PART II – FORGIVENESS – IT’S ABOUT HUMANITY – REMEMBER THE PAST BUT DON’T LIVE IN THE PAST
Archbishop Elias Chacour with students at MEEI
Forgiveness and Reconciliation are the bedrock of continuance into any future dealings or relationship, and evolution in any situation that requires it, and continues to be a great part of Feminenza’s work. Educating the new generations, building tools that help find the strengths a person can turn to in themselves that enable the steps towards healing and reconciliation and then forgiveness is crucial. But it does require update and change in some very basic core understandings, many of which were so poignantly brought to life during the conversation with Abuna from his rich life experience and sage wisdom, which highlighted and confirmed the great importance of forgiveness and its possible implication worldwide in bringing light to dark corners of life; but it takes courage and infallible faith and belief in the human mind and heart to make the right choices.
Mary: What does it take? What comes through your book, like the story you told many years ago, that you had to lock your entire congregation inside the church, until they decided to get up and reconcile with each other... I read that and I thought, what did that take to do that? Was it courage? Was it belief? Was it frustration?
Father Elias: I did not prepare that. I did not foresee to do that. The idea came to me because in our prayers, several times, the priest turns to the people and says “peace be to you”. And each time I said, “peace be to you”, I saw that there is no peace in these people. They are lamentably divided about nonsense. And even there were five brothers present, and the elder one was a police officer. He came to church with the police dress to impress everybody. His mother died a few months before that. I pleaded with him to let his brothers come and say goodbye to their mother, he would not agree, and she was buried without her children bidding farewell.
So I was very confused. Am I their parish priest? I don’t think so. Is Jesus Christ their Lord? It can’t be, all the time they are so lamentably divided. So after the prayer, I went to the door, without thinking, without planning. I don’t plan these things. These things you cannot plan. I locked the door, I took the key, it was a big key like that, a very big key. I took it in my hands, came to the alter, said to the people:
“Doors are closed. No one can go out, you can go out over my body only. I looked for someone to reconcile you. I’ve been your parish priest for six months and I don’t know all of you. I did not find anybody who had the power to reconcile you. But when I said to you, ‘Peace be unto you’, I meant that Jesus Christ sits with us. He can reconcile you. So in his name, I ask you, either to reconcile or you kill each other, and I will celebrate the funeral ‘gratis’ ... or you reconcile, I’ll become your priest and God will be your God.”
And I kept silent. Three longest moments of my life. If anybody would have said something nasty or vengeful, it would have destroyed all my vocation. After a few minutes, this policeman stood up and said, “Abuna, I feel that God is present with us. I can’t hide anything. I need to ask forgiveness from everybody. And I forgive everybody.” I said “Abu Nahib – don’t say anything more. Come here.” I hugged him and invited all men to come and hug him and hug each other. It took 45 minutes to do the operation. And then I told them, “You will go out now and you will start speaking among yourselves. Do not listen to your wives if they tell you not to reconcile. I invite you today”, (it was Palm Sunday, one week before Easter), “I invite you today to go and celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Because today is our resurrection.” And they went from home to home at 10 o’clock in the morning till 4 in the afternoon, visiting every home in the parish and singing the song of resurrection. I did not plan that. I could not plan that. There are moments in our life, if we submit to the Lord, we do things that we do not plan.
Liliane: You’re very passionate about this, I mean it’s really your life, I can feel it, and I’m wondering if there are other people in the school or that you know, who are as passionate about it as you are. This being their life’s mission.
Father Elias: If you have time, I would invite you to spend a few days with the children. And you can feel how passionate they are. Some people accuse me and say, “it is a one man show”. It’s not true. It’s no more my show, I am nothing here. What the children contribute to spread their mind about peace is astonishing. We have an exchange programme with America, another with England, with Germany, with Italy.
And to give you an example, those who went to America, they all wrote me “Your children are a miracle in our society. They are passionate about peace, about reconciliation. They know their problem; they know they’re hurting. But they overcome it. And we are very educated by them.” And they said, “mainly Nurha”, and Nurha is a Muslim girl. No, it’s no more one man show. It’s a community attitude. You go in the village and find anybody and ask them about the school, about what Abuna does here, you will see, he is changing our society. It’s too much for me, I don’t think I’m changing anything.
