Karen Alan had finished her errands and was returning to work at the second-floor office of a building on Ben Yehuda Street. The pedestrian mall was lined with cafes and shops. Local Jerusalem residents and tourists strolled along the cobblestone street and sat at outdoor tables enjoying coffee and the people show. For foreign visitors this was a favorite destination after seeing the Old City, less than a mile east on Jaffa Road. Here tourists shopped for menorahs, mezuzahs, and embroidered yarmulkes or, for more discerning tastes, original Jewish jewelry, art, and pottery.
Within this vibrant section of West Jerusalem sat King of Kings College.1 Just one month before, Karen had started working there as an editor and translator. She hurried up the stairs after lunch, eager to get back to work.
As Karen entered the office and set her purse on her desk, an explosion nearly knocked her off her feet. She grabbed her desk to steady herself. Almost instantly there was a second explosion, then a third even more powerful blast rocked the building.
For a moment Karen’s ears rang. She braced herself for another blast. Then she heard office mates yelling. Oh, my God, this can’t be happening, she thought. She turned and hurried with several others into an office with a window overlooking the street. As she peered out to see what had happened, she could hear shouts and screams rising from the pavement. The sight was horrifying. Bodies, both conscious and unconscious, every one covered with blood, lay in the street and on the sidewalks. One of the victims struggled to his feet and staggered blindly, blood flowing over his eyes from a gash in his head. A few witnesses stood frozen. Others were running frantically.
Karen’s mind could barely process all the sensory information. Her eyes moved toward one spot where she could see the bloody legs of one of the bombers. His torso had been blown apart in the blast. She became aware of sounds. Car and store alarms screamed. A cell phone rang, unanswered. Ambulance and police sirens announced their arrival. Dust along with the smell of explosives and burned flesh chafed her nasal passages and caused her eyes to water. The first paramedics did triage until additional help arrived. Orders were shouted. Police began corralling the crowd.
Suddenly, Karen remembered her friend Shiri, who should have been returning to her office next door. Where was she? She walked back to her desk and dialed her friend’s cell number, but there was no answer. Impulsively she hurried down the stairs and moved through horrified spectators in the lobby to the main entrance, but a policeman stopped her. A body lay right outside the door. “No one can leave,” said the officer.
In a daze Karen climbed back up the stairs to her office. Again she dialed her friend’s number, but there was no answer. Fear nearly choked her as she tried to think. All she could manage was a prayer, asking for her friend’s safety. Lord, may Shiri not be one of those bodies lying in the street.
Everyone in the office had congregated at the windows to watch the macabre scene. Several right-wing activists had arrived from somewhere and were just outside the police line, chanting, “Death to the Arabs!” She noticed that all of the windows surrounding the mall were shattered, except for those in her office. How many people, she wondered, had been hurt by flying glass?
Karen became aware that she was shivering. Obviously she couldn’t work, but she needed to do something. Every few minutes she called her friend’s cell phone number. Each time there was no answer. Where are the nearest hospitals? She grabbed a phone book and started dialing hospitals. None of them had a record of her friend having been admitted. Looking again out the window, she began thinking the worst: What will I do if one of those scorched bodies is hers? Am I ready for the worst kind of news? No way! She felt panic rising within her. With all her will, she pushed it down.
After watching the evening news, I paced my office, praying for the victims of yet another terrorist attack in Israel. I reminded myself that for every person who died, there were parents, siblings, and friends in mourning. For every injured person, there was a family gathered around a hospital bed weeping and praying. For the witnesses, there were nightmares and the fear that never seems to go away. The people of Israel were reeling from the horrors that have struck them over the last several years.
For years I’d been traveling to the Middle East, visiting churches in Lebanon, Israel, West Bank, and Gaza. Whenever I heard about another attack, I wondered if any believers were caught in it. Christians are not immune from such horrors, of course. The Church cannot avoid the dangers of the society in which it exists, but I wondered how Christians were coping with the physical and emotional trauma.
