Looking back on our adventures in Israel/ Palestine from the vantage point of Washington Dulles, I can’t see the big picture yet; so this is not a summary. It’s a few loose ends and the current state of my reflections:
HOLY SITES: I have a bias toward historic preservation. I would like for a site to be kept as close as possible to how it was when something important happened there. But we have built churches – or in the case of the Dome of the Rock, a mosque – on such places. I started with an aversion to churches built on sacred places. But in the Hebrew Scriptures, holy sites were marked with holy objects. First, they constructed cromlechs – piles of rock – to say this spot is holy. Then they built altars. Abraham built an altar at Hebron. Jacob built an altar at Bethel. When a place is holy, as opposed to merely historic, we worship there. So I have come to see that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, etc. are right, good, and a joyful thing. Some of them are architecturally brilliant at capturing the feel and the aesthetic of the thing commemorated. Gethsemane does that best. I have come to grudgingly admit that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is a holy place and that it is even quite plausible that Jesus was buried and resurrected in that particular place. But I stand by my original reaction that the Church atop Mt. Tabor is awful. By the way, the church I liked best (Gethsemane) and the Church I liked least (Tabor) were by the same architect, Antonio Barluzzi.
WHY CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG: Israel is not a happy place. I have come to realize how little I understand about the Israeli/ Palestinian Conflict. I am appalled to discover how little I even know about the history of the situation. I can tell it is in part the residue of the disastrous diplomatic resolution of World War I, in which the Arabic Allies of the West were betrayed. But things were less than rosy before that. The Ottoman Empire was not kind to the Arabic peoples, the Armenians, or the Greeks. And the European ancestors of the Israelis were ill served in both Eastern and Western Europe before coming to Israel.
I was looking for the roots of our church conflicts in this primal conflict – Abel vs. Cain, Jacob vs Esau, Joseph vs. his brothers, Saul vs. David, Rheoboam vs Jereboam, Elijah vs. Ahab, Judas Maccabeus vs. Antiochus IV Epiphanes, etc. to Jesus vs. Herod, Paul vs. James, St. John the Divine vs. Domitian, etc.
Of course there is a lot to disagree about, but why do we persistent in disagreeing so disagreeably? I am a long, long way form an answer on that one. But the Martha Nussbaum book I am reading – The New Religious Intolerance – raises some possible areas for exploration. She writes about the “moral imagination.”
On the one hand we have the power of fear, which Irish Murdoch calls “a dimming preoccupation” meaning it constricts our imaginations into perceived threats. It diminishes our ability to experience others as sources of delight or even entertainment. We are too obsessed with saving our lives to live them.
In contrast, what Nussbaum (who is Jewish) calls the Kantian-Christian principle of universalizeablily, the Golden Rule, invites – even compels – us to imagine each situation as it is experienced by someone else. She says: “The empathic imagination moves in a direction the opposite of that of fear. In fear a person’s attention contracts, focusing intently on her own safety, or perhaps that of a small circle of loved ones. In empathy a person’s mind moves outward, occupying many different positions outside itself.” Fear diminishes us. The moral imagination, as we try to engage others compassionately and fairly, makes us larger.
I do not have a solution to the troubles in Israel/ Palestine. But one thing was very clear to me. Fear is in charge. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians I met had any insight into the perspective of the other. There is a famine of moral imagination, a famine of empathy. It is also clear to me that Israel/ Palestine is an archetypal site of human fear, but not a unique habitat for it. Islamophobia in the U.S. is another case in point. Fear of Latino immigrants is another.
What I wonder is how this same dynamic plays out in the petty power struggles that, to a regrettable degree, define the life of the Church. I do not mean to denigrate the “big issues” the Church has fought over in recent years – though issues of LGBT inclusion are high on Nussbaum’s list of fear-based aversions. I am wondering instead about the fights over ritual preferences, governance issues, and small issues of office management. I wonder: what is going on here? Why is so much emotion being invested where so little of substance is at stake? After my visit to Israel, I am still wondering that. But maybe I have a few clues to work with.
Nussbaum says fear is natural but it gets culturally focused in irrational ways that prevent us from exercising our moral imaginations. But that is not natural or necessary, “More generally,” she says, “the imagination makes others real for us. A common human failing is to see the whole world from the point of view of one’s own goals, and to see the conduct of others as all about oneself . . . . By imagining other people’s way of life, we don’t necessarily learn to agree with their goals; but we do see the reality of those goals for them. We learn that other worlds of thought and feeling exist.” In order to discover those worlds, she suggests that we deliberately cultivate “participatory imagination” – the ability to imagine our way into someone else’s shoes.
I wonder how congregations might cultivate the ability to see things from another viewpoint, to care about people different from themselves. What kind of exercises or disciplines might open our hearts and minds a bit wider? Could the Church make us better people, larger souls, more creatively imaginative moral agents in the world? If not, then what is the Church for?
PRAYER FOR THE CHURCH: The weeks of reading and study leading up to this trip, and now this time spent in the places where Jesus spoke and acted, lived, died, and rose, have brought me up against something. Jesus was fully engaged with the institutional religion of his day – teaching, healing, and prophesying in synagogue, temple, and domestic ritual settings. Institutions are out of favor these days for good reason. Most of our institutions have operated in mechanical ways that control and use people instead of organically in ways that nurture people and provide a framework of meaning. But institutions per se are networks of committed human relationship. Jesus would not have fallen for the current fad of anti-institutionalism so popular in all the “future church” books.
But Jesus was not a company man. He was at odds with those institutions with which he remained engaged. Jesus called the religious institutions of his day to repent of their agenda. I am convinced he is calling us to repentance as well. I am convinced that neither the liberal nor the conservative voice has got it right. Nor do I think that I’ve got it right. But when I look at the option of a church boringly inward looking and repetitive on the one hand or a church so open that it stands for nothing in particular on the other, when I look at a church whose spirituality is narcissistically focused on feeling good, or a church that excludes people who are “not our sort” or that proselytizes people because we have institutional uses for them – I am not seeing the Kingdom project. I used to pray for the life of the church, for our institutional strength. I now pray for our repentance – though I am not sure what that repentance looks like.
There is an old saying, “God loves us the way we are, but he loves us too much to leave us this way.” The Church, broken and fallible as it is, remains Christ’s Body on earth. We are called to love the Church, but to love the Church too much to leave her as she is.