Published in The Fiji Times as
"OFF THE WALL with Padre James Bhagwan"
Wednesday 10th September, 2008 page 7
Shalom Aleichem from the Holy City of Jerusalem!
I spent my first Shabbat (Sabbath) in Jerusalem this past weekend. During Shabbat, every one greets each other (as Mr. Rabuka often does in his opinion article) with “Shabbat Shalom,” the special Sabbath greeting. Shabbat is observed from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. Shabbat Eve Dinner is held on Friday night. Members of the family, (this Friday, my older, wiser and better-looking sister and I) gather around the table, sing psalms, say prayers, sharing consecrated wine and challah bread together, before enjoying a special dinner.
There is an energy in Jerusalem that is hard to describe. Certainly, it is a spiritual energy emanating from a place that is sacred to Jews, Christians, Muslims and the odd Hindu. There is also a strong sense of tension. After all this is the centre of the Holy land; a disputed land, within it a population living in the constant shadow of war, where almost everyone is a member of a military unit. There is a sense of sadness, especially in the Old City, where so much blood has been spilt because of religious conflict; the will to dominate politically and to posses the Holy Land wholly.
Sitting at the King David Hotel where many world leaders have met to work towards settlement of the various regional conflicts; one cannot help but feel the palpable quantity of energy spent in trying to find solutions; in the quest for a lasting peace.
The phrases “Shalom Aleichem” (Hebrew) and “Salam Aleikum” (Arabic) both translate in to English as “Peace Be Upon You”. These are phrases of greeting, both in the secular, contemporary sense and a religious/cultural context. They are also prayers of hope from a people who genuinely desire peace, yet still struggle, not with fear of the loss of power, of land or of identity as we fear in Fiji; but of annihilation.
I had the pleasure of meeting some of our soldiers from 2FIR serving with the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai Peninsula, as I travelled from Cairo to Jerusalem, last week. Some of my new friends have served many tours in the Sinai and the Lebanon. During our time together, they shared some of their experiences with me, including of the day in 1996, that the UNIFIL Fiji Base at Qana in South Lebanon was shelled by Israeli forces in retaliation for Hezbollah attacks. This resulted in the deaths of over one hundred civilians and injury to two Fiji soldiers. Our Peacekeepers have seen the horrors of war and understand how blessed our country is, even during times of turmoil.
Fiji's Peacekeepers are respected by the military forces they serve with, as well as by those between whom they aim to keep the peace. Acknowledged by their peers as the best Peacekeepers in the world, they bring a unique ability for generosity in conciliation to their military role. Perhaps, it is the legacy of the talanoa process that we share around the tanoa. Or it is because they feel that they are in the Holy Land. Even that, it is an adaptation of the matanivanua concept. Even more, it is the genuine nature of compassion and love, lying at the core of our society, which shines forth through them, making them both intuitive and successful in their efforts at conflict resolution.
They could sit with Hezbollah and, over coffee, counsel its leadership to keep their foot soldiers in line while, maintaining such good relations with the Israelis, that they were the only battalion to receive forewarning of armed retaliation so that Fiji personnel were not harmed.
Fiji's economic problems, from this perspective, seem small, living as we do in such abundance and neighbourly generosity, compared to the true poverty that I witnessed on the road from Cairo to the Gulf of Aqaba. Our political issues, so soluble, compared to the complexities of negotiation in this region; which even with the combined effort of the world's political and religious leaders, lacks the will on the ground, both sides, to truly see the other person's point of view.
The issues we face in Fiji are very important and need to be addressed if we are to soon reach the peaceful and prosperous future that we all deserve. There is then, a need for those who are intuitively instruments of peace and those who find themselves with the opportunity to be peacemakers in our nation, to work together in the spirit of harmony that comes when we put our egos aside and work with the joy and pleasure that comes from truly selfless endeavour.
It is well to remember that peace is not the merely the absence of war, but the absence of fear; the presence of courage, love, mercy, compassion and justice and the according - wholeheartedly - to our perceived enemy; the very dignity that we believe ourselves to be worthy of.
If our nation's divisions are to heal; if the 'People's Charter' is to become a lasting source of peace and a foundation upon which an appropriate form of democracy can be established, rather than a document merely ratified by process; if we are to have the peace that we all desire; then there is the need for a space to be made.
A space in which all who “talk and walk” peace in our nation, be it as a member of the community; through political, religious or social activism, or by everyday example, can share with open hearts what each feels must be done for the greater good of Fiji. By this exchange alone, we begin to heal ourselves, our communal relationships and from this small seed of listening to each other, an understanding that can begin to heal the world at large.
While it would have been better for the country, if this process had been undertaken before December, 2006; it is not too late for this dialogue to take place - and it must take place, both formally and informally. The meetings, this year, between Mr. Qarase and Commodore Bainimarama; that between the Methodist Church and the RFMF, were a good start; but they must continue, in spite of and because of, the current allegations of treason on the part of Commodore Bainimarama. It is essential that such dialogue looks to the fears and insecurities of both sides of the conflict, which often mirror each other.
As I reflect on the work of the churches in Israel to act together to pursue a lasting peace, I realise that now, more than ever, the churches and other faith based organisations in Fiji, need to come together to listen to each other and to what The Spirit is saying to all believers.
We must recognise that the Almighty moves in ways mysterious to us yet with absolute justice, love and providence for even the least among us to affect Divine will. Divine will is always for the highest for all, never one ahead of the other.
If, given its stand against the military regime, the Methodist Church's current leadership of the Assembly of Christian Churches in Fiji and the Fiji Council of Churches is not able to bring member churches together, then now is the time for the Pacific Conference of Churches and the World Council of Churches Office in the Pacific, both based in Suva, to provide a means to enable the constructive dialogue which is long overdue. This could be a manifestation of the 'Theology of Hope' that the PCC seeks for the region.
As you read this and take your own conclusions, please spare a thought and a prayer for our Peacekeepers around the world, who continue to serve the course and cause of peace for others and whom, I guarantee you, dream of peace in their own land. To all of you who have served as Peacekeepers on behalf of our nation, my heartfelt thanks and loloma, with that of all of my family, for your tireless service, devotion to duty and financial contribution to the economic development of our national infrastructure over the last three decades. I have faith that your experiences in the wider world will serve as a guide to the rebuilding of our communities and our nation.
As Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons (and daughters) of God” (Matt 5:9).
May the rest of your week be blessed with love, light and peace.
Reverend James Bhagwan is an award-winning radio and television producer and writer. He is currently on leave from the Methodist Davuilevu Theological College where he is a member of the Faculty. All opinions expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the opinion and policies of the Methodist Church in Fiji or any organization that Rev. Bhagwan is affiliated with.