Christianity, the Crusades, and Violence

While at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, I heard an informal lecture from a former Rector of Tantur about a particular discussion between Christian and Jews in which one of the topics was what each religion really knows about the other.  A rabbi said that for some Jews in Israel all they know about Christianity is “the crusades, inquisition, and holocaust.”

Obviously, this statement does not represent all Jews, but it is indicative of a widely held belief that Christianity is a violent religion and has caused millions of deaths.  There is no doubt that Christians have perpetrated countless acts of violence, as have the representatives of every other major religious and political movement.  How can we determine that Christianity per se is the cause of the violence of the crusades, inquisition, and holocaust?

This is a very difficult question to answer.  First, we cannot unequivocally determine the principle cause of complicated and multi-dimensional movements of 800 years ago.  We cannot garner simple answers from ancient and too-often conflicting records.

Second, we cannot clearly separate religious motives from the social, economical, and political motives of the kings, princes, despots, and ecclesiastical authoritarian figures of the periods of the crusades, inquisition, and holocaust.  Frankly, it’s just as easy to say territorial and economical interests motivated the crusades, as did religious motives.

Third, we cannot easily determine whose role in the crusades indicates the true Christian position.  There was not unanimity among Christianity’s leaders about the legitimacy of the crusades.

I will not address the first two issues here.  Yet, I want to show that there were strongly held opposing opinions on the crusades, and that because the charge that Christianity caused the crusades is a serious allegation against it, we need to determine which view represents Christianity.

Here are two religious leaders justifying the crusades.  First, there was Arnold Amaury (died 1225), the leader of the Cistercian order of monks, who Pope Innocent III charged to conduct the Albigensian Crusade against the heretical group called the Cathars of southern France.  The crusade started in 1209 with twenty thousands soldiers, and at the town of Brezier, they killed twenty thousands.  In his report to the Pope, Amaury wrote, “Nearly twenty thousand of the citizens were put to the sword, regardless of age and sex.  The workings of divine vengeance have been wondrous.”  It also didn’t bother Amaury that orthodox Catholics were killed as a necessary measure to complete the task.  Anyway, God would know His own, as he reasoned.

Pope Innocent III

Innocent III started the crusade with the help of the king of France, Philip Augustus, who wanted to annex the territories of southern France.  The Pope and King made a bargain to help out each other.  One would eliminate a heresy, and the other would get new land.  The justification to end the heretical threat was connected with the King’s political/territorial goals.  What was good for the King must be good for the Church, so they reasoned.

St. Dominic

A second representative is St. Dominic (died 1221), who started the order of Dominican friars.  Pope Innocent III established the order to be traveling preachers of the Gospel and also to find and persecute suspected heretics.  He accompanied the armies, praying for the conversion of the heretics and the victory of the King’s solders over the rebels.  A number of Dominican friars were directly involved in the burning of Cathars.  For St. Dominic the defense of the integrity of the faith also meant the use of violence to safeguard the authority of the Church and State.

St. Thomas Aquinas

Perhaps, St. Thomas Aquinas (died 1274) is the most famous of Dominicans.  Though it would be inaccurate and unfair to reduce St. Thomas’ theology and philosophy to just what he said about persecuting heretics, but he also agreed with St. Dominic that the State should kill obstinate heretics, because they are a threat to the stability and integrity of society and hence the Church.

However, Amaury and St. Dominic were not the only ecclesiastical leaders at that time addressing the legitimacy of the crusades.  St. Anselm of Canterbury (died in 1109) is well known for his theological-philosophical accounts of the atonement of Christ, the certainty of God’s existence, free will, and the nature of evil.  He is also well known for his opposition to the English King, Henry I, who disputed with Anselm over investitures.  Anselm vehemently opposed the King appointing Bishops and using the Church’s land and wealth for his own pursuits.  For this, Henry exiled Anselm twice.  Anselm knew the difference between the authority of a King and the authority of the Church.

What is not well known about Anselm is his opposition to the crusades.  A young Italian nobleman, whose brother was fighting the Muslims in Asia Minor, had written Anselm asking his advice about joining the crusades.  Anselm’s recommendation was to join the monastery at Bec instead.  He said, “Do not be ashamed of breaking the bond of the vanity of this world: it is a privilege, not a dishonor, to reach out to the liberty of truth [which lay in the humility of the monastic life].”  The crusades were contrary to the Church’s mission and frankly fit the purposes of the King more than Christ.

