I’ve been avoiding Jerusalem under occupation. I wonder how the other pilgrims from Saint Mark’s Episcopal cathedral and from Emmanuel Episcopal church have been processing our experience there in January. Pictures from the earlier part of our Holy Land journey appeared quickly on Facebook—Galilee, Nazareth, Bethlehem. We did not travel in a bubble of Biblical tourism. Visiting Jerusalem as Christians under the auspices of a Palestinian Christian tour company, Shepherd Tours, saturated our experience with politics.
Leaving Bethlehem at eight in the morning on January 13, we avoided the funeral procession honoring a young Palestinian shot at a check point the day of our arrival. Every face on the bus bespoke grim sadness as we thought of teenagers in our lives back home. We spent the entire day getting to our hotel inside the walled city of Jerusalem although it was only fifteen minutes away. It was dusk before we unloaded our suitcases and made our way to the Knight’s Palace Hotel.
That first day in Jerusalem swirled with the emotional turmoil embodied in this quote from Jared Brock, “What are the chances that of all 1.59629 quadrillion square feet of physical land on planet Earth, three major world religions are literally fighting over one single rock?”
On our way out of Bethlehem, we stood beneath the 25 foot wall barring Palestinians from Jerusalem, then navigated a West Bank/Israeli check point. Once out of the West Bank, we joined a freeway system that serves a gleaming white suburb thrust like an angry fist into the hills of Bethlehem. Its condos, fountains, parks, shopping centers, banks and schools are for the mostly American Jewish families who live there. This “settlement” is not Israel so its inhabitants pay no taxes to the Israeli government. Yet they are protected and encouraged by that same government to be brave expansionists creating new Israeli territory in the midst of Palestinian land. We couldn’t see the parks and shops from our bus, but I had watched Rick Steves’ video documentary of his trip to Israel.
We began our tour of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. I had no preconceived desire to nail down the location of each Jesus story in the New Testament, and at the time of this writing, I am less convinced of the authenticity of any of the sites venerating His life than before going to the Holy Land. Many claims are made about the validity of this or that sacred place. To a Christian, the Mount of Olives is where Jesus ascended to Heaven. To a Muslim, this is where the Seven Arch bridge will extend to Temple Mount. And to a Jew, this is where the resurrection will take place when the Messiah comes. It and much of ancient Jerusalem form crossroads–the Holy Land. Site of continuous war.
Walking down from the mount, we passed the Jewish cemetery with sarcophagi dating thousands of years, to the Garden of Gethsemane where gnarled olive trees could be 2000 years old. We stopped at the Church of the Paternoster where the Lord’s Prayer is printed in 148 languages. Jesus’ invitation to all the world is graphically presented through these languages. We stopped in Dominus Flevit church which venerates the cries of Jesus as he prepared to enter Jerusalem. He became overwhelmed by the beauty of the Second Temple and, predicting its future destruction, and the diaspora of the Jewish people, wept openly.
By the late afternoon, we stood on the grounds of the Israeli museum, built in 1965, facing the enormous model of Jerusalem. Our guide, Tony Azraq, explained the historic development of the ancient city. I wanted hours more to explore this museum, the Dead Sea Scroll on exhibit in a separate building, the modern, medieval and ancient art and traveling exhibit of Gustave Doré’s prints. But we were spirited away to Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum.
A brief history (Thanks in part to Rick Steves and a recent publication by National Geographic)
In the center of Jerusalem is the rock. Jews call it Temple Mount. Muslims believe Mohamed ascended to heaven from this rock and they have worshiped at a mosque here for 1300 years. Muslims, Jews, and Christians all teach that Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son here. And long before the angel stopped Abraham’s knife, even prehistoric religions considered this a holy spot. The rock was likely an altar for blood sacrifices.
When King David captured Jerusalem in about 1000 before Christ, he united the 12 tribes of Israel. His son, Solomon, probably built the First Temple here. Later, Assyrians and Babylonians destroyed the united kingdom of Israel, and with it, Solomon’s Temple.
But Herod, a Jew who was the Roman King of Judea in 31 BC, rebuilt Jerusalem and expanded a second temple which stood here. The western foundation of this Second Temple survives. Here — at what’s called the Western Wall or Wailing Wall — Jews mourn the Roman destruction of the Jewish nation in 70 ad. Whole families come to sit or stand in front of this wall. For years only men could approach, but now there is a partitioned section where women can worship.
After many attempts to rise up against the Roman authorities, the last anti-Israelite destruction in 70 AD effectively drove them to the “Diaspora,” or dispersal of the Jewish people, which ended only with the establishment of modern Israel in 1948. A huge wall map in Yad Vashem holocaust museum shows the locations and numbers of Jews spread throughout Europe in 1948. For the first time I understood the national cry for a unified homeland for the scattered Jews. In the late 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was falling apart simultaneous with a rise in national identity in Germany, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria and the other Balkan countries. None of these emerging nations wanted to include the Jews. Jews were isolated into ghettos. They, too, felt the longing for a nation state. The Zionist movement was born and several areas were suggested included Uganda, Brazil, Argentina. But the “Promised land” won out and wealthy Jews began to buy property in Palestine.
