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Holy Land, as sacred space, may not judge humanity kindly

By Kelly van Andel '06 M.Div.

Olive GrovesI have chosen to briefly speak about the Holy Land or the place and significance of sacred space in Israel/Palestine, in part because the concept and physical demarcations of the Holy Land are important to so many people as well as the cause of so much conflict and dispute. I also wanted to speak about the Holy Land, because as a child of the arid Southwest and as an advocate and lover the desert, I wanted to some how convey the place and richness of the desert to you as active agents in Israel/Palestine. In short, I want to give the desert or land of our travels a voice, so that for a few brief moments it may not simply be an innocent bystander of its peoples and the complexity of their lives and conflicts, but may serve as an actual witness or judge of them. In order to achieve such an end, or at least to point toward it, I am going to begin by talking of literal sacred spaces, and I am going to end by considering the witness the land presents to us.

As we know, religious pilgrims have long traveled to Israel and Palestine to visit landmarks made sacred by Abraham, Jesus, and Mohammed. Although our travel seminar primarily focused on the political conflict in the region, we too, visited the churches, shrines, tombs, and gardens, which serve as the cairns of the Holy Land. For instance, in Bethlehem we toured the church of the Nativity and saw the place, where according to tradition, Jesus was born. In Hebron we visited the tombs of the patriarchs, in Jerusalem we walked the Via Dolerosa to the church of the Holy Sepulcher and circled our hands within the granite cavity where the cross of Christ's crucifixion reportedly stood. Some of us also traveled to Jericho and saw the tree Zacchaeus climbed to glimpse Jesus, and others of us wondered at the barren mountain cliffs where Satan tempted Christ. All said, we physically witnessed the holy—or at the least graven memories of it—on our travels.

In all honestly, though, I must admit that I was hoping, and perhaps even expecting, that the sights and significance of the Holy Land would move me more or prove more meaningful for my own spiritual journey. Unfortunately, however, given my interpretive and experiential lenses of modest Calvinism and romantic idealism, I found myself rather disgusted by the ornate gold and silver plate that celebrated the place of Christ's birth at the church of the Nativity and his death and resurrection of the Holy Sepulcher. Indeed, I did not recognize the holy that was lathered in riches viewed via the glow of dripping of candles, and I even wondered if upon physical return Christ might overturn the medallions and curse the gold plating, which celebrates his divine, earthly ministry.

Even more to my dislike—however incorrect, inappropriate, and ‘low church' as it may be—was the division of the sacred spaces we visited into sections governed by different religious groups—Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Such divisions are further subdivided within each group. For example, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is portioned into different sections controlled by the Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Syrians, Ethiopians, and so forth. While visiting the various chapels within the famous church, I wondered how the holy could be so divided, and I also worried that the management of such spaces was concerned more with power and exclusion than with worship and love.

Interior of Church of the NativityDespite my dislike for such spaces, however, I did not find the Holy Land devoid of holiness. To my delight, outside of sacred monuments such as churches as tombs, I came to realize that the land that boasts of such holy spaces not only holds recognizable sacred spots but also witnesses conceptions of the sacrality of life made visible through attentive human care for the cultivation of olive trees, the protection of flocks and herds, and the preservation of water. Through, however, our visit to Bethlehem, which is within Israel's notorious “security wall,” our conversation and tours with members of Israel's Committee Against Home Demolition, and our daily journey through check-points, we realized, unfortunately, that these examples of sacrality—much like the holy shrines and land marks themselves—have become marred and twisted by violence. For instance, because of Israel 's wall many Palestinians have been cut off from their olive trees and can no longer attend to their cultivation. Flocks and herds have been poisoned in the attempts to secure land, and new, large Israeli settlements have rights to consume the majority of the water supply.

While I do not know how to adequately respond to such unholiness, I do know that I fear in the Holy Land —where the sacredness of places, things, and memories—are held so dear, that the land that serves as a gracious host will disappear through inattentive exploitation in the name of politics or sacrality. While I hope that will not happen, the travel seminar has prodded me to consider that, in the meantime, perhaps rather than reflecting on how Israel/Palestine is the Holy Land, we might better ask how the land bears witness to us—peoples of all faiths—as Holy People. Undoubtedly, it may not judge us so kindly.

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