R. W. Southern expresses Anselm’s position on the crusades this way, “For him, the important choice was quite simply between the heavenly Jerusalem, the true vision of Peace signified by the name Jerusalem, which was to be found in the monastic life, and the carnage of the earthly Jerusalem in this world, which under whatever name was nothing but a vision of destruction”  (in Saint Anselm, p. 169).  In Anselm’s mind, Christianity rejects using the carnage of the crusades at Jerusalem because it can never represent the Church’s knowledge of the heavenly Jerusalem.

St. Francis Praying

Another example of an influential Christian leader opposing the crusades is St. Francis of Assisi (died in 1226).  Most people remember him for his compassionate identification and care for lepers, animals, and the poor.  However, he was also a company-man.  He knew that for his movement to survive, he needed Vatican recognition.  So he worked with the institutional system and eventually obtained Papal recognition from Pope Innocent III, the same Pope who had commissioned the brutal Albigensian Crusade.

St. Francis before Pope Innocent III

Ironically, St. Francis accompanied the Fifth Crusade of about 32,000 Hungarian and Austrian fighters into Egypt.  However, instead of blessing the fighting as St. Dominic had, he tried to stop it.  He entered the camp of the Muslim leader, Sultan Al-Kamil to persuade him to stop the violence.  He told the Sultan that he would show the truth of his faith by stepping into fire if the King’s religious leaders would as well.  None agreed.  The Saint inspired the Sultan, but the violence continued on both sides.

St. Francis before the Sultan

Instead of trying to convert Muslims by violence, St. Francis tried by non-violence, because he knew using violence would be contrary to the Church’s mission.

In conclusion, the question is which group is more indicative of the essence of Christianity?  A lot would be involved in giving a conclusive answer, but we can make the following observations:

1. Christian leaders were never unanimous about the legitimacy of the Crusades;

2.  It is thus inaccurate to say that Christianity caused the violence of the Crusades;

3. However, the Christian leaders who did justify violence patterned their understanding of the Church’s authority on the King’s authority;

4. Those who did not justify violence did not confuse the institutional authority of the Church with that of the State.

5. It follows that if the Church’s mission is based on the authority of Christ, then she cannot use the authority of the State and King to promote her mission, and, consequently, she cannot use the same means the State and King use to promote their interests when in conflict with others—i.e., violence.

6. Finally, as a general observation, we can never be certain that we represent and follow the morally superior position in a conflict, if we use the same destructive violence against our adversary as the adversary would against us.

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Art and Healing

           Can art contribute to a person’s healing?  Of course, not all art can.  Bad art usually does not, because it tends to be primarily a demonstration of the artist’s personal or political agenda or distractingly convoluted in design.  Yet, many people have thought art, especially religious art, can empower a person to regain wellbeing in the midst of illness.   What makes this type of healing occur?

Grünewald's Altarpiece

Perhaps we can get an understanding by examining two 16th century pieces of art, which were used for their healing power.  The first is Matthias Grünewald’s famous Crucifixion of Christ (c. 1515), which is part of the Isenheim Altarpiece, and is presently displayed in the Uterlinden Museum in Colmar, France.  The monks of St. Anthony commissioned Grünewald’s altarpiece to place in their chapel.  They had develop a hospice to care for people dying of what was called St. Anthony’s Disease, which was a form of the plague infecting the nerves so badly that the sufferers felt they were on fire.  St. Anthony himself was the father of Christian monasticism and was said to have been on fire with the love of God, and so this form of the plaque bore his name.  The monks develop special palliative care for the dying, using washings, herbs, and art.

Grünewald--Unterlinden Chapel

The painful disease had separated the soul from the body and the person from society, and the sick felt torn apart and alienated.  By contemplating on the vicarious suffering of God in Christ, they would sense God identifying with their pain and alienation and, thereby, know they were not alone in their fear and illness and, furthermore, as Christ was raised from his pain and death, so would they be raised to healed, whole life through God’s love.

Christ Showing His Wound

The second is the terracotta relief-statue called Christ Showing His Wound, which is located in the east wing of the ground floor of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.  Originally, it was situated in the famous 16th century hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, Italy.  The hospital was one of the first of Europe and had such famous people as Leonardo de Vinci practice medicine there.  They also developed an impressive art gallery in which patients would come to meditate.  Christ Showing His Wound depicts Christ pointing out his wounded side.  The wound is approximately four inches long and two wide, and people would put relics and prayer request in it.  Their plea for healing became incorporated into Christ’s suffering on their behalf.  No matter how debilitating their sickness and disfigured they had become, they could sense a transcendent healing through contemplating on the statue, a healing of body and soul.

