Not long after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, I asked an adult group at my parish if they would like to visit a mosque. The unanimous response was positive, and I arranged for us to spend a Saturday afternoon at an Islamic center that had been established about 30 years before.
The imam and members of the congregation spent several hours with us; explained the architecture of the building and the content of worship; frankly discussed the attacks, and served us a catered lunch.
The imam said that groups like ours regularly visited the mosque and that an elderly Jewish woman once told him as she was leaving, “I was physically afraid to come here. Now, I know better.”
I am not naïve. I know that there are two billion Muslims in the world, and they are as varied in their opinions and behavior as are the two billion Christians. But my experience at that mosque and at other mosques and synagogues I have visited demonstrates what should be obvious, that the fact that people have fundamental and even unreconcilable differences doesn’t mean that they can’t live together in a civil society.
I’m thinking about this because of the conflict between Israel and the terrorist group Hamas. That’s not going to be resolved by a Saturday afternoon visit and a tray of baked ziti. At my advanced age, I don’t expect it to be resolved in my lifetime. Even if Israel were to eradicate Hamas, the tension between Israel and the Palestinian people would remain.
That might sound like despair, but it is not. I am realistic about the history and nature of that conflict, but I am not pessimistic about human nature.
The afternoon of the mosque and the war in Israel and Gaza are thousands of miles apart, but they exist in the same reality and are carried out by people who share the dignity and the potential that come from being made in the image of God.
We can’t intervene between Israel and Hamas nor solve the issue of a Palestinian state, but we can refuse to allow our relationships to be infected by the intractable divisiveness that has so far frustrated attempts to bring peace to the Near East.
Movements like Hamas do not draw strength only from their internal motivations but also from encouragement they receive from outside, even from our own neighbors.
We can and should pray for peace, but we also can reject stereotypes and help build a culture of mutual understanding and acceptance, hoping to create a world in which those who inspire and support hatred and violence are drowned out—.or, please God, rediscover their humanity.
We have our model in Jesus, who ignored ages-old taboos in his interactions with gentiles and Samaritans and lepers. He meant for us to imitate him. Peace will not begin with Israel and Hamas. If it doesn’t begin with us, where will it begin?