Christians Fighting Over Holy Places (Physically and Figuratively)
BETHLEHEM — The disturbing footage of the monks fighting in Bethlehem’s Nativity Church has been seen around the world. This is not the first time such a fight has erupted. The natural reaction any Christians should have upon seeing this footage is shame. It is difficult to even describe in words what one feels when he sees Christian clerics involved in such violence and rage!
This incident reflects at least two major deficiencies within the Palestinian Christian community. The first is the status of the church and how it is still controlled by foreign powers. Palestine and the "holy sites" have always attracted Christians who want to control these places. Everyone wants a share of the place. This is the story of the church in Palestine in a nutshell.
Though we have called this place home for centuries, we have never in reality governed ourselves, as a people or as a church. Wars have emerged over control of the sites, from the crusaders, through the Crimean War, to our modern era, where a fragile "status quo" from the days of the Ottoman Empire governs the relationship between the different church families and who controls what in the holy sites.
The monks involved in this incident are not local Palestinians clerics. They are part of the Greek and Armenian churches. These clerics, who come from outside, could not care less about the local church (and by the church here I mean the community of believers). Their main interest is the holy place and their own institution.
Local Christians have always paid the price for these actions. The dead stones are more important than the living stones, and the indigenous believers are on the margins. As a result, Palestinian Christians today are weak, divided, and scattered. Today less than 5 percent of the population in Palestine/Israel is Christian, and part of the blame falls on the status of the church here.
The second deficiency this incident reveals is the obsession with the holy sites. We are obsessed in this part of the world with "the place." We worship the place. We have idolized the holy sites. Similarly, radical Christian Zionists have idolized the land and the question of “whose promised land?” This is not a new phenomenon for the people of God.
We desperately need to go back to Jesus and his teaching about place, and the Gospel of John is a good starting place. In Chapter 2, Jesus' body takes the place of the temple (2:18-22). In Chapter 4, in His conversation with the Samaritan women, Jesus declared that it is not important where you pray, but what matters to God is that status of your heart (John 4:19-24).
Gary Burge's important study on the land in the New Testament, Jesus and the Land, is strongly recommended. He argues that there is no place for territorial theology in the Christian theology today, and on page 52 claims: "Divine space is now no longer located in a place but in a person (Jesus)."
What makes a land or a place "holy" to begin with? Is it the event? Or the actions of the people living in this place?
The first "holy place" in the Bible is the garden of Eden. There, Adam enjoyed fellowship with God, but when he sinned, he lost that privilege. Israel's temple was destroyed and she found herself in exile because of her infidelity to God.
The lesson learned over and over again is that our actions in any given place actually do matter. It is our actions that make a place holy or defiled (Lev. 18: 24-27; Num. 35:33; Ps 106:38). In particular, our faithfulness to God, and how we treat one another and the less privileged among us, are crucial for the survival of any community in the land (Lev. 19:34; Ezek 33:24-26; ).
Jesus said, "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35 ESV) How far we have strayed from this statement! We fight over ownership of a place, forgetting that it is the "meek who shall inherit the land." (Matt. 5:5) The land, like any other place, belong to God.
May Christians in the Holy Land pay more attention in the years to come to the teachings of Jesus and learn how to love each other and our neighbors. This is the true mark of our discipleship!
Munther Isaac is the Vice Academic Dean at Bethlehem Bible College and a doctoral candidate at the Oxford Center for Mission Studies. He also is the director of the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference.