Our long roundabout route to get to Tiberias did have the bonus of a lovely dinner and a comfortable night in the Scots Hotel. The hotel is not without its own controversy within the Church of Scotland. It is, unashamedly, up-market and represents a very significant investment on the part of the CofS. There are many who question its value and place within the CofS. I don’t intend to (or wish to) rehearse all the arguments here, but I will say that, in one respect at least, it serves as a very challenging witness to the businesses around it. The hotel prides itself on its ‘equal opportunities’ employment policy and, in a country and political situation where discrimination is rife, that stands out. Is that enough to justify its continued support? Probably not, but it does intend to do much more to be a visible presence in the area. It already supports small community enterprises through its purchasing options, for example. In a country and climate where there is a very real risk (and reality) of ‘de-humanising’ the ‘other’, such visible witness is not to be under-estimated and is to be applauded and supported. But it does put the CofS in a very vulnerable position. At this year’s General Assembly, some concern was expressed at the Church’s refusal to support a boycott of Israeli goods due to the risk of being declared an ‘illegal organisation’ by Israel. It would be places like the Scots Hotel which would suffer under such a declaration. The politics of Israel and Palestine are nothing if not complex, challenging and far-reaching.
Day 4 saw us up bright and early – well, early, but probably not too bright. The reason for the early start was that we had a lot of ground to cover. We were travelling from Jerusalem to Tiberias on the Lake of Galilee, via Masada, Qumran and a quick dip in the Dead Sea.
After a trek through the impressive, but somewhat featureless desert to the East of Jerusalem, we arrived at Masada. Masada means ‘rocky promontory’ and this particular ‘Masada’ had a rather civilised cable car to take us to the top. That didn’t stop some of the more adventurous members of the group from walking up the ‘Snake Path’ – presumably so-called because it snakes up the 400-odd metres of precipitous cliff-face to reach the top. The top of Masada is more or less flat and is home to various ruins. Even at this height it is only 33 metres above sea level.
Its primary attraction lies in the history of those ruins. At one end of Masada lie the multi-tiered remains of Herod’s Palace (one of many dotted around the country). As a country retreat for a rich and famous despot it has few equals. That Herod is the Herod the Great of Biblical fame, although there had been fortifications on the site from around the 2nd century BC.
But what makes the place so famous is that it was also the site of a 2-year siege. After Herod’s death, Masada was used by the Romans, but in 66AD it was captured by the Jews in their first revolt against the Romans. The Romans first dealt with the Jews in Jerusalem (resulting in the destruction of the Temple in 70AD) then turned their attention to the remnants. Held by fewer than 100 defenders, Masada held out for 2 years under siege, finally succumbing in 73AD. The Romans breached the wall by building a massive earthen siege ramp on the western side.
According to Josephus, the Jewish historian, the remaining Jewish defenders, rather than be killed by the Romans, chose to commit suicide after first dispatching their own family members. The oath, “Masada shall not fall again” is part of the swearing-in oaths of the present-day Israeli army. Kind of sums up so much, really, and is a remider of just how much history influences a culture and people.
Qumran was the next stop. Despite its somewhat unassuming and even bleak appearance, Qumran is probably one of the most significant sites in the history of Biblical studies. It is where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Useful not just for their confirmation of ancient Biblical texts, but significant for the differences they contain, the scrolls were under the safe-keeping of and Essene community – a community which lived by a ‘rule’, not dissimilar to the way communities of monks would live. Property was shared and other distinctive ‘rules’ were followed. Again, like later monastic traditions, not all such communities followed the same set of rules and differences existed.
The focus on communal living and care for one another has given rise to speculation that Jesus’ teachings were widely influenced by such ‘rules’, but there is no great evidence to support that and Jesus’ teachings contain significant deviances from what is known of the Essenes. Perhaps a greater link could be made to another Biblical character – John the Baptist. Again, though, it is more a matter of speculation than any hard evidence existing.
