Holy Land Reflections
I was recently afforded the opportunity to travel to Palestine and Israel to participate in an international young adult leadership conference at the Sabeel Palestine Liberation Theology Center. The theme was “Christianity in the East, Islam in the West: Prophetic Voices from Palestine and Israel.” The purpose of the conference was to bring together young Christians from around the world, to engage with the people of the region, learn about the realities of life under occupation and to better understand the differences and misconceptions that exist both in the East and West.
I grew up in a Christian family where regular attendance of Sunday school was mandatory. I’ll never forget my first exposure to the colorful stories that make up the biblical narratives. Adam and Eve in the melodious Garden of Eden, Samson and his super human strength, Daniel and his ability to sleep among lions, and Joseph and his splendid coat of many colors. My favorite was by far the story of Moses leading the children of Israel out of bondage and into the Promised Land. This particular story was packed with imagery that would make the imagination of almost any seven-year-old little boy run wild. Moses was born into a society where his death decree was signed as the ink was still drying on his birth certificate. However, due to the ingenuity and courageous acts of his mother, his life was preserved. Moses, a little Jewish boy, was raised in the house of the oppressor, by the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh, and nursed by his biological mother. Moses grew up and had remarkable experiences. God speaks to him through a burning bush, Moses’ staff turned into a serpent, he turned water into blood, he called fire down from heaven, and ultimately he parted the Red Sea so that the children of Israel may cross over in order to reach the “Promised Land”. According to my Sunday school teacher, the hand of God orchestrated this entire drama in order to bring deliverance to God’s chosen people the “children of Israel” in order for them to occupy the “Promised Land.” I clearly remember thinking to myself as a little boy how extraordinary it would have been to be a part of this chosen group of people. I desperately wanted to see the “Promised Land”, to taste the honey and sip on the milk, I wanted to breathe the air, to put my feet in the water, to shake hands and break bread with the battered and bruised descendents of this chosen group. I wanted to go to Jerusalem.
When I heard about Sabeel and the United Church of Christ offering graduate students the opportunity to participate in this international adventure I was beyond excited. My undiminished childhood aspiration to visit the Holy Land was now within reach. I submitted the required documentation in order to be considered to attend the conference and anxiously awaited my response. Three weeks later my dream became a reality. I was selected to attend the 6th international leadership conference to be held in Holy Land.
According to Dr. Alison McMahan, Union Circle of Scholars Award recipient and President of Homunculus Productions said upon her return to the United States after visiting Palestine and Israel, “Israel is a place full of dichotomies, and I don’t even mean the obvious one of Jewish Israelis versus Palestinians. The contrasts are built into every stone, every street, in the arrangement of lamps in the Holy Sepulcher.” My idea of what the Holy Land would feel and look like was initially shaped within the context of the Sunday school room of my youth. It didn’t stop there though; it continued to be molded by American media, politics and religious consciousness. Growing up in a post 9/11 world, I was already exposed to the dichotomies of Israel well before I arrived. However, nothing could have prepared me for what I saw and experienced upon my arrival in Jerusalem. I began to catch a glimpse of the existential, cultural and political significance, really for the first time, of Jerusalem for those who trace the origins of their faith and identity to it.
Each day, Jews, Christians and Muslims practice their worship in the Old City of Jerusalem, all within a stone’s throw of each other. During my short sojourn, I thought more deeply about the heart of the Christian narrative when I saw the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, visited the cities of Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, Bethany, where Jesus brought Lazarus back to life and Jerusalem where Jesus offered his own life. Visiting these spaces made it impossible for me to separate the redemptive historical story of Jesus that unfolded in the midst of these holy sites so many years ago, from the contemporary political struggles that now make Jerusalem. A city with peace at the etymological root of its name, Jerusalem is now a place characterized by strife and division.
The dividing wall, first constructed in 2004, was created for the security and protection of the Israeli citizens against violent extremist within Palestinian territories. This wall makes the journey of Christian pilgrims and the life of local followers of Jesus a difficult one. The connections that once existed now feel disjointed and fractured. The wall cuts off Bethlehem from Jerusalem and Jerusalem from Bethany. Christians in Bethlehem are not allowed entry into Jerusalem without a permit by the Israeli officials, something that is rarely given. Today, Christians are unable to celebrate the route Jesus took on Palm Sunday because the Israeli government decided to build the wall on The Mount of Olives, cutting off the link between Bethany and Jerusalem. The wall has also affected many social services for the poor on The Mount of Olives and Bethany. All this in the midst of the city where the Prince of Peace offered himself vicariously so that he himself might “be our peace, and break down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.”
*Maurice A. Stinnett is Moderator of the Princeton Theological Seminary student government. He is also chairman of The World Leadership Program, an innovative relationship-building curriculum that brings together young American religious leaders and graduate students with their al-Azhar University Muslim counterparts.