How could a person living under military occupation, experiencing first-hand suffering and humiliation, even think about loving the enemy, let alone urge family, friends and neighbors to do the same? This challenging message came from a young rabbi named Jesus in his "Sermon on the Mount."
Of course, Jesus could have suggested we make peace with our enemies or negotiate peace agreements or peacefully resolve conflict; those statements would have been as shocking to the suffering Jews of that time. Instead, he entreated them to go further: to "love" them. This was the word he chose -- a command to all those who seek to follow him.
I studied history to better understand what life in my homeland was like under Roman occupation. The Jewish people had been displaced and lost their property. Many had been tortured, enslaved and imprisoned. Numerous had died at the hands of their oppressors. Sadly, many Jewish religious and political leaders even compromised and corrupted themselves by their Roman superiors.
In a way, my own history seems to parallel what happened more than 2,000 years ago. Like those hearing Jesus' words for the first time, I too have grown up living under military occupation. I have witnessed suffering and the loss it brings. As a Palestinian, I could share countless stories of brutality and abuse. I could explain how fear and grief can quickly turn into anger and resentment.
However, it may surprise some in the West that I am an Arab who was born into an evangelical Christian family. I expect that my family's "conversion" to Christianity happened thousands of years ago on the day of Pentecost, not through mission work. As a boy growing up in Bethlehem, I went to church every Sunday and to Sunday school every Friday, fully immersed in a faith-based culture no different than a Christian family in Bethlehem, Pa., or Palestine, Texas.
As I was learning Bible stories, my day-to-day reality and experiences were teaching me to become bitter and hateful of Israeli soldiers and all they represented. I knew this was not what my faith, schooling or my family had instructed, but these were the life lessons I was learning.
Everything changed for me in the early 1980s when my uncle returned from the United States to establish the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence in Bethlehem. Now I found a place to address my resentment and vent my anger. I began participating in many nonviolent activities to protest the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands -- from planting olive trees in threatened areas to participating in children's street festivals with balloons colored like the Palestinian flag. When the Israeli government deported my uncle for his nonviolence efforts, I committed myself to engaging in this important work. I was 16 at the time.
For more than 20 years, I have been studying, practicing and teaching nonviolence both inside and outside of Palestine. I started Holy Land Trust in 1998 to promote the idea that nonviolence can be a path toward peace and a greater humanity in this land we all call Holy. Our organization is made up of Palestinians -- both Christians and Muslims -- who work together to develop awareness campaigns, provide training, organize demonstrations, etc. Our efforts often receive the support of internationals, including a growing number of Israeli Jews.
So while I had grown up knowing about the Sermon on the Mount, living it creates a different meaning and purpose. The first step in loving the enemy is to love and honor myself as a person loved by God, to break free from the fear and hatred within me, and to no longer claim victimization and seek pity as a result of the oppressive forces around me. This takes creating a deep distinction between those who stand before me and their behaviors and recognizing that every human being is created in the image of God. It requires acknowledging that conditions, traditions, experiences, traumas and assumptions can shape who we have become but are not who we truly are and, more importantly, who we can be. It's understanding that our core common identity is in our humanity and not in political, ideological or even religious associations.
As a follower of Jesus, I am compelled to promote a process of healing and liberation for those being oppressed as well as for their oppressors. Loving the enemy means you ultimately eliminate the label of "enemy" and engage in loving action to help them recognize and acknowledge your humanity. This is how to love your enemy, to really love them.