I was very confused as to why the discussion had suddenly turned to the whereabouts of the woman’s father. One moment we’d been discussing ideas for projects in Gaza and the next everyone was questioning where ‘Baba’ was.
“Oh, I just don’t know,” declared my boss, as I tried to look sympathetic at the news of the lost relative. Then, fortunately before I’d made any embarrassing attempts at offering my condolences, I remembered that ‘Baba’ was simply another way of referring to God and that I also didn’t have the faintest clue as to his whereabouts.
I usually try to keep out of religion though. As an atheist in a religious society, I’ve learnt that it’s best just to keep quiet. As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to religion people can believe what they want, provided that these beliefs stay private and don’t negatively affect their actions. Often the problems arise when religion gets mixed with ‘traditions’ and used to excuse discrimination, inequality and oppression.
Most people here don’t bother to raise the topic and respect my differing opinions, and on the few occasions that I’m questioned about my beliefs the conversation usually ends fairly quickly and goes something like this…
“But how can you believe in nothing? Where will you go when you die?”
“What about your spirit?”
“Probably nowhere. Maybe I’ll become a dog or a monkey”
“Hmm… but who created you!?”
“But who created your mum?”
“But who created your grandma?”
Now a little exasperated at lack of acknowledgment of poor joke…
“Yes, I know you want me to say God but who created God!?”
“We’re not allowed to ask that question”
“Then we probably can’t have a very deep theological discussion”
I do often think about the place of God in the conflict however.
I reject the notion that the conflict is a religious one. It’s easy to see it as a historical war between Muslims and Jews but this fails to do justice to the complexity of the situation – ignoring its global context and forgetting that it’s actually quite a recent issue involving two populations of mixed religions. There are those from either side who bring religion into the discussion but I find this more a case of religion being used to excuse irreligious motives and actions.
What I’m more interested in is whether people’s belief in God is beneficial in such a situation. Marx referred to religion as “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world and the soulless conditions”, suggesting that it can impede social change since people’s focus on an alternative world distracts them from reality and encourages them to accept their suffering in the hope of a better life after death.
I see this happening here. There are those who sigh and say that a war between Muslims and Jews was predicted, referring to an interpretation of one of the hadiths that the culmination of the war will eventually lead to Jews’ defeat, and that they therefore just need to be patient. Yet if such a belief really governed people’s actions then there wouldn’t be so much activism. You don’t get two Intifadas from simply hoping that everything will sort itself out, and that the vast majority of people seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict goes against any notion that such an interpretation is either believed or relied upon.
I also generally find Israeli claims of anti-Semitism among Palestinians to be false, with many insisting that it is not with Jews that they have a problem but with those living in Israel. And then many go on to assert that they are not even against all Israelis but only those who support the occupation – namely settlers, the government and the army.
For a long time, however, I still doubted the benefit of believing in God. That is, until a bus journey back to the West Bank from Jerusalem, in which an old woman from the city came and sat by me. After the necessary introductions and greetings she started telling me about life there. They were all stories that I’d heard before but I was affected more than usual for two reasons. Firstly, I hate Jerusalem. Nowhere can you feel the occupation as heavily as where the two states meet, colliding with one another to produce invisible ruptures. Palestinian Jerusalemites have to live among their oppressors, literally being pushed to the side as they see their former capital being transformed, and therefore feel the realities of the occupation particularly heavily. Secondly, nothing gets to me more than an old woman’s sighs. Having watched for decades as promises are broken, talks fail, and the situation simply worsens, they emit a particularly desperate air.
It was in this atmosphere that, having finished her story, she concluded that there was no hope, the Israelis were above the law and nothing would stop them in their destruction of Palestinians. She simply hoped that they would pay their price in Hell when it came to God’s time to judge.
And so I decided that, in such a horrifically unjust and stagnant situation, the belief that some justice may eventually be done may not be such a bad thing after all.
But I thought I should let the man speak for himself and so, despite our previous trouble at locating him, I managed to track him down to a small café just north of Jupiter, questioning a casualty of the recent Ice Bucket Challenge…
“You see,” he was saying, “my problem is that I’m torn between throwing you into Hell, with Steve Irwin, for stupidity or into Heaven, with Florence Nightingale, for trying to help the needy…”
I approached him nervously (after all, this was God himself) and apologised for taking up his time but he waved his hand and told me: “The thing with being eternal, young lady, is that time ceases to have much meaning”
He was certainly presenting himself as quite the philosopher but I didn’t let his warmth distract me from the reason for our meeting and so began the interview…
Just Me – So let me get straight to the point, God. I’m not sure if you’re aware but you’ve been getting quite the bad rep down on Earth recently for your lack of intervention in the many genocides, natural disasters and wars that have taken place over the centuries. Is there any particular reason you choose not to interfere, despite your ability to save lives and reduce the suffering of so many?
Almighty God – Listen, when you interfere in each others’ affairs, you get criticised and when I don’t interfere, I get criticised also. There really is no making the people happy these days. If I turned their water into wine they would simply complain that it wasn’t French wine.
JM – I think people are thinking of something more along the lines of Ghandi than Bush. I’m presuming that, as God, you have the ability to prevent people from acting inhumanely without simply adding more bombs to the scene.
At this he gave a hearty chuckle.
AG- More bombs? These are only ever used in the attainment of power, dear girl, and since I am already almighty and Heaven runs off bioenergy…
Oh yes, I have my ways but, as you say, they are acting rather inhumanely and should therefore learn the meaning of humanity for themselves.
JM – It’s all well and good saying that from up here but how many children have to die, people be raped, homes be destroyed in order for this few to ‘learn their lesson’? As far as I can see, people never learn and what we are witnessing is simply a continuation of violence as the scars of previous battles fuel the wounds of the next. And so, people turn to you for help but receive no response.
I then felt his previously jolly disposition take on a serious tone as he moved in closer to me and his voice deepened…
AG – Listen now. You are young and therefore new to this world. You speak with naivety and innocence. Yet I’m sure that, even by this age, you have noticed how many humans give up in their endeavours to bring justice to your world and alleviate the suffering of others. And yet the human lifespan is not a long one. All that is required of them is 60, maybe 70, years of commitment. But they lose hope as quickly as the autumnal tree loses its leaves. Do you realise just how many battles I have sat through? Just how many prayers asking for the most meaningless of gifts I have had to hear? I used to weep and wonder how I could change the acts of those who I had created, then I simply began to despair, and now, well now I just see silver turning into red and figures disappearing while new ones appear, and I am oh so tired of it all. Are you really telling me that not all of these great tragedies of which you talk could have been resolved if only people learnt to cooperate, and discarded their greed in return for compassion?
I found myself suddenly lost for words. Having expected to shame him into action through accusations of laziness and selfishness, I now felt pity for the old creature.
Then abruptly, as if waking up from a dream, he rose.
I really must get going though, he excused himself. I heard Gabriel is trying to have my favourite barber deferred to Hell for stabbing Sylvia Plath. Why he thinks one needs to be punished for murdering someone who is already dead, I really do not know, but the boy always was far too idealistic.