April 4, 2016

Visiting the land where Jesus walked

Written by  Jonathan Bornman
David Shenk (left) presents to a group of local Christian and Muslim leaders at the Holy Land Trust, a Bethlehem organization dedicated to nonviolent solutions, as Holy Land Trust president Sami Awad (second from left) translates. David Shenk (left) presents to a group of local Christian and Muslim leaders at the Holy Land Trust, a Bethlehem organization dedicated to nonviolent solutions, as Holy Land Trust president Sami Awad (second from left) translates. Photo provided by Jonathan Bornman.

Israel-Palestine: a land revered by so many, and yet a land torn apart by the different claims made upon it. From March 2–10, I traveled there with David Shenk. Wherever we walked among Palestinians and Jews, among evangelicals and Muslims, through ancient holy sites and through cities under occupation he asked his standard question, “What are the signs of hope?”

In some places, fear and division seem to drown out any hopeful signs. On a March 7 MCC learning tour to Hebron, we saw most starkly what life under occupation is like. Hebron, split into Palestinian and Israeli sectors, is believed to be Abraham’s final resting place, making it a holy city for both Jews and Muslims. A guide took us on a tour of Abraham’s tomb and the attached mosque. The center of the old city is a ghost town, due to walls, checkpoints, and sections of streets that are prohibited to Palestinians. There are soldiers everywhere.

Both Jews and Muslims hold powerfully to physical geography as central to faithfulness to God, and each community holds a claim on Jerusalem. I visited the supporting foundation walls of the temple mount where Herod build a temple for the Jews. To enter, I was required to put on a small white Jewish cap. This is the holiest site in Judaism; Daniel prayed facing the temple in Jerusalem while he was exiled in Persia.

On the top of the mount are two mosques: Al-Aqsa (the third holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina) and the Dome of the Rock. At the beginning of Islam, Muslims prayed toward Jerusalem until Muhammad had a revelation (during a conflict with the Jews in Medina), changing the direction of prayer to Mecca. The geographical center of Islam is now the kabbah in Mecca; more specifically, the meteorite affixed to the corner of the kabbah. This is the point of connection with God (the stone fell from heaven); here, it is said, Adam, Abraham, and Muhammad established worship to God. And here Muslim pilgrims make the once-in-a-lifetime journey, the hadj.

What about Christians? We believe that the Holy Spirit takes up residence in the heart of every believer. Whenever two or three persons gather in the name of Jesus, He is present. The center of the church is Jesus! The church resides wherever Christ followers gather. There is no geographical center, no prayer direction, no land to contest. Thus the church of Jesus has a special role to play in peacemaking and reconciliation.

Visiting the land where Jesus walked filled my senses in so many ways! I visited Nazareth Village, waded in the Sea of Galilee, walked the Via Dolorosa, visited the tomb of Abraham and Sarah, sang “Silent Night, Holy Night” in the Church of the Nativity, and prayed at the Garden Tomb. All these were memorable, and probably have changed forever the way I will interact with the Biblical text.

Yet even more powerful was the experience of meeting the modern-day followers of Jesus living fruitful and meaningful lives. Modern Israel and Palestine have much in common with the time of Jesus: there is violence, oppression, and struggle about ownership of the land and the “holy sites.” Arab and Messianic Jewish followers of Jesus living in the land of Israel-Palestine are a tiny minority, yet their saltiness and their light is the hope of the nations. Only the church of Jesus, carrying the message of the cross, offers healing and hope!

I was delighted to spend four and a half days with the Arabic-speaking evangelical community of Bethlehem! We worshiped, prayed, and ate together; filled with joy, yet suffering the challenges of a people living under occupation. One young married Palestinian man (with Israeli citizenship) married to a Palestinian woman explained that whenever they cross a checkpoint, he can drive through, but his wife must get out and walk through the checkpoint with all its uncertainties.

Perhaps most astonishing was a visit to a little preschool, run by a Christian couple in a neighborhood of east Jerusalem. Some of the children they take are from Palestinian families in trouble with the law for alleged association with terrorist groups. Practically all the children are from Muslim families. Most would be what we term “children at risk.” The teachers are both Christian and Muslim. The curriculum and the activities are entirely focused on teaching the children in a positive, Christ-centered environment. They sing songs about Jesus, do Christmas and Easter plays, and their crafts have Bible verses as part of learning English. Even more amazing, their parents come to school programs and events where the children show off what they are learning. The school is constantly receiving both threats and blessings from the community. Again, a place of hope and joy in the midst of suffering (the community where the school is located was recently cut in half by the security wall).

In spite of the challenges, Palestinian evangelicals are bursting with energy, with ideas, with hope. They are building organizations, expanding schools, creating peace initiatives, and pursuing creative ways of working at healing and reconciliation. All this in contrast to the three Palestinian Muslim presentations and one secular Israeli presentation that I experienced. The Muslims and the Israeli were all engaged in meaningful work, documenting the challenges of living in a land of conflict. Their work is legitimate and important. However, the joy-filled evangelical Palestinian community engages in their work with a surpassing sense of hope! The transformative power of the gospel is on full display!

Jonathan Bornman is a cross-cultural trainer and Christian/Muslim relations consultant serving on EMM’s Christian/Muslim Relations Team. Jonathan served with his family among the Muslim people of Senegal from 1999-2009.

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