Across the field from our residence in Jerusalem is Har Homa (Jabal Abu Ghneim in Arabic), the mountain that has caused so much conflict over the status of Jerusalem. On Easter morning 1997 we stood on the roof of our residence for a sunrise service. As the sun rose over the mountain, we celebrated the Resurrection with Scripture, song, and prayer.
Several days later we watched with pain as bulldozers cut a swath around the mountain, preparing the way for housing construction. Israelis insist this area is part of southeastern Jerusalem and that they have a right to expand there. Palestinians from the adjacent Christian towns of Bethlehem and Beit Sahour see this unilateral act as infringement on their right to expand their cities.
Jerusalem, the "City of Peace," is a source of conflict and disharmony. Israelis insist that Jerusalem should remain the unified and eternal capital of Israel under the absolute sovereignty of Israel. Palestinians, native to East Jerusalem, are critical of the Israeli claim to sovereignty; they want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a Palestinian state. Jerusalem elicits the best and the worst in people, and it is being marred by those who claim to love her.
Just as Jerusalem incites the passions of three great religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—it also inspires pilgrims. As we approach the year 2000, there is a lot of euphoria concerning Jerusalem. Some Christians are enamored with Jerusalem because they anticipate the restoration of Jerusalem when the time of the Gentiles is fulfilled. Hence, they uncritically defend Jewish control of Jerusalem because it fits their end-times theories. Christian pilgrims are flocking to see the sites where they anticipate these end-times events will happen. Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert recently has even suggested setting up tent camps to accommodate the many Christian pilgrims.
I've been asked what I know about the Mount of Olives beginning to split (Zech. 14:4). Frankly, I've seen no evidence of that, nor is it my consuming passion. Some seem more interested in whether the mountain is beginning to divide than in the division of people living within the shadow of that mountain. Others seem more fascinated with the reconstruction of a third temple than with Jesus as temple or the believing community as temple. Groups of Christians have even contributed money for the rebuilding of the temple.
Several years ago in the Old City of Jerusalem I visited a Jewish group that is preparing for the eventual rebuilding of the temple. The man I interviewed was armed. The group was very guarded—literally and figuratively! This group does not indicate when or how the temple will be rebuilt, an assertion much too volatile. But they insist it is their task to prepare the ceremonial garments and utensils for that certain future event. Are groups like these the Christians' allies in Jerusalem?
Jesus reinterprets Jerusalem
Many Christians seem to have an Old Testament view of land, Jerusalem, and the temple rather than a New Testament view. The New Testament is positive toward Jerusalem and the temple: Jerusalem is a "holy city" (Matt. 4:5; 27:53), the "city of the great King" (Matt. 5:35), and the temple is a "holy place" (Matt. 24:15). Yet Jesus and the New Testament have a radically new perspective on Jerusalem and the temple. As the temple needed to be seen in the light of Jesus (John 2), so did Jerusalem (John 4). And Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple because of the religious and moral failure of the people (Luke 19:41-44; 21:20-24). He called Jerusalem to repentance. A center of unbelief, Jerusalem killed its religious leaders (Matt. 23:29-24:2) and acted against the purposes of God (Luke 13:34). Because Jerusalem was using God for its own aggrandizement, it could no longer claim holiness.
When Jesus was asked, "Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6, rsv), he replied: "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority" (1:7). Rather, they are to witness to Jesus in Jerusalem—and throughout the whole world. Christians must focus more on Jesus than on Jerusalem the Holy City.
More important than the place of Jerusalem is the person of Jesus. Jerusalem is not the center for Christians; Jesus is. Jesus is also greater than the temple (Matt. 12:6) because Jesus took its place (John 2:21). Jesus' own sacrificial death ended the need for the sacrifices of the temple (Heb. 9:1110:18). He is the divine presence symbolized by the temple. Believers in Jesus and the believing community are also the temple (1 Cor. 3:17; 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16). If Jesus and the church represent the temple, is the reconstruction of a third temple—a Jewish edifice—essential to Christian faith?
