This year we were blessed to celebrate the Jewish High Holidays at the same time as the Holy Month of Ramadan. Both Ramadan and Yom Kippur call for repentance and fasting, and Sukkot invites pondering the wanderings in this life, as it commemorates the Hebrews wandering homeless in the wilderness of Sinai after their deliverance from oppression in Egypt. It reminds us we are all just pilgrims and wanderers in God’s world. And at the center of it all is Jerusalem, with all its pluralistic richness, not only a Holy City to the three monotheistic faiths, but also claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians as their capitol. Of all places in God’s creation, it is meant to be a place open to all and shared by all.
This month of feasts should encourage us all to see hope and promise together in the City of Peace. Instead, this month has become a showcase for exclusive claims of one religion over another, of freedom for some at the expense of others.
On the road to Jerusalem the first day of Sukkot, I was shocked to see a truck with two large stone blocks engraved with words proclaiming them to be the “cornerstones of the third temple.” Fundamentalist Christian Evangelicals and some Jewish zealots were once again trying to begin the Third Temple on the Temple Mount to hasten the coming of the Messiah. The problem is that the “Temple Mount” overlaps the Haram al Sharif, the third holiest site for Muslims, which now holds the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosques. There have been several plots to destroy these Muslim sites in order to build this Third Temple. So far the High Court of Justice in Israel has rejected a request from the Temple Mount Faithful to place the cornerstones next to the Western Wall because of the provocative implications. Nevertheless, this harvest feast of Sukkot – which should be a sacred time to celebrate deliverance from oppression and abundant life – has become for some a call to “liberate” the Temple Mount from “Arab occupation” and to push out one religion in order to claim exclusive rights for another! Thousands of right-wing Evangelical Christians have inundated the city to promote this twisted theology that God wants to expel the Muslims to build this Third Temple that will then bring on the bloody, end-time battle of Armageddon so that Jesus will come again. This is reprehensible theology and false teaching which not only undermines the meaning of the Cross, but makes a mockery of the Christian and Jewish God of love and justice.
As a result, during this month that is holy to both Muslims and Jews, this whole city has catered to protect the right of the Jewish and right-wing Evangelical Christians to worship as they like, while Palestinians are locked behind barricades, closed-off streets and even, for some, denied access to their holy sites. Streets are closed and filled with police and soldiers who are there to protect the rights of some at the expense of others! Though these actions are justified as “security measures,” they are arbitrary and inconsistent and do not, in fact, guarantee security. They only guarantee inconvenience and humiliation and increase the chance that people might be provoked.
And what about Palestinian Christians in Jerusalem during these High Holidays? Only local Christians – not the Christian Zionist visitors dressed in white robes who wish to incite the final battle – are subject to these repressive measures. We are all still under occupation, and the Feasts mean severely increased closures, travel restrictions, road blocks, and check points imposed on the West Bank.
Many Palestinian Christians, including myself, treasure sharing our Jewish and Muslim neighbors’ feasts and joining them in prayers for justice, peace and reconciliation. I just experienced the beauty and richness of a celebration in a sukka with Jewish friends, just as I have experienced the same at a Ramadan Iftar meal with Muslim friends. We have so much to learn from one another when we honor and respect one another’s traditions.
This week Muslim shopkeepers have been asking me what “born again” means because right-wing Evangelical Christians have been going shop by shop trying to convert them. I have passed them in the streets this week but they don’t greet me and won’t even walk with me. I’ve been told I am not their brother in Christ, but an “Arab enemy of God.” The Muslims ask me how we Lutherans here relate to them and their theology. To me, they add to our frustrations and make of Jerusalem a confused and arrogant Tower of Babel, when it really is the City of Pentecost, where the Spirit’s universal language of love transcended the diversity of human languages so that all understood. God’s message of justice, peace and reconciliation transcends the narrow, human boundaries we create and empowers us to spread God’s love to all people.
If Jesus were to look out at Jerusalem today, he would weep again over a Jerusalem that is being turned into the exclusive realm of one group at the expense of others. Jesus called us to do the things that make for peace and to be ministers of reconciliation. Justice and truth-telling are necessary for the birth of peace and reconciliation. Faith leaders cannot be silent when religion is used to provoke conflict and justify exclusive rights for one group and collective punishment for another. We ask you, fellow Christians and people of good conscience, to help us preserve the multi-faceted character, holiness and inclusivity of this great city by affirming that Jerusalem is still the Holy City of and for the three Peoples of the Book, where all have the same right of free access to pray, without permits and permission from the powerful.
Jesus still calls us to a Feast of Inclusion and a New Jerusalem where all are welcomed, all are equal and all are equally valued. We hold fast to our vision where someday, Christians, Muslims and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians – all people – will one day be able to freely celebrate our diverse but equally sacred feasts. We pray for a religious awakening of justice and reconciliation that puts an end to occupation and oppression, suicide bombings and drive-by shootings, terrorism and counter-terrorism, targeted assassinations and incursions. The Book of Revelation in Chapters 22-23 shares a vision of the river of life running through the Holy City, and on the banks of that river is the Tree of Life. The leaves of this tree are medicine for the Healing of the Nations. I was reminded of this every worship service for 18 years as pastor in the Lutheran Church in Ramallah, where I gazed at this hopeful vision in the stained glass windows above the altar depicting this passage.
In the midst of all this pushing and posturing, we raise our voice, small and insignificant but clear and convinced, that the true fast “God requires of us is to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). Keep Jerusalem a House of Prayer for all nations, open and shared by all, not a place of exclusion – for the healing of the nations.