This year, as I’ve approached Remembrance Sunday, I have been unable to shake off my experiences in the Holy Land. With the anniversaries in Afghanistan and the Balkans, I had, in any event, wanted to honour those who have laid down their lives in recent conflicts. And the issue of Palestine lurks in the background of these and so many conflicts. Add to that, the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, not to mention the distinguished war service in Palestine of our former vicar, Gervase Markham, and I felt that God was saying something to me.
Since my pilgrimage, I have felt increasingly drawn to the words of Psalm 122: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. They shall prosper that love thee.” I must confess that when, in evensong, I have prayed “Give peace in our time, O Lord” I have uttered it more in hope than expectation. But, in fact, visiting the Holy Land, you get a sense of both how complex and multifaceted the situation is, and also how tantalisingly close peace might be. There is a sense in which many of the political complications which obsess the leaders could be swept away if the ordinary decent people got so fed up with war that they simply rose up and demanded the peaceful co-existence that most of them want.
One thing that immediately strikes one is that this situation cannot be solved by a purely secular approach. The theory, very popular in this country, that all we need to do is replace religion with cool rational atheism, is pie in the sky. Secular western society is a far worse evil in the sight of Islam and Judaism than Christianity. Christianity is something they can get their minds around. But secularism is something they see as decadent and unstable. Their experience of Western secularism is of unpredictable, shifting moral standpoints leading us to fear social breakdown and paranoid aggression. That’s how our recent history appears to them and I can’t help thinking they have a point. And secularism simply has nothing to say to their situation. Faith dominates their lives and therefore faith holds the key to the peace of Jerusalem. And the imagery that comes repeatedly to my mind, when wrestling with this problem, is that of walls, bridges and gates.
Walls come quickly to mind in the Holy Land. The walls of Jerusalem are iconic, shining in their white limestone, they are now a beautiful adornment of the Old City. But there is also a new wall, the wall of separation between Jews and Palestinians. It is a powerful looming presence running the length of the land. Interestingly, the walls of Jerusalem have come and gone over the years, with successive invasion. And a study of history will quickly tell you that walls do indeed have their place. They are necessary for security. The times when the walls of Jerusalem have been down have been times of terrible poverty and vulnerability, when Jerusalem has lain in all but ruins. And even the wall of separation today has reduced the number of attacks between Israelis and Palestinians.
But walls are not a complete solution. For one thing, if you are hemmed in behind a wall, you are the prisoner, not your enemy – think of the many grim sieges Jerusalem has had to endure. And walls restrict you. This is particularly evident in the West Bank because with Jewish settlements now abounding in the West Bank, the wall is no longer a division between Jew and Arab – there are Jews on the other side of the wall. And they live in compounds surrounded by barbed wire, protected by the Israeli army. And going out (which they have to do) makes them terribly vulnerable. Visiting the West Bank, one cannot help thinking that the Israelis are imprisoning themselves as much as they are the Palestinians.
And it is not just physically that walls restrict us. They restrict our understanding of the world. I confess that I arrived in the Holy Land with something of a fear of Palestinians, cultivated by images of youths in head-scarves hurling Molotov cocktails and brandishing Russian guns. My first experience of a Palestinian town was Nazareth and at first I was pretty nervous. We had only gone a few yards when I saw a slogan sprayed in Arabic across a wall. Fearing that it might say something like “death to all infidels who pass this point” I asked our guide what it meant. Nonchalantly, he replied, “It says Abdul loves Fatima”. My image of Palestinian culture, formed hiding behind the wall of Western Culture, was very wide of the mark. In fact, I was overwhelmed by the warmth of hospitality I found among the Palestinians and the only time I felt unwelcome and intimidated was each time I crossed the border into Israel. I had come to Israel with a fair amount of sympathy for them, but when you are treated with constant suspicion it begins to change you. And my experience of crossing the wall and seeing the reality of life on both sides, transformed my perspective. And part of the problem is that the Israeli politicians do not cross that wall.
But this was only part of the story. Because, despite the wall, there are many examples of bridges being built. What I didn’t know, on my first experience of Nazareth, was that in Galilee there is no wall. Just across the water from the Golan Heights, Jews, Christians and Muslims live alongside each other as neighbours, in peace and goodwill. And within the West Bank there are conscious efforts to build bridges between communities.
The history of Jerusalem has been one of attempted domination interspersed with periods of peaceful co-existence. And each of the three Abrahamic faiths has, at times, tried to dominate Jerusalem to the exclusion of the others. And there are still those who are fighting for their faith to dominate in this way, but that ideology is doomed to failure. It is also one that is, in fact, hard to justify with a proper understanding of any of the three Abrahamic faiths. We are not all the same, but we are all interconnected. There is a complete acceptance, throughout the Middle East that we are all descended from the sons of Noah. The Jews and Arabs are descended for Shem (hence they are Semitic). The North Africans are descended from Ham and the Europeans descended from Japheth. And they are all spiritual descendants of Abraham – the Jews and Christians from Isaac, the Muslims from Ishmael. Hence the Jews and Muslims, in times of peace, call each other ‘cousin’. And there is a strong sense still, that Christianity is a form of Judaism. And whereas in the West, Christianity’s murky complicity in the history of the problems is seen as disqualifying us from the peace process, that is not how it is treated in the Middle East. On the contrary it is what makes it essential that we are deeply involved in that process. The peace of Jerusalem is dependent on us finding a way to share that sacred space.
