The First Motion

John Woolman said in his journal on one of the days he spent travelling in earnest pursuit of God’s will for him, that “Love was the first motion,” after which “a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they might be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of truth among them.”

I appreciate that Woolman’s words give precedence to the instruction he will gain from the people whose land and culture he visits. I like how humbly he hopes that his presence and witness to truth among them might “in any degree” be helpful to them. Living in Palestine has made me keenly aware of the margin for harm that is possible when outsiders arrive thinking they have the balm that will sooth whatever ails people here (before they have any idea what ails them). It seems if more people were like Woolman, and arrived keen to be instructed by the Palestinians’ remarkable resilience, solidarity and forgiveness, the rest of the world would benefit greatly.

I’ve been wondering about my own return home. I wonder what I will say when prompted to speak about Palestine. When I was in the courtyard with 11th graders the other day I asked them what they would want Americans to hear about them. This is a paraphrase of what they said:

“We express ourselves in the many ways. We dance, and sing, and play music, and write, and act. There is so much more to us than violence, violence is not the only way we respond to the Occupation. We live like the rest of the world, but for us there is a piece missing.”

“That piece that’s missing, it doesn’t overtake our whole lives. Sometimes the media shows it like we’re being bombed and shot every day. We live normal lives, but we do feel that piece missing.”

“And we don’t let it depress us. We don’t get depressed and sad living under occupation, we are still happy and living good lives. We don’t let it prevent us from having a good time and being happy.”

“And we don’t want any harm for the other side. I want to be able to go back to my home town, but I don’t want other people to be harmed in the process. I just want to have my right to my land acknowledged.”

These students had, earlier that day, analysed a passage from a novel by Yashar Kemal, providing their own witness to the truth embedded in literature through discussion and questioning. That is the strongest impression I have of these students: their remarkable ability to collaborate to create meaning around a text.

I wonder what John Woolman meant when he wrote that “Love was the first motion.” In literature, and it seems in life, the first motion is usually accusatory, or defensive, or dishonest. The first motion is often rooted in fear, and I can think of nothing more contradictory to love than fear. Woolman says this right before he felt a concern for the Indians. That makes me think the first motion was God’s motion, not anything coming from Woolman. God makes the first motion, and we are asked to follow through. That first motion is love. When the job at RFS became available, and I felt the tug, it must have been the tug of the motion of God’s love.

I hope to continue making a life of following through on that motion of love, big or small, close to home or far. Love’s motions can be tiny, as when a colleague asks me how a class went or a person in the street returns something I’ve dropped. I believe God gives us opportunities to follow his love’s motion every day, and that it is in following those motions that the world progresses toward greater peace. We can as profoundly change the world by turning toward a neighbor as by crossing an ocean.

Mimi Marstaller, Ramallah Friends School