Two weeks ago I was sitting on a hotel roof inside the walls of the old city in Jerusalem at dusk. Starkly white limestone buildings covering the rugged hills of the famous city stretched away to the south and west. Behind me various church steeples rose from the labyrinthine streets and alleyways below while the gold ‘Dome of the Rock’ shone sublimely in the late afternoon sun.
But it was the sounds of the city that caught my attention. Below me at the Jaffa Gate the festive music of a busker mixed with the noise of traffic and ever-present car horns. Church bells chimed their various announcements, while loudspeakers from minarets called the Muslim faithful to prayer. In the distance could be heard what in Australia you’d assume were firecrackers but after two weeks in Israel I knew to be the sound of fighting as Israeli police clashed with Palestinians in a neighbourhood nearby. People went about their business as if that sound was as natural as any other you could hear.
Jerusalem is a fascinating place. You could spend years there and not uncover all the stories, both ancient and modern, written into its streets and tunnels and museums, not to mention the lives of those who call it home. It’s also a very religious place. Cheek to jowl stand three great faiths—locals and pilgrims—and a bewildering array of different versions of each, conspicuously vying for geography and theological prominence. Everyone from the Rabbis to the taxi drivers in that part of the world understands religion to be a serious and important topic. It’s also clearly a divisive topic and the source of deep tension and intractable disputes.
Christianity’s record in the city, as it is elsewhere, is mixed. There were some terrible things done there in the Crusader period by those who claimed to be followers of Christ. At a more trivial level, even today, when visiting the church of the Holy Sepulchre, visitors are told of the disputes between different denominations over whose job it is to move a ladder from a balcony window—the contested item now having been in the same place for over one hundred years! There have literally been legal battles over whose task it is to sweep a step in the courtyard of the famous site. All of this looks like a sick joke in light of Christ’s calling his followers to be united in love.
Is Christianity able to offer anything at all to ease tensions and contribute to peace in the troubled region? Visitors might not always think so. But at the heart of Christ’s message was a radical call to love others, even enemies; to sacrificially care for not only fellow believers but outsiders as well. Jesus urged an attitude that shunned vengeance for wrongs and instead offered reconciling forgiveness. History has shown that’s easier to say than do. But where it has been taken seriously remarkable change has taken place—the Desmond Tutu-inspired truth and reconciliation process in South Africa being a stand out example. Heaven knows that as tensions and violent incidents in and around Jerusalem continue to mount, something reflecting that spirit is the best, perhaps only hope, for future peace and co-existence. It’s a safe bet that the cycle of more violence followed by retribution won’t do it.
In his book The Night of the Confessor, Tomas Halik suggests that there is no holy war and only peace is sacred. If the world is to be healed, says Halik, it cannot rely on the logic of “as you have done to me so I’ll do to you.” Instead it must learn the logic of “as God has done to me, so I’ll do to you,”—the path of forgiveness and reconciliation.