It is Friday the first of October. Our final screening is to be held inside a sprawling mansion–the oak paneled International House at UC Berkeley. There is obvious interest. Students keep coming in asking when the film will start.
After the final credits roll and the panelists come up to take their seats, something unexpected happens. When Sami is introduced the crowd begins to clap. Soon the entire room is on its feet giving him a standing ovation. This institution helped launch the anti-war movement back in the ‘60’s and remains on the cutting edge of the promotion of nonviolence. Clearly, the message of the film struck a deep chord with them.
Sami answers a question about the impact and growth of the movement in Palestine. “We’ve discovered that it is going to be a very long process,” he concedes. What makes him such a credible voice is that he always balances the needs and challenges on both sides. There is never any retaliatory finger-pointing. “For us to create a future where we begin to address our own need for healing,” he says, “we must engage in forgiveness.”
But he makes clear that he is not advocating appeasement. “This does not mean we stop demanding our rights to be treated with human dignity. However,” he adds, balancing the scale again, ”both sides must learn to recognize the full, equal rights of the other to be on the land.” As usual, he strikes a note of hope. “In this generation we will reach a point where all three sides will learn to respect each other regardless of what the politicians decide they want. We must be fully committed to this as the only approach that will bring a just peace.” The tour ends with a four word challenge: “But, it requires courage.”
Jim Hanon, the director of the film, tells the audience that time is up. The tour is over. As there were at all the other venues, clusters of conversation form all over the room. The panelists shake the last hands. We begin packing away the equipment. More than 2,000, from Boston to Berkeley, have seen Little Town of Bethlehem. We began with just over 100 college campuses committed to showing the movie, that number has now more than doubled. Bill Oechsler, the president, will go to India in a week to inaugurate the international screenings. And two weeks after that UK and Europe will launch. There is a sense that something large and important is just beginning. And I’m glad to have been part of it.
There is one interchange that will stick with me. It makes me wonder whether Sami is living out a new apologetic. It occurred in Detroit when Avi Novis-Deutsch, a Conservative Jewish Rabbi, turned to Sami and, then looking at the crowd, said that while he has little confidence in the Palestinian leaders, he trusted the man sitting next to him completely. His words were: “I respect everything you say. I look at you and I know that with you I have a partner.”
In a conversation a few days later I told Sami that something shifted in me at that point. Here was a non-Christian, religious Jew, who completely rejects evangelical theology declaring his unqualified support for what an evangelical Christian sitting next to him is saying. “My opinion,” I told him, “is that the Rabbi’s acceptance was earned by your courageous, sacrificial actions wh which are motivated by an unmistakable love for both sides. You have not been vocalizing the Gospel, you have been living it out, and this has given you authority to speak and to be heard by those who otherwise would be inclined to dismiss your words.”
So Sami and this powerful documentary have taught me much. On the drive back to the hotel I wonder whether this element of sacrificial compassion and service for the weak is what has been lacking in the church’s (language-centered) evangelism for much too long. Maybe showing up at a stranger’s door with a booklet filled with theological information was, after all, not the ideal method of introducing people to Jesus. Perhaps, Sami is showing us what we should have been doing all along–live out the love of Jesus, and then (and only then) will we be able to speak out His love and be granted a serious hearing.
Seems like this was Jesus’ pattern: healings and deliverences preceding words. Demonstration and then declaration. Maybe we declare first because we have lost either the willingness to sacrifice that compassion requires or the spiritual power to demonstrate, as He did. Or maybe both. Maybe we need to ask for a broken heart and then gifts of power to demonstrate the validity of the kingdom we proclaim with our mouths.
I am grateful for the chance to take a ride on this wild and crazy bucking bronco. I’m glad Bill Oechsler asked me to come along. And I am also grateful to Steve Ledell for the great shots.