It is a hard word, and one we wish wasn’t. Whenever we find ourselves needing that word, we are in a miserable place. Sometimes marriages seem like that, and we can see no way other than more sorrow. And sometimes work bring us into messes that we groan over, knowing that there is only more mess ahead. Then sometimes the issues are more social and political, even global, ones that pit people against people, histories against histories, hopes and against hopes.
Yes, “intractable” is the word.
And I heard that word too many times this week— but it is an honest word for the perennial tensions between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. Convened by the visionary and courageous people who call themselves Telos, brought into being by the commitments and callings of Todd Deatherage and Gregory Khalil, several hundred people met at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a beautifully-imagined building rightly situated in a geographical triangle, with the State Department and the Lincoln Memorial at the other corners. With State being the guardian of our national interests around the world, and the Memorial remembering “with malice towards none, with charity for all” for the ages, the Institute was the right place for Telos to bring together men and women who long for a conversation with consequences.
There wasn’t a cheap word all day, because there couldn’t be. We felt the weight of the world, as speaker after speaker offered analysis and insight, argument and judgment, necessarily sober— “intractable” was the word, after all —but always with hope, born of belief in the truest truths of the universe, as hard as that is to see in our through-a-glass-darkly lives. Jews spoke, as did Moslems, and so did Christians, but then so did secularists, each one there for a common “telos,” everyone longing for the peace of Jerusalem.
As I looked around the room, I could see people from the marketplaces of the world, as well as the churches, synagogues, and mosques, but there were others who came from positions in governments and universities, still others represented the right-of-center political vision and others the left-of-center, each with some true passion for another way forward than the eye-for-an-eye realpolitik that shapes our current reading of what is and what can be. Ambassadors spoke with seasoned wisdom, but activists did too, filled-to-the-brim with their yearning to disrupt the status quo.
The longer I watched, the more I thought about a film I had seen a few days earlier. It had nothing to do with Jerusalem and the children of Abraham; in fact it was almost a million miles from that place and that people. An Australian movie based on a true story of tribes who live on a small island in the South Pacific who have spent centuries at war with each other, generation after generation killing and being killed, “Tanna” tells the tale of a girl who wants to marry the man she wants to marry, simply said; almost a Romeo and Juliet among Aboriginal people. But traditions that seem written into the stone of their civilization make that impossible, and the young couple find themselves in an “intractable” situation. There is love, yes, but there is hate too. At a critical moment another way is offered, one that requires an unusual grace, a seemingly impossible grace— but someone would have to say “no” to the tribalism that has terrorized their common life, and that is the dramatic tension of the film.
I won’t say more here, only to note that the story of those people in that place is not very far from those who call the Holy Land “home.” What is true in the South Pacific, is true in the Middle East; we are perennial people, after all. Zero-sum games never make for honest winners, either in marriages or in the rest of life— because someone must lose. But this is precisely why the calculus at the heart of the Telos project argues that there are two honest histories and two honest hopes in Israel, and therefore both must be honestly honored. It is a short-term political fiction to imagine otherwise.
Before the day was done, we had artists join us too. Remarkably gifted, wonderfully skilled, first and last were the musicians who call themselves The Brilliance, bringing their rich, evocative, haunting melodies that carry the deepest, truest lyrics that are being sung today, and right in the middle of the evening was the novelist Colum McCann, who lyrically and beautifully reflected on why stories matter for human flourishing, whether in the age-old conflict in his native Ireland or the tension-of-the-day, the Israel-Palestinian mess. We could have listened longer to the songs and the stories, as they carried our hearts to hopes beyond what seems to all honest eyes, simply, sadly, intractable.
In his eloquent, passionate address,McCann offered the image of the work of Telos as “a terrible beauty,” a painful image but quite profound, born of a vocation that refuses to romanticize, but also that refuses to give into the cynicism that things that are, must be. To work for a future that is a signpost of what should be is hard work— but every other alternative is worse.