The two sites are visually stunning. Sitting in a desert land, it isn’t hard to imagine how difficult life might be at particular times of the year. Being at the mercy of the life-giving rains meant that Masada, in particular, had some ingenious water storage schemes. The heat is intense, perhaps because of the land sitting below sea level. When you consider settlements like Qumran then it may have been only sensible to ensure such communal-living was ‘formalised’. It ensured that the community was equally supported from the resources available. And the presence of so many scrolls indicates that the community was far from primitive. Life may have been harsh and even basic, but the community was no illiterate bunch of savages. This was an educated and dedicated group of people who understood the significance of the manuscripts they had in their possession.
The day also included the somewhat bizarre experience of going for a swim in the Dead Sea. Actually, swimming is not recommended. The very high levels of salts makes the water extremely unpleasant if you get any near your mouth, but that same dense solution means that you bob around in a most strange manner. You can practically sit on the stuff. Still, it made the swim in the Pool at the Scots’ Hotel in Tiberias all the more welcome when we eventually arrived.
[Note – I got out of sync. Hebron was actually day 2. What can I say? I was tired.]
The visit to Hebron was a difficult one. Witnessing the effects of Israeli settlements on a Palestinian community was difficult. Seeing some of the ‘propaganda’ used to justify the existence of settlements was frustrating and caused a degree of anger.
But it never takes much in Israel to be reminded that the picture is enormously complex. Not every Jew agrees with what is happening in such places. ‘Settlers’ are not always representative of the wider community and culture. Indeed, they are often the more idealistic ones who have, often, been encouraged to return from other countries to reclaim their ‘birthright’. It is not a simple Jew v Moslem debate.
Added to this mix is the very recent history concerning the way Jews have been treated and how global events have manipulated and influenced the present state of affairs. There are many countries and governments complicit in present, unsatisfactory situation.
Perhaps one of the most emotive events in recent history is the Holocaust and it is a memorial to this event that Yad Vashem stands. The photograph shows the end of the main exhibition hall. Its triangular construction represents the coloured triangular patches of cloth which were sown to garments, in combinations, to represent the ‘crime’ of the wearer. The exhibition hall is just one part of the memorial though. The memorial park itself is huge and houses gardens of remembrance for various groups and ages. There is, for instance, a memorial garden to remember the children who suffered and died in the Holocaust.
There is no doubt that a wander round Yad Vashem is thought-provoking and not a little uncomfortable. The exhibition is exceptionally well done without ever coming across as grisly or voyeuristic. It is, nevertheless, extremely hard-hitting and it’s no wonder that it is a site visited regularly by Israeli conscripts. Near the beginning there is a potted history of anti-Semitism and not just in a Nazi context. It’s a stark reminder of how persecution and hatred of a group can become systemic and unquestioned. Then, only when blatant atrocities are committed are such things questioned. I would hesitate to suggest that such a style of presentation is intended to develop a ‘victim’ complex and to lay a guilt-trip on everyone else, but it certainly leaves a taint in the mind and a bad taste in the mouth.
What is unquestioningly powerful though is the collected testimonies of survivors and victims. Seeing the emotions on the faces of survivors speaking their story to camera and reading the words of diaries and letters and even journals and poems cannot leave anyone unmoved.
Strangely, though, it was not these that had the greatest impact on me, harrowing though they were. There is a room in the exhibition which holds records. The room is cylindrical, maybe 12 metres across and 6 metres high. You walk into a central, raised viewing platform. You are surrounded by box files. These are the records of those who died and were presented at the Nuremberg trials. Seeing millions of lives condensed to plain boxes of paperwork was deeply affecting. It was, in a sense, soul-less. These records are an inadequate witness to the millions of victims. In and of themselves they are just bits of paper – in that sense soul-less. And yet, what they represent is the destruction of human life on an unprecedented scale, made worse by the fact that this was not simply a by-product of war, but a deliberate targeting of and attempt to exterminate specific groups of people (and, of course, not simply Jews). The very soul-lessness of the room and the records was a stark reminder of how dehumanising the treatment of Jews and other targeted groups was. When all someone is is a label, a coloured classification, then a paper record is all they are.
I find this difficult to write about. Words are inadequate to express such outrage and to draw contemporary parallels would be to open a floodgate that would, it seems, be overwhelming. And yet, even in such bleakness, there was hope. Another exhibit room records many of the acts of those who did speak out, who did put themselves in danger to stand up to the oppressors. Many were people of faith; many were great humanitarians; many were simply supporting friends and neighbours.
There is, of course, a supremely contentious lesson to be drawn from such a visit. When you read of Jews being excluded from areas of towns and cities, when they are not allowed to walk in certain areas, when they are treated as something less than human, it is difficult not to draw contemporary parallels. I don’t feel brave enough to dive into them here. Nor do I claim to have any kind of deep understanding of the complexity of issues involved. Yet, in my naivety, or simplicity, I can’t help but wonder…
Maybe it’s best not to go too far down that road, but rather, consider its impact on what our response ought to be. It’s easy to condemn, or point fingers, or play the ‘blame game’. It’s easy to get sucked in taking sides, seeing everything as black and white. I find the work of EAPPI and others of that ilk to be an enormously powerful way forward. They stand in witness to the humanity of all and call for that humanity to be recognised and respected. Unravelling the historical, political, religious and cultural issues surrounding the situation in the middle east is beyond most of us. But acknowledging the humanity and worth of others is eminently within our capabilities. And it is something which doesn’t just have application in places like Israel and Palestine, but can find a place much closer to home too.
A visit to Hebron was never going to be an easy one. It epitomises, in many respects, the key issues for Israel and Palestine. Hebron is a fair sized city, predominantly Palestinian, about 25 miles south of Jerusalem. It is one of the most densely populated in the west Bank and is divided into two areas, the larger under the control of the Palestinians. But within this zone there are a number of Jewish settlements under military protection. There are approximately 500 settlers, with a military force of between 500 and 2000 soldiers (depending on tension levels). This within an area housing 30000 Palestinians.
The settlement areas highlight the imbalance of power. It is the Palestinians who are prevented from particular areas, including some of the main roads. Access to their houses is through dirt tracks and neighbours gardens. A Palestinian brave enough to take to the main road risks being shot – it is easier to minimise the ‘risk’ by assuming everyone is potentially hostile and to shoot first. There are no questions later – it’s military law in force. In fact, even the Jewish settlers go around openly and well-armed. As we wandered down a deserted street, the Palestinian shops all closed and unoccupied because it is a no-go street for them, we were brought up short by the distant sound of gunfire, followed soon afterwards by the unmistakable sound of an ordnance explosion. Our guide for the day reckoned it was probably from the nearby military barracks as the tension levels were low at the time.
Our walk through that part of Hebron was to take us to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The site of the tombs of Abraham (and his wife Sarah) and his descendants Isaac and Jacob. As we approached a checkpoint nearby we noted that the road was divided (unevenly) by a concrete barrier. Jews were allowed to use the broader lane, wide enough for cars; Palestinians had to use the narrower side. We opted to walk on the Palestinian side and also chose the mosque side of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. A single building covers the site, but it is split in half – one side a mosque, the other a synagogue. In one sense, completely understandable given the common reverence for the Patriarchs. Yet the irony was not lost on us. Having visited the mosque, where we were made welcome, visiting the synagogue was not an option. Again, we had made our choice.
Our route back to the city centre took us through a souk and the picture above is one part of it. The wire mesh is not a convenience for hanging things from, but an absolute necessity. The buildings above are part of the Jewish settlements and it is common for the settlers to throw their rubbish and rocks down into the souk. Such is their contempt for those who do business there.
Our guide for the morning was a young woman volunteering with EAPPI – a World Council of Churches initiative to help and highlight what is happening around such settlements. The volunteers serve for 3 months and there job is simply to observe the checkpoints. It seems that the Israeli military is somewhat less inclined to be so oppressive when there are international observers with cameras around. It doesn’t mean that EAPPI, and the many similar groups, don’t get harassed themselves, but it does help the overall situation.
The afternoon brought us to Bethlehem. If there’s one thing about the Holy Land, it’s that if there is the hint of a ‘holy’ site, there’ll be a place of worship on top of it. But there are also the commercial opportunities to be had. I have to say that Bethlehem seemed to have some of the most tackily named tourist shops we have come across so far. John the Baptist Souvenir Shop or the Christmas Bells restaurant, every opportunity is grasped to link with the relevant site. I can’t help but wonder though if the heavily-pregnant Mary might have found the going easier if there were escalators to hand to get her to the stable room.
We arrived in Jerusalem at around 4.30 this morning and, after an all too brief catnap, were up and breakfasted at 8.oo am. I think it’s fair to say the the group looked tired, but all weariness was soon forgotten as we set off for a morning exploring the Old Town of Jerusalem within the city walls.
It is, without doubt, a fascinating place, with its narrow lanes crammed with market stalls and shops. There’s all the tourist tat, of course, but you soon find the ‘real’ shops, selling everything and anything. The spice shops announce their near presence with pungent aromas, and do the herbs and fruit sold from stalls or by individuals sitting to the side of a densely packed alley. And for those who are selling goods which do not announce themselves, their voices vie for attention, making the place seem strangely reminiscent of the, now gone, Barras in Glasgow.
We spent a fair bit of time in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a sprawling building which lays claim to the sites of Jesus’ death and burial, as well as some other places of religious significance. it’s quite a place – at once gaudy, yet magnificent; a place of obvious veneration, and yet also a place which, at times, can spark a riot.
Our walk around took in views of the Dome on the Rock, the Aqsa mosque, the Western Wall (wailing wall) and so many other sights of historical significance. We walked through the ancient city gates and stood on paths laid down countless generations ago.
It’s difficult to describe the feelings such places engender. There is the sense of history made real, a greater appreciation of where events (probably) took place (and, perhaps surprising, is their proximity – it’s not a huge place) and a growing realisation that our Westernised faith is, in a sense, the tip of an iceberg. Well, maybe not the tip – more probably just one little jaggy outcrop.
I also struggle to express my reaction because, in many ways, buildings don’t do much for me. Yes, I like to look at them, appreciate their art and architecture, but it’s ‘just’ a building. Where it becomes more real for me is where it connects to people and many of the buildings we saw today didn’t rally connect me with people. This might sound a little strange, given the history of the people, but I struggled to connect this morning, and not just because of the tiredness of travelling. It might also sound strange from someone who loved the visit to the archaeological dig below St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva. But, in that instance, it plotted a history of worship on a site, from pagan hero worship through to the Christian Cathedral today – and, for me, that was a story of people sensing something of God and attempting to express their worship.
It was only as we were returning to St. Andrew’s Scottish Guesthouse for lunch that there was an extra spark. Looking across the valley we could clearly see the path of the Separation Wall as it snaked its way across the countryside. In that strange juxtaposition, gazing past the ancient city walls to this new concrete barrier, the sense of a people’s history and story began to come together. Buildings are all very interesting, but when the ancient history clashes with the contemporary we realise that there is an enormously complex story to hand. And that is a story of people, with all its challenges and history and prejudices.
Just as a little aside, the photograph is of St. Andrew’s Church and Guesthouse. The valley in the foreground is Hinnom, or Gehenna (otherwise used as a reference for hell). It was suggested that the Church of Scotland is perched precariously above Gehenna. Depending on your views of the recent general Assembly decisions, you can decide whether it is teetering towards or away from the brink.
We’re having an afternoon to catch up on our rest, after our long travel time and then heading out to observe the start of the Sabbath at the Western Wall. That’s for another post later I think.
The recent probationers’ conference was packed with challenging and encouraging seminars. There was little that wasn’t potentially useful and even the one session I didn’t find very interesting still contained little nuggets of wisdom. And within the little nuggets of wisdom scattered throughout the sessions there were some excellent gems especially worthy of mental note and future reflection.
One such was the suggestion that all the people who do all the stuff that congregations do shouldn’t be referred to as volunteers.
I’ve just finished Scot McKnight’s book, The Blue Parakeet and have thoroughly enjoyed it, both as a challenge and an affirmation. His basic premise is that we all read the Bible with our own bias and preconceptions – and we should all be honest about that. Nothing new there really – except perhaps the call for honesty from all readers and interpreters.
May you all have a blessed Christmas, full of love and grace and great celebrations.
There’s been plenty of chat on Facebook and on blogs about the new dramatisation of the nativity on the BBC. I’ve seen the first two and have been pleasantly surprised. Obviously it’s highly speculative, but in seeking to tell the human story behind the events so well-known to Christians, it has, I think, brought a fresh dimension to it.
