Thursday, March 08, 2007


When I wrote this article (A land beyond our possession) I had a number of thoughts in mind - Lent, Jerusalem, and our very human struggles over identity and security, in particular. Given the focus, I naturally single out the difficult issues faced by Christians, Jews and Muslims, the three faith communities who share (or fail to share) what is supposed to be a Holy City, but is all-too-often a site of unholy conflict.

I wanted to add, but it didn't quite seem appropriate in this piece, that non-religious people and those of other faith traditions, in recognising the characteristic sins of the 'peoples of the book', should beware letting themselves off too lightly, either. None of us is sweetly innocent. The traumas of history in the Middle East and elsewhere are the fruit of malign secular politics as much as religious manipulation. Modern history is too complex to yield simple solutions and cosy attributions of blame.

One of the things that worries me about the 'religionists versus secularists' rhetorical battle right now, is that it conveniently lets everybody off the hook. Each 'side' can (and does) selectively blame the other for all the world's ill, using this to leave its own challenges un- or under-examined. The alternative route is to seek difficult relationship across the divides so that we can share responsibility rather than apportioning guilt. This seems much more productive.

When it made peace with established political order, Christianity forgot the history which produced it. It began in occupied Palestine. Its story involved displacement (exile), moving on (mission), sojourning (diaspora), settling (church planting) and journeying (pilgrimage).

Followers of Jesus are, as Stanley Hauerwas has observed, ‘resident aliens’, strangers in the land. They have ‘no abiding city’ and are constantly in search of ‘another country’, a territory free of domination, the New Jerusalem. A Cross marks the place where the contradiction between this freedom quest and the logic of religious and political order is seen at its most deadly.

What we should learn from this is that possession and conquest are not paths to security. Land alone is not hope or glory. To be at home is to be loved, not to be in control. It is in seeking mutual relationship that we learn a fruitful disposition toward each other and toward ‘the land’.

These are very hard lessons. Christians made a tragic mistake when some of them sought to end their early captivity not by exodus, but by buying into empire. They gained the world but lost their souls. And the Jews paid the price, among others.

Similarly, it is a tragedy that some Jewish people now seek to gain security for themselves not by sharing the land with their Semitic neighbours, but by occupying it and building walls.

Likewise, some Muslims seek to recover their dignity not by the spiritual struggle of the heart (which is what jihad truly means) but by a battle for possession involving fear and bombs.

This land, our land, your land, any land will not be made inhabitable if we seize it (by war), any more than it we neglect or despise it (by greed and ecological destruction). It will only bear fruit when we see it, and each other, as a gift to be cherished and shared. In the process that will involve recognizing each others wounds, not just our own.

Such a change of heart may seem unimaginable in a world darkened by the politics of aggressive counter-assertion. But it is what Lent, the willing embrace of the wilderness, is about. Only from a position of voluntary dispossession can we get a true picture of what is at stake in remaking the city as a land for all: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets … how often I have longed to gather your children together… but you were not willing.” (Jesus in Matthew 23)

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