My Friends in Palestinian Laugh

I’m not going to lie to you, the past few weeks since my last post were rough. By that I mean incredibly heavy and depressing.

It does something to you to cross a checkpoint made out of concrete and steel regularly, it does something to you to go on a bus tour and see the ways that the government is systematically crushing bedouin peoples’ culture and livelihood, it does something to you when an orthodox Jewish man looks at you with fear in his eyes because (although dressed exceedingly like a tourist) you are coming from the “wrong” part of town–i.e. Bethlehem–with olive skin. These and a series of other small things add up to a small but heavy load on my back. It’s like carrying a 40 pound weight around. I have slept more, been more worn out by pedestrian things, and been a good deal more snarky on the inside than I’d like.

I suppose that yes, some of this is culture shock. The emotional exhaustion that comes from every tiny thing taking twice as long and requiring getting lost along the way is significant. It is true that I don’t just live in one cultural reality here, but I navigate two. A bus ride from Bethlehem takes me to Jerusalem and the differences between the two are huge. In my head today I realized that it is like going from Latin America to Europe in about 20 minutes. Relatively conservative Arabic culture to a semblance of European Jewish culture, also these people don’t like each other.

I think though that there is more there. How in the hell does anyone deal with all of this terrible nonsense? A history forged out of the blend of suicide-bombers, stolen homes and land, armed occupation, a series of wars, and the holocaust? Good Lord. It is enough to make me cry. And it has. I broke down in my kitchen after the bedouin tour and wept.

In the midst of all of this I remember a moment at a party I was invited to recently. My friends in Palestine (They’re Orthodox Palestinian Christians–about 60% of Bethlehem is Arab Christian) generously had me over for their combined birthday party and showered me with kindness and inclusion. The last hour of the party shifted to story time. I have found that the Palestinian parties I have been to start with food and smoking, then move to singing and sometimes dancing, then jokes/stories. This particular story time was all about the second uprising–the second infitada. The stories ranged from bystanders being shot in the butt and begging to be let into homes in the middle of a firefight, stories about hiding weapons from the IDF, stories about non-combatants being beaten by Israeli soldiers. In short, things from a terrible time. But in the midst of all of these stories, my Palestinian friends laughed. They laughed hard. These were comical stories to them. Stories of heartbreak and danger and violence turned hysterical.

I am just now starting to be able to understand how anyone can do this. How human beings can avoid being crushed under the weight of horror and hurt and loss. I have experienced loss, but at no point have I lived in a war-zone filled with the sort of meaningless death and violence that my friends know. In all of this I was struck by a quote by an author I can’t remember that goes something like this: “In response to tragedy we can either laugh or cry. I choose to laugh because it’s not as messy.” There is absolutely something to this. Of course my friends have cried. They are not robots. They have seen and experienced more than I am likely to ever see/experience. I would not doubt if they cry still occasionally. Grief and mourning are good expressions of being human. But eventually it would seem that there is something to turning the power of our wounds against themselves by turning them into jokes. I don’t know that I would dare wade deeper into these waters than that. Their jokes are not mine to make, but I am welcomed to laugh along with them.

I think today I had a moment where I understood something important about how that happens. One of my favorite theologians has a perspective on humor. His argument is that in light of the resurrection of Jesus, humor is a faithful response to the world. We certainly cry. We are wounded. We are bloodied. But for the Christian, God has given us an undeserved insight about the grain of the universe–it runs towards redemption in Jesus. If all the walls, all the guns, all the hatred, all the hate, all the pain, is overcome in the crucified, resurrected, and exalted Jesus…then perhaps, it is faithful to laugh deeply with tears in our grief-stricken eyes.

Today I looked out my window at the wall that has been built around Bethlehem, separating farmers from their fields, people from their livelihoods, a Palestinian economy from outside investment and I realized I was only looking at the horror. I was only looking at the pain. I was only looking at the fear. I was not looking at Jesus. The Crucified One with holes in his hands, feet, and sides who is more alive than any of us. When I did that, I remembered that the wall in all of its horror and ugliness cannot win. The wounds will be healed. The walls will come down. The guns, teargas canisters, bombs, and molotov cocktails will be beaten into plowshares to husband the ignored olive trees.

This doesn’t make the evil things here any less ugly, but it does move me to laugh. Strangely. Indescribably. Today I began to look at the ugliness with the start of a chuckle in my belly. The weight changed. I noticed it change the way I acted too. I went into Jerusalem (almost 3.5 weeks after getting here) and did touristy things. I went to Gethsemane, the church of the holy sepulcher, meandered the old city market, made a new Arab friend, had falafel for dinner, went up the Catholic Notre Dame center for a view of the city at night and drank a new favorite Palestinian beer in sight of the tension-filled “Holy” city. Then I walked through West Jerusalem and gladly spoke Hebrew with people in passing on my way to the bus home.

I noticed art. I noticed the beauty of candle-light and sung vespers in the church of the holy sepulcher. I noticed people that were kind. I noticed beer and falafel that were delicious. I noticed an unquenchable levity in my chest in spite of all the things that tempt me to hide in my apartment forever and only watch Friends. I’d like to think that what is in my chest is joy. Joy being the taste of what is to come in the reconciliation of all things in Jesus.

I have no idea if that’s what it is. I have no idea if I’m being to flippant with stories of hurt, death, and fear. I think though, that we all have to find ways forward in the dark if we’re not to collapse under the weight of the bare facts of existence. The world is a pretty ugly place. I’m not saying that looking at Jesus means that we ignore it or say, “ah, the end of evil will come, so in the meantime I’ll sit on my ass and wait.” It means that we aren’t crushed under the weight of evil. We can move forward. We can laugh. We can cry. We can work with the Holy Spirit and each other–whether we know it or not–toward what my Jewish friends call “tikkun olam” (the repair of the world). And frankly, until Jesus comes again we shouldn’t stop doing any of these things.

Just a few thoughts for you on the end of your Shabbat/Saturday.