Christopher Hitchens, an English born, Jewish American (1949 – 2011) writes in his memoir Hitch-22 Jerusalem: that place of blood since remote antiquity. Jerusalem, over which the British and French and Russians had fought a foul war in the Crimea. … Jerusalem, where the anti-Semite Balfour had tried to bribe the Jews with the territory of another people in order to seduce them from Bolshevism and continue the diplomacy of the Great War. Jerusalem: that pest-house in whose environs all zealots hope that an even greater and final war can be provoked.”
― Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir
Episcopal Pilgrims adventure in Jerusalem – Jan. 13 – 18, 2016
The first night fell and our bus parked near the Jaffa Gate of Old Jerusalem, circled by sixteenth century Ottoman ramparts. We made our way to the New Gate and the Knight’s Palace hotel. But not without incident. Linda’s two small suitcases had wheels. One was left behind by the porters and sped down the hill, into the freeway tunnel where it was apprehended by a military robot and detonated. Linda’s first inkling of this failed act of terrorism on her part was a call from the local Israeli police station and the return of her case, carefully Duck taped together, its contents destroyed. One can not be too careful in a country where everyone is always suspect.
Some energetic members of the group began exploring the Old City in the dark, being warned to not get lost. The walled city is divided into four quarters: The Jewish quarter springs from the Western Wall. The Muslim quarter faces the Dome of the Rock. And north of the Armenian Quarter, the Christian quarter surrounds the site of Jesus’ crucifixion — marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.Too tired to venture out that evening, I went in the early morning to the Holy Sepulcher and found it empty.
A high point for many was the Via Dolorosa — tracing the route thought to be the one Jesus walked as he carried the cross.
The fourteen “stations of the cross” remind the faithful of the events which culminated in the crucifixion. It was challenging to concentrate on Jesus’ painful walk under the heavy burden of the wooden cross. All around us children darted, vendors called out their wares, Muslim women shopped for plastic toys, spices, food and kitchen items. We paused at each station to read a Bible verse and pray together, doing our best to be both inconspicuous and focused. I carried in my throat the Taize chant and with eyes half lidded, meditated my way through the bustling alley-ways, up the stairs to the final stages of the cross, situated on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
The pilgrims’ journey ends in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on Calvary Hill. It’s hard to tell that it is on a hill. There is no landscape here. Only jumbled passages, overhanging dwellings and a staircase climbing up. To get to the designated place of crucifixion, one descends from the roof top through tiny sanctuaries managed by Coptic, Ethiopian and Syrian Christians. At the lower levels are sanctuaries belonging to Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians. It is a maze of sacred and separate jurisdictions. I wondered what Jesus would think of this turf defense by the Many over the One. You just wanted to take a sturdy broom and sweep all distinction away leaving one big unadorned space where the masses could stand and weep together over the sacrifice of a charismatic rebel whose goal had nothing to do with Kingship and everything to do with love. We didn’t get it on that Palm Sunday long ago and we don’t get it now.
Here’s a question I have often pondered: Why did a strong young man like Jesus fall down exhausted carrying that cross? Our group went to visit the house of the head of the Sanhedrin in the time of Pontius Pilate, Roman Governor of Palestine. Caiaphas lived lavishly and had his own dungeon beneath spacious apartments. After Pilate washed his hands of responsibility for condemning Jesus to the cross, he handed Jesus over to the Jewish authorities. Caiaphas probably sent Jesus down to the dungeon where he may have hung all night by a rope tied around his torso, his feet just above the ground. He was probably tortured. It is Caiaphas’ courtyard where Peter may have warmed himself by the fire and denied knowing Jesus. The next morning, Jesus was sent down the hill into the valley where he was fitted for his cross and then he began the long walk to Golgotha. No wonder he was so weak and needed help with the heavy, cumbersome weight. Torturing him was an act of mercy perhaps. Death on a cross usually took several agonizing days. A weakened man died more quickly.
One of the last important places we visited was Emmaus, now called Abu Gosh, a Muslim town a day’s walk from Jerusalem. The 5th century Byzantine basilica built by the Crusaders retains patches of frescoes and a soft light. We worshiped there, blessed the items we bought to keep or give away when we got home, and celebrated the Eucharist.
Emmaus has long held significance for me. My second husband, Chuck Finney, was a Curcillista and met with his group of Curcillo graduates a 7 a.m. prayer breakfast every single Thursday. They called themselves the Burgermaster Bishops. Founded in Majorca, Spain, in 1944, a group of lay Catholics endeavored to train men to be leaders in and beyond church. Over a three-day weekend participants went through a short course in Christianity with the idea that the Fourth Day would constitute the rest of their lives. They would continue to meet to develop their spirituality and become lay leaders in and beyond the church. Curcillo is a trade marked movement and when the Methodists decided to organize a similar retreat, they called it Walk to Emmaus. The disciples met a stranger on the road and told him all about their crucified and resurrected teacher from Nazareth, and then, to their amazement, realized Jesus was that stranger [Luke 24: 13-25]. When we connect with the stranger, we find God.