How to explain this attraction to art?  There is a common, but wrongheaded, view that says, “Beauty [or art] is in the eye of the beholder.”  Of course, it is true that one who is moved by art has a unique subjective experience.  But the significance of the artwork cannot be reduced just to a person’s subjective reaction, because in that case, everything would be art, since every experience has a subjective dimension.  But not everything is art, and, moreover, it takes a certain kind of subjective experience to respond rightly to art.

I think the 19th century philosopher Immanuel Kant has a better explanation.  We experience art, not just subjectively, but through taste.  Taste is a certain kind of judgment in which, though we cannot logically and scientifically explain the experience fully, we understand a sense of purpose and universality through the experience.  The artwork makes us think there is the possibility of union with nature and others, and we come to understand our own place within a larger world.  We are drawn toward art, because we seek to make sense out of our lives.

I’d say that good art inspires us to think that our particular stories, no matter how insignificant, ordinary, or covered up, are part of a larger order of life, which induces courage and faith in us.  These moments of taste (as Kant would say) can be perplexing and worry us, but they nonetheless ennoble us to claim our right to exist and responsibility to struggle against the decaying and cancerous aspects of life.

When the dying of Ishenheim and the sick of Florence would look upon the art in their chapels, they would sense God’s suffering for them and realize that their lives were not reduced to their diseases and broken bodies but lifted up into the larger story of the divine redemption of the world.  This would embolden them to face their destiny and know that no matter what happens, their souls and bodies are held together into eternal health by the vicarious suffering of God.

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Easter and then Galilee

Christ's Casket--Good Friday, Melkite Church

           The above picture is of the casket of Christ.  We attended the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchal Church’s Good Friday worship service.  It was one hour and fifty minute long and sung in Arabic, except for the occasional French and English sentences the Patriarch uttered during his passionate sermon.  It was interspersed with vivid symbolism, which kept us attentive.  About half into the service, the Patriarch and priests walked three times around the crowd of about 500 and incensed us.  About fifteen minutes later, they walked around three times anointing us with rose water.  Fifteen minutes later, they gave everyone a red flower.  Finally, they carried the casket around three times and then followed several drummers out the building up the street toward Jaffe Gate and after about ten minutes returned.

All that symbolism was to bury us with Christ—incensed, anointed for burial, and a flower on our graves, similar to Baptism in which we’re lower in death to be raised in newness of life on Easter.  It was a moving experience, showing the power of religious symbolism in liturgy.  We felt the drama of the death of Christ and how it affects our own lives.  Though I didn’t understand the words of the service, through its liturgical symbolism, I understood its meaning.

Shrine of Maimonides

This picture is of the Shrine of Moses Maimonides in Tiberius on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  One of the reasons I came to Tantur for my sabbatical was to research on Maimonides’ teachings on divine providence and the nature of evil.  Over the years I have known just enough about Maimonides to say a few words about him in the Medieval Philosophy class when I passed through the 12th century.  It is said of him “From Moses [the Lawgiver and Prophet] to Moses, there has not been another Moses.”  It is quite a tribute and probably justified.  He is perhaps the most influential rabbi in Jewish philosophy, having written on the Torah, Talmud, medicine, theology, and philosophy.  He introduced Aristotle and Neo-Platonism to Jewish thinking and represents the learned rabbi.  Though I don’t agree with some of ideas about creation and evil, he is original and provocative.  One of the chapters in the book that I hope results from this sabbatical is on Rambam (his nickname for “Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon”).

He died in 1204 in Egypt but requested to be buried in Tiberius, which he eventually was.  His tomb is now a synagogue over which stands an impressive red, metal sculpture.  As we walked up about fifty older Jews were just leaving as Shabbat was beginning.  A young Jewish woman was still there praying fervently facing the tomb.  The synagogue/shrine is open walled and surrounded by quotes from his famous book The Guide for the Perplexed.  I would say that he represents what Hegel calls a “World Soul”.  His life and thought embody a virtuous tradition so clearly that the tradition continues because of him and live through him.   It seems that all the currents of Jewish life and philosophical reflection met in him, and he was able to synthesize them into a coherent system of ideas from which subsequent generations can learn and grow in virtue.

Tel of Dan

This picture is of a portion of the ruins at the ancient Israelite city of Dan, which is north of the Sea of Galilee.  It is a large site in a lush park, near the mouth of the Jordan River.  The rocks are darker and rounder there than elsewhere and were stacked into houses, a palace, and a temple about 2,900 years ago.

In 1993 a stele was found saying “the house of David”.  In it’s own right, it is interesting, but the reactions to it are almost as interesting.  For years the Minimalist School associated with the University of Copenhagen has stated that there is no archaeological evidence for the existence of David or his supposed Kingdom.  Furthermore, because archaeology has not found such evidence, all the Old Testaments stories of David and Solomon (as well as the Patriarchs and Moses) are fictional, written to support a growing nation, which needed a royal mythic past.              When the stele was found, they said it must be a recent forgery.  In logic, this is an example of the fallacy called “special pleading”—I plead to you not to question my primary premise.  The Minimalist School is adamantly committed to their assumption about archaeology and the Bible, not to what they find.  Of course, this does mean nor require that we think archaeology does and should always support the biblical testimonies, but when it does, we should admit it.

Gamla Fortress

The final picture is of the remains of the village at Gamla (Aramaic for “camel” because it looks like a one’s back).  It is on the east side of the top part of the Sea of Galilee in the Golan Heights and was a fortress of Jewish fighters against the invading Romans.  Josephus records their battle.  The Romans were a magnificent attacking force and develop special technologies to take a fortified city, as Gamla was.  It’s built on the side of a steep hill and is approachable only on one side.  The Jews had strengthened their walls, and many surrounding rebels entered the city to prepare for the battle.  Vespasian’s Roman forces of three legions had already defeated Capernaum by land and Tiberius by sea, and in 67 BCE, they set their eyes onto Gamla.  The rebels repulsed the Romans’ first assault.  On the second try, the Romans broke through in three places but were repulsed again.  After a few days, they re-entered and slaughter everyone.  4,000 Jewish inhabitants died inside the city and many others fleeing down the steep hill.

There is a real contrast between Gamla and Masada, and I’m surprised the battle of Gamla is not better known and remembered.  The people of Masada were not real rebels fighting the Romans.  They fled and thought they found safety and secrey up in the Herodian fortress.  Instead of fighting the Romans, they killed themselves.  The people of Gamla were real fighters against the tyranny of Rome and died fighting it.  It seems that Gamla would be a better memorial for Israel’s identity than Masada.

A final comment—it’s been difficult this last week being here knowing that so many people are suffering back in Alabama due to the horrible storms.  Many died and lost their homes and places of work.  Our son and house were unscathed, thankfully.  My prayers are for the grieving.  There is now much work to be done, which we’ll join when we return on May the 20th.

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Palm Sunday Walk

Palm Sunday Procession

On Palm Sunday we joined about 20,000 pilgrims retracing Jesus’ steps when he road the ass from Bethphage into Jerusalem.  It was already hot at 1:30 when we walked into the Church of Bethphage’s courtyard.  Thousands of people were standing there waiting for the procession to start.  At 2:30 the Latin Patriarch read the Gospel accounts in Arabic and French of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, and then all of sudden the crowd started to move.  People read scripture, prayed, and sang hymns, sometimes by themselves but mostly in groups.  I don’t know how many nationalities and languages were there, but I didn’t hear English much at all and didn’t see many Westerners.

The crowd, which walked shoulder to shoulder, moved slowly up the Mount of Olives, down past the Garden of Gethsemane, onto the Valley of Kidron with the Jewish and Muslim cemeteries on the left, then up the hill to the Lions’ Gate (Stephen’s Gate), and finally through the Gate onto the Via Dolorosa, where on Good Friday, more pilgrims will meet to remember Jesus’ last stages before his crucifixion.  It took us about three hours to walk the two miles.

At times the singing and praying were spontaneous and ebullient.  Old, young, healthy, crippled, blind, beautiful, scarred, single, families, congregations, and solitary seekers all were caught up in the joyous, festive occasion.  As we approached the Lions’ Gate, a group of about 25 people with blue hats from some country were singing a very upbeat hymn with guitars, bongo drums, and a hand organ.  People began to sing with them, clap, and then many began to jump, and I saw two nuns in their full dress jumping with joy.  It was an incredibly contagious moment, and the joy was palpable.  It was complete.

Looking Upto Lions' Gate

The prophet Isaiah saw in the future that a day will come to Jerusalem in which it will be true to say—“Arise, shine, for you light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. . . . Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (60. 1-3).

How can we be certain that we’ve experienced the true light?

