Guest Commentary – Can these lands be holy?

My recent pilgrimage to the “Holy Land” was like zooming in and out on Google maps. The Holy Land is, in one sense, the center of the world. Zoom in and it provides an intensely close view of the world’s major religious histories and their spiritual and political conflicts — within a few square blocks.

Zoom out and you see a simple land bridge between the real players of history — empires like Egypt, Babylon, Persia and Rome — that rose and fell for thousands of years before the stories of these religions began to take shape alongside the trade routes of the larger world.

What word describes these lands? Conundrum? Paradox? Mess? Punching bag? From a religious perspective, Jerusalem is a key city to Jews, Christians and Muslims. These groups elbow each other to occupy and revere the same small piece of real estate. Jews hallow the location of the Temple, long gone except for a retaining wall known as the Western or Wailing Wall. To enter this space (B.Y.O.Y. — bring your own yarmulke) is to walk into the mystery of prayer, passion and connection to the past and the future. Many Jews long for the rebuilding of the Temple so Messiah can come and the world can be made right. Across a small valley, on the Mount of Olives, Jews from all over the world pay huge bucks for burial plots so they can be the first to see the Messiah come.

The problem, as most readers know, is that Muslims have controlled the former site of the Temple since the 7th century. The golden Dome of the Rock is their third-most holy site (after Mecca and Medina) and it sits on the mount from which Mohammad ascended and upon which Abraham was told to sacrifice his first-born (by Muslim reckoning that would be Ishmael, not Isaac). Just outside the Old City walls, a Muslim graveyard awaits the completion of all things.

Jerusalem is also home to central scenes in the Christian story. Though Christianity is less a religion based on place (someone forgot to tell the Crusaders), it still draws pilgrims to the traditional sites said to mark the life and ministry of Jesus, including the hill on which Jesus died and the tomb in which he was laid — conveniently close enough to each other to be housed in the same church. 

One small problem is that long ago, the Ottomans bequeathed responsibility for this church to six different Christian groups who, um, don’t act very “Christian” to each other. A Muslim family was put in charge of the keys to the church. Every day the Muslim arrives (along with an Israeli police officer, just in case) to open the door to Christianity’s holiest site for the feuding groups. Throw in the United States’ strategic interest in Israel as a military and political foothold in this volatile and oil-rich region and you’ve got a toxic geo-religio-economical-political cocktail.

And yet, day by day, Jews and Christians and Muslims co-exist. Not effortlessly or lightly. As a Christian in the midst of celebrating my faith’s story, I also glimpsed the beauty of Jews and Muslims as they leaned into their stories as well.

The Wailing Wall was bathed in spotlights on the evening of our visit. At its base Jews prayed in an array of styles and methods. Over the hill we heard the Muslim call to prayer from the loudspeakers. Meanwhile, echoes of Vietnamese Christians singing to Mary in a nearby church rang in my ears from a few minutes earlier.

And for a moment, there was this glimpse and a question: What if our respective religions could move so deeply and devotedly into our faith stories that issues of hatred, grudges, competition and fear were overcome? Where we transcend the winner-take-all approach to life and faith and recognized that there’s enough for everyone — enough love, resources and room for stories to be shared and celebrated.

On our last day in Jerusalem, I got up at sunrise to walk into the city and remembered a Steve Earle song I had on my iPod. 

I woke up this morning / The news wasn’t good / Death machines were rumbling ’cross the ground where Jesus stood / And the man on my TV told me / it’d always been that way / There was nothing anyone could do or say.

And I almost believed him / Yeah I almost lost my mind / Then I regained my senses again / Looked into my heart to find / that I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham / will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem.

Maybe not in our lifetime, but someday. 

Joseph Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church, at Grinstead Drive and Cherokee Road.