The term "Holy Land" is a curiosity. What awaits the pilgrim to the "Holy Land?" A land preserved in time for 2000 years? Shepherds walking their flocks along dusty wilderness pathways? Caravans of camels jangling with exotic wares from the east?
Is the place enchanted? Can the oil of its olive trees brings mysterious healing? Will one feel a strange glow if happenstance placing a foot where Jesus did? Might cloven skies suddenly fill with performing angel choirs?
Perhaps our plane went to the wrong airport. The land we saw was filled with traffic jams and vehicle fumes. Impoverished children begged us for dollars. Israeli soldiers sauntered among us with machine guns. No one picked up the garbage. Souvenir shops were everywhere, abounding with cheap trinkets made in China. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty coexist yards apart. Gaudy churches compete, "No... here is the place where Jesus fed the 5000!"
I made my last trip to the Holy Land in 1974. It was one of those church promoted "educational opportunities." We did all the things tourists do: the camel ride, ritual re-baptism in the Jordan River, the gift shops, the motor boat on the sea of Galilee, the gift shops, the myriad churches, the gift shops, the unhistorical garden tomb, the gift shops... The only unique thing about that trip was our guide: a Jewish woman in her 60s who had a number tattooed on her arm, from the German concentration camp where she'd been imprisoned thirty years earlier. She didn't tell us any stories about the Nazis, but she did tell us how stupid and inferior the Arabs were. I was 20 years old, a sophomore in college, and took her at her word...for about a year...until I took four Arabic history courses in a row from Dr. Grant. It turns out, there are things they don't tell the tourists.
By the time I graduated from college, I had decided that I would never again take a church sponsored "educational" tour of the Holy Land. I wanted to go back, but only so I could see people and places off the beaten path. My bucket listed included Petra and ancient Babylon and Damascus and Persia. I also wanted to see modern and ordinary Israelis, and learn about the Palestinians.
But I never did make it back, until this year. Some of those "bucket" sites are probably off the list...for my lifetime. But I did see more this time in a pilgrimage hosted by the "Society for Biblical Studies." They provided a custom designed adventure led by Peter Miano, a United Methodist scholar who has lived in Israel/Palestine for a significant part of his adult life. Peter was not the most charming person on this trip (that would have been Jordan!) but he has connections with people and places that the commercial tour companies don't even know exist. His mantra through the week was simple, "I will show you where Jesus once walked, but more than that, I will show you where Jesus is walking today." And so he did.
The Holy Land today still has traces of the customs and cultures of Jesus' day. But those nostalgic images are fast disappearing, partly due to population explosion. The Palestinian birth rate is one of the highest in the world: their population has gone from 2 million (when I was there 44 years ago) to 10 million now. And Israeli settlements (a violation of international law and universal morality) mar hillsides once home to Bedouin nomads.
Israel and Palestine today are far more than tourist destinations. True: the land abounds in archaeological digs and monuments to biblical stories. But it also produces some of the finest olive oil and dates in the world. And it generates political and spiritual energy at a rate unseen anywhere else on the globe. It is home to both Israelis (who range from the ultra-religious to the atheist; from the pacifist to the terrorist) and Palestinians (who include Christians and Muslims, who range from those who teach their children to throw rocks at Israeli soldiers and sponsor suicide bombers to those who teach non-violent ways to make peace.)
This land is afflicted with the political and religious sins of the 20th century: devious policy blunders on the part of the British and French, the rise of militant Zionists, the ineffectiveness of the United Nations, the power of Jewish lobbyists in the United States, the proliferation of Palestinian guerilla fighters, the self-centered nationalism of Arabic countries surrounding Israel, the pernicious influence of Russia...
In short, two long-time peaceful neighbors (Jews and Arabs) were both promised the same parcel of land, (by European colonial powers) no bigger than the state of New Jersey. But Zionist Jews didn't wait on international procedures. They brought in guns and tanks, leveled and terrorized Palestinian villages, and staked out lands for themselves, right after the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire. Arabs, from surrounding "artificial" countries followed with guns and bombs. In the aftermath of Hitler's unspeakable horrors, Jews throughout the world emigrated to their ancient homeland and banded together to make their new land as safe as possible. The indigenous Palestinians had no weapons, alliances, or experience to resist. They tried, but were quickly crushed by Israel, whose army is the world's swiftest, coldest, and most deadly.
The international community decided a two-state solution would be best: a border would be drawn, and Israel would stay on one side and the Palestinians would stay on the other. The poorer Palestinians would be able to cross the line to do the grunt work in Israel. Families were divided by the line. Homes were destroyed and vineyards taken over without compensation. Homeless Palestinians were herded into refugee camps. The Palestine Liberation Organization has perpetuated the refugee camps with the slogan "A Palestine refugee never leaves the camp except to move back to the family home."
No one lets go. It's been 70 years now. Justice morphs into revenge. The children learn hate. The Israelis have more power, and so they are now building a multi-billion dollar wall to imprison the Palestinian population. It is a land yearning for a savior, someone who could teach how to love one's enemies.
I didn't want to go visit gift shops in Israel. Not this time. I instead wanted to see where Jesus is subversively working his way into people's minds. How is that Savior, who once healed the sick, fed the hungry, taught the troubled crowds, and welcomed outcasts...how is that Savior present today? I cared little to see an edifice built over the alleged resurrection site. I wanted to see the risen Jesus!
And I did. I saw it in the people we met. They were a minority of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, living there today, who believe in the ways of non-violent change. The spirit of Jesus is present in the curious, in those rooted in strong faith, in those who share stories and listen to the stories of others. Their influence is felt among the ordinary people who live there.
And I remember that the Holy Land of the Bible was not only the land of angel choirs announcing the birth of a harmless baby. It was also the land of King Herod, of child sacrifice, of national idolatry, of feuding New Testament churches, and of Pharisee judgments. Jesus didn't choose Disney World to spread his message. He chose THIS place to broadcast it. A land pain and injustice is always a most fertile ground for God's alternative message. So be it. --Mike