The metaphor suggests both illumination and something illuminated.  The religious use of the metaphor thus indicates how particular people within their own contexts come to know God (or transcendence as the realm of ultimate reality).  There is light when God illumines God’s self within a particular people’s lives.  Yet, from a look at human history, we see two kinds of mistakes.

First, some people pretend to know God without any influence from their historical contexts and personalities on that knowledge.  It’s as though they know transcendence totally divorced from human history.  At best, this view of the light becomes a private subjective feeling, and at worse, it degenerates into an escape from the problems of human history.  This view ignores that religious light is about God, not the human soul.

Second, some people equate their own historically conditioned experience with God, with ultimate reality.  It’s as though all truth is found in their practices and formulations.  At best, this view of the light becomes a provincialism in which people are not interested in what other people may say or experience about the light, and at worse, it degenerates into a dogmatism or idolatry of their own ways, which becomes a reason to reject and condemn others.  This view ignores that our contexts condition the experience of God, not constitute it.

I think that to have true light two features should be present.  First, whatever we say and practice about God must manifest and lead to peace, mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation, hope, and compassion, because these characteristics point our beliefs and practices to a reality that can be transcendent over all people and contexts.

Second, our encounter with God should at least at special moments create joy in us.  Joy is the proper response to the fulfilling encounter with God.  It is more than pleasure and contentment, which a person can have after eating a good meal.  Joy is the emotional expression of realizing that a complete moment has occurred.  It cannot be conjured or manipulated.  It’s the heart in freedom, responding to a gift of acceptance and fulfillment.

Last Sunday the outpouring of joy and witness in the singing, dancing, and praying of the pilgrims who passed under the stone lions at the Lions’ Gate shed light on Jerusalem.  It brought many nations from around the world into a glorious moment, gathering them into an expression of the Light of the World.

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The Holy Sepulchre

Tomb of Christ

On April 2nd we joined four other people from Tantur to spend three hours in the Holy Sepulchre after it had closed for the evening.  Tantur arranged this for us, and we arrived at 8:30 and left at 11:30.  Six other people got to stay as well.

I had visited it twice before.  Each time was a confusing experience.  Throngs of people crowd into it, and once inside, it is hard to know at what one is looking.  There are close to twenty chapels in it; a large Catholicon in the center; the rotunda with its fourteen massive columns surrounding the Tomb of Christ; icons, candles and oil lambs, altars, stairs, huge rocks enclosed in glass, high pulpits, and echoing sounds everywhere.  From the outside, it looks only about 1/3 of its real size.  It’s an amazing place.

Of all the holy sites in Israel, the Tomb and Golgotha inside the Holy Sepulchre have some of the best arguments for being the actual places.  There are records of Christians worshipping in these places until 66 A.D. after which the Romans began to persecute Jews and Christian alike in Jerusalem.  In 135 Hadrian filled in the quarry to build a Capitoline temple to honor the goddess Aphrodite.  Macarius, bishop of Jerusalem, in 325 petitioned the Christian Emperor Constantine to destroy the pagan temple, so that the Church could unearth Christ’s tomb.  They found graffiti on a rock, identifying the present place.  In 355 a church building was completed with another section added in 384.

From then the history gets complicated and not pleasant.  The invading Persians burned it in 614.  The Muslim conqueror, Omar kept it but placed it under Muslim taxation.  The fanatical Muslim caliph Hakim destroyed it in 1009.  The Crusaders started to rebuild it from the remains in 1099 of which some of the building still stands.  A fire in 1808 destroyed parts of it.  An earthquake in 1927 damaged large sections, and the last major repairs came in 1959.

Through this long history six vying Christian groups claim ownership of the Holy Sepulchre and jealously occupy and protect their places and rituals—The Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Syrians, Copts, and Ethiopians.  Their public quarrels are famous and notorious, even to the point that they cannot agree who should open and close the two massive, wooden doors.  There is such distrust among them that one Muslim family has to keep the key and another has to actually open the doors.  They have been doing this for over four hundred years.

In spite of its history and the petty ecclesiastical disputes, it is a holy place, and I was deeply moved by the significance of the sites and the deep silence of the massive building.  Part of what struck me was that I was standing and kneeling in places where countless number of Christians have journeyed for almost two thousands years to pray and stand in awe.  I’m now part of that number.

The famous 20th century German philosopher Martin Heidegger (who was not a Christian, in my opinion) once said that we should walk with reverence past places of prayer.  The fact that generations of people have invested their deepest aspirations, hopes, and yearnings toward God into a building makes the place different from an ordinary natural place.  A natural place typically reflects what we want it to be—a house, work place, park, warehouse, etc.  We make them important.  But a holy place makes us important.  The encounter with God draws out of us the expressions of our deepest wonders, gratitude, shame, and need for redemption.  People’s lives are changed by what goes on in holy places, and we should walk reverently past such places.

Pilgrims continue to come to the Holy Sepulchre, and in spite of the frailty of human nature exhibited in both the pilgrims and its keepers, people pray and stand in awe of the place in which Christ died, was buried, and from which he was resurrected.  On one hand, the Holy Sepulchre stands for the Risen Crucified Christ, but, on the other hand, it is a depository of 2000 years of prayers and awe.


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Pilgrimage to Mt. Sinai

Summit of Mt. Sinai

Up Mt. Sinai

These two pictures are of people going up Mt. Sinai and of me at the summit.  On March 20th I went with the Tantrum group to St. Catherine monastery in the Sinai desert to stay two nights and go up to where Moses encountered God.

We left our rooms at 2:00 A.M. to ride camels from Bedouins (who seem to have some authority over the mountain) about 4 miles up a winding path to a level place on the mountain called Elijah’s place.  From there we walked up approximately 800 steps to the summit.  We got there in time to see the rising sun, as it peaked through the wintery clouds.  The wind picked up and it got cold.

Early Christian monks settled in the rugged and vast Sinai Peninsula during the early 3rd century to escape the decadence of a dying Roman culture and to encounter God in solitude.  A monastery was built at the base of the mountain, known as the God-Trodden Mount, under the patronage of Helena (Emperor Constantine’s mother who helped establish many biblical sites and monasteries).  It is a thriving monastery with a magnificent library of ancient books and biblical manuscripts (the famous 4th century Codex Sinaiticus of the New Testament was found there in 1865 and is now in the British Museum), and monks continue to pray basically the same liturgies that their founders did in the 4th century (we attended their vespers prayer service).  I heard that before Egypt had its recent political unrest, approximately 3000 people daily would walk up Mt. Sinai.

It is a famous pilgrimage site.  We were pilgrims.

It is important to know the difference between a tourist and a pilgrim.  A tourist goes to a place to look at it, to speculate on it.  Tourists are attracted to the novelty or curiosity of a place, and sometimes will go great distances at great expense to see a place.  However, the easier a tourist place is to get to, the more tourists will go to it.

But pilgrims are different.  They go to holy places not just to look and speculate about them but to encounter something and experience inward transformation.  The more taxing and demanding it is to get to a holy place and the more emotionally challenging it is, the more pilgrims are drawn to it.  They seek an encounter with what made or continues to make the place holy.

The famous early 20th century theologian Rudolph Otto defined the holy as the “mysterium trememdum et fascinans.”  The phrase means a holy place has a mystical pull to it, which is both tremendous in that it is very different to the ordinary and fascinating in that its meaningfulness and implications arrest our attention.

A holy place does not have to recreate the original holy act.  The effects can still be there.  Though on Mt. Sinai I did not hear Yahweh speak to me as Yahweh did to Moses approximately 3,400 years ago.  I was not surrounded by a dark cloud and did not hear Yahweh walk before me, as did Moses.  But I felt the effects of such an encounter.  When a pilgrim realizes that he or she stands in the vicinity to where it happened, the whole story of Moses speaking with Yahweh and receiving the Commandments becomes more dramatic and memorable.  I’ll read these accounts in Exodus with a new sense of what it must have been like.  In fact, because I was there, they all seem more concrete, real life, and life changing.  Because I was a pilgrim there and not a tourist, I believe that I’m generally more receptive to the trememdum et fascinans.

In the 1980’s there was talk of building a cable car up to the top, but I’m glad the monks and Bedouins rejected the idea.  The fact that it is so remote and challenging respects the allure and fascination of the place, because Mt. Sinai is not an ordinary mountain.  It is the God-Trodden Mount.



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The Dome of the Rock and the Second Temple

The two pictures are about our visits to the Dome of the Rock and the First and Second Temple sites.

Since the second intifada, the Muslim council (Waqf) has not allow non-Muslims into the Dome of the Rock, but, because we were part of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, we got permission to tour it.  It’s considered the third most holy site in Islam (behind Mecca and Medina) and sits in the middle of Haram esh-Sharif  (the Muslim name) or the Temple Mount (the Jewish name).  The area makes up about 1/6 of the Old City of Jerusalem, and the Dome of the Rock is the city’s most recognizable building.  About 100 yards south of it is the el-Aksa mosque, where the Muslim faithful routinely come to pray (rather than the Dome of the Rock), especially on Fridays.

