“When I finally began to spend time in the place about which I had pontificated for so long, I discovered that I was much more interested in what the people I met had to say than in my own views. It dawned on me that I could only be a good writer on the Middle East to the extent that I was a good listener… The brash young man I was could write with a sense of mission in large part because he had never spent any time in the region; he was intoxicated by the sound of his own voice, the power that he felt it gave him.
I wanted to give an account of their suffering, but I had to do so with a measure of humility, without pretending that I knew more than I did – or, more to the point, more than they did… Reporting on Algeria, I was forced to own up to my own uncertainty and to make it a part of my writing.”
I loved reading this piece today by Adam Shatz, long-time reporter in the Middle East. Partly because he is an eloquent writer full of insight, and partly because the brash, youthful presumption he describes is so familiar to me. One year ago, I thought I had answers to all the hard questions, from “What’s going on in the Middle East?” to “Whose fault is it?” to the biggest of all, “Who is God?”
Graduating from Princeton, I was confidently groomed to analyze, critique and defend political and religious views. I had the perfect blend of sureness, urgency and occasional condescension. I’d only studied the Middle East for four years, mostly from outside the region, but felt justifiably self-righteous, often indignant, and obliged to jump into punditry and political debate.
That changed this year. It doesn’t matter how hard I studied at Princeton or Oxford, how many books I read on Islamism, Zionism or Orientalism, how well I presented at the State Department or how many drafts I wrote of my thesis. I did not know the sound of church bells and calls to prayer in the mornings of Jerusalem, the scorch of beating sun on your 400th day in a refugee camp, the jostling of bodies as soldiers herd you like cattle through a checkpoint, or the rush of Mediterranean blue along Beirut’s Corniche as you pass old men smoking argileh and toasting kaakeh on its coals.
Journalism is humbling, especially from abroad, because I realize that I do not know it all; I know very little at all. Thankfully, reporting is not about projecting my own opinions but gathering knowledge, walking the streets, drinking tea, making friends, asking questions, and most importantly, listening.
My best friends now are from Syria, Palestine and Sudan. I’ve never felt my heart swell with an entire region’s revolutionary promise, then break as my heroes were killed, arrested or forced to flee. I’ve never fled across a border. I’ve never watched anyone that I love die. I don’t know what it’s like to live through war, occupation or genocide. I barely dare to imagine. But I can ask.
As a journalist in the Middle East, the most foolish thing I can do is to assume I know what’s going on. As a Christian, the same mistake applies. I am reminded of 1 Corinthians 13:9-12:
“For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
This passage used to confuse me. So am I a child or a man? Surely I’m a ‘man’ by now, I’d think. But the longer I’m a Christian, the clearer it becomes that I am but a child.
This year, God is suddenly very real. I talk to Him, ask questions, seek Him hungrily, because I find that I do not know. My quiet times of repeating religious adages to self have been replaced by what I call “faith like a crazy person.” It includes tumultuous emotion, exuberant bouts of joy, really cheesy moments and a lot of me just sitting on the floor yelling WTF ARE YOU DOING? Who ARE You!?
In journalism as in faith, we must listen humbly and ask hard questions. That includes “What’s going on in the Middle East?” “Why?” “Who is God?” and one more: “What would He have me do about it?”
In Gaza, for example, more than 2,000 people have been injured and 268 people killed from Israeli attacks this week. 70% of them were civilians. 1 in 4 were children. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the United Nations have all condemned the strikes as illegal human rights violations, but the killing continues.
Hard questions: Why is this happening? What role are America and Christian church playing in it? Who told me so? Why do I believe them? Could I be wrong?
Harder questions for Christians: What is justice? God, how am I to seek it?
Usual side question from me: Can we just avoid this topic? It’s so sensitive and contentious. Also I hate oppression and it’s easier to just pretend this isn’t happening.
Steady answer from Christ: No.
I bring up Israel specifically and intentionally because it’s a vortex of all the hardest questions of all. But dear friends, we must ask them.
People often ask me how to help refugees in Jordan and the Middle East. Donate to UNHCR and pray, I say, but also ask questions about the region’s current crises. Too often do we feel sad for innocent victims without realizing that our states and institutions are involved in ongoing injustices, ones that depend on constituents’ apathy and ignorance to continue.
Accountability is harder than charity because it demands our effort to seek out truth, and then strength to acknowledge that we might have been wrong. But we needn’t be defensive or afraid of admitting mistake, because God is for us, not against us. He is gracious and ready to show us who He is – as long as we ask genuinely, surrendered, willing to drop our comfort and assumed righteousness.
I ask a lot of questions. I don’t have answers for all of them. Re: Israel and Christian Zionism, for example, I do not know what will happen in the “end times” with the Israelites, the state, the temple, etc. Based on Jesus’ words in the Bible, I don’t think I’m supposed to know. But I do know this:
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
– 1 Corinthians 13:13
Faith and hope can be difficult. Last night I stayed up late writing about the refugee crisis in Jordan, thinking about the Syrians begging here in Beirut, scrolling through my Twitter feed to read about the plane shot down in Ukraine, fascist racism in Tel Aviv and children killed on the beach in Gaza. My mom sent me a text at one point: “I wish I can be next to you and hug you right now. Grieve the loss of a child’s innocent dream about the beautiful world.”
I closed my laptop and cried.
If I weren’t Christian, I would be scoffing at all the soft-hearted fools who believe in humanity and kindness and people’s rights. Obviously they haven’t read history or even current affairs. Obviously they don’t know that people just hate each other. In Darfur the paler Arabs hate the darker Africans, just like in Israel the Jews hate the Arabs, just like in Germany the Nazis hated the Jews, just like in America the whites hated the blacks, and so on. I’d be a skeptic and a realist, attributing everything to power and interests and safely removed from the foolishness of belief in compassion.
But I am a Christian, which means by the Holy Spirit and God’s grace I have this lunatic faith and hope that God is just, He is sovereign, He is for us, not against us, and He wins.
Meanwhile, I ask questions. I listen humbly. I pray for Christ-like love, which means to consider others above myself, resist violence and to seek the good of people that hurt me.
It means to keep my Twitter feed open, to look, read, listen and think long and hard, crying and feeling for children who play in the sand and dream of a beautiful world that suddenly stops.
It means ignoring the cynic that cries, “Fool!” in my head, insisting until the day I die that every human being is a human, Holy and Beloved, regardless of their color, race or religion.
We do not have all the answers. But we can and must ask the questions. In the meantime, we know enough to love.