Epilogue: The Holy Land Today

(Originally published in The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage in the Holy Land and Beyond. 1999, London: SPCK; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 119-130.  Reproduced by permission of the author.) 

By Tom Wright 

ALL THAT I have said in this book would be just as relevant if the Holy Land, and Jerusalem in particular, were uninhabited save for the guardians of the shrines and the obligatory little boys selling postcards.  Or, for that matter, if the entire land were at peace, inhabited by one people living in peace and justice amongst themselves and with their neighbours.  But, notoriously, that is not the case, and it doesn’t look like being the case for some while to come.  What effect does this have on our pilgrimages, geographical and metaphorical?

We must avoid the natural reaction of Westerners who, perhaps forgetting Northern Ireland, are tempted to regard squabbles in the Balkans or the Levant as the result of silly backward peoples, or perhaps hot-tempered Mediterranean peoples, who can’t learn to get along with one another, and whose running skirmishes (and worse) get in the way of our natural desire to experience the ‘sabbath rest by Galilee, the calm of hills above’.  How inconsiderate of them, we think, to throw bombs at each other when we simply want to come and pray!  This, of course, is a typically modern and typically Western reaction.  In the hopes of a more thought-out possibility, I want to reflect by way of conclusion on the reality of things on the ground in Israel and the West Bank today, and then to reflect on how this reality might affect pilgrimage to that land.  And to everything that I shall now say I want to add: ‘but it’s actually far more complicated than that’.

Once upon a time there was a lady who rejoiced in a large family.  Her husband was rich and well respected.  His family used to live in a fine stately home in the country; impecunious ancestors had given it up several centuries ago, but the family still thought of it as theirs. One day, burglars broke into their current home.  They shot the husband, raped and murdered the daughters, cut the throats of all the sons, and stole everything they possessed.  The lady and one child miraculously escaped.  Desperately seeking to make a new life, they discovered that the old family home seemed to be available.  With help from a few friends, who felt guilty that no-one had heard the family’s cries for help in their hour of need, they moved in, assuming that the few people living on the estate were servants.  The lady married again, and in a short time had a new and flourishing family.  However, to her dismay and alarm, some of the tenants on the estate seemed to resent her arrival, and were plotting to get rid of her.  Why, she wondered, does the whole world seem to have it in for me?  What have I done to deserve this?  Why can’t I just be left to live in peace after all I’ve suffered?

Now let’s tell the story the other way round.  Once upon a time there was a family who had lived in a great old house for so long that they’d almost forgotten they hadn’t built it themselves.  They loved the house and its grounds dearly; they knew every room, every nook and cranny, every stick and stone on the property.  They had suffered much because of violent and abusive neighbours, and were reduced in circumstances to the point where some of the fine rooms in the house were shut up, and some fields left uncultivated.  One day, to their alarm, a woman swept up the drive in a car, announced that she was in charge now, and proceeded to throw some of the family off the estate altogether, herding many of the rest into little encampments, while she took over the best parts of the house and grounds.  When they protested, she called up her powerful friends, who gave her money to see her through.  Now, a generation later, the family have grown used to her, but many, particularly the younger generation, are asking why they have to put up with this intolerable situation a moment longer.

No parable can begin to do justice to the complex reality.  Centuries of European anti-Semitism came to their awful climax in the Holocaust (or, in Hebrew, the Shoah), when six million European Jews died.  Some in the West knew and did nothing. Many knew little and cared less.  Some cared but knew little.  When the facts came to light, a huge head of steam built up, not least from horror, deep sympathy, and residual guilt either for conniving with anti-Semitism or at least for standing by and doing nothing.  The Jews, millions felt, must have a homeland.  Uganda was proposed.  So was part of Argentina.  But most Jews knew that only their ancient homeland, promised by God to Abraham, possessed by Joshua, would do.  Many thousands had already emigrated there, often in defiance first of Turkish rule and then of the British mandate.  In May 1948 the United Nations set up the new state of Israel.

Many of the early Jewish settlers genuinely believed the land was empty.  ‘A land without people for a people without a land’ was their slogan.  This, however, was far from the truth.  The Palestinians were neither numerous nor strong, but they existed, real people living in real houses on real farms, running real businesses.  They were ordered out, often with threats, sometimes with actual violence.  In typical instances, they were given half an hour to get ready, and then bussed away, either over the border into Jordan (thereby creating huge new problems for that neighbour) or into specified towns such as Nazareth.  They were not allowed back.  To this day there are Jews living in those Palestinians’ houses, tilling their fields, sleeping in their beds, eating off their china, and quite likely quoting Deuteronomy to back it all up: houses you did not build, fields you did not plant, vineyards you did not grow.  Two poignant pictures from dozens stand out: a little boy persuading the bus-driver to stop at his front gate so he could get his radio from the house; an old man, told to pack up his belongings, going instead out to his small garden to say a fond and sad farewell to his two olive trees, which he and his forebears had lovingly cultivated for countless generations.

