It is too much to take in: the atrocities in Israel and Gaza, the ongoing war in Ukraine, the waterfall of humanity gathering at the southern border, the chaotic dysfunction of Congress, the relaxing of gun laws coinciding with an acceleration of gun purchases — with a corresponding ratcheting up of gun violence. I could go on. We all could go on. But we stop, because it is too much to take in.
There is a biblical term which takes in taking in. Behold. What do you see? “ Behold, I am making all things new”… “Behold the Lamb of God…”“Behold the Man”. Take it in. We may think that to behold only involves incidents and moments that are life giving, but beholding also involves taking in pain and degradation. Yet what often happens in those overpowering negative instances is that the beholding gets short circuited, and we pivot to belief. Especially when there is too much to take in. “I can’t believe that this is happening.” “I believe it is someone’s fault.” “If you believe that, you deserve what you get.”
We all have beliefs. We need our beliefs. Our beliefs shape our values, and provide us with guidance in living our lives. More often than not, our beliefs point us to hope. But when the world around us seems overcome by unmanageable stress, our psyches are reluctant or refuse to take more in. Our eyes close, and ideology takes over. In those situations when we cannot tolerate or sustain the patience, courage and humility to behold, belief tends to become an organizing endeavor: this is good, that is bad. This person is my ally, that group is my enemy. Things can easily boil down to binary choices, all of which makes the surrounding turmoil easier to deal with, primarily because the invitation to behold is shut down, ridiculed or dismissed. And there is no end of rabid forces and voices coming at us which encourage us to operate in this way.
As the violence continues to escalate in Gaza, there is a temptation to believe that one side is good and the other side is bad. Complexity gets truncated, and history is more or less ignored. Solutions can seem simple, and with the right belief, can quickly be arrived at. And more disaster inevitably follows.
Although the term has not been used, the emerging wisdom being offered in the Mideast crisis is to behold. Behold the history. Behold the conflict that goes back to the founding of Israel in 1948. Behold the zealots for violence — and behold your rage in the wake of the zealots’ intransigence and inhumanity. Behold the pain and trauma of two nations trying to create peace and security for their people. Behold all that — and more. Behold a way forward, with the most limited collateral damage possible. It takes time. It takes work.
One of the more enduring images in the Christian faith is the crucifix — the graphic depiction of Jesus nailed to the cross. For many years I didn’t really see it. I didn’t behold it — because theology and tradition pointed me to a set of beliefs — which have been critically important in my spiritual journey. All this began to change a few years ago, when I began to take the image in. I regularly sat in front of the crucifix. And I found it to be grotesque — not only in the depiction of pain at the behest of the worst of humanity, but grotesque in the interpretation of the image as something beautiful: “with what rapture gaze we on those glorious scars”, as one hymn puts it.
In spite of my revulsion, I continued to behold the crucifix. It was hard. It was so ugly. But over the course of time something preposterous began to emerge. It was love, which made no sense. It was hope, which defied the evidence of what I was looking at. Part of me thought I was making it all up — that I was projecting hope and love into an image that provided no space for it. And I beheld that skepticism as well. The love and hope endured. It cannot be destroyed.
What has become clearer to me is that it is necessary to fully behold the pain and ugliness in order to arrive at love and hope. There are no short cuts. Defaulting to a belief system too soon effectively closes the eyes, constricts the heart — and dishonors the pain and ugliness. And if hope and love emerge from a well organized belief system, they tend to be fabrications of the ego rather than authentic manifestations from the soul.
Behold. Behold it all. Take the time. Work at it. Keep your heart open; don’t shut your eyes. The world needs our witness – no matter where we sit.