Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths
Jerusalem: sacred to all three of the major monotheistic faiths, a site of controversy, violence and abuse of the sacred, a place of contradiction. Karen Armstrong, in her book, Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths, describes thousands of years of history of this city, a history filled with bloodshed. With good reason, Jesus wept over the city, saying, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you.” (Matthew 23:37a) Jerusalem has been conquered and reconquered, repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt. Periods of relative peace have been just that, relative and short lived.
The city of David and home to Solomon’s Temple, it is holy to Jews. The place of Jesus’ final days and resurrection, it inspires faith in Christian. It is also considered holy to Muslims as one of the three holy cities proclaimed by the prophet Mohammad and the site where Mohammad is said to have been transported before his ascension into heaven. It is the same God, the one God, yet differences in beliefs about this one God have led to on-going controversy and bloodshed. As is so often the case, people take that which is holy and try to use it for political and monetary gain. This happens repeatedly in Jerusalem.
The story of Jerusalem is a story of sacred geography, how some places seem closer to God. As Armstrong explains in her first chapter, “At this date (1800 BCE), all cities were regarded as holy places, an alien concept for us in the modern West, where the city is often experienced as a godforsaken realm in which religion has an increasingly marginal role. But long before people began to map their world scientifically, they had evolved a sacred geography to define their place in the universe emotionally and spiritually. Mircea Eliade, who pioneered the study of sacred space, pointed out that reverence for a holy place preceded all other speculation about the nature of the world. It is to be found in all cultures and was a primordial religious conviction. The belief that some places were sacred, and hence fit for human habitation, was not based on an intellectual investigation or on any metaphysical speculation into the nature of the cosmos. Instead, when men and women contemplated the world about them, they were drawn irresistibly to some localities which they experienced as radically different from all others. This was an experience that was basic to their view of the world, and it went far deeper than the cerebral level of the mind. Even today our scientific rationalism has not been able to replace the old sacred geography. As we shall see, ancient conceptions of holy topography still affect the history of Jerusalem and have been espoused by people who would not normally consider themselves religious.” (pp. 7-8)
It is also a story of myths and symbols which can bring meaning to a place. Jerusalem has been a site of pilgrimage for centuries, from the early Jews going to the