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Saturday, December 24, 2016

Advent in Jerusalem

I ate lunch in Jerusalem twice this Advent.

Not, alas, Jerusalem the city, but Jerusalem the excellent new Middle Eastern restaurant in my town, right up the road from the other Middle Eastern restaurant, which is called Babylon. So you can walk from Jerusalem to Babylon in about two minutes. Babylon is owned by an Iraqi, and Jerusalem by a Palestinian. I like them both, but I'm coming to like Jerusalem better. It may just be the cult of the new. Or maybe it's the name. After all, medieval Christians longed for Jerusalem so much that they made an armed pilgrimage there and slaughtered thousands of the inhabitants. If my love of this restaurant is rooted in sentimentality, at least it's a less lethal form.

It's so hard for us to deal with the "other" in terms that aren't distorted in some way by our fantasy (in the negative, medieval sense of the term, or the sense in which the Romantics would distinguish "fancy" from "imagination"). I walk into Jerusalem already feeling virtuous because I'm counteracting the election of Donald Trump just by being there. I genuinely love the food, but the fact that I love the food makes me feel both sophisticated and tolerant. And, of course, I know that all of this is silly.

I go into the restaurant with some idea of asking the proprietor if he's had any harassment since the election. But then, I don't actually know that he's a Muslim in the first place (though the sort of goons who would harass Muslims would no doubt assume he was). I know he's from Ramallah, a Palestinian city with a large Christian population. I can't very well ask him "are you a Christian or a Muslim." So I sit there and eat my tabbouleh and my stuffed falafel (utterly delicious), and I wonder what to say, and in the end I say nothing.

I see the young man who helps behind the counter and think involuntarily, "what if it turned out that he really was a terrorist? It's statistically improbable, but it's possible." Then I feel ashamed for thinking it, of course. Then, much later, I think what I should have thought first--what a burden it must be for a young man who looks "Middle Eastern," to walk around in American society knowing that people are looking at him and thinking (even just for an instant), "he looks like a terrorist."

And then I think about how he must see me. What do I look like to him? What does it mean for a Palestinian to set up a restaurant in a community where so many of the churches preach unqualified support for Israel? What does it mean to go to work every day and serve people food knowing that they may fear you just because of the way you look and the accent with which you speak?

In the peaceable kingdom for which we long, we will be able to see the other in all his difference without self-consciousness, without the difference clouding our perception of the other as a person. There is no "color-blindedness." There is no "just seeing people as people." None of us are just people. We all drag around with us a cloud of associations and echoes and resonances. We can't experience each other, or anything else, without such associations. And in the redeemed Creation they will, like the wounds of Christ, be an occasion of glory and no longer of shame. As Chesterton put it, the lion will lie down with the lamb without losing his kingly ferocity.

But here, in this valley of tears, we have to deal with the fact that we are all, in that terrifying Roman proverb, "wolves to each other." We cannot pretend that we do not fear each other, or that we do not sometimes have reason to fear. What we can do is reach out to each other anyway, eat each other's food, speak each other's language, defend each other from injustice, hold each other in the howling darkness. We cannot get wholly rid of the prejudiced associations and assumptions that get in the way of seeing the other in glory as God's good creature. But we can keep moving through the fog toward the dimly seen form of the other instead of sitting down and letting the toxic mist of our own prejudices isolate us from each other.

Oh come, thou radiance from on high,
And cheer us by thy drawing nigh,
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death's dark shadows put to flight.

Next year in Jerusalem.






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