand to you and saying “Follow me. Only don’t just follow, watching from a distance. Walk hand in hand with me, for I am with you. You don’t have to watch me from afar to figure me out. In the quiet, I am with you. In the refugee camp, I am with you. In a protest, I am with you. If you only remember this and talk to me, I will give you the love and grace for each moment.”
We don’t have to have it all figured out. We are imperfect, and God knows that we know not what we do. If I were God, I would think, “What fools these mere mortals be!” (shoutout to Shakespeare). But that is the amazing thing about God’s extravagence, is that he sees past the separation wall, past the uniform and kufia, past the guns and stones, sees only us standing stark naked with all our mistakes laid bare before him, and he points to you and says, “You. Yeah, you. I love you. Walk with me?”
I wish I could say that I’m gaining this kind of love, this love that leaves me speechless in its wake, but I’m not sure what I am feeling at the moment besides some sort of righteous anger at such injustice. But I can say that I am continually stepping back in awe of Christ’s redemptive love, and what that truly means. I have a whole new respect for people because I have been witnessing those who actually are imitating Christ, giving courage, love and peace a whole new meaning. Those words are easily defined in a dictionary, but not so easily discovered in this broken world.
In short, there is hope. A weird thing to say after seeing some pretty tough stuff over the last few weeks. But I think that we are capable of so much when faced with such situations. I have been challenged and inspired by people who, whether they meant to or not, whether they are even technically Christ-followers or not, have indeed been “imitators of Christ”, ambassadors of hope and love in a world that often seems devoid of such things. And I believe that, in the end, love really does conquer all.