Mary: I’ve met Palestinians, for example, the Parents’ Circle, I have some friends there, and one of the things they’ve said to me is, “How can we talk about forgiveness when we are still under occupation, when we are still in the situation that we’re in?”. I know what I would say to that, but I would be interested to know how you address that issue?
Father Elias: I don’t know how to address it. It’s very difficult. Sometimes when an overseas person comes to me, they try to preach to me reconciliation, forgiveness. So I answer them with a kind of a parable, saying: “You look like a foreigner, who passed by a butcher who had tied his lamb and is trying to slaughter the lamb, but his knife was not sharp enough. He’s trying to sharpen his knife and that foreigner came there, he’s friend of that butcher. He was afraid to address the butcher to be careful, so that he wouldn’t hurt him, so he addressed the lamb, ‘Oh Lamb, tell your butcher to be careful not to hurt his finger’.” That’s our human society.
To forgive is something that is not normal. And if we do not forgive now, that we are oppressed, when will we forgive? When we are masters? We need to remember the past, but woe to us if we live in the past! I had the honour of welcoming the President of Israel, Shimon Perez, in the archbishopric. They wanted us to be only Christians. I invited 150, 125 Christian intellectuals, young people, bright people, men and women, and I stood welcoming the President, saying, “I am so honored to welcome you, in this archbishopric. But I want to welcome you in my capacity of a deportee refugee from Bar’am. May I remind you that the people of Bar’am are still alive. Bar’am is destroyed and they are waiting for justice to be implemented.” He interrupted me and said, “But your Excellency, you left Bar’am when you were 8 years old.” I said, “I did not leave, I was expelled”. “And it’s long, long ago, you still remember that Bar’am is your native village? Tell me when you are going to forget that Bar’ram is your native village?” I looked at him and said, “Shimon, I am astonished at your answer. You have been here 2000 years ago, and you were expelled with utmost violence by a Roman leader, not by a Palestinian, and you never forget that this land is your birthplace. Tell me, when are you going to forget that this land is yours?” He looked at me and said “touché”. What for touché? It’s not needed.
So, I think we don’t need to live in the past. And we don’t need to live in the future either. I think we need to live day to day. I don’t know if these ladies are Jewish. I love them. They are beautiful and they can live with us all the time here. And they are born babies. Like God was born in their images. So, I think there is a way, not only to forgive, but to go beyond forgiving, to respect and to love. You know?
Mary: Yes, Exactly, exactly, exactly. One of the things that often comes up in our workshops is the fact that forgiving doesn’t mean that you give up the fight for justice. But it means you don’t have to do it with hate in your heart.
Father Elias: But you cannot kill anybody without hate. You can’t pretend being peaceful and you’re fighting for justice and you want to go and kill someone. It’s impossible.
Mary: Exactly. So that’s the question – how do you fight for justice? Because I would say you do fight for justice, but not with violence.
Father Elias: I don’t want our young people to forget their history and to abandon their dignity and to be corrupted with violence, with vengeance. I’m not a politician. I belong to no political party at all. But I have my political opinions, that I keep for myself.
The mega picture is not very promising. It’s very gloom. Very, very dark I think, but if we look always to deal with the mega picture, we soon will get despair and hopeless. But there is also the small picture, man to man, person to person. Group to group, and that is so easily done in Israel, so many Jews have so many Palestinian friends. So many Palestinians have Jews (as friends). At our weddings, our baptisms, our funerals here in the village, it is impossible that we’ll be alone. There are always Jews coming to be with us. And we go, I go and present my condolences to my Jewish friends and to give them congratulations when they have something pleasurable. It is possible to build the relation. And I don’t want to say slowly, slowly to console myself with small things, but if you reconcile with one person, It’s as if you reconciled with the whole world. And it’s so important. That’s not from me, that’s from the Talmud. I was fortunate to study in the Hebrew University, to study the Bible and Talmud, which is crazy for an Arab, but it’s so interesting. That’s it.
You entered here as visitors. I hope you will walk out as being a family. I want you to be, to feel that you are in your family here. We love you, we want you to be close to us, we want to do things with you. It’s very important for our sake, for your sake, for the sake of our children.
Mary: Thank you very much for making the time.