Jesus' agenda for Jerusalem
Still, we may have an affection for the Holy City, but love for it does not mean that we conform to Jerusalem's agenda. Rather, we accept Jesus' agenda for Jerusalem. Looking at Jerusalem through the eyes of Jesus must include Jesuslike involvement in the following ways:
Weeping. Jesus lamented that Jerusalem killed prophets and stoned messengers, refusing to be gathered together as a hen gathers her chicks (Luke 13:34- 35). Because Jerusalem did not recognize the things that make for peace or the time of God's visitation, it would therefore be destroyed (Luke 19:41-44). Jesus' tears expressed regret, compassion, and his reluctance to give up on Jerusalem.
Christians must feel the same anguish for Jerusalem. Sometimes the pain of Jerusalem is too deep for words. One can only weep. Weeping is the precondition for compassion, understanding, prayer. As Jesus prayed for Jerusalem, we are invited to pray for Jerusalem and the church in Jerusalem.
Prophetic critique. Jesus by prophetic word and action called Jerusalem to repentance. He did not criticize from a distance, but entered into Jerusalem's daily life. Jesus rebuked Jerusalem because the Holy City had become unholy. Critique must be laced with mercy and compassion.
Christians are often reluctant to critique wrongs or injustice because they are seen as "signs of the times." Yet Christians address issues of famine, social disruption, and apostasy, which are also "signs of the times." Some Christians, instead of calling Jerusalem to repentance, only bless Jerusalem and emphasize God's promises, ignoring the conditional nature of God's promises. Jerusalem is not exempt from God's will revealed in Jesus. Justice for all parties is more important than absolute sovereignty over Jerusalem.
Ethical discernment. The "sacredness" or "specialness" of Jerusalem blinds many Christians to ethical discernment. But devotion to Jerusalem without righteousness leads to unholy nationalism. Religious claims to the holiness of Jerusalem often lead to dispute and war rather than to ethical behavior. Holiness of space must not usurp the place of ethics. Holy behavior is more important than holy places. Where justice is lacking there is no holiness. Devotion to Jerusalem can become an idol. Instead of pointing toward God, it points away from God. Jerusalem must not take the place of God or be revered at the expense of the values expressed by Jesus.
Reconciliation and peace. Jesus wept because Jerusalem did not understand the things that make for peace (Luke 19:42). Can the "City of Peace" discover today the things that make for peace? Can Jerusalem be a place of blessing instead of a place of division? First-century Jerusalem was destroyed because it did not know what made for peace. Will Christian faith foster or hamper efforts for justice, peace, and security for all? Christians need to pray (Ps. 122:6), act, and hope for the peace of Jerusalem, a peace built upon the foundation of justice, a peace for all the people of Israel and Palestine.
Jerusalem is one of the few places in the world considered holy to several religions. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all see Jerusalem in a unique way, and often their religious perceptions clash. Justice and human rights call for a shared Jerusalem for Israelis and Palestinians—for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Jerusalem is not only important for the religion of each, but each of these groups lives in Jerusalem. The claims of local people to Jerusalem should not be minimized. There will be no peace if some groups are excluded.
My joy in celebrating Holy Week events in Jerusalem is marred by the awareness that many Palestinian Christians are forbidden to come to Jerusalem to participate in the Palm Sunday walk or the Maundy Thursday procession from Jerusalem to Gethsemane. A shared Jerusalem insists that it be open for all. No one owns Jerusalem. It is God's Jerusalem.
Unity of Christian presence. In Jerusalem Jesus prayed that believers might be one (John 17:2123). Churches need to transcend their particular histories, renounce prejudice, and work for mutual understanding. As a symbol, the mother church of Jerusalem can help Christians transcend their particular community affiliations. Today there are hopeful signs of increasing unity among Jerusalem churches, both among Palestinian Christians and between Palestinian Christians and Jewish believers in Jesus. Christians from abroad should help to heal division rather than increase fragmentation.
Palestinian Christians are a minority within a minority. The diminishing number of Christians in the region due to emigration is of great concern to the Christian community. Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, on a visit to Jerusalem in 1992, expressed hope that the diminishing number of Christians would not result in an "empty theme park." How tragic if the church should cease to be meaningfully present in the city where it was born.
How can Christians be an authentic presence in Jerusalem? Surely the living Christian community (the temple of Jesus) is of greater significance than the Temple Mount. Community-centered faith is more important than site-centered faith.
Calvin E. Shenk is professor of religion at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia. He and his wife, Marie, spend half of each year in Jerusalem on a Mennonite Church assignment.
Copyright © 1998 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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