Buried beneath the raw flesh of every scar there lies a story, a veiled truth manifested in the physical form. If you listen close enough they will whisper, confessing our sins, our triumphs, our follies and, even, our secrets.
His scar was no different. It stretched from just below the base of his thumb, over its meaty hillock to the tender flesh of his wrist and when I traced its length with a questioning, sand calloused finger it felt as smooth as a weathered river pebble. In other words, it was absolutely insignificant – another of life’s autographs to be found on any seasoned flesh – save, perhaps, to the one who bore it and myself, for the lesson it would impart.
It was, he explained, the byproduct of a reconstructive surgery meant to repair his hand when, during The War, a shell had jammed in the main gun and the resulting percussive explosion shattered the bones there. He snorted wryly when he recounted screaming for Morphine.
I didn’t have to ask which war he meant, by this time I was already familiar with some of the main points of his time as a solider; a story which had been the sole reason for us meeting at all during my first trip to Palestine.
As we sped northeast toward the Sea of Galilee, he began pointing out landmarks from that period of his life; the sites of old military bases, places he had trained, a strip of unremarkable road where soldiers had be shot at. For my part, I remained uncharacteristically quite, staring blankly out of the windshield and shifting uncomfortably in the passenger seat as the feeling of dissonance crept over me. It has always been difficult for me to reconcile the ruthlessness and brutality that I’ve come to associate with soldiers with the gentle spirit that was sitting beside me.
Regardless of my own disquiet, I willed myself to engage, to be present and to be good friend and allow him the space to speak his truth if he was compelled to do so. He, however, sensed my discomfort and quickly changed the topic. By the time that we gathered provisions and found a passable camp site, the sun had disappeared behind the mountains and so did my unease.
There is a strange cocktail composed of the wide night sky, the clinking of beer bottles slick with perspiration, the summer’s evening heat and good music that, when shared with the right companion, causes a bubble if intimacy to form. You begin telling each other truths, sometimes secrets, that you wouldn’t otherwise share. And so we laid there on our backs, an arm’s distance from each other, staring into the night sky and began to tell each other the pains and joys of our individual lives.
Later in the evening we were sitting next to each other, he facing me while he peeled a prickly pear and I staring out over the vast expanse of black water, when he muttered a truth to me. The sharpness of his voice caused me to whip my head around to face him, to read the expression on his face. My eyes, dilated like an owl’s, scanned the planes of his face which were blurred by darkness at its edges. What I saw was suffering, and my heart broke in response.
“I’m sorry,” I said inadequately as I reached for his hand, feeling the smooth flesh of the scar under my fingertips. I kept my eyes on his face, waiting for his reaction. Slowly, he ducked his head back to the pear in his hand and without thinking I crushed his thin body against my own, tucking his head beneath my chin.
“It’s ok,” I sighed into his hair before planting a kiss on the crown of his head. I held him for an untold amount of moments, until I felt his body relax and him pull away. After a few moments he offered a slice of the pear to me, its flesh as pink and tender as rose petal. I bit into it and was surprised by a loud crunching in my ears.
“Ah,” he laughed ” that’s the seeds. It’s really best if you just swallow.”
“Yes,” I replied softly, “but I feel compelled.”
I feel compelled…
This has, by far, been the most difficult post I’ve written to date. For seven months I’ve struggled to find the words to share this profound and complex experience. Hundreds of times I’ve begun writing only to scrap what I had and try to press on. Inevitably, it’s caused a case of acute writer’s block; unable to write but unable to move on until I do. It’s from within this frenzied paradox that I’m attempting to share, rather inelegantly, this experience on my journey.
I should begin with the realization that began all this …
I’d comforted a former IOF soldier, you see. Someone who had actively participated in the violence and oppression of Palestinians, people who I ally myself with.
That realization, the sheer weightiness of it, blindsided me, sending my world spinning off its axis. Initially, I felt guilty, that by comforting my friend I had somehow done something terribly wrong – I had betrayed Palestinians. The more I considered it, however, the more I realized what an absurd notion that was; to feel guilty for showing another human love and consideration. Isn’t that what the world is lacking? Isn’t that what we desperately need more of? Shouldn’t we recognize another’s humanity and offer comfort when needed? I truly believe that the only correct response to those questions is the affirmative.
