In an attempt to stimulate tourism, the Jordan Tourism Board invited a group of editors and journalists to tour their country. I was fortunate enough to be included in the group.
With good reason, Jordan has been called “The other Bible land.” Much of what we read, especially in the Old Testament, occurred there. The capital city, Amman, continues the name of the ancient Ammanites who visit the pages of the Chronicler from time to time. Ruth, a Moabitess, hailed from a region now in Jordan. Moses viewed the Promised Land from Mount Nebo in Jordan, and Jesus was baptized by John at a place called Bethany beyond the Jordan (River). Bethany has been identified in recent archaeological excavations right where we would expect it to be — on the other side of the Jordan River from Israel, in Jordan.
I look forward to sharing with you some of my thoughts and experiences during the trip.
Day 1: Speaking with authority
Just as Americans are divided on the question of military involvement in Syria, Middle Easterners are themselves divided. An op-ed piece in an English edition newspaper in Istanbul took a hard line, saying America should stay out of the conflict. This was written not in any anti-American sentiment but with the view that countries in the Middle East should begin taking more responsibility for what happens in the region.
On the other side of the opinion coin is the Palestinian beside whom I sat during one leg of our journey from New York to Amman. Abdelrahim Amaz regards himself as a Palestinian, though he has resided in California since 1997. During that time he has married a girl from the Golden State and had two children. He has enjoyed his life in America, but economic hard times here have created in him a desire to return to Palestine. He plans to move his family there next summer after two periods of extended stay “to help them get used to the idea,” he said.
Amaz reminded me of many Americans who speak with the certainty that their opinions are unquestionably right. After getting acquainted through casual conversation, I asked what it would take for Israelis and Palestinians to live together in peace. He looked at me quizzically for a moment and replied, “We do live in peace together.”
I suppose it is a matter of perspective. To an extent, perhaps our perception of life there has been tainted by periodic reports of violence, which we erringly assume is the norm. Still, its inhabitants would not describe life in Gaza as easy, nor even peaceful.
Amaz then shared with me his opinions about U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war. To help him focus, I asked, “If the Congress asked you to meet before them and tell them what to do, what would you tell them?”
“That is easy,” he replied. “They should go in and take out the regime. Don’t worry about Russia and China.” His opinion is that Iran and some other Middle Eastern countries have aligned with Russia, and Russia is seeking to regain its former reputation as a world power. “They are powerful, yes,” he says, “but not like the U.S.” He believes war with Russia and China is inevitable and we should just get it over with.
Listening to him I had the same feeling I did once in an Alabama café listening to a trucker opine about government control. He spoke with such authority it was unsettling — not because you think he might be right, but because people actually think such things.
Of the two opinions, I’ll side with the newspaper and hope my new Palestinian friend and his family find peace in Palestine.
Day 2: Playing amid the ruins
Pella, in northern Jordan, is one of the world’s oldest cities. Civilization there can be traced to Neolithic times. Traces of copper have been found in the caves that served as the dwelling places of the ancient city’s first residents.
Pella’s early citizens adapted with the times in shifting their culture from hunter-gatherers to farmers who tilled the land and grew their own food.
The city was ancient when caravans moved through on their way from Babylon to Egypt. Antiochus’s army made it his, and in 64 B.C. Pompey conquered it. During the time of Jesus, it was one of the 10 Roman cities called the Decapolis in the Sea of Galilee region. Christians flooded into the region in 66 A.D. during the Jewish revolt against Rome and stayed for centuries. In the fifth century, the Christian community was so numerous they constructed two churches, the remains of which were unearthed with deliberate slowness, giving new meaning to the Emergent Church. These were designated by creative archaeologists as the East Church and the West Church.
The Islamic period followed, evidenced by a mosque emerging from the dust and grit of an ancient tell.
From our vantage point on a hill overlooking the archaeological site, movement in the East Church caught my eye. Despite being surrounded by a fence erected by frustrated archaeologists attempting to keep the site secure, a group of boys had gathered on the flat surface of the old church floor to play. And they were having a fine time chasing each other around the still-standing columns.
Aside from my appreciation for their care-free games, what struck me as I watched was that here, among ruins of people who lived there centuries ago, these children played in total oblivion to what had gone before.
If only this could happen more. If Middle Eastern peoples who nurture ancient grudges could forget the past long enough to find new meaning in the present, perhaps new hope for the region would emerge along with the ancient stones. Maybe this isn’t likely, but the children show us it’s possible.
The wind doesn’t care about borders
From the hilltop from which we surveyed the past civilization of ancient Pella, we had only to look past the Jordan River to the green fields and the mountain range beyond to view Israel. Above the mountains, the golden strands of a setting sun regally demanded our awed attention.
As if the scene required additional perfection, a refreshing breeze blew steadily into our faces creating in us reluctance to leave such a place.
Although Jordan and Israel live peacefully as neighbors, the border area is carefully guarded and severely restricted.
But this refreshing wind, cooled by its journey over the distant mountaintops, swept upon us with no regard for borders, fences or guards.
The words of Jesus resounded in my mind. Referring to the Holy Spirit, he said, “The wind blows where it will.” Always before, I had considered the directional aspects of this truth. It may blow from the East or West, North or South. But suddenly I understood his words differently. The Spirit is not hampered by and has no regard for man-made barriers and borders. Without passport or visa, and seeking no approval or authority, the Spirit will accomplish its own purposes.
May the refreshing and revealing Wind of Heaven blow upon us with or without our approval, and may we be moved by the Spirit to make his purposes our own.
Jim White ([email protected]) is executive editor of the Religious Herald.