These questions are very relevant for me personally. What am I going out to the desert to see? For that matter, why am I going out to the desert at all?
One answer as to why I am going out to the desert is to see my religion’s past. In fact, most European and American Christians travel to the Middle East to visit Biblical sites, to see first hand those landmarks and famous places which we have encountered so often in Scripture.
In preparing for this trip, however, I have become acutely aware that the Middle East is not just a giant archeological excavation site. It remains a vibrant and sacred area of the world, not only for Christianity, but for two of the world’s other major religions. I am referring, of course, to Judaism and Islam. Followers of these religions continue to live in the present in this land, even while honoring and revering their ancient past. As we are all too keenly aware from many news sources, they live there in less than peace and harmony, and do not necessarily revere each other’s sacred past.
For many Jews, and most Muslims, the practice of religion is intimately related to a specific place, to a piece of land. This is critical to their day-to-day lives, in a way that has not been true for Christians, for the most part, since the Middle Ages.
In Genesis 23:1-20, recounting Abraham’s purchase of land from the Hittites for a tomb for his wife and family, many conservative Jews read the ultimate basis for their claim to the land, over which so much blood has been shed for the last forty centuries. The area around the tomb at Machpelah, near Mamre, which was deeded to Abraham by the Hittites, is more well known today as Hebron. It is perhaps the most volatile city in the entire Middle East, the so-called “powder keg” touch point of the region. We will not be traveling there.
Nor will we be traveling to any of the many other religious sites throughout the land we know today as Israel. Because we are traveling under the auspices of the Jordanian government, we are not welcome in Israel. I have no doubt that the reverse would be true if we were traveling at the invitation of the Israeli Tourism Bureau. Memories are long in the Middle East, and the disputes and disagreements which those memories fuel tend to wash over all those who travel there.
This can be difficult for a Westerner to grasp. To a Westerner, the phrase “that’s history” is usually taken to mean that an event, a place, an achievement, or a person is no longer important, that we have “moved on” from there, that it is no longer relevant to our lives.
To a Muslim, history is everything.
On October 7, 2001, about four weeks after the horrific attack on America at the World Trade Center, Osama bin Laden released a videotape message which, as always, excoriated and threatened Western civilization. In his diatribe he refers to more than eighty years of humiliation and disgrace at the hands of the West. Most Westerners had to scramble to unravel his meaning in this reference to eighty years of disgrace. Most Muslims took his meaning immediately, almost reflexively. Here is what he was referring to .
Bear with me while I deliver a very abbreviated history lesson, by way of background. A history which I believe is highly relevant to our understanding of the Middle East and the violence and hatred we constantly see portrayed there.
In 1918 the Ottoman Empire was defeated by the West. Its capital, Constantinople, was occupied. Its sovereign, the Ottoman Sultan, who was both a political and a religious ruler, was held captive by the Western powers, and most of the territory of the Ottoman Empire was divided between the British and the French, who were the Western “Superpowers” of the day after World War One. The so-called “British Mandate” encompassed what soon became known as Palestine and Iraq. The French Mandate created an entity called Syria. The French subsequently divided this territory into two areas, calling one Lebanon and leaving the other as Syria. The British did the same thing in the territory they controlled, using the Jordan River as an arbitrary boundary between what they called Transjordan to the east and Palestine to the west. Today Transjordan is known simply as Jordan, and Palestine is called Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the Occupied Territories, and various other things, depending on your political point of view.
The other major land mass in this region that belonged to the Ottoman Empire was the Arabian Peninsula. This area was thought to be not worth the trouble of taking over by the Superpowers, and was thus left in the hands of local tribal rulers, who had previously administered the area under the supervision of the Ottoman Sultan. Of course, this was in the days before SUV’s and $3.00 per gallon fuel prices. None of the Western Superpowers knew about oil in that area then.
The point is that, as recently as eighty years ago, the countries we know today as Jordan, Israel, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia simply did not exist as distinct political entities. They were arbitrarily created, in the wake of World War One, by the then-Great Powers of the West, who drew lines on a map to create national boundaries where none existed previously.
We take for granted the existence of these countries, as if they had always been there, with more or less clearly defined borders. Many sincere and devout Muslims don’t take this for granted at all. Neither, as Osama bin Laden is quick to point out, do many of the terrorists who have been working so hard to turn our world upside down and inside out.
To paraphrase from Bernard Lewis’ very informative book, The Crisis of Islam, for most Americans bin Laden’s various declarations regarding Islam are a travesty, a gross distortion of history. For many Muslims, bin Laden’s declarations are equally grotesque travesties of the nature of Islam, and even of its doctrine of jihad. Indeed, the Koran speaks frequently of peace, as well as of war. The many, many sayings attributed to the Prophet, and interpreted in sometimes very diverse ways, offer a wide range of guidance to his followers. The most militant and violent interpretations of the Koran as religious instruction are but one among many interpretations.
Unfortunately, significant numbers of Muslims approve, and a few of them rigorously apply, the more militant interpretations of their religion. Terrorism really requires very few believers to have a significant impact. In devising means to counteract the actions of terrorists, it is surely useful if we as Westerners had a better understanding of some of the forces that drive them.
So, part of why I am going to the desert is to see this land of fluid borders and indistinct nationalities; to meet people with strongly held beliefs, very long memories, and a keen sense of history. And perhaps most of all, to try to understand this incredible identification with the land itself that is shared by so many of its inhabitants, and seen by many of them as their exclusive possession.
