Some years ago, a movie titled Dead Poets Society made a lasting impression on me. The film’s star was Robin Williams, who played the part of a newly arrived professor at an established New England prep school. It was the kind of school in which generations of families were taught by the same old professors offering a predictable style of teaching, which guaranteed a formulated outcome. The only problem was that no one was ever challenged by the system towards any new and creative thinking. We might say, “same old, same old.”
Then Robin Williams’ character arrives. He asks the students to get out of their chairs and stand on top of them. Why? He wanted the students to view the world from a completely different vantage point.
You can imagine what occurred when an administration member opened the door and saw a classroom of male students all standing on their chairs, as Robin Williams carried on with his lecture. Yes, you guessed it.
Williams’ character didn’t last too long. People who engage in thinking beyond the moment and out of their comfortable self-made boxes often exit quickly as the normality of life drags people back towards the predictable.
Recently Mary Curtius, a Times staff writer, wrote an article appearing in the June 16, 2001, edition of The Los Angeles Times , titled “Mideast Woes Spill Over to Summer Camp.” It is the story of a remarkable program called “Seeds of Peace” whose purpose is to promote discussion and understanding between Israeli and Palestinian youth. Of all places, it is set in the woods of New England far from the turmoil of the Middle East.
Unfortunately, with the recent upsurge of violence between these two peoples, this program, much like the character in Dead Poets Society , is falling victim to the predictable norms.
Reporter Curtius informs us that Seeds of Peace was formed shortly after the Oslo peace accords were signed in 1993. It was founded by journalist John Wallach, who desired to establish an atmosphere in the woods of Maine where young people from both sides of this explosive equation could learn up-close about one another.
He wanted to promote dialogue between members of this upcoming generation as they discussed, face-to-face, the incendiary issues that divide them.
Imagine these young people being “far from the madding crowd” of their homeland and being given a clean breath of fresh air. Being away from Gaza, Jerusalem or a settlement in the West Bank, is almost as if Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society had offered them an opportunity to stand on a chair and gaze at their world from a new and fresh angle.
But this year, neither the Israeli government nor the Palestinian Authority is willing to send official delegations to this summer camp. Palestinian local government leader Saeb Erekat, whose daughter is a “Seeds” graduate, summed up the situation by stating, “Right now the two societies mirror each other in their anger and frustration.
But I would say that one of the things that should be revived immediately if the cease-fire holds is the people-to-people programs, if we are serious about peace.”
The program was already feeling the pain of fracturing in October when one of its graduates, Assil Asleh, a Palestinian, was shot dead by Israeli riot police during an anti-government riot. Of all things, he was wearing a Seeds of Peace T-shirt when he was killed. This personalized trauma has deepened the rift between the various participants. Chat lines and phone conversations between the various Seed of Peace participants have echoed with angry recriminations of exactly who is to blame.
“We’re in the wrong jungle”
On the surface, there are very good reasons to bring the Seeds of Peace to a grinding halt.
Seemingly, any responsible party would. Wouldn’t you? Curtius quotes Hadara Rosenblum, director of the Student Council and Youth Unit, as citing three distinct reasons why the program cannot move forward at this time. “The first was the security situation and security warnings connected to the sensitive composition and subject of the delegation. The second was the Palestinian decision against sending a delegation, and the third was the great tension in Israeli society in general, among youths in particular.”
Why is it always so much easier to hate than to reach out to one another, even thousands of miles away from the turmoil? It reminds me of the old story of the one man who was daring enough to climb the highest palm tree in the jungle. An amazing perspective opened up to him as he looked all around. He shouted down to his fellow caravan members as they drudgingly hacked through the underbrush down below, “We’re in the wrong jungle!” But they beckoned him to come down and join them, because they stated, “At least we’re making progress.” But for how long? And to what end?
In paging through Scripture, we discover that God has often called His servants to places where they can gain a fresh perspective. You might say God offered them the opportunity to stand on a chair, or better still, to climb to the highest point to determine whether their struggle was worthy of their life’s devotion. Was it the right time but the wrong jungle, or the right jungle but the wrong time?
Moses was summoned up Mt. Sinai, Christ launched off in a boat away from the masses and Paul was at times pulled out of society and placed into a prison setting, so that alone he could come to crystallize what truly was important in life. But each of these individuals had to come down off that “chair” with perspective in hand and face the problems of the day.
Different times, same turf
Again, when one pages through the Bible, he or she readily comes to see that turf wars between families, tribes and peoples in this heated neighborhood of the globe are not reserved for our generation alone. Such was the case nearly 3,700 years ago when Jacob and his brother Esau came face-to-face after many years of animosity had separated them. If ever there was chicanery visited upon an entire family, it was the family of Esau. Jacob had 1) grabbed Esau’s heel during their birth, 2) lured him out of his birthright and 3) ultimately stolen their father’s blessing.
The last event was perhaps the most devastating, in that Jacob literally fleeced Esau from what was rightfully his by disguising himself with the skin of goats to imitate his brother’s rugged hands. Yes, Jacob may have pulled the wool over his father Isaac’s eyes, but ultimately he had a rendezvous with destiny. He had to come to terms with his brother, face-to-face, and talk.
When you read Genesis 33:1 Genesis 33:1And Jacob lifted up his eyes, and looked, and, behold, Esau came, and with him four hundred men. And he divided the children to Leah, and to Rachel, and to the two handmaids.
American King James Version×, you can only sense Jacob’s plight at these words, “Now Jacob lifted his eyes and looked, and there, Esau was coming, and with him were four hundred men.” There were probably at least three good reasons, just like Hadara Rosenblum enumerated, not to go forward in his moment of planting seeds of peace with his family. But the cure to fear is on the other side of the panic we feel. It is there that the answers are to be found. Both in Jacob’s day and ours! It says in verse 3, “Then he [Jacob] crossed over before them and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.” Verse 4 offers a portrait of one-time foes locked in familial embrace. “But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”
Later on in the conversation, Jacob says something startling. “Please, take my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough” (verse 11). It was the first time that Jacob had offered Esau anything on the up-and-up without any strings attached. Esau then sums up their positive encounter by stating in verse 12, “Let us take our journey; let us go, and I will go before you.”
The enemy mentality molded over many years of mutual distrust melted in the dust of a road in ancient Palestine. But it never would have happened if Jacob had not “come near.” It is the first step that is always the most difficult, but also the most important.
This powerful saga of the Middle East of antiquity reminds all that will heed the lesson of Jacob and Esau that “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.”
Involvement versus commitment
Today there is a campground in Maine that invites those with the courage of Jacob and Esau to “come near” and hear one another out, even when the truth hurts. By the way, this camp is not only for Jews and Palestinians.
Some of the campers are from the Balkans, India and Pakistan. Any young person who comes to that camp in Maine must be truly committed.
That reminds me of the story of the cow asking the chicken, “What shall we have for breakfast?” The chicken gleefully retorted, “Let’s have steak and eggs.” The cow said, “Oh no, not steak!” The chicken replied, “Why not? I’ll furnish the eggs and you supply the steak.” The cow then soberly replied, “For you, it’s involvement, but for me it’s total commitment.”
There’s a point to this cute little story, which is best summed up by a quote attributed to Art Turock: “There’s a difference between interest and commitment. When you’re interested in doing something, you do it only when circumstances permit. When you’re committed to something, you accept no excuses, only results.”
Right now, there are some empty chairs and desks at a camp in Maine waiting for some young people to come and have the courage not only to sit on them, but also to stand on them and gain that new perspective that comes on the other side of daring.
Long ago, the prophet Isaiah wrote a plea to those who would listen in his day. He has been referred to as “the Prophet with the New Mind,” one who had been lifted up by God to see matters in a new light, from a completely different perspective. A man who would not accept the norm that this is how it has to be, because it has always been this way.
It’s amazing how people become secure in their insecurities. Not Isaiah. He cried out on behalf of God in Isaiah 1:16-17 Isaiah 1:16-17 16 Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil;
17 Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.
American King James Version×, “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” Then comes verse 18, “Come now, and let us reason together.”
“Come now, and let us reason together”
Today in Israel, there is one man who is willing to take up the call of “the new mind.” John Wallach, the Seeds of Peace coordinator, has found such a vision in the person of Amram Mitzna, mayor of the coastal town of Haifa.
Even as national delegations have crumbled, this mayor had no difficulty in assembling 21 young Israelis of Jewish and Arab heritage to journey to Maine.
He candidly laments, “For so many decades, we said there was nobody to talk to, but still we sent delegates to everywhere, hoping to find someone from the other side. So, now, we are going to say no?” He adamantly concludes, “The day that I will be afraid that talking will accelerate tension will be a very bad day!”
It is the bold, clear and committed voice of Amram Mitzna that echoes the millennial refrain of Isaiah 30:21 Isaiah 30:21And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, This is the way, walk you in it, when you turn to the right hand, and when you turn to the left.
American King James Version×, “this is the way, walk you in it.” It is the voice that echoes the godly plea of “come let us reason together.” It is the voice that one day will echo beyond the forests of Maine and right up the slopes of Jerusalem as people happily cry out, “Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths…” (Isaiah 2:3 Isaiah 2:3And many people shall go and say, Come you, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
American King James Version×).
By the way, is there anyone from whom you feel distanced? Someone you’re not talking with at all? Got a chair? You know what to do. Afterwards, when you come down, plant a seed of peace. WNP