“Jerusalem is a shared gift for humanity”.


By Melanie A. Duguid-May**

*Excerpted from Saliba Sarsar, ed. What Jerusalem Means to Us: Christian Perspectives and Reflections. North Bethesda, MD: Holy Land Books/Noble Book Publishing Incorporated, 2018.

**Melanie A. Duguid-May is John Price Crozer Professor of Theology at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, New York. Her numerous publications include Jerusalem Testament: Palestinian Christian Speak, 1988-2008 (Eerdmans Publishing, Co., 2010), and “The Ecumenical Movement in the 20th Century and the making of worldwide Christianity,” in A Global History of the Christian Movement, vol. 3 (Brill/Kohlhammer Verlag). She regularly leads pilgrimages to Israel/Palestine, with a focus both on where Jesus walked and what Jesus saw: a land and a people living under military occupation.

“Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised in the city of our God. His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth. Mount Zion, in the far north . . . Walk about Zion, go all around it, count its towers, consider well its ramparts; go through its citadels, that you may tell the next generation that this is God, our God forever and ever” (Ps. 48: 1-2, 12-14).

In 1975, after my first day in Jerusalem, I walked around the ramparts of the Old City walls at midnight. Spread out below me was the landscape of the stories I had heard while growing up in the Christian church. Here was the stage on which the biblical drama of God’s salvation was enacted: Jerusalem. Here was the small military outpost that David incorporated into his growing territory, and then made his capital. Here stood the temple Solomon built on the threshing-floor David bought to erect an altar. In the nearby Sheep Pool, now known as the Pool of Bethesda in the grounds of St. Anne’s near the St. Stephen’s Gate, Jesus cured a cripple. Here palm-bearing crowds streamed down the Mount of Olives and hailed Jesus’ entry into the city. Jesus led his disciples back across the Kidron Valley to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he pled and prayed “Not my will but Thine be done” under ancient olives trees, some of which are still standing. Through the winding streets of this city Jesus dragged the cross on which he was crucified. Here Peter was caught out by the cock that crowed three times. And here was the tomb from which the stone was rolled away on Easter morning.

Spread out below me was the landscape of the stories, the drama of God’s salvation I knew so well. Jerusalem was the Holy City. Jerusalem was the city of the Christian Holy Places, and of holy places for the Jewish people and the Muslim community. From the ramparts I could see how this Holy City – the Psalmist’s Mount Zion – sits atop mountain ridges that run up through the Great Rift Valley from eastern Africa, and is surrounded by the ancient valleys of the Gehenna, the Kidron, and the Tyropoean.

When I took that now-impossible-to-take midnight rampart walk, I did not yet understand that neither the landscape nor the Christian Holy Places alone is what makes Jerusalem the Holy City. The holiness of Jerusalem is what I have come to call accrued holiness. Holiness has accrued to Jerusalem because of the ancient Christian communities who worshipped in this city, guarded the sites identified with Jesus’ life and ministry, and because of the Christian communities who have continued to worship and live in the city through the millennia until today. Holiness has accrued to Jerusalem because of the pilgrims who have come through millennia and who come in these days to visit the holy places and to pray in places first made holy by Jesus and his disciples, seeking thereby to be inspired and renewed in faith.

Indeed, each time I have visited Jerusalem since that first visit it has become clearer and clearer to me that the integrity of Christianity as a living faith is intimately tied, not primarily to the city or the Holy Places, but to the presence of Christian communities of the faithful who live and worship in the city of Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Holy Land. These Christian communities of the faithful identify themselves as “the offspring of those first disciples and apostles whom Jesus called and who followed him. They are the descendants of those who, on the Day of Pentecost 2000 years ago, experienced the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and responded to the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.” [Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, “Contemporary Way of the Cross: A Liturgical Journey along the Palestinian Via Dolorosa,” (Jerusalem: Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, 2011), 4.]

For me as a Christian, therefore, Jerusalem means incarnation: Jesus came here to the temple as a boy with his parents, commemorated as the Presentation of Christ. Later, he turned over the tables of money changers who were desecrating the temple as a place of worship. Still later, ancient communities of Christians gathered on the hill now called Mount Zion. Pilgrims came to these and other holy places from the 2nd century: Melito of Sardis, Sextus Julius Africanus. The Pilgrim of Bordeaux left us the last recorded description of Jerusalem and Christian holy places before Constantine transfigured the landscape. Origen commented that Christians wanted to “trace the footprints of Jesus and his disciples, and of the prophets.” [Origen, Comm. Joann. 1.28 (fr.640).]