I think when we visit the story we focus so much on the ‘Christian’ aspects (because that is, rightly so, the important part for believers) that we forget there is a very human story there. Can we really expect Joseph to just accept, unquestioningly, what he has been told in a dream, regardless of how devout he may be? Putting the human face on the story makes it, I would suggest, even more ‘believable’.
Of course, that assumes the historicity of events in the first instance and I was interested to discover that one of my former lecturers at new College was an historical advisor to the programme. Dr Helen Bond writes about her take on the adaptation here. She makes the wise observation that the historical accuracy is, in a sense, a secondary consideration, because it is the story in all its dimensions – the theological, the historical, the human – that is important. To separate out the parts may make for a more acceptable story to the more ‘rational’- or ‘secularly’-minded, but it is only as a whole that it makes sense, because it is a story which must, by virtue of it being a story of faith, contain all of those elements.
The Nativity helps, I would suggest, give that nudge back towards remembering the human story behind it all.
Once again, the time between blogs has got away from me and now that I try and think back over the last week or two, I struggle to find something that is blog-worthy. Blogging, I find, is often ‘of the moment’. Something happens, or makes a big enough impact, to trigger an urge to get it down on paper (so to speak). It’s an opportunity to sort through and make sense of the challenging or the confusing or the annoying.
But I’m finding that life isn’t like that at the moment. There is much that is new, much that is challenging, much that is annoying, but all in a way that needs dealt with simply, not through rushing to make sense of it on a blog in a reactionary way. Perhaps it’s the ‘reality’ of what crops up now in probation. It all seems much more ‘real’ in a way that term-time placements don’t always feel. Perhaps it’s the detachment from the academic that begins to settle the theological reflection down into the ‘real’ rather than a mental exercise in drawing theory and practice together.
What is interesting though is that this past week or so has had ‘remembrance’ as its main theme. And that’ll be true over the week to come as well.
Last Sunday afternoon, the Sunday closest to ‘All saints/souls’, there was a service for those who had been bereaved – an opportunity to remember those who had passed away either recently or in the distant past. Time was not the issue. The issue was permission to remember; to acknowledge the reality of a present grief, however raw and hurting, or faded but still felt. It was an emotionally-charged and very ‘delicate’ service, but very powerful and, I would say, very much appreciated by the people there (of whom there were many more than anticipated).
This week we have the High School Remembrance Day assembly (and it’s Ian and me leading it this year) and next Sunday is Remembrance Sunday when I’ll be preaching. the initial thoughts of this blog entry come back to challenge at this point. If separation of only a week or two makes issues less blog-worthy, less noteworthy, what of events of almost a hundred years ago? Of course, war did not stop with the ‘war to end all wars’ and conflict is in the news still; and more recently than a week or so back.
The grief of a bereavement service is every bit a part of a Remembrance Day service. Separation in time of days, weeks, months or many years does not make it any less powerful. A bereavement service looks back, acknowledges the past; times which can never be recaptured. And yet it allows a space for moving on, not in the sense of leaving the past behind or of setting it aside as if it was of no consequence, but through allowing the present to be shaped by the past, acknowledging that is does indeed shape our present, whether we like it or not.
Remembrance Day also remembers a past which is difficult to acknowledge and which we recognise as never being left behind. War and conflict continue to haunt us, but in a similar way to bereavement, it must never debilitate us and render us utterly hopeless.
The High School assembly has an interesting mix of musical and performance pieces which have been chosen by the school. Any one of them might arguably be considered inappropriate for a Remembrance Service and yet, as a whole, they offer that tension of looking back and lamenting, acknowledging the good and bad in the present, and looking forward in hope. I wonder if this was in the mind of those who chose the pieces? Let’s be generous and say it was, but I wonder if they were aware of how much it captures the essence of a Christian approach to such things?
As a Christian, looking forward and looking back, whether on the mundane or the momentous, is a reminder of who we are and were, of all that we have done, the good and the bad and of the grace that allows us to look forward in hope. Not the rose-tinted version, but in the God-centred way that sees that love, forgiveness, healing and reconciliation need more than our own efforts, but the very presence of God, who knows all about reconciliation and hope.