About three weeks ago, I sat and listened to two visitors from the Holy Land, both of them with harrowing stories to tell me of how the people they most dearly loved had been killed in the conflict raging there – a woman who had lost her son, a young man who had lost his brother. Stories that you could multiply by the thousand in the Holy Land today. But what was different was that the woman was Jewish and the young man an Arab Muslim; and they were travelling the world to tell their stories side by side.
Well there’s plenty of challenge still in the news from the Holy Land and the talks in coming weeks will have some hard business to transact, but I hope that they don’t forget brave people like these and others who belong to the Families Forum – that’s a network for those who have been bereaved through violence in Israel and Palestine and who are committed to joining together to work for peace. There are several such groups – as indeed there were in Northern Ireland in the darkest days there: people who are able to say, ‘I know the worst that war can do, and I am turning my back on revenge’.
Few statements could be more powerful. What my visitors were saying was that grief and desperate loneliness aren’t political things but human things. It’s that only when we can get to the humanity can we begin to get beyond the sterility of historic racial and religious conflicts. Facing the abiding realities of the human condition, facing death; your own, or that of someone you love, is something that puts everything else into perspective.
Change, real change, happens when we’re ready just to be human – not to use our suffering as another weapon against each other, not to argue about whose sufferings are worse, but just to recognise the same love and the same loss. Which is why my Jewish and Muslim visitors have been for me this year’s most important preparation for Christmas.
Christians believe that the most radical and total change in the history of the world happened when God began to speak to us in the voice of a human being – not the voice of a monarch or a philosopher or even a prophet, but the inarticulate voice of a child in need. When we start hearing the voice of God in the cries of the newborn child in the manger, we start being able to hear that voice in the raw humanity of other people. We can’t any longer write off the suffering of others on the grounds that they’re not really like us – because they’re Israeli and not Arab, Catholic and not Protestant or whatever.
Hard political talk can’t be avoided but God help us if that’s the only focus; we need the embodied signs of hope as well. And my two visitors from the land of Christ’s birth and death and resurrection were ambassadors for the freedom to listen without fear and anger and the freedom to act together. And that freedom – deepened and made universal and lasting – is what Jesus was born to achieve for us. This is the new humanity that is born with him on Christmas Day.