I recalled another terrifying incident in August 1968, when Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Soviet army. I wondered how the invasion would affect the Church, so I loaded my Citroen station wagon with Russian Bibles and Christian literature and drove all day from Holland to the Czech border. There I met a long stream of cars leaving the country. Thousands of people were fleeing the Soviet army. I was the only person going into Czechoslovakia. Even though I didn’t have a visa, the border guard admitted me into the country, and that next Sunday I preached in Prague.2
I was about to turn seventy years old. People were suggesting that I should retire. Traveling into combat zones was for young people. But how could I retire when my brothers and sisters were hurting and there was a chance that I could help? Many wanted to run away from the conflict in Israel. I wanted to run to it.
It was after dark when Karen reached home and buried herself in her parents’ arms. Television news was on in the living room. For a few minutes she watched the reports, unable to believe that she had been there and had narrowly escaped with her life. The facts hammered themselves into her consciousness. Three bombs had exploded in the crowded pedestrian mall in West Jerusalem. At least 7 people were dead and 192 injured, mostly due to thousands of nails packed in the explosives. Reporters agreed that this had been a particularly vicious attack.
A few minutes later the phone rang. Her father answered, then handed her the receiver. “It’s Shiri!”
“Thank God!” was all Karen could say for a moment. Through her tears, she finally said, “I was so afraid you were out there . . .”
“I was at the post office, just a few hundred yards away,” Shiri explained. “I didn’t try to go back to the office; I just came home.”
It was a short conversation. What a relief and joy to know that her friend was safe! But then Karen felt weak. She turned off the television and slumped into an overstuffed chair. How can I rejoice when so many others are mourning? The initial shock of the horror was wearing off, and now the feelings and questions began to erupt. She spoke some of her thoughts aloud to her parents: “How could these men be driven by such hate? And why?” She looked into her mother’s eyes. “Just two minutes earlier and I would have been in that mall. Why did God spare me?”
She barely slept that night. Trying to force the horrible images from her mind, she made herself focus on any Bible verses she could recall. From Ephesians 6:12, she recited, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood.” Today she had seen real flesh-and-blood casualties in the seemingly never-ending war between Palestinians and Israelis. With real bodies lying on stone pavement, it was hard to think that this was foremost a spiritual battle. But her faith told her this was a war she couldn’t fight physically. She had to allow God to fight it. Her part was to pray and love and embrace everyone, just as God did her. Did she believe that?
Karen thought about how much she loved her country. Born and raised in Jerusalem, she felt privileged to live in Israel and completely at home within Jewish society. What made her different from most citizens was that her family was Christian. Most people around her were culturally Jewish and religiously secular.
Her parents had taught her to be accepting of everyone, and though she lived in Israel, she had often crossed into Bethlehem and interacted with Palestinians. That had motivated her to take Arabic courses in high school, followed by a year studying the language in Jordan. Then about six months ago, she had participated in a desert encounter designed to build bridges between Messianic believers3 and Palestinian Christians. It was sponsored by Musalaha, an organization that promotes biblical reconciliation. Karen had enjoyed the opportunity to use her Arabic and develop new relationships with Palestinians. Clearly, not all of them were filled with hate; her Arab friends were compassionate and open to the “other side.” Today’s events could not be allowed to undermine her faith or her relationships. She would not allow it!
Again she asked, “Why, Lord, did You spare me?” She tried to still her mind, but the prayer continued: “Would it not have been better for You to take me in place of someone who did not know You?” In the early morning hours, tears flowed freely. Karen knew there were no answers to her questions. “Lord, please allow me to see this situation with Your eyes.” Somehow she and the Christians around her at church and the Bible College had to be living examples of God’s grace toward humankind. That wouldn’t be easy, but, really, was there any other choice?
One question particularly troubled me after each suicide bombing, one I’d been asking for years: Did anyone present Jesus to that young person who blew himself up? Who was going to the terrorists? Was anyone prepared to confront them and give them a reason to live that was greater than their motivation to die? How can they know about the Prince of Peace if no one goes and tells them?
But are Muslim fundamentalists who are committed to the destruction of Israel really willing to listen to the gospel?
How can we know if we don’t go, if we don’t try?