Friday, August 14, 2009

So You Think Hamas Is Crazy

When a fringe group in control of a mosque declared the Gaza Strip "an Islamic emirate," Hamas provoked a confrontation that left at least 13 dead and then blamed it all on Israel.

"Sarah, You're No Nixon": Fineman

Months ago I outlined how Gov. Palin might become the new Nixon. It's not happening, writes Howard Fineman at "Newsweek," though he leaves a candle lit on the way out by saying that she should listen to Roger Ailes. My suggestion would be Ray Price.

"Hamas Is Crazy"

We St. John's pilgrims ended up visiting Bethlelem a day earlier than planned because Canon Iyad Qumri got a hint about the massive security effort being mounted for Fatah's first-ever party conference inside the West Bank. From the "Economist," a vaguely optimistic conference postmortem:

National elections are set for January 2010. The new Fatah leadership will still face a strong challenge from Hamas, but even before the conference in Bethlehem Fatah had been enjoying a surge in popular support in the West Bank. This was due partly to the improved economic situation and also to the increased calm on the streets, attributed to the intensive American training of the PA’s security forces. Israel’s massive onslaught on Hamas-controlled Gaza earlier this year also seems to have validated Mr Abbas’s more moderate approach. “I like Fatah more now,” said a young man who was selling roast chicken in the market in front of the Nativity church in Bethlehem. “There are a lot of scary things going on in Gaza. Hamas is crazy. Palestine is Fatahland.”

Israel Is Inherently Jewish

This sobering assessment of prospects for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestinians appeared in the New York Times during our St. John's pilgrimage to the Holy Land, during which it was impossible to walk in Jesus's footsteps without also traversing the avenues and byways of current events. The authors argued that many if not most Arabs still resist the concept of Israel as a Jewish state. This morning, Mary Peretz replies at the "New Republic":
The two-state solution is imperfect in that it won't fulfill all of the historic ambitions of the peoples in conflict. But, of course, the major impediment for the Arabs of Palestine and the Arabs outside Palestine is that Israel is and can only be a Jewish state. There is a certain insane chutzpah for the Arabs to object to the Jewish character of Israel. The fact is that its Jewish character was written into its very charter by the General Assembly 62 years ago. Indeed, the whole idea of peoplehood which informed the Wilsonian framework of the post-World War I formula for peace after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire is deeply enmeshed with Zionism.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Les Paul Songs: "Since I've Been Loving You" (1970)

With Jimmy Page on the Gibson Les Paul, Led Zeppelin performing in 1973

Pilgrims' Progress

For those following the St. John's Holy Land pilgrims, 17 of us arrived safely at LAX on Thursday morning. Pilgrims Loreen and Andy extended their trip with stops in Jordan and Egypt, including the site of Jesus's baptism, Petra, and the pyramids. According to text messages I received from Pilgrim Mike, who returned to the U.S. separately, he evidently has an interesting story to tell about security at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv (there's nothing quite like it) and also seemed to have had a hangup with his connection in Atlanta. I pray he is now en route Los Angeles. Please pray as well for the Diocese of Los Angeles's Hands in Healing youth pilgrimage to the Holy Land, which begins today.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Au Revoir, Dear Jerusalem

We'll see you again.
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Hands And Hearts Full

Neoorthodox theologian Karl Barth said a minister should preach with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. We pilgrims' master guide, Canon Iyad Qumri, is shown this morning with a paper and a Cross after leading us along the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem's Muslim and Christian quarters. The faith story and current events indeed conjoin in the holy city. We could have had no more gracious teacher than Iyad.
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Singing Together

As if proximity were the same as insight, after being in Israel and the West Bank for nearly two weeks one is tempted to be reckless and try to say something oracular about the problems between the Israelis and Palestinians. Instead, I'll stick to being almost strictly anthological.

The atmosphere in the Holy Land is certainly less tense than during my first pilgrimage in June 2007, during which Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip. In the months that followed, experts worried that the radical Islamists were in the ascendant over the more moderate Fatah. This year, Hamas seems increasingly marginalized, while Fatah is drawing on its more youthful members to reform from within as PNA President Mahmoud Abbas focuses more systematically on the needs of his people (though the rhetoric from the recent Fatah conference was harsh enough to startle conservative and liberal Israelis alike).

In 2007, Israeli checkpoints -- erected after the rash of suicide bombings known as the second intifada began in 2000 -- seemed to be choking West Bank commerce. This year, key checkpoints have been dismantled within the last few months. When we St. John's pilgrims visited Ramallah, headquarters of the Palestinian National Authority, to see St. Andrew's Episcopal Church and its energetic young vicar, business was said to be booming. There were also no complaints when we visited the Middle East's only microbrewery in the Christian town of Taybeh on the West Bank.

Spirits are also high because of the Obama administration's pressure on Israel to limit the expansion and growth of settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, though I worry what may happen if Israel digs its feet in, high hopes are dashed, and a consensus develops that President Obama devoted too much energy to an intractable problem too early in his administration. The issue could end up being radioactive for the next couple of Presidents.

Two years ago as now, the settlements are the dominant issue. I'd thought most of their residents were hard-core religious or secular Zionists. But one of my fellow pilgrims, over lunch with an Israeli friend, learned that he and his family had moved into the West Bank's third largest settlement in the 1990s not because they were zealots but because housing prices were low. Needless to say, he doesn't believe the settlements should be removed, but he does believe that the security wall should be removed for the sake of ensuring the viability of a nation of Palestine on the West Bank. That means that Israeli settlements might ultimately be on Palestine's territory, just as about 1.5 million Arabs live in Israel. Most Israelis are not especially defensive about how their government treats its Arab citizens. How would a Palestinian government treat Israeli settlers?

And who knows if that Utopian outcome -- two nations living side by side, one predominantly Jewish, the other predominantly Arab -- is even possible? This article, published yesterday, suggests that many if not most Palestinians still haven't accepted the unavoidable reality of a Jewish state. This one, published as our pilgrimage began, expresses the perspective of Israelis who know that Palestinians are suffering but want to see more confidence-building steps from Arabs and especially Arab-led regimes in the region.

That's why the militant rhetoric from the Fatah conference is so offensive to most Israelis' ears. But what do they expect? From a purely tactical perspective, Fatah can't sound too soft, or Hamas might gain the upper hand again. To paraphrase the late John Mitchell, Israel should probably pay more attention to what Palestinians do than what they say. Besides, just as the conference got underway, Israel gave its critics plenty of inspiration by evicting two Israeli Palestinian families from their homes in Arab east Jerusalem and putting Israeli Jewish families in their places. This happened just a few blocks from our pilgrim guest house at St. George's. We could still see the barricades around the houses and their former residents huddled under trees on the sidewalk to get away from the burning sun. Settlements in the West Bank are provocative enough. Settlements in east Jerusalem, which Palestinians envision as their capital, might spark a new descent into violence.

For what it's worth, we pilgrims prayed that wouldn't ever happen -- that people's exhaustion with war and terrorism, Obama's pressure on the settlements, the West Bank's new economic energy as Israel removes the checkpoints, and the influence of moderates on both sides all mean that a peace based on the two-state concept is again within reach.

But can people who have hated and hurt each other for generations share the same territory? Do they even want to try? Daniel Rossing, director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, met with our pilgrim group several evenings ago. Someone asked him about Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its capital. It says it will never give up the east side for Palestine's, no matter if there's a state on the West Bank or not.

In response, Rossing drew on an analogy dear to our pilgrim hearts. In the 19th century, six Christian denominations had amply demonstrated that they couldn't come to peaceable terms about how to administer their holiest site, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Finally the Ottoman Turks brokered a complex power-sharing agreement called the Status Quo, which essentially governs this most wonderful and mysterious of churches today. Ironically enough, a Muslim family unlocks and locks the door each day. "We're not going to solve Jerusalem by cutting the baby in half," Rossing told us. "We're going to have to find some way to share it, something similar to the Status Quo, an arrangement so minutely complicated that no one can possibly understand it. All we will be able to do is obey it."

I wasn't sure what he meant until we visited the Holy Sepulcher for the last time this morning, after walking the Stations of the Cross. As Roman Catholic priests and monks began a solemn high mass at 7:30 at the front of the Edicule, believed to enclose the tomb of Jesus Christ, we could hear someone else chanting from the other side. It was a Coptic priest conducting his own service in a small chapel on the back of the same structure. As two priests chanted, one in Latin, the other in the ancient Coptic tongue, my first reaction was that someone should be quiet until the other's service was over. I even flirted with the idea that that the priests were trying to drown each other out. But no. They were just doing what they believed they should, in their own way, in the same small, sacred space, in apparent conflict except for the amazing fact that they probably do it the same way every single morning. They are content to live peacefully in the ambiguity. We should all be so wise.

In the original version of this post, I erred in saying that Hamas had secured control of the West Bank in June 2007 and that the Coptic priest was chanting in Arabic.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Knock Knock. Who's There? Maybe Jesus

Beneath the convent and guest house of the Religious Sisters of Nazareth, where our St. John's pilgrim band spent three days, is an excavation that some believe has uncovered a first-century Nazareth street as well as a doorway to a cave dwelling that could have belonged to the Holy Family themselves or, if not, their relatives or neighbors. Note that "some believe" and that "could have." In the Holy Land, separating the certain, possible, largely traditional, and purely conjectural is hard, sometimes unwelcome work. Some skeptics argue, for instance, that Nazareth didn't exist, or barely existed, in Jesus's time. It's not mentioned in the Hebrew testament nor in any secular histories of the period. Our guide, Canon Iyad Qumri, believes that only 400-500 people lived in the town in the first century -- which, if true, increases the likelihood that Jesus, as a child or young man, passed through this doorway, coming home or making a visit.