As I released the feelings of Guilt – and its companion, Judgement – the concept redeemability began creeping into my mind. It’s a theme that’s deeply familiar to us, found in all manner of literature, movies, educational tropes and – of course – church. Yet, the way many of these modalities have handled the concept of redeemability has, effectively, stripped it of its complexity, of its interwoven-ness with the messy fragility of the human existence. The concept has become an abstraction from the truth.
So often we concern ourselves with only our own redemption (‘How can I be saved?’ or ‘How do I redeem myself?’), seldomly stopping long enough to identify this quality in others (‘Boy, they really redeemed themselves on that one!’) or, even rarer still, considering the journey that lie in between these stages. As I thought about my friend’s journey from IOF solider to pro-Palestinian activist, I began to ruminate…
Redeemability isn’t an achievement – by that I mean it’s not a prize awarded to us after having completed some divine “to do” list. You are not redeemable because you’ve served the poor, fought for justice, prayed the right way, completed rosaries for penance or gone to seminary. You are also not redeemable because you’re sorry for wrong doings. We are redeemable because we are given the grace of divine love, a love which operates independently of time and space. Simply; we are redeemable from the moment of conception to the moment of our judgement. Isn’t that incredible?
Now that we’re feeling all warm and fuzzy, it’s time for me to rock the boat (this wouldn’t be my blog if I didn’t!).
Remember when I said that we primarily concern ourselves with our own redemption? How many of you read the above paragraph and thought to yourselves, “Wew! Thank God that man on death row for triple homicide, or that registered pedophile down the street, or my boss who’s always on my case, or that asshole who cut me off in traffic is redeemable!” I’ll venture to guess none of you. And this is where redeemability becomes dangerous. Recognizing that this divine love extends to everyone, including people we consider our enemy, comes at a price.
If you accept that everyone is redeemable, and choose to internalize it then you have to release your anger, your hate, your prejudice. That is a terrifying thing to do – so many of us define ourselves by being a foil to the ‘other’. “I’m a good person – and am redeemable – because I’m not a scum sucking piece of shit that murdered people, or raped children, or dropped nuclear bombs, or manipulates people, or…” the list stretches on. These people who we juxtapose ourselves with are, in fact, every bit as redeemable as we are. The price we must pay to live with this truth is a sacrifice of self, a death of all anger, all hate, all preconceived notions that have become our closely held beliefs so that we may allow them inside and offer them the best of ourselves – our love.
So, where has this experience led me?
First, the understanding that I have no clue what is going on inside a soldier’s head – I know it doesn’t seem important, but it is. Shortly after my stint on team completed, I met another ex-solider who, after finding out I had been in Hebron for a 6 weeks, asked me how I did it. She said she had only been there one day, and had cried for weeks afterward. She, too, became a pro-Palestinian activist.
I’ve met many, many ex-soldiers who now fight against the violence and oppression their government levels against Palestine. If so many change their minds in the years that follow how, then, do I consider the soldier standing in front of me at a checkpoint? When I gain the understanding that they are redeemable then I have to admit that I do not know the inner workings of their mind; I don’t know how they feel about being in the military, I don’t know how they feel about Palestinians, I don’t know how they will end up in the future.
This experience has forced me to confront their humanity – thus, their redeemability. The price I’ve had to pay has been to let go of my hatred and “righteous anger.” This has been profoundly difficult; it is so much easier to view them as the “bad guys,” to hate them, to be fueled by anger….
But this isn’t how we make peace.
We make peace by touching the scars – mental, spiritual, physical and emotional – of others, acknowledging their humanity and responding with love.
(*** Important Author’s Note: I want to take a moment and plainly acknowledge the fact that my ability to let go of my anger and hatred for IOF soldiers is solely due to my own privilege. I am an outsider, a foreigner who has never had to live under the brutality of the Israeli military and, therefore, have the luxury to have that kind of “space” to work in. Palestinians, generally, do not have this space – they are assaulted, oppressed, and killed every hour of every day – whatever it is they feel is totally justified. As privileged outsiders, we are in no place to make judgement calls, to thought police, or to insist on any “right” way to feel.
I also want to point out that acknowledging humanity, and understanding that everyone is redeemable does NOT absolve anyone from wrong doing. It is imperative to hold IOF soldiers accountable for their misdeeds/crimes and to call them out for being part of an oppressive system. Being human, being redeemable does not give anyone a free pass. There is, however, a way in which we can do this compassionately and giving the respect every human being deserves.)