The end of last month marked the beginning of Passover, in which Jews throughout the world celebrated the exodus of Jewish slaves from Egypt. It also marked an escalation of violence in the Middle East, with Palestinian suicide bombers detonating themselves ever more frequently and Israel asserting its might by pushing ever further into Palestinian settlements.
Tanks now crush homes in the land that birthed the three monotheistic religions. Palestinian gunmen squat inside the Church of the Nativity, while Jewish soldiers chip away at the exterior with their bullets.
Outside a nearby hospital, workers lay crumbled on the dusty
street, bleeding to death. Gunfire prevents hospital workers from dragging the wounded to safety.
In the Israeli supermarkets and Palestinian town squares, men silently mouth their respective prayers. They do so in open, without need for secrecy or shame. In the Holy Land, the redemptive belief in God is entwined in even the most casual of daily activities. There, "A person consists of his faith.
Whatever is his faith, even so is he," as the old proverb goes.
So what has been the result? For starters, all sense of future possibilities has been ripped to shreds. Palestinian children presently roam the streets pleading to become suicide bombers.
To the American traveler, the sight of a person silently mouthing prayers in the supermarket or the image of children waving their guns seems appalling. In the Holy Land, it is merely a way of life.
In America, one is often made to feel shame if he or she incorporates prayer into daily ritual. Those founding fathers that invented the United States kept a formal distance between religion and state. The United States has little religious history (beyond the Puritans who enthusiastically persecuted one another in the early days of the American continent). Without this foundation, the vast inhabitants of this culture move neither toward nor away from any moral foundation, and tend to find enjoyment largely in aesthetic pleasures and accumulating good credit.
In the Middle East, religion runs much deeper. It animates the lives of the citizens and also forms a dark undercurrent that threatens to destroy them. There, along the Palestinian settlements and Israeli towns, where people openly pray and murder, we witness both the best and the worst that religion can offer. There, religion ties the inhabitants to immutable principles that help them distinguish between right and wrong; it also births a certain tribalism, with rival religions attempting to blot out all others. For either side - Israeli or Palestinian - to compromise, would be to commit suicide on those core values that endows each culture with its unique meaning.
This problem is a different spiritual illness than that which we experience in America. It is a spiritual illness whereby deep religious convictions are inextricably entwined with egoism and nationalism. It reminds us that only when religion transcends personal vanity and the transient trappings of a particular culture, can authentic religious enlightenment be achieved.