And that is why the solution is principally theological and lies in the hands of ordinary people of faith, more than politicians. One of my most moving moments was a visit to the Anglican parish of Nablus. There, a small band of Arab Anglicans is doing amazing things. They have no money – we think we have no money, but they really have no money. Yet they run a nursery school and a hospital, each of which is open to anyone and turns no-one away. And they have given away half their land to build the local mosque. When I asked them what they would like us to pray for them, they said “we want to be able to stay and keep doing this work.” They know that their survival is dependent on building bridges. They know that their faith is expressed in building peace with their neighbour. They are not daunted by the scale of the task, or by their lack of resources. They simply put their faith into practice and trust God. And the effect is extraordinary. The Palestinian authority has often tried to close them down, but their Muslim neighbours now protect them and fight for their rights, because they know the Church is committed to them.
Right across the West Bank, the Palestinian Christians are persecuted, under fire from both sides. Their plight is heart-breaking and they are baffled by the indifference of the Western Church. Yet far from hiding their light under a bushel, as we might do, they respond by living their faith more openly. Every Christian house has on its roof, a stone cross, or a statue of St George (who was, in fact, not English, but Palestinian). They wear tattoos of the cross where, according to ancient tradition you would wear the tattoo of your tribe. And they practice their faith in the public sphere. Their churches do have walls, but their gates stand open continually.
And that takes me back to the Biblical approach to walls and gates and bridges. Walls are necessary for protection and security, but Psalm 122 prays of Jerusalem “peace be within thy walls and plenteousness within thy palaces”. The great Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 60, laying out God’s future for Jerusalem says: “Your gates will lie open continually…I will appoint Peace as your overseer…you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise.”
For Jesus, the walls of protection are provided by Salvation and Praise. Knowing that our sins are forgiven, that our destiny is secure in him, that our portion in the Promised Land is assured, gives us all the security we need. It gives walls around our hearts that allow us to reach out and build bridges, opening the gates of our hearts to allow others to share our peace and prosperity. Jesus, of course, practised this himself, reaching out to the outcasts of his society. He did it from the security of faith, which provides all the walls we need; the walls that allow us to turn the other cheek, to pray for our enemies and bless those who persecute us; the walls which allow us to say “do not fear those who can kill the body, but cannot hurt the soul.”
For Peace to be possible, we must practice our faith in the public sphere. And that requires us to be secure in the walls our faith provides, but with our gates continually open. And that is not a matter of simply capitulating to the world around us. It is not even simply a matter of tolerance, because there are some things we cannot tolerate. The Christian command is not to tolerate, but to love, which is more demanding because it requires active engagement. Jesus was a Jew and he loved his culture and his people deeply. But he was also very critical of some of the theology in Judaism – especially that which sought to achieve a Jewish homeland by expelling foreigners. That is an attitude that still exists in Israel today, that lies behind Israeli settlement in the West Bank, that sees Palestinians (Muslim and Christian) as dirt to be swept away. We have to understand them and love them as Jesus did, but also challenge them theologically, as Jesus did. As a Palestinian Christian put it to me, “you see the problem is that these people [Jews and Muslims] share the roots of our faith, but they have never had the teaching to love their enemies. We must teach them that and we can only do it by practising it ourselves.”
So as we return to our Remembrance this Sunday, we join here together in mourning the loss of those who have died in conflict. We stand in solidarity to show that the loss endured by their loved-ones is our loss also. But we can also honour their memory by committing to work for peace, for ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.’ Part of that is to pray for the Peace of Jerusalem. Those of you who have been Confirmed will have been asked this question: “Will you acknowledge Christ’s authority over human society, by prayer for the world and its leaders?” And you will have promised do to so. Prayer works. Prayer is powerful. Prayer acknowledges the authority of Jesus as the Prince of Peace. Prayer acknowledges that the one true God is a God of peace who will bring peace about.
But we can also respond by building Jerusalem in our own green and pleasant land. The vision of the Bible is of the whole world becoming the true Jerusalem – with God as its walls and peace within its gates. And that begins with our hearts.
The prophet Amos, in our first reading today, spoke to those who longed for God to come in judgment against those who threatened the peace of Jerusalem and he reminded them that if they longed for God’s justice, they must be able to withstand judgment themselves. And a moment’s reflection would tell them that they fell far short. It was like the lady of a certain age who went into the hairdresser, plonked herself into the chair and said imperiously “I want you to do me justice.”
“Madam,” replied the hairdresser, “what you need is not justice. It’s mercy!”
To build the Biblical vision of Jerusalem requires us to acknowledge our need of mercy and then to put into practice the forgiveness, the generosity and the kindness of Christ in our own relationships, here in our own land – within our families, with our neighbours, with our resources, with our time. Peace is complicated, but it is not an impossible dream. Like those Palestinian Christians in Nablus, we must not be daunted by the scale of the task or the meagreness of our resources. Have faith. World peace starts here, in the hearts of ordinary Christians. And my experience in the Holy Land has shown me that that is far more powerful than any political summit, any religious ideology or any weapon. Our faith is our wall of security, our bridge to peace and the gate through which peace may enter.
Peace be within thy walls and plenteousness within your palaces. May your gates stand open continually. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. They shall prosper that love thee. Amen.
Preached: Morland 12 November 2017