The Dome of the Rock is an overwhelming building with its refurbished gold tile covering (given by the late king of Jordan, Hussein, in 1993), its geometrical correctness, and intricate tile work.  As is consistent with Islamic theology, it has no images of people or animals in it.  Its vastness and seriousness as a building suggest of a sense of transcendence, but it is a confusing building in two ways.

First, because the main features of the building are what architects and engineers can do with geometrically proportional walls, columns, and tile work, one senses that its divine focal point is more of what a mathematician would say of God than what a prophet would reveal.  There is hardly any sense of a theistic God to it (in contrast to el-Aksa), though hundreds of sincere, devout people pray in it daily.

Second, it is polemical and propagandist through and through.  Its main justification is to say that the place and subsequently Jerusalem belong to Islam.   The Umayyad caliph, Abd al-Malik, started the Dome in 688 and completed it in 691, 54 years after Jerusalem fell to the seize of Islamic armies in 637.  He claimed that the area was the place of prayer mentioned in the Koran (Sura XVII), which says that Mohammed ascended to heaven from the farthest mosque.  Of course, the mosque was built 59 years after Mohammed’s death, but he claimed the site was a place of prayer (though it was a Jewish place of prayer).  Also, about 25 yards northwest of the Dome is a tower claiming to be the place from which Mohammed ascended.  Thus, even in the Haram esh-Sharif there is dispute about the actual place of the prophet’s miracle.

The caliph also wanted to build a more impressive building than the Byzantine churches in Jerusalem to show Islam’s superiority and victory over Christianity.  In fact, inside the Dome’s ceiling are written the following derision of Christianity, “O you People of the Book [that is, mentioned in the Koran], overstep not bounds in your religion, and of God speak only the truth.  The Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, is only an apostle of God, and his Word which he conveyed into Mary, and a Spirit proceeding from him.  Believe therefore in God and his apostles, and say not Three.  It will be better for you.  God is only one God.  Far be it from his glory that he should have a son.”  Thus the Dome exists to repudiate Christianity’s faith in the divine Sonship of Christ and God’s triune nature.

Our guide told us of a Muslim tradition that maintains when Jesus looked onto the Temple and predicted he would destroy it and build it again, that Jesus was actually referring to the eventual Roman destruction of it in 70 and then the eventual rebuilding of the true house of prayer (i.e., the Dome of the Rock) by the true prophet’s (i.e., Mohammed) followers.

In other words, the Temple Mount should be called Haram esh-Sharif and Jerusalem belongs to Islam.


The building upon which I have my hand is the southwest corner of the Second Temple walls near Robinson gate, which was one of the entrances into the Temple grounds.  This area was under about 25 feet of dirt for over 500 years and was just uncovered in the late 1980’s.  We had a tour of the old City of David and the Zion area by a Jewish archaeological tour guide, who in his mid-life moved to Jerusalem to study the Hebraic origins of Jerusalem.  During the day we saw the disputed sites of King David’s tomb, Warren’s shaft (the ancient tunnel dug to bring water into the city), ruins of the First and Second Temple time periods, portions of Herod’s palace, the steps on the southern wall leading up to the Temple, the Western Wall, the possible position of the Temple’s foundation under the Haram esh-Sharif, and many other sites.  He was insightful and very committed to his task.  At many places, he would read from the Hebrew Scriptures and conclude that the Hebrews, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, lived here, built these buildings, and constructed a magnificent city.

In other words, the Temple Mount and Jerusalem belong to the Jews.


When I compare these two days, I see again what makes Jerusalem such a complicated city.   On one hand, the Hebrews are an ancient people who rightly can claim their ancestors built the city, but, because of the diaspora, they have not lived as a geo-political people in Jerusalem for 1878 years (from 70 to the 1948 war).  On the other hand, Arabic Muslims are an ancient people and religion, which, honestly, do not have a legitimate, original claim on the land but have lived in the city for 1374 years (with the exception of small periods in the 11-12th centuries).

In terms of origins, the Hebrews have the case.  In terms of a long, continuous history to the present, the Arabic Muslims have the case.  Both will not give an inch.

Frankly, I think, the best we can do politically is to work for a stalemate.  A stalemate is messy, troublesome, and difficult, but outside of the elimination of a whole group of people, it’s the only present, conceivable solution.

