Friday, April 5, 2013

Hitting A Wall: An Atheist In Israel

I don't really blog anymore. I guess I have less funny things to say here than I did about Asia, so I have mostly dispensed of my online commentary. I found this piece that I wrote for no-one two years ago. I'm not sure what I think, but it made me think. 

So, for your consideration...

Hitting A Wall: An Atheist In Israel

I press my hands against the blocks and look up, but I can’t see the sun. I am in the shadow of something enormous. I turn my attention back to the mass of grey in front of me, running my fingers lightly down the minute cracks in this intimidating fa├žade. On either side of me, my friends are murmuring prayers and questions into the wall. But we’re only the most recent; this place knows the suffering of thousands. It’s hard to leave, and I retreat slowly, letting the full scope of the place flood my field of vision as I back away. Finally, our group is rejoined, and we depart. I can’t help but look back one last time, just long enough to glimpse, in angry drips of black spray paint:

“Fuck this apartheid bullshit <3”

Said turns to us with an expression I cannot interpret. “Welcome to Ramallah.”

            *                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

I am not a Christian, Muslim or a Jew. I’m not really anything. I didn’t understand when I took my first religious studies class in the fall of 2006 that it would come to shape the course of my undergraduate career. But this story isn’t about the flipping of a switch or some singular, crystallized moment of clarity. It’s about a turning point.

This wasn’t a beginning or an ending.

It was just something in the middle.

            *                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

[Author’s Note: While, in my mind, nothing we did on this trip was particularly dangerous (for us or either of the governments we visited), I’ve been advised to keep the details of our journey vague. Which is fine, because in truth, it wasn’t really about any specific event anyway. It is more about the nature of a place that forces you to align yourself. To an outsider, Israel screams one question more loudly than anything: “What do you believe?”]

Tonight, I feel the anger like a physical blockage in my throat. At this moment, spirituality is not a serene abstraction. It is a question bellowed in rage, ricocheting off the rooftops of Ibileen. The conflict I witness here confronts and magnifies every conflict I know internally. All of the hurt and rejection of my youth comes tumbling recklessly out of my mouth, spilling across the faces of my friends. Memories start flying through my head like missiles, exploding light onto places in my mind kept locked for years, revisiting the protracted, clumsy pilgrimage that has led me to this moment, Godless in the desert.

I recall with absolute clarity, at a conference for middle-class God-fearing teenagers of the Midwest, placing my forehead on a gigantic wooden cross, making my mind more vulnerable than ever before. I remember the lock of soft brown hair falling across my youth leader’s eyes on that bus in Utah as she tried, nicely, to explain why my best friend was hell-bound for being a boy that loved boys. The girl with the yellow sweater who raised her hand in the middle of our Introduction to Buddhism class to inquire “where Jesus fit in”. And now, Matthew’s arm draped over my shoulders as my venomous words fly simmering into this cool May evening, my fury rendering me inarticulate. The shame and disappointment of exposing my heart and mind to a God that never showed me any similar courtesy- it all pours over me like a flash flood. I have studied faith for years. I have met with archbishops, priests, chaplains, rabbis, imams and monks, and debated countless hours in middle-of-the-night, over-caffeinated conversations about the nature of God. I couldn’t explain why I had to physically come to the Holy Land to finally accept that I couldn’t believe. 

In a way, this realization was beautiful in its irony. Life as an atheist Religious Studies scholar is filled with these conflicting sensibilities. My love and respect for my faithful friends casts an even harsher glare on my own spiritual shortcomings. But I know exactly what devotion looks like, and I know that I’ve never felt that way. Still, it took a long time to discover that a life as a half-hearted Christian was the only thing more painful than admitting you’re not one at all. The turning point is about a change in how you define yourself, choosing to categorize your spirituality by the things that you do stand for, rather than conceding to the implicit accusation of something flawed in the core of your soul.

Back in Israel, my mind is muddy. Hot tears flow indiscriminately onto my chest, mingling with the sweat and dust of the Mediterranean. For all the things I can’t understand and the people I’ll never know. For the heat and the hostility and the hope. For the grainy, horrible pictures at Yad Vashem and the libraries of Bethlehem, stocked with textbooks smuggled in foreigners’ suitcases. For my own paltry problems. Out the window, they’re cutting down olive trees. Israel isn’t a place that requires metaphors.

Later in my trip, I would find myself in front of the Western Wall. For all of the faults I find with religion in general, I say with equal honesty that the ten minutes I spent in that place was the closest I ever felt to the idea of God. Two weeks in this land was overwhelming; I have little concept of the lifetimes that have played out on this ground. But I do know that this is the place that changed me. I have felt a shift in my humanity, the kind of calling I never understood until now.

In the future, I will do what I can. I will read and study and make this problem my life’s work. I’ve put you on my soul, and I will come back. But for now, I will join you, scratching my knuckles raw, beating my fists against these walls and stuffing our dreams into the cracks of history. My request is simple, five words scratched onto three inches of parchment:

“Let us both know peace.”

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