Most of us in the West recognize that Islam is a religion firmly rooted in the land. In the land of Mohammed, Mecca and Medina are holy cities to all followers of Islam. This concept of a holy city rooted in a specific place is of course shared by the Jews, in their case regarding Jerusalem. So, too, however, is Jerusalem a holy place to Muslims. Therein lies one of the basic and fundamental conflicts underpinning Mid-East tensions.
Quoting loosely from the seventeenth Sura of the Koran, Muhammad is carried by night ‘from the sacred temple to the temple that is most remote, whose precinct we have blessed, that we might show him the Archangel Gabriel. He was carried on a winged steed. Stopping briefly at Mt. Sinai and in Bethlehem, he finally alighted at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and there encountered Abraham, Moses, Jesus and other prophets, whom Muhammad led in prayers. Gabriel then escorted Muhammad to the pinnacle of the rock, which is called as-Sakhra, where a ladder of golden light materialized. On this glittering shaft, Muhammad ascended through the seven heavens into the presence of Allah, from whom he received instructions for himself and his followers. Following his divine meeting, Muhammad was flown back to Mecca by Gabriel and the winged horse, arriving there before dawn.
If Jerusalem is the site where Muhammad ascended into heaven, and met with all of these other sacred leaders, it should be evident why Jerusalem would be deemed holy by his followers. Unfortunately, Gabriel chose the most holy place in Jewish tradition to arrange a meeting between Muhammad and the other prophets. The Jews did not take kindly to this at the time, and don’t feel any better about it today.
And all of this is to say nothing of all the Christian traditions rooted in this sacred city, many of which are being systematically undercut, compromised and uprooted by current Israeli policy.
Another reason for the trip, then, and one of the dominant motivations for Drew Mann in leading this trip, is to better understand just what is happening to Christians, and in particular Palestinian Christians, in this holy and violent land.
Our own denomination has taken an increasingly aggressive stance against Israeli policy in the Middle East over the past few years. The General Assembly’s Committee on Social Responsibility Through Investment, chaired by a Presbyterian minister, launched a campaign of “phased, selective divestment” in 2004 against companies that the Committee has found to be aiding Israel in what many believe to be its illegal occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. So far, four corporations have been identified as complicit in these occupation activities. The Committee is demanding that these four companies withdraw their aid to the Israeli occupation, and is threatening to sell stock valued at sixty million dollars if those companies do not comply. To date not a single company on the list has responded to the Presbyterian church’s demands. In November of 2004 the Episcopal Church made a similar decision, and plans to launch its own campaign of divestment. So to has the United Methodist Church, with the United Church of Christ planning to do the same very soon, if they haven’t already done so by now.
Some Israelis fear this divestment campaign will begin to resemble the boycott which these same churches led in the 1980’s against South African apartheid. There is some sentiment that the divestment campaign may negatively impact tourism in Israel, encouraging pilgrims to choose Jordanian or Palestinian points of entry to the Holy Land, rather than Israeli points of entry.
In my own case, I can certainly see where that has happened. I will be entering and exiting the Holy Land through Jordan, and will not have the opportunity to enter Israel at all. My Jordanian visa marks me as a suspicious character.
If secure passport control existed two thousand years ago, would Jesus have even gained entry into Jerusalem for the Last Supper? If Jesus returned today, would he meet his end in Jerusalem, or in a Gaza or West Bank refugee camp? One of our own creeds identifies Jesus as Palestinian Jew. Today this phrase is indeed a very odd juxtaposition of words. What does it mean to be a Palestinian Jew today in this troubled land?
So, what am I going out to the desert expecting to see?
Well, I am expecting to see an extremely austere yet stunningly beautiful land, populated by people some of whose manner of living has not changed substantially in two thousand years.
I am expecting to see a “reed swayed by the wind”, in the person of the Palestinian people, who have been blown this way and that by the political gales of the region, without any control of their own destinies.
I am expecting to see “men dressed in fine clothes”, when I stay in five star hotels and dine in restaurants with those Jordanians and Palestinians who have managed to escape the chains of tyranny and poverty, chains which have been for too long the fate of too many in the Muslim world. A fate which has been a fertile breeding ground for the hatred and violence that has been directed against the West, by wily and manipulative leaders looking to deflect the anger of the people whom they fail to serve, toward a more “convenient” target in the West.
And I am expecting to meet a prophet. I don’t know who it will be, or where it will be, but somewhere, some time during my trip, I will encounter a prophet. Someone in my travels who will be like a bolt of lightning for me, unexpectedly and instantaneously illuminating the desert darkness enveloping this amazing and sacred land, providing me with the insight that I lack now in understanding the hatred, the violence, and the myopic thinking which are the current fruits of this land.
I pray for the arrival of this prophet. I pray that I will have the wisdom to recognize him or her when he or she appears. And I pray that I will have the courage to respond when I hear the words of the prophet, as so many others have done in ancient times, when trouble has washed over this land.
You should all pray for the same, for those times when a prophet appears in your lives. Not everyone gets to travel to exotic lands, like I have been fortunate enough to be able to do. But there are prophets in our midst, and saints at work in our own damaged land. We, the rich and powerful, always in control, can reach out to the poor and downtrodden across the oceans from our safe and protected shores. But we need to recognize that we can have that all-too-comfortable role instantly reversed, in the flash of an airplane explosion, – or in the breaking of a levee.
When “we” become “they”, victims of disaster, helpless, pawns without power to make things right again, what do we learn about the “they” that we have seen only from a comfortable distance? What do we learn about ourselves?
Perhaps this is what some future prophet can teach us: that there is no “we”, there is no “they”. There is only “us”.