Travelling the “Holy Land”

I have just started a new book: Kissing Fish by Roger Wolsey. The first thing that jumped at me was the very first quote that Wolsey chose for his introduction to the book:

The message of Jesus as I understand it, is contained in the Sermon on the Mount
unadulterated and taken as a whole. If then I had to face only the Sermon on the Mount and my own interpretation of it, I should not hesitate to say, “Oh, yes, I am a Christian.”
But negatively I can tell you that in my humble opinion, what passes as Christianity is a
negation of the Sermon on the Mount. 
Mohandas Gandhi

At this point, merely 14 pages into the book, Wolsey had me. “EXACTLY!!!” I thought. Here is why:

View from the Mount of Beatitudes – possibly the spot where Jesus preached

Only a few weeks ago, on 25th August 2018, I stood where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. Or at least I stood somewhere close to it as we know that He preached at the Sea of Galilee, but the exact location is not certain. Of course, that did not prevent Christians from building the Church of Beatitudes, a beautiful small Catholic chapel, and declaring one spot THE spot. Behind the church, there is a space which looks like would could be a “natural auditorium” which adds strength to the argument that indeed this location is THE location. At least I fully fell for it and walked the gardens of the church in awe of the beauty of the place and the magnificent view across the Sea of Galilee. This was it, this was where what is at the heart of my personal Christian faith came into the world. I had my Bible with me, and together with the group I travelled with, we listened to the Beatitudes, this excellent piece of preaching of social justice, equality, and care for one another (that’s at least what it is to me). It was a great moment.

It did not take long though, for me to come back down to earth from my “spiritual high” to the bleak and often brutal realities of the Middle East. I was travelling with the Olive Tree Initiative and the purpose of our trip was to witness the conflict in Israel and the Occupied Palestine Territories through seeing it with our own eyes and to explore the different narratives that exist around the conflict through meeting with people from a variety of backgrounds. In 16 days we visited 18 places and met with 62 speakers and locals (at least according to my count). This trip was as much of a challenge (physically and psychologically) as it was a privilege.

I had my first moment of what I can only describe as a kind of “spiritual anger” when we crossed the border from Jordan to Israel. Above the doors of the Israeli check point it says, “Welcome to the Holy Land”, however, what I experienced behind those doors was not in any way close to what I would count as holy. Border control was intimidating, discriminating, and lengthy. I assume, that Israeli officials could easily name me a hundred reasons why this is necessary, and they would maybe have a point, nevertheless, it truly did not feel like entering a Holy Land, it just felt like entering one of the most securitised places in the world.

This feeling of doubting the holiness of the Holy Land stayed with me throughout the trip. Most times I felt that God had left the venue in despair over the horror show humanity is staging. The only exceptions to this were the visit of the Mount of Beatitudes, of the Tent of Nations, of SkateQylia, and (in a way surprisingly) of the Al Aqsa compound. These were the only places where I unreservedly felt glad to be there, where I felt that it is possible for something good to stand out from all the struggles. Places where there was a touch of hope or even peacefulness.

By the time we had reached Jerusalem (the last stop on our trip), I was very angry. Angry about the Israeli State. Angry about the Palestinian Authority. Angry about the impossibility of the situation people on both sides have to live in. Maybe I should have been sad about all of this but that is not my style; I get angry and grumpy.

I was nevertheless looking forward to visiting some of the most holy sites in the world. We went to the Western Wall on a Friday evening, right before the beginning of Shabbat. Again, there were security procedures and a ubiquitous presence of security personnel but by now I was kind of used to that. What alienated me this time, was that men and women prayed separately. I knew beforehand that this would be the case but to my own surprise it bothered me quite a bit. While I was mulling about my feelings, I had reached the wall itself. I had not planned to pray there, but in the spur of the moment I went for it. I wrote down a brief prayer on a piece of paper and put it in the gaps between the ancient rocks. Then I put my hands on the wall, closed my eyes, and just opened my heart – and I felt like I was listened to and comforted. An unexpected spiritual moment and encounter with God. Maybe, my own views about how things should be were not so important after all.

2018.09 OTI 11 Jerusalem Old City 05
The Immovable Ladder

The next day, we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. One would think that me being Christian would mean that I would find another spiritually refreshing experience there but unfortunately, I experienced the contrary. I do not know why it slipped by me until that point, but when we arrived at the church I for the first time learned about and saw the “Immovable Ladder”. This ladder has been leaning on one of the windows above of the entrance to the church since at least 1757. It has been replaced from time to time, but it cannot be removed because of the “Status Quo” that rules the holy sites in Jerusalem. To move the ladder, all six Christian denominations who have a stake in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre would need to agree to do so. The fact that the ladder remains in place tells you a lot about the loving relationship Christians in Jerusalem have with each other. You might have guessed already; my anger was right back on when I heard this. It was fuelled even more when I learned that the only recent time the six denominations did agree on something was when Israel threatened to tax the church and they decided to close it. So even in Christianity money rules the world.

“But negatively I can tell you that in my humble opinion, what passes as Christianity is a
negation of the Sermon on the Mount.”
The behaviour of Christians in Jerusalem but also in many other parts of the world seems to be very removed from the Gospel. Take for example the role of evangelical Christians in US politics or the attitude of the Catholic Church towards many social issues and its own scandals. On a local level, churches seem to be stunned by the trend of secularisation and membership decline around them and often resort to dogmatic approaches as these provide a (false) sense of security. Meanwhile, progressive Christianity that promotes the inclusion of all and exclusion of none seems to be on the back-foot. My own home church in Glasgow goes through a troubling times just now even though they have a strong ethos of welcome for all and are keen advocates of social justice. It pains and troubles me but I am not sure yet what could be done about it. One step surely is that I have to stand up more openly for what I believe Christianity can and should mean even if that is not always easy and sometimes even frightening. Else, I hope I will find some more answers as I read further in Wolsey’s book.

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