Ever since I returned from Gaza last month the poem ‘Making Peace’ by Denise Levertov has been playing on a loop in my head.
I am always amazed by the rich artistic expression we experience in Gaza. The girls of Darraj psychosocial clinic welcomed us with dancing. We drove past street art on the tree-lined boulevards of Gaza City. We heard from Nick Bilbrough, founder of the HandsUp Project about the power of storytelling, both as a tool for learning English and a way of processing trauma. We visited the art studio at the YMCA and saw incredible paintings poignantly illustrating the artist’s feeling of being encaged.
Out of the depths of such suffering comes incredible beauty. Art is both resistance and therapy.
I left Gaza last month, as always, deeply affected by what we saw there, simultaneously angry and heartbroken. But I have struggled to know how to write about it. How can I write so that the human stories are not lost behind statistics? How can I describe the absolute poverty we witnessed without evoking pity for the people there who deserve to live with respect and dignity? How can I capture the complexity of the situation, the effects of cuts in aid, and the unjust consequences of political power plays? How can I tell you about the work of our partners without repeating what I’ve already said, what you already know?
(If you’re new here and would like statistics, or short explanations of the complexity of the situation, or would like to know who our partners are there, you can find other Gaza posts here, here, here , here and a bit here.)
This time, in the weeks since returning from Gaza, I’ve been thinking about peace. I’ve been thinking specifically about our vision as a church of a ‘just peace’. I’ve asked myself over and over: ‘What does a just peace look like in Gaza? In Israel? In the West Bank? In the Middle East? In the world?’
And I can’t see it. I am unable to imagine a peace in this context that is not simply an absence of conflict.
The poets must give us imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar imagination of disaster. Peace, not only the absence of war.
Imagination of peace. Since the beginning of time, we have had poets giving us imagination of peace.
The Creator-Poet spoke the world into being, called it ‘good’ and gave the command for creation to flourish.
The prophet-poets cried out that God’s peace looks like swords being beaten into iron ploughs and spears into pruning tools. Justice sounds like rushing waters and righteousness looks like an ever-flowing stream.
The Christ-Poet pronounced words of blessing from a mountainside and traveled the Galilee telling strange stories of a kingdom like mustard seeds and leaven, like prodigal younger and resentful older sons both loved by their father, like a feared and despised Samaritan embodying God’s mercy.
… grammar of justice, syntax of mutual aid. A feeling towards it dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have until we begin to utter its metaphors …
I think of Gaza and I can see images flickering just beyond my sight. Words and phrases hover just out of my reach.
Peace is the scent of a fresh sea breeze without the heavy stench of raw sewage. Peace tastes of cold clean water on a desert summer’s day. Peace is the sound of bird song uninterrupted by the roar of military planes. Peace is a woman’s body unscarred by domestic abuse, a child’s smile, relaxed and free from fear, the tired pride in a man’s eyes when he returns home from a day at work knowing his efforts bring food for the family.
Peace feels like … I do not know what peace feels like.
Because we do not know peace. Not in Gaza. Not in the West Bank. Not in Israel. Not in all the world. We have not yet learned the grammar of justice. We have not yet worked out what mutual aid really means in our global community, because we are not attentive enough to one another’s need before there is a crisis.
Humanitarian aid may sadly be necessary now in places like Gaza but there is no mutuality in it. When will our thinking change, our actions change, to allow for a true mutual flourishing? When will we hear the cries for help and respond then, rather than waiting until it is too late?
The poet speaks of peace:
What sentence is our life making? As individuals? As churches? As communities? As countries?
Perhaps there we need to pause. To reflect. To observe each act of our living. To be honest about the words our lives create. To confess the extent to which profit and power implicitly or explicitly drive us.
How can we expect peace to come if we don’t have peace within ourselves? Within our families? Our churches? Our neighbourhoods?
How might we choose new words, that peace may pulse stanza by stanza into the world?
Maybe we start with words like repentance and forgiveness and mercy. Maybe we start with a love of God and neighbour that is so fierce it burns like a refiner’s fire. Maybe we start with a kindness so reckless it reminds us of a farmer who sows seeds with abundance on rocky ground and fertile ground alike.
Maybe there are days when that is too much to ask.
So maybe instead we start by pausing long enough, being still enough that we can feel our hearts beating steadily, our breathing slowing, deepening. Maybe we pause long enough, be still enough for us to remember that a longing for peace has pulsed through us from the day we were created, and the breath we breathe is inspired by the God who made us.
And in the pause, out of the stillness, maybe we will remember that this is true of every human being in this world.
Maybe if we begin to live our lives as though this is the most precious truth there is, maybe that is what the poet means when she speaks of a peace, a presence, an energy field more intense than war.
This is my prayer today: to be guided by the poets who have given imagination of peace since time began. If we start there, maybe one day we will know what a just peace feels like, not just in Gaza, but everywhere.