Jerusalem means incarnation: local Christians bear witness to the living presence of God’s Word become flesh. But Palestinian Christians living in Jerusalem today are under siege, living under Israeli military occupation not unlike the Roman military occupation of Jesus’ day. Threats to the Christian presence in Jerusalem are not new. Christians living in Jerusalem have endured the vagaries of conquest and colonial ventures time and time again through the millennia. Still the “Status Quo Legislation of the Holy Places” offered a measure of stability and security to the Christian presence as geopolitical tides ebbed and flowed. Even after the upheaval in the aftermath of the First World War, the Christian presence in the city of Jerusalem grew, given opportunities for education, employment, and housing. [The “Status Quo Legislation of the Holy Places” was defined in 1757, codified in 1852 and 1853, and issued as Ottoman decrees or firmans. While they offered clarity regarding access, custodianship, and timing of services, L.G.A. Cust commented on the struggles that necessitated the codification in the first place: “If the Holy Places and the rights pertaining thereto are an `expression of men’s feelings about Him whose story hallowed those sites,’ they are also an index of the corruptions and intrigues of despots and chancelleries during eight hundred years. The logical results have been the spirit of distrust and suspicion, and the attitude of intractability in all matters, even if only of the most trivial importance, concerning the Holy Places.” L.G.A. Cust, The Status Quo and the Holy Places (Jerusalem: Ariel Publishing House, 1980), 3.]

But the catastrophe of 1948 was devastating for the life of Christian in Jerusalem. The numbers of pilgrims also declined. Even Christian communities living nearby in Jaffa and Haifa, the Galilee had to apply for special permits to visit the Holy Places. The disaster of 1967 further weakened the Christian presence and life in the city for Christians. As the military occupation has taken hold of the city, access to the Holy Places has been made difficult, if not impossible for local Christians.  Indeed, the “Status Quo” itself is under threat. Recently Pope Francis and Theophilos III, the Greek Patriarch of the Holy City of Jerusalem, met and issued a statement: “We see the Status Quo as a pillar for the protection of rights for the Christian communities in the Holy Land, and all concerned parties must seriously work to uphold it and reverse all recent encroachments.” [“Pope Francis and Patriarch of Jerusalem urge defending Status Quo,” Press Centre, WCC, 27 October 2017.]

Jerusalem means incarnation. Jerusalem means crucifixion. For Christians living in East Jerusalem, life under military occupation becomes harsher and harsher, day by day. Together with all Palestinian Jerusalemites, Christians daily reckon the flesh-and-blood reality of house demolitions and settler takeovers of homes, the revocation of Jerusalem Identity Cards for the slightest reason, IDF checkpoints and settler-only ring roads, the expansion of illegal settlements, with ubiquitous construction cranes on the skyline, while there are no basic services in East Jerusalem and the separation wall severs neighborhoods. American Israeli, Jeff Halper, who heads the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition, calls this reality a “matrix of control.” [Jeff Halper, An Israeli in Palestine: Resisting dispossession, Redeeming Israel (London, Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2008), 141-174.]

Long ago the prophet Jeremiah cried out in grief: “My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent, for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war. Disaster follows hard on disaster. The whole land is laid waste” (Jer. 4:19-20). Echoing Jeremiah’s lament, Jalal Abukhater cries: “Of my 22 years of life spent in Jerusalem, I have never felt more fear of losing my beloved city than today. We, Palestinian Jerusalemites, are becoming strangers in our land. Today, I find myself feeling helpless in the face of systematic obliteration of our culture and identity. We are losing our native character and becoming directionless wanderers with a diminishing sense of where we belong.” [Jalal Abukhater, “The slow killing of Jerusalem,” Electronic Intifada (July 25, 2017).]