Guesswork and wishful thinking notwithstanding, there's some evidence that our modest pilgrim guest house was built on one of the most sacred places in Christian history. Accounts from the fourth and seventh centuries say there were two churches in Nazareth in the early Christian era, one built where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, the other, says the later source, "where the LORD was fed" -- perhaps meaning where he was brought up. The first site is thought to be the original church built on the site of the modern Basilica of the Annunciation, which also purports to enclose Mary and Joseph's home. But what if, as experts suggest, the second of the two early churches was actually built on the future site of us pilgrims' home away from home? Iyad told us that the sisters' convent used to be a church. After the Muslims conquered Palestine in the seventh century, they often razed churches and built mosques in their place. But they left this site alone and built their mosque nearby, perhaps, Iyad said, because the place was associated with Mary, whom Muslims hold in great esteem.

Too many "ifs" and "perhapses" and the people of faith may lose patience. Unfortunately, as with much in the realm of faith, there are few easy answers about the details of Jesus's early life. As Iyad repeatedly stressed, if it's ambiguous, argued over, or flatly contradictory, that means it's the Holy Land. Besides, if it's just possible that Jesus lived or visited there, and you're standing there, too -- believe me, it's way good enough.

Sami's Town

Sami Barsom, recently honored by his Patriarch for 50 years of service as a lay leader in Jerusalem's Syriac Orthodox community, has a small tailor shop in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City. On my first pilgrimage two years ago, I found Sami by chance and bought a beautiful white and gold stole he'd made. I've used it in a half dozen weddings and gotten water on it during 30 baptisms. Yesterday I wanted to introduce him to my elder daughter Valerie, but, well, I couldn't find him. Using my BlackBerry, we Googled "Sami, tailor, Jerusalem," and found this link -- the first one that popped up! -- but no address.

We finally made our way to the Syriac Patriarchate, where a helpful man showed us through a maze of back streets to Sami, who by then had closed for the evening. Kathy, Valerie, and I tried again today. He received us warmly and showed us the notes for his memoirs, including photos of him with Yasser Arafat and Israeli leaders alike.

Sami's so-called Oriental orthodox church, which has about 2.2 million adherents worldwide, broke from Roman and Greek orthodox Christians in the fifth century over Christology, or the nature of Christ. If my friend and church history professor Charlie Frazee, one of the world's leading experts on these matters, were here, I'd have him explain exactly what happened at the Council of Chalcedon, but since he isn't, here's Wikipedia's take:
[T]he Oriental Orthodox (Non-Chalcedonians) understanding is that Christ is "One Nature—the Logos Incarnate," of the full humanity and full divinity. The Chalcedonians understanding is that Christ is in two natures, full humanity and full divinity. Just as humans are of their mothers and fathers and not in their mothers and fathers, so too is the nature of Christ according to Oriental Orthodoxy. If Christ is in full humanity and in full divinity, then He is separate in two persons as the Nestorians teach. This is the doctrinal perception that makes the apparent difference which separated the Oriental Orthodox from the Eastern Orthodox.
There'll be a quiz tomorrow. In the meantime, if you're in Jerusalem and want to talk theology with Sami (or exquisite stoles and suits), he's at No. 26 St. Mark's Street. There's a Syriac Orthodox church in Orange, California called St. Mary's.

Even The Trees Cry Out

The olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane are said to be hundreds of years old. Their roots probably nurtured the trees that lived in Jesus's time. The bark of almost every tree looks like a face in agony.
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Will None Of You Wait With Me?

At the Church of All Nations, Pilgrim Kathy reads Luke's account of Jesus's agony and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.
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Mix 'Em, Match 'Em

A continuing series: Overlooking Jerusalem.
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Modern Crown Of Thorns

Russian Orthodox Church of St. Mary Magdalena, viewed from the Mount of Olives.
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Pilgrims Take Jesus's Walk

"All glory, laud, and honor to thee, redeemer King."
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Happy Pilgrims

Tom and Pat Woodruff on the Mount of Olives.
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Palm Sunday In August

As we prepare for our last two days of pilgrimage, culminating in the Stations of the Cross in the Old City tomorrow, Pilgrim Loreen reads the gospel story in a church built around a rock which, tradition teaches, Jesus used to mount the donkey he rode triumphantly into Jerusalem.
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Monday, August 10, 2009

Mix 'Em, Match 'Em

A continuing series: At Qumran, cave four (far left).
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Mix 'Em, Match 'Em

A continuing series: At the Dead Sea.
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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Episcopalians The Same Everywhere

At St. John's, the kids rush to the youth group's donut table after church. At Christ Episcopal Church in Nazareth, the beeline is for cookies. Same sticky fingers and adorable faces. As for the grownups, it's...What else? The official hot- and cold-weather beverage of the worldwide Anglican Communion: Coffee.
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