The tale is too long to tell here, and far too complex, intricate and many-sided.  The Jews came in on the high moral ground of their sufferings in the Holocaust: the Yad Vashem memorial, in modern West Jerusalem, stands both as a horrific reminder of the appalling sufferings of European Jewry a generation ago and as a strong appeal for the moral legitimacy of the present state of Israel.  Every criticism of Israel can at once be construed as a resurgence of anti-Semitism.  The Palestinians, with every passing year, claim higher and higher moral ground, as many of them live in dirty and squalid refugee camps, kept behind barbed wire while sometimes, within their sight, new settlements, with all modern conveniences, are built for Jewish immigrants to live in (and to guard fiercely), and holiday resorts for them to play in.  The Jews lose moral ground every time another settlement goes up in the West Bank, which the Orthodox refer to as ‘Judaea and Samaria’, in defiance of United Nations resolutions and of the spirit of the Oslo accord.  The Palestinians lose moral ground every time they demonstrate in support of Saddam Hussein, every time another Hamas suicide bomber blows himself up, taking another dozen Israeli civilians with him.  And we British have little if any moral ground to stand on in the eyes of either Israel or Palestine.  During the thirty-one years of the British mandate we managed to get ourselves in the bad books of both sides.

Among the Jews, of course, are a large minority, perhaps even a majority, who long for peace with their every breath who would only too gladly give up some land for the sake of it and who bitterly resent the importation from America of plane-loads of Orthodox cousins, fired up with passionate synagogue sermons from their ageing rabbis in Brooklyn, ready to arm themselves and take over the Promised Land.  Jewish Israel is today a deeply divided nation.  Among the Palestinians, of course, are a large minority, perhaps even a majority, who do not now want to see the Jews driven back into the sea; who would be happy to live and let live, to create a new situation in which all could live as neighbours.  Policies shift, and people move with or against them: Yasser Arafat, once regarded as the classic Palestinian terrorist, is now the moderate, trying desperately to hold the centre in the fragmented little Palestinian homeland, while many to is left (or is it right?) see violence as the only solution.  We in Britain are all too familiar with the spirals of violence and mistrust in Northern Ireland; multiply the recipe by about a hundred, add in a strong dose of Old Testament fanaticism on the one hand and Islamic fundamentalism on the other, stir vigorously in the cross-currents of global politics, and cook in a small overheated oven a hundred miles long and fifty miles wide.  That is the beautiful and tragic country to which pilgrims still travel in search of the one true God. 

I cannot here attempt to address the political situation further, though the partial parallels with Northern Ireland, and even with the former situation in South Africa are too close for comfort.  What I sense a responsibility to do at the end of this book is to outline what all this means for the Christian pilgrim going to the Holy Land today.

There are thousands, perhaps millions of Christians in the world – I regularly meet them, read their writings, and get accosted by them after addressing meetings or services – who passionately believe that the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland, climaxing in 1948 and building on from there, is the God-given fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy.  Many such people cherish particular schemes of what are referred to as the ‘end times’.  In such scenarios, texts from Ezekiel, Daniel and Revelation are brought together in schematic form and applied to twentieth-century political realities.  They are regularly used to indicate that the long exile of the Jewish people, dating back to the destructions of Jerusalem first by the Babylonians and then by the Romans, will finally be undone, and that the new Jewish existence in Palestine, coming into public acceptance in 1948 and growing thereafter, will herald the dawn of the final day when Jesus Christ will return, will fight the great battle at Armageddon, and will set up his kingdom once and for all.  The details vary with different interpretations, but the overall scheme is well known.

This scheme is, of course, well liked by Zionists.  It engenders, from newspaper columns to plane-loads of tourists, unthinking support for the state of Israel and all that it is and does, so that any and every criticism of that state, even of its more obtuse and blatant right-wing actions, is met with the charge of anti-Semitism, of failing to understand the Bible properly, of failing to see God’s hand in history.  I was once at a conference at which, in the hearing of many Palestinian Arab Christians, an American Jewish Christian declared that the land belonged inalienably to her and her people.  She graciously allowed that, according to Deuteronomy, the Arabs could be permitted to stay – as long as they were made hewers of wood and drawers of water.  Those who take such a position find themselves committed to great ambiguities.  I once knew a young Jewish Christian in Montreal who believed passionately that the return of Jews to the Land was the fulfilment of biblical prophecy, heralding the return of Jesus.  He applied to emigrate to Israel himself. In granting him permission, the authorities stipulated that he go through a ritual bath to renounce his Christianity.  He and I talked about it and prayed about it together.  He went ahead.  Within a short time he was back, a sadder but not wiser man.  The Promised Land was not like he had imagined it.  Israeli Jews were not supposed to be Christians; if they were, they risked losing their citizenship.  How could this be the fulfilment of prophecy?