Muslin, Christian and Jew, Strangers in the Holy Land?
A young Israeli came to the Crusader hotel to talk to us about Israel and guide us to a settlement. This young man’s passion is to change the world view of his homeland. He told us that we need to get the US government to pay less attention to his country, to let them work out their difficulties on their own. “Let go of us!” he pleaded. As a youth he was sent to a farm to shape up. He took us to a small farming community of Jews some distance from Jerusalem. A local American Jew living permanently in Israel, Bruce from Brooklyn, joined us as our “settlement” dwelling guide. He gave us an earful about the right of the Jews to be there, to “settle” land in the West Bank, Palestinian territory. Seventy year old Bruce seemed fueled by self-righteous anger.
Our farm host was a young Jew who left his Hasidic family to establish this goat farm with a training school for young troubled Israelis. They make cheeses and other products from goat milk. Here were three secular Jews representing three points of view talking with a band of Christians from Seattle and Mercer Island. The young farmer talked of loving the land, of appreciating the Arabs living on the next farm over and employing them for day labor.
At one point the young tour guide gently interceded to translate from Hebrew, finding fault with the way Bruce twisted the farmer’s intent.
This settlement may be illegal, but its presence did not enrage me the way the posh suburban settlement pushing Bethlehem did. This place represented peaceful and cooperative coexistence, the sort of rural atmosphere you might have in One State for Israel/Palestine.
Two men in their late 40s, early 50s spoke to us about the terrible tragedy of losing a child in the conflict. The Israeli’s daughter was at the mall with her friends in Jerusalem when a suicide bomb killed her. The Muslim’s son was shot by an Israeli soldier at a check point skirmish. After grief came revenge for them both, and then the recognition that revenge would accomplish nothing. Instead they sought each other out and vowed to help other grieving parents come to terms with the violent deaths of their children. We wept with them as they told their stories and those of the 600 additional families now supporting each other, former strangers on opposite sides of the Wall.
A passionate Muslim mother, a sweet Jewish father and the Christian director of this program sat with us to share their story of friendship with strangers. Families trying to parent confused children during the conflict, to answer questions about the Other, have brought their children together to know each other across the political/theological barriers. The children and their parents talk about and practice peace. They meet for play, for meals, for outings. They get to know each others hopes and fears along with their cultural differences. Love blossoms. They have become realistic and honest about their hope. Full coverage of our evening with the Kids6Peace leaders can be read here.
EPF work in Gaza
We could not go to Gaza because of the danger. A Christian couple working at a Christian orphanage in Gaza came to tell us about their work. Hearing about life there, one wondered how anyone could maintain a daily routine of family, work/school and relaxation with friends. The Muslims and Christians in Gaza are virtual prisoners under a capricious and punishing regime. The American sponsored Episcopal Peace Fellowship supports a major hospital there with equipment and supplies.
I spoke with a friend and fellow writer who lives in New York City. She asked me if I didn’t just love Israel. “Wasn’t it just wonderful?” I was quiet for a moment and then said, “I don’t know if I would say wonderful. It is beautiful. Jerusalem is a gleaming city and the antiquities touched me. But I would say that Israel is complicated and challenging.” And then I asked, “what do you think about the situation with the Palestinians?” “Oh, I’m very Jewish, you know. I don’t get into politics. I’ve been three times and I can’t wait to go back. I love Israel.”
I left our different experiences hanging between us.
When I returned home that first night back in Seattle, my renter was full of questions. I told him about the confusion I encountered over the exact places were Jesus lived and taught.
“It’s all right there in the Bible,” he challenged.
“These Bible stories are not eye witness facts, you know.”
“But the Bible is the Word of God. If you don’t believe what the Bible says, you are not a Christian.”
The truth, if there is one for Israel/Palestine, is in the eye of the beholder. As I research on the web to clarify names and places, nothing is certain from all perspectives. Reason nor logic can find a way. A simple narrative doesn’t work from anyone’s point of view. Colin Chapman’s recently updated book, Whose Promised Land? about the continuing conflict over Israel and Palestine, is probably the most thorough investigation of the historic issues of land and religion. If you plan to go to the Holy Land or have already been, I recommend it as a way to unravel misunderstandings and inadequate facts.
Jews, Muslim and Christians all live in a Jerusalem under occupation. Over and over they asked us to hold them in their pain, to love all of them and imagine a Middle East where all people are safe to live, love, work and play.
I recommend you go to see and feel for yourself. Don’t come home without speaking to Muslims, Christians and Jews, secular and religious. Just looking at and praying in the designated Christian sites is not enough to grasp the essence of the First Century when violent separation characterized all life, just as it does today. It is this large experience that constitutes The Fifth Gospel.
Be well, Do well and Keep Moving, Betsy