However, we can wait and pray for a novel solution; one we cannot predict but which can happen.  I believe this is what the prophet Isaiah maintains—“Listen!  Your watchmen lift up their voices, together they shout for joy.  When the Lord returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes” (52.8).  In religious terms, only the Messiah can solve the problem.


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Perceptions of Masada and the Western Wall

We visited two well known sites recently—Masada on 2/12/11 and the Western Wall 2/13/11. Each is unforgettable, and each teaches different lessons.
Masada rises about 1400 feet about the Dead Sea, which now is about 1500 feet below sea level (dropping a meter a year). The view is spectacular. Around 31 BCE Herod the Great built several complex palaces on top (with the Northern Palace and its three terraces the most impressive), not for the view but for protection against possible revolting Jews or a conniving Cleopatra. In the fifth century a Byzantine laura-type monastic community moved there for the view and remoteness and lasted till the seventh century when Muslim armies most likely ended it.
Of course, Masada is best known for the mass suicide of approximately 960 rebels, who were convinced by their leader Eleazar Ben Yair that it would be better to kill themselves than be killed by the Romans or become their slaves. Before one rides the cable car up to the top, one listens to a ten-minute film about the courage and honor of the rebels. It is highly romanticized and probably much of it is false.
The only record of the mass suicides comes from the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (also known as Yoseph Ben Mattithyahu). The Roman conquering general, Silva, who laid siege for two years and built the earthen ramp up to the Western gate to finally enter it, may have kept a record, but we know nothing of it. Josephus mentions two women and some children surviving, and we thus assume he got his information from them. At this point, the story gets uncertain. It’s unlikely that the two women memorized verbatim Eleazar’s speech; a speech, which sounds very similar to one Josephus gave earlier at Machaerus, from which he had escaped. Also, it’s unlikely that the Roman troops took off during a moon-lit night after knocking down the two walls (the first stone, the second a more resisting wooden and earthen) to rest before entering, and even if they had, probably there would not have been enough time for 960 people to burn everything and then go through an elaborate protocol of who kills whom. Moreover, Josephus gets a lot of major features of the fortress wrong.
Obviously, Josephus had political reasons for idolizing the rebels. He was defending the tradition and memory of the Jewish revolt against Rome. However, he should have chosen a better group. The rebels were called the Sicarii, which means dagger, for good reasons. They were a ruthless group of fighters who, before occupying Masada, had slaughtered 700 of their fellow Jews (women and children too) at En Gedi just for the booty. The Sicarii had already withdrawn from the war with Rome. Frankly, they are not the stuff upon which to build important legends, but Josephus tried with his overly idealized and tendentious retelling of Masada.
Josephus had to twist the history of Masada to turn it into a quasi-sacred story, which in fact eclipses the sacred. It was smart for Israel to stop using Masada as an officer-commissioning site (at the finale they would all say “Masada shall not fall again”).
The Western Wall exceeded by expectations. When one walks up to the Prayer Plaza after going through an Israeli check station, it’s difficult to sort out who is doing what and where. People are standing around, moving around; some people walk quickly through; others stand by themselves lost in thought; some laugh, others cry; and young Israeli guards with automatic rifles stroll around. And then one spots the Wall, which is about 180 feet across. A make shift wall divides the men from the women, who go to the right one-fourth of the wall. It’s expected that men and women wear a head covering. I had on my hat as I leaned my hands onto the Wall.
It is not an aesthetically pleasing holy place (like Notre of Dame of Paris is). Its layout is not easy to understand (like, of example, a library may be). It is ancient, complicated, ambiguous, contested, and a place hosting great sorrows, hopes, and prayers. There is a sign in the plaza that says “God is closer here than anywhere.” Frankly, I tend to believe it.
Before you jump to conclusion, hear me out. One of the lessons to learn from Masada is that human history is too conflicted with greed, ignorance, malice, pain, violence, and narrow-mindedness to tell us directly anything of eternal importance. It is a conceptual mistake to think that a particular time and place can be so perfect in personal morality, social justice, and political righteousness to mirror eternity and God’s will.
The Western Wall does not try to be neat, perfect, and a parthenon of heaven. It is just like every other example of human affairs—part success and part failure. But the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob speaks through these ruins and tells us that no time and place is divine, that God’s justice judges all people and nations, and that our best hopes and efforts should be based upon the divine grace experienced within and through these earthen vessels.
I’m a little different after going to the Western Wall.

Western Gate--Masada

Western Wall--Temple

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