Behind this muddled thinking lies, of course, a deep divide over how Christians should read the Old Testament.  In what way, by what means, does this extraordinary book become our book?  How can we claim that we, Jew and Gentile alike in the body of Christ, are the children of Abraham, the one people of promise?  Is not this a denial of the specialness of Israel?  Does it not constitute in itself the beginning of anti-Semitism?  Such charges are regularly laid against Christians who claim such things, basing their claim on Paul, 1 Peter and other New Testament writings.  But this is a case of being condemned if you do and condemned if you don’t.  Exactly the same charge is leveled against Christians who forget their Jewish roots, who construct a neo-Marcionite system in which Abraham and the covenant are left behind (Marcion was a second-century heretic who denied that the God revealed in Jesus was the same as the God of the Old Testament), who speak of Paul’s doctrine of justification as Paul’s attack on ‘Judaism’, who see ‘the Jews’ in themselves as the problem, and Christianity as the answer.  The New Testament itself, of course, from start to finish sees the gospel of Jesus as the fulfilment of all that God had promised to his people in the Old.  On the road to Emmaus, Jesus expounded to the two puzzled disciples all the things in the scriptures which concerned himself.  That remains the foundation of Christian existence.

One of the specific things on which the New Testament insists, again and again, is that in the life, death and supremely the resurrection of Jesus the promised new age has dawned. The return from exile has happened.  ‘All the promises of God’, says Paul in 2 Corinthians 1.20, ‘find their “yes” in him.’  This is in fact the great Return, even though it doesn’t look like people had thought it would.  Instead of Israel as a political entity emerging from political exile, we are invited in the gospel to see Israel-in-person, the true king, emerging from the exile of death itself into God’s new day.  That is the underlying rationale for the mission to the Gentiles: God has finally done for Israel what he was going to do for Israel, so now it’s time for the Gentiles to come in.  That, too, is the underlying rationale for the abolition of the food laws and the holy status of the land of Israel: a new day has dawned in God’s purposes, and the symbols of the previous day are put aside, not because they were a bad thing, now happily rejected, but because they were the appropriate preparatory stages in God’s plan, and have now done their work.  When I became a man, I put away childish things.  Lift up your eyes, says Paul in Romans 8, and see how the promises to Abraham are to be fulfilled: not simply by a single race coming eventually to possess a single holy strip of turf, but by the liberation of the whole cosmos, with the beneficiaries, the inheritors of the promise, being a great number from every race and tribe and tongue, baptized and believing in Jesus Christ and indwelt by his Spirit.

To suggest, therefore, that as Christians we should support the state of Israel because it is the fulfilment of prophecy is, in a quite radical way, to cut off the branch on which we are sitting.  It is directly analogous to the mistake of the Galatians, who thought that if they were members of Abraham’s family they should go the whole way and get circumcised.  It is similar to the mistake of which the Reformers accused the mediaeval Catholics, of supposing that in every Mass they were actually re-crucifying Jesus, when Jesus’ death had been once and for all, never to be repeated, on Calvary.  It is a way of saying that in the cross and resurrection God did not actually fulfil his whole saving purpose; that Jesus did not in fact achieve the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy; that his resurrection was not the start of God’s new age; that Acts is wrong, Romans is wrong, Galatians is wrong, the letter to the Hebrews is wrong, Revelation is wrong.  Say that if you like, but don’t claim to be Christian in doing so.

In particular, as pilgrims we must take with the utmost seriousness the fact that almost all Christians living in the Holy Land today are Palestinians.  Yes, there are some Jewish Christians, some brave souls living their faith openly, and, I have it on good authority, many others who practise their allegiance to Jesus as Messiah behind locked doors, as certain of their forebears did between the first Easter and the first Pentecost. But most of those who worship God in Christ day by day and week by week in the Holy Land today are Palestinian Arabs: people like Elias Chacour, Naim Ateek and Audeh Rantisi, all Anglican priests (which is why I happen to know them), who have had the courage to speak up and speak out for justice and freedom, for justice for Jews and Arabs alike, to speak out against torture, against the building of new settlements, against the systematic brutalization of a whole people which then provokes more of the violence it condemns.

