It is said that you never read the Bible the same way again, once you have visited the Holy Land. Lucy and I have just returned from a week spent in Jerusalem and Galilee. We have been in the company of just over 30 other pilgrims; a trip organised by my theological college St Mellitus College www.stmellitus.org and led by the Principal Graham Tomlin and the Deputy Dean Jane Williams. With their vast experience and contacts, we were able to see places and meet people beyond the usual tourist trail.
It was in all respects a pilgrimage, rather than a holiday. And an exceptional one at that! Chaucer and his friends on the way to Canterbury had nothing on us! We worshipped God together, we prayed together, celebrated communion and we all got to know each other really well. Unique I think for a group of over 30, there was no complaining or conflict. We heard some amazing stories about each other’s lives and our different journeys of faith. We have become friends, despite our differences in age and background.
High points for me were visiting the Western Wall of the ancient Temple at the beginning of the Sabbath and hearing and seeing the boisterous celebrations of the Jews;
visiting Temple Mount and hearing the cries of ‘Allah Akbar’ from the groups of Muslim visitors to one of their most holy shrines, situated where the Jewish Temple used to stand; and visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre early on Sunday morning.
In the place where Christ was crucified and buried, we heard the morning worship of the Franciscans, the Copts and the Orthodox with their differing cultural styles; one succeeding another in a great cacophony of common worship to God. Outside, the Islamic call to prayer is followed by the thunderous pealing of church bells and the noises of a modern city waking up.
Everywhere there were Israeli troops. Swap the grey fatigues for a toga and the M62 rifles for swords and one gets a sense of what occupied Jerusalem looked like in the first century.
and spent time in silent prayer in the Judean wilderness.
At each location one of our party gave a reflection on a piece of scripture relevant to the place and we were guided through the history of the monuments by our Coptic Christian guide Dawood Manarious of McCabe Travel www.mccabe-travel.co.uk, whose comprehensive knowledge of the sites and history must, surely, be without equal. He lives in a flat on the roof of the church of the Holy Sepulchre, as his family have responsibility for caring for this most important site on behalf of the Coptic church! Graham and Jane put each place into its theological and historical context with their Oxford level, but totally accessible, talks. We were gently led from site to site with expectations managed and enabled to enjoy the surprises of the Land without disappointments.
Lucy and I like to read a book together when we are abroad set in the place we are visiting. But this time instead, on my iPad, we watched the excellent drama from Channel Four ‘The Promise’ http://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-promise. Every angle of the situation in the Holy Land, and the British historical role in it, is explored in this very compelling story through the eyes of a gap year student (played by Claire Foy) visiting the place that her grandfather had served in the Parachute Regiment in 1947 at the end of the British Mandate, just before the State of Israel was established. We felt that we engaged with our environment at a different and even deeper level by watching this story unfold while we were there.
So, for me, it is the present day situation in the Holy Land which has given me most to think about.
We visited the museum of the Holocaust Yad Vashem http://www.yadvashem.org and saw the appalling suffering of Jews in the Second World War and before. World opinion has not protected the Jews in the past and in general the world did not offer the Jews a sanctuary after World War II even after the evidence of the Nazi atrocities had come to light. So one can understand the wish of Zionists to have a land of their own where they can protect themselves. ‘Never again’ must be the cry of all who visit such a place.
But we also saw the cost borne by the Palestinians who have had their land taken away from them and whose remaining property and rights are constantly under attack today even in the Occupied Territories (which are not part of Israel under international law) by the building of new Israeli settlements. The need to build new settlements grows as Israel gets richer and imports care workers from Asia and Turkey to look after their children and older citizens. But the violent response of some Palestinians only makes the spiral of intractable conflict worse and worse and antagonises world opinion.
We had however glimpses of how God might work a solution for this seemingly impossible situation. Father David Neuhaus, a Jew from South Africa who converted to Catholicism and now leads a church for Hebraic Catholics in Jerusalem www.catholic.co.il, said he thought the position no more hopeless than it was in South Africa during apartheid. It just took two leaders from both communities to come forward who started speaking the language of peace, as Mandela and de Klerk did in South Africa. This is something that we can pray for. He emphasised that it was important to realise that many of the most religious Jews are voices of moderation and peace in Israel. The great Jewish writer Martin Buber wrote in the 1940s that the state of Israel would be defined by how it treated the Palestinians. It was Israel’s Biblical duty to be a blessing to the world. So there are voices in both communities which cry for peace. It is to be hoped that both sides can find a place in their theology for peace with all the self sacrifice that that involves.
In the Occupied Territories, near Bethlehem, we visited a farm run by a Palestinian, Dawood Nassar, called ‘the Tent of Nations’www.tentofnations.org . It is surrounded by five Israeli settlements. Almost all the surrounding farmland has been taken over by Israeli settlers, but Nassar (unlike many other Palestinian farmers) has the title documents to the land since the Ottomon period (before the First World War) and fights every attempt to remove him and his family from his farm in the Israeli courts. He and his family have had to live underground in caves, because he is not given planning permission to build above ground. However, he goes on applying for permission. The main access route to his farm has been blocked and he does not have any external supply of electricity or water. The Israeli settlements have new roads, electricity and swimming pools. But, instead of getting angry, he takes the long way round to Bethlehem and relies on solar power and well water. He told us that many of his trees in full fruit were recently bulldozed by the Israeli Army.
Of the options open to him: to leave; to despair; or to use violence; he is absolutely determined to refuse to be enemies with the Israelis. He aims to resist by peaceful means and through the Israeli court system. I understand from him that the claim he has made for compensation for the loss of his fruit trees is currently caught between the Israel Supreme Court and the Military Court which has jurisdiction in the Occupied Territories. Many of his trees have been replanted by a group of American Jews. A Jewish settler from a nearby settlement, who dropped in one day to see what was going on on the farm, has ended up helping him construct an ecological loo. Volunteers from foreign countries work on the farm and help with the summer camps he holds there for children and youths from both sides of the conflict and abroad. The photograph below shows the eco loo with built with a Jewish settler and (in the background) the Israeli settlement on the ground opposite the farm.
It is to be hoped that this highly articulate and peaceful Palestinian Christian Mandela (or someone like him) will become a leader of the struggle for justice for Palestine. A new approach without violence. A Christian approach. One can see how important it is that the Palestinians are allowed to join the International Court of Justice to keep the Israeli court system operating according to international standards.
We have come away from Israel full of hope that there is a way out of this terrible situation without violence which will draw in the whole world. We have seen that there are people of good will on both sides; and we are convinced that a peaceful two state solution can be found. But only God can achieve a turn around from the widespread moves towards violence. Our prayer is that people who talk the language of peace, and who are determined not to be enemies, will come into the ascendancy in both communities and that the situation will be transformed.
For those who want to ask more or express another view to me – please do come to the services in the Valley on this coming Sunday 25th January. At 8am I will be preaching at St John’s Itchen Abbas on the wedding at Cana (the reading set by the Lectionary for Sunday) and we will be celebrating communion at 8am and at 10am at St Swithun’s Martyr Worthy with wine that I bought in Cana on Tuesday. We may learn the reason why the steward in the Bible Story (John 2:1-12) said that the wine that Jesus had converted from water was so much superior to the wine from Cana with which we will be celebrating, but even so it will be fun to try it out!