Most Christian pilgrims who journey to the city of Jerusalem today do not see this anguishing reality. They come on tours led by a priest or pastor, but packaged by an Israeli tourist company. They stay in Israeli hotels in West Jerusalem, and walk paved paths to 21st century amenities in neighborhoods from which Palestinians were “cleansed” in 1948. They visit the Holy Places on air-conditioned buses that buffer them from random closures of an Old City gate or random checks of identity papers. Their Israeli guides steer them well away from Palestinian shopkeepers, who are regularly harassed by tax authorities and Israeli police, toward the more and more numerous Israeli vendors in the Old City. Christian pilgrims today visit the stones of Holy Places, but they never meet “the living stones,” the local Palestinian Christians.

Demographic trends indicate that Christianity as a living faith will be extinct in Jerusalem and in the Holy Land in the not-so-distant future. A counter-indicator is that more young Palestinian Christians who go to university in Europe or the U.S. are returning to be part of building Palestine for future generations. But the sustainability of this hopeful trend is challenged by difficult living conditions, systemic discrimination, and steadily diminishing employment opportunities for Palestinians in the occupied territories and in Israel.

Still, Palestinian Christians invoke Jesus’ word to his followers: “Do not be afraid, little flock” (Lk. 12:32) and “You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world” (Mt. 5:13, 14). Naim Ateek, Anglican priest and founder of Sabeel, continues: “The challenge for us Palestinian Christians today is to be salt and light in our communities. You do not need a large amount of salt or light to give taste and to brighten the area around you.” [Naim Ateek, “The Future of Palestinian Christianity,” in The Forgotten Faithful: A Window into the Life and Witness of Christians in the Holy Land, ed. Naim Ateek, Cedar Duaybis, and Maurine Tobin (Jerusalem: Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, 2007), 149.]

Jerusalem means incarnation. Jerusalem means crucifixion. Jerusalem also means resurrection. Here the earliest Christians heard the cry, “He is Risen!” Here in these latter days local Palestinian Christians are bearing witness to this good news as they remain steadfast (samidoon) in the face of structures of military occupation and systemic oppression. They resist daily attempts to erase Palestinian existence as a people and a culture indigenous to the city and the land. Many, like Jean Zaru, retired Presiding Clerk of the Ramallah Friends Meeting and founding member of Sabeel, refuse “to withdraw, either to withdraw internally or to withdraw both internally and externally, that is, to leave Palestine, or “to accommodate, comply or manipulate” the oppressive system to their advantage. [Jean Zaru, “The Challenges and Witness of Palestinian Christians,” in The Forgotten Faithful, 28.] With Jean Zaru, many choose “the path of active nonviolent resistance,” [Ibid.] calling on local and global communities of solidarity in the struggle for human dignity and human rights, and for the preservation of the sacredness of all life on earth.

The spirit of steadfastness or sumud suffused the first Intifada, or attempt at “shaking off” Israeli occupation. This intifada, referred by scholars and commentators as a nonviolent revolution, [See, for example, Mary Elizabeth King, A Quiet Revolution: The First Palestinian Intifada and Nonviolent Revolution (New York: Nation Books, 2007)] was an uprising of Palestinians from all walks of life that also already started to embody the Palestinian state and to build its institutions. This uprising prompted the first of many statements by Jerusalem Heads of Churches, beginning in January 1988. As I tracked down these statements, as I read and reread them—for me, lectio divina—the more impressed I became by the faith and the hope to which they bear witness. For me it is an almost unaccountable hope that partakes of Palestinian sumud: steadfastness that refuses to leave the city or the land, and that resists ongoing injustice and oppression. As the Jerusalem Heads of Churches reminded Palestinian Christians, “We have been witnessing to the Lord in the birthplace of Christianity for the last two thousand years. We stand firm in our faith and determination to safeguard against all odds.” [See Melanie A. May, Jerusalem Testament: Palestinian Christians Speak, 1988-2008 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2010).]

Jerusalem means incarnation. Jerusalem means crucifixion. Jerusalem means resurrection: the unaccountable yet unshakeable hope of the Palestinian Christian communities. Steadfastly, day by day, these communities of the faith who have lived and worshipped in and around Jerusalem since the women went to the tomb that first Easter morning embody God’s presence in this beleaguered city: Jerusalem, itself the city of hope for a new heaven and a new earth for all God’s people in this place and in the whole world God so loves.

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