What does it do to Christians like that when they see massive American funding pouring in to the state of Israel, sustaining the regime that is oppressing them?  What does it do to them when they hear again and again that many Christians are backing the state that is doing its best to eliminate them?  Many Palestinian Christians are now in exile, in America or elsewhere, and do not expect to return.  They have given up the struggle.  Many are tempted to make common cause with their Muslim neighbours, the Cross and the Crescent united against the Star of David.  Yet many know that even if the Arab world got together and succeeded where they failed in the wars of 1949, 1967 and 1974 – in other words, if they managed to eliminate or marginalize the state of Israel altogether – then the battle would be on to establish in its place an Islamic republic of Palestine similar to that in Iran and elsewhere, in which, as in many Muslim countries, Christianity would be at far greater risk than it is from the present Israeli government.  They feel themselves to be between the devil and the deep blue sea.  They are our brothers and sisters: the ‘living stones’, as they call themselves, ignored by many tourists, especially those who go on one of the Israeli-government-sponsored tourist packages, but very much alive, very much present, maintaining their dignity, their worship, and their hope, though with increasing difficulty.  ‘Is it nothing to you,’ they say, ‘all you who pass by?’  If we go to worship in the Holy Land, we dare not ignore our brothers and sisters in pain all around us.

When we go on pilgrimage today, then, we do not go in order to comment on or criticize other people for their inability to solve political problems.  God knows we can’t solve our own, which are much smaller and less rooted in history.  Of course, we will grieve over injustice, oppression and violence wherever it occurs and whoever instigates it; but in highly complex situations it behoves us to go with our eyes and ears open, ready to learn rather than to condemn.  But as pilgrims we go, above all, to pray.  In the same passage where Paul speaks of God’s intention to make the whole world his Holy Land, to renew and liberate the whole of creation, he also speaks of the whole creation at present groaning in travail; and then he declares that we who have the first fruits of the Spirit groan inwardly as we, too, wait for our final redemption (Romans 8.18-27).  It is in that context that he says that all things work together for good to those who love God (8.28).  What can he mean?

He means, I think, that our vocation as Christians includes the vocation to be in prayer at the place where the world is in pain.  We are not to expect to pray only at places of great beauty, stillness and peace.  We are not to look only for selfish refreshment, to top up our own spiritual batteries while forgetting everyone else.  We are to stand or kneel at the place where the world, and particularly our brother and sister Christians, are in pain and need, and, understanding and feeling their sufferings, to pray with and for them, not knowing (as Paul again says) what precisely to ask for, but allowing the Spirit to pray within us with groanings that cannot come into articulate speech.  We are called, in other words, to become in ourselves places where the living, loving and grieving God can be present at the places of pain in his world and among his children.  We are called to discover the other side of pilgrimage: not only to go somewhere else to find God in a new way, but to go somewhere else in order to bring God in a new way to that place, not by tub-thumping evangelism or patronizing, well-meaning but shallow advice, but by our presence, our grief, our sympathy, our encouragement, our prayer.

As we do this, in going to the Holy Land today, we find the three things I said about pilgrimage in the introduction to this book reinforced and given particular direction.   Pilgrimage is a teaching aid: at this level, it teaches us not only about the roots of our faith, but about the ways in which injustice still rampages through communities, some of them within our own family.  It opens our eyes to see God’s world the way it is, rather than the way we would like to imagine it.  Second, pilgrimage is a way of prayer: both a way of drinking in the presence and love of God in Christ, as we visit places particularly associated with him, and also now a way of standing at the place of pain, at the foot of the cross literally and metaphorically, holding on to that pain in the presence of God in Christ, not knowing what the solution will be but only that God is there, grieving with and in us, in a perpetual Holy Week at the heart of the Holy Land.  Third, pilgrimage is a way of discipleship: both to be reinforced in our own daily life and work as Christians, and now also to be reinforced in thinking, working, speaking, writing and praying for justice and peace to be restored to the Middle East, to Northern Ireland, to the Sudan, to God’s entire creation.

We do not go on pilgrimage, then, because we have the answers and want to impose them.  That would make us crusaders, not pilgrims; the world has had enough of that, and I dare say God has had enough of that.  We go on the pilgrim way, we follow the way of the Lord, because he himself is the way – and, as he said himself, the truth and the life as well. We go to meet him afresh, to share his agony, and to pray and work for the victory he won on the cross to be implemented, and for his way to be followed, in Israel and Palestine, in our own countries, and in the whole world.