So, why does Jerusalem particularly matter? What is President Trump exactly threatening in declaring that “Jerusalem is off the table,” moving the U.S. embassy and recognizing Israel’s complete sovereignty over the occupied city?
In a word, Trump’s peremptory gesture aims to destroy the “living stones” of Jerusalem. That, of course, is the poetic term that Palestinian Christians use to describe themselves and their relationship to the ancient holy sites that have drawn pilgrims to their city over the millennia.
But how much do they matter? In the din of international argument about the bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jerusalem has seemed to be just one item on the daunting diplomatic to-do list – a “final status” question of legalistic complexity and limited news interest. Even to some practicing Christians, it can seem a bit myopic to prioritize the issue of Jerusalem and the fate of the dwindling minority of Holy Land Christians. There are reasons why the “living stones” are also known as the “forgotten faithful” – relics who never get credit for preserving Christianity in its birthplace for 2,000 years.
Trump’s December decision provoked protest, putting a spotlight on Jerusalem in the short-term at least, as Christian and Muslim leaders raised the alarm and Palestinians took to the streets. In February, the Christian Patriarchs and Heads of Jerusalem made headlines when they closed the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to protest Israeli moves to tax churches and expropriate church properties.
Still, when Israel paused its “reforms” and the church doors reopened, the Jerusalem beat recovered its usual calm. The ancient stones still stood, and few gave much thought to the living ones. One who did was Rateb Rabie, head of the Holy Land Christian and Ecumenical Foundation, which supports the welfare of Arab Christians in the Holy Land. HCEF reached out to Christians in Palestine (and elsewhere) to ask a deceptively simple question: “What does Jerusalem Mean to You”? Twenty-three personal essays came back. Together they comprise a new book: What Jerusalem Means to Us—Christian Perspectives and Reflections (HCEF, 2018).
Reading the words of these essayists is a moving experience. They testify in their varied voices to Jerusalem’s profoundly inclusive – if not always collegial – character as home to so many interrelated Abrahamic cosmologies. The living stones take life in the presence of the ancient stones and in hosting the believers who come from around the world. In turn, the ancient stones exude their mysterious Godliness. Essayist Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch Emeritus of Jerusalem, sums it up: “no one can exclusively appropriate Jerusalem without contradicting its very nature as holy and city of God, and as a universal city for the three religions.” He quotes from the wonderfully entitled 1994 “Memorandum of Their Beatitudes the Patriarchs and of the Heads of the Christian Communities in Jerusalem”: “Indeed, the experience of history teaches us that in order for Jerusalem to be a city of peace, no longer lusted after from the outside and thus a bone of contention between warring sides, it cannot belong exclusively to one people or to one religion. Jerusalem should be open to all, shared by all.”
This theme of inclusivity emerges in different ways in almost every essay. Many essays also touch on how it is that the place known as Jerusalem – or Al Quds in Arabic (“The Noble Sacred Place”) – is specially imbued with God’s being. Interestingly, it may be a Protestant, David A. Renwick, Senior Pastor at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, who provides the sharpest insight on this question. Renwick explains that “low-church” Presbyterian Christians like him do not deem particular places to be more holy than others. This same lack of emphasis applies to particular persons or times of the year, he says, noting how Jesus advanced this view of holiness as pervasive and ubiquitous. Yet Jesus chose – or was chosen by – Jerusalem for his death, burial, and resurrection. It had to happen there, leaving the Via Dolorosa. The Temple of Israel had to arise there, leaving the Wall. The Prophet Muhammed had to spring from there in his miraculous journey to the Heavens, leaving the Rock. Pastor Renwick himself has discovered in Jerusalem a living reminder of “God’s patience with his people: that God’s people are never perfect, and yet God bears with us and wants to work here on earth, with us, among us, and through us, as one of us.”
Surprisingly, there is little discussion in this volume of Israel’s desire to make Jerusalem its “undivided capital,” although we hear of the church leaders’ warning this past Christmas that such exclusive possession “will lead to a very dark place.” Rather, many of the essayists recount with nostalgic wonder the freedom and sociability of earlier times and lament the constrictions that Israel relentlessly and cruelly imposes on Palestinians’ ability to live, move, and prosper in Jerusalem. In those earlier times it was easier to share essayist Rafiq Khoury’s experience that “Jerusalem has taught me even to consider the Holy Places of the others as my own Holy Places and the feasts of the others as my own feasts.”
It seems that Jerusalem, viewed by many as the ultimate religious battleground, has itself always wanted to be a city of profound peace.
Rateb Rabie writes, “Jerusalem is in danger.” The book shows that it’s a certain belief in peace that lies exposed. Americans, whether religious or not, should ask if that matters to them.