Can We Keep the Faith and Keep the Peace? | Sojourners

Can We Keep the Faith and Keep the Peace?

When Politics Interrupts Pilgrimage

Editor's Note: Jeff Chu is on a weeklong group pilgrimage to Rome and the Holy Land, sponsored by the Museum of the Bible. Read parts one, two, and three here.

I like to plan. Especially when I’m traveling, I want to know my timetable. I want to know where I’ll eat my next meal — or, even better, all my meals for the next seven days. I want to know where I’ll lay my head at day’s end. I want to know how to plan for potential problem spots in my plans. My husband and I even joke that if we’re going to be spontaneous — there may have been times when we’ve said, “If we have to be spontaneous” — we will schedule time for planned spontaneity.

But as with any journey, pilgrimage brings surprises. What will pierce the heart of the pilgrim? What questions and doubts might arise?

On this trip, which has focused mainly on history and the relationships between two ancient, enduring faiths, one surprise came with the injection of modern politics. Last night, as we sat down for our first dinner in Jerusalem, we learned that we’d be joined by a special dinner guest: Michael Oren, the former Israeli Ambassador to the United States and current member of the Knesset, Israel’s legislature.

I don’t want to rehash most of what Oren said. It was pretty standard for someone who served under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (though, to be fair, he has at times criticized his ex-boss openly).

When Oren ended his remarks and question time began, one of my fellow travelers did rightly challenge what he said about Palestinians. She injected some much-needed balance and a laudable prod toward a more nuanced truth. She was the only one to speak up.

As a journalist, my job is to ask questions. Here was an opportunity to do so. But I struggled mightily with what to do (just as I’m struggling to know how to write about this — give me some grace!).

There are moments in conversation when neither the context nor the comments lend themselves toward anything constructive. I wondered whether we had reached one of those junctures. We’d been promised that the trip would be apolitical — we were encouraged to keep it so. Our journey is intended to be spiritual and relational.

Yet isn’t everything political? Isn’t it impossible — whether we’re discussing society, or religion, or the very fact that we’ve chosen to visit Israel — to avoid politics?

I see the contradictions and the murk here.

I landed on this: I am here as a Christian first. I struggle with being a Christian first, in every part of my life, and I have my own particular view, as do all who call themselves Christians, about what living out their faith means. What I was feeling as we sat at that table — was that the tug of the Holy Spirit? Was it fear of conflict? Whatever it was, after considering the point of this journey — to center the Bible, to enrich interfaith relationship, to seek God’s image in this land and in our fellow pilgrims — I did something that I wouldn’t have done if I were here as a journalist first: I changed the subject.

I asked Oren what he thought Israel’s Arabs as well as the Palestinians could learn from Israel’s Jews, and what Israel’s Jews could learn from its Arabs and the Palestinians. The first part of his answer seemed like standard political pablum — something about building a high-tech society and forging democratic institutions. But his answer to what the Jews could learn was striking.

“We can learn an empathetic society,” he said. He cited a survey of Israelis that found the highest acceptance and compassion for special-needs children among the nation’s Arabs. The least accepting? Religious Jews.

“We can learn a lot from them,” he continued, “about inclusiveness.”

Empathy? Inclusiveness? You can extend these principles — and I believe Oren implicitly did so — well beyond the rights of some disadvantaged kids. I would say that the United States suffers from a lack of empathy, too. (Exhibit A: Donald Trump.)

Empathy and inclusion have not been the hallmarks of recent Israeli leadership. But even as Oren says this is something Israel’s Jews can learn from their Arab neighbors, we know that those neighbors have not fully embraced empathy either.

This is not a statement about the relative merits and demerits of either side’s arguments. This is a statement about a simple fact: There’s an enduring deficit of empathy and inclusiveness, on both sides, because we are human.

I thought more about Oren’s words on empathy as I got up this morning. What would the world look like if we were humble and merciful enough to learn like that from one another, especially on the collective and societal level? How might the futures of Israel and Palestine be transformed if Oren and all his fellow political leaders truly lived that out? And what would my life look like if I could truly embody empathy — along with the respect and love that underpin it — in my own relationships?

Jerusalem reminds me that sacred legacies are somehow always accompanied by secular temptations and temporal pain. It seems as if no place in this ancient and holy city is untouched by hurt, conflict, and evidence of all-too-human limitations.

Conflict is very present even in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the first place I visited this morning. You might think that the site traditionally believed to be Golgotha would be a place of Christian unity. Yet its very location is a point of contention: Was Jesus actually crucified and buried near here, or was Golgotha actually at the site popularly known as the Garden Tomb — or was it somewhere else in the vicinity?

The caretakers of the church — members of Muslim families who have performed this task for centuries — open the doors at 4 a.m. each day in winter, 5 a.m. in summer. I needed a bit more sleep than that, but I still wanted to get them early so as to avoid the tourist throngs. As I walked into the church at a quarter past six, I heard sweet singing. I followed the voices up a narrow set of stone stairs to a small chapel, where Roman Catholic priests were celebrating an English-language Mass.

There were no more than two dozen people at the Mass, several of them members of the late Mother Teresa’s order, the famed Missionaries of Charity, in their blue-edged white habits.

“Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world,” the worshipers said in unison. “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world.”

After the Mass, I did two laps around the main level, a space so confusing and full of crannies and closed off areas that no modern architect would ever deem it well designed. In fact, the floor plan of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre may be the most confusing in the world, making it perhaps the best architectural representation of both the diversity and the tragic divisions in the Christian faith.

Six denominations share control of the holy site: the Roman Catholics, the Armenian Apostolics, the Greek Orthodox, the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox, and the Syriac Orthodox. Given the ferocity of the fights over jurisdiction, though, “share” might be a generous word. As recently as 2013, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, and Ethiopian Orthodox faithful brawled openly in the church, five years after a similarly ugly melee between Armenians and Greek Orthodox priests and worshipers.

In the church, I stopped at a Coptic chapel just a bit bigger than a phone booth. A monk noticed me staring at the candlelit, mostly red space, which was basically wallpapered in icons. He welcomed me in, and he gave me a long taper candle to light. (“Donation! Donation!” he said, pointing at a basket.)

I had planned just under an hour for my visit to the church. This left me with enough time for one more circuit. I wandered past a delegation of Korean pilgrims patiently waiting for the next Mass; past more monks and more nuns and more priests; past German visitors and some Russian women with colorful scarves covering their heads. All of them reminded me of the diverse reach of the Gospel.

I weaved my way past, trying to find the right angle. All I wanted was to get a good look at the image of Christ Pantocrator — that is, Almighty — that crowns the inside of the dome at the center of the church. The Byzantine-style mosaic, which wreathes Christ in gold, is the grandest and most majestic Jesus in the building.

But there were too many walls and too many obstructions. No matter where I stood, every view was partly blocked. No matter what I did, I could never quite see all of Jesus.