Soldiers at the Wall

This week’s post is going to be short, I’m afraid: I’m having trouble getting out of a holiday mood. Honestly, living in Christmas Central, it’s difficult to get out of a holiday mood! The week of Christmas was a week-long celebration, with ongoing performances by choirs and singers in Manger Square, people everywhere, parades galore. New Year’s Eve was noisy—fireworks, drums, dancing. Of course, the holidays are not over; tomorrow is Orthodox Christmas, so a new round of celebration begins tonight. I suppose eventually everyone will get back to normal life, but right now it’s hard to focus!

A friend visited over Christmas, and as a result I spent more time than I usually do in the markets of the Old City in Jerusalem. One day, in the Jewish Quarter, I kept running into a painting of Israeli soldiers praying at the Western Wall. The artist explained that the painting represents a soldier joining in something bigger than himself—in other words, fighting on behalf of God and country.

These pictures of IDF soldiers at the Western Wall are incredibly popular. They appear on postcards; if you google ‘Israeli soldiers praying at Western Wall’ you’ll find hundreds of images. Of course, the pictures represent the photographers or artists’ viewpoints, not the viewpoints of the soldiers themselves: we have no insight into what they’re praying for, or how they feel about their jobs. Moreover, for many tourists, I’m sure, the picture is a classic representation of Israel: two of its most famous symbols joined together. (Perhaps this is why female soldiers never appear in the postcards or paintings: they simply aren’t as ‘popular’ as the male soldiers; they break too many touristic stereotypes. But that’s a discussion for another day.)

But the painting, and a number of the images you’ll turn up on Google, deliberately combine (male) soldiers, guns, and religion. And this combination troubles me. Here’s one example:

Psalm 133 revolves around unity: How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! (NRSV). I assume in this image, the connection with unity is the unity of the soldiers with each other—but since their job is to create disunity, and to guard that disunity against incursions, I find the reference to Psalm 133 odd, to say the least.

I’d like to contrast this image in particular with Pope Francis’s World Day of Peace message (1 January 2014, if you missed it).

In the heart of every man and woman is the desire for a full life, including that irrepressible longing for fraternity which draws us to fellowship with others and enables us to see them not as enemies or rivals, but as brothers and sisters to be accepted and embraced.

Now, the pope doesn’t cite Psalm 133 here, but this introduction to his message seems to me to be a much better interpretation of Psalm 133 than the image of soldiers praying at the Western Wall. What would happen if those soldiers took this message to heart? Pope Francis offers this challenge:

For this reason, I appeal forcefully to all those who sow violence and death by force of arms: in the person you today see simply as an enemy to be beaten, discover rather your brother or sister, and hold back your hand! Give up the way of arms and go out to meet the other in dialogue, pardon and reconciliation, in order to rebuild justice, trust, and hope around you!

At the Christmas Eve parade in Bethlehem, the Palestinian police were present in force—but they were not on guard duty; rather, they were handing out red carnations, smiles, and Christmas greetings to the crowds. Flowers instead of guns, smiles instead of shouts, Christmas greetings instead of tear gas: I pray that soldiers the world over would take the pope’s words to heart. Wouldn’t it be great if new paintings and postcards would appear in the markets of Jerusalem, showing Israeli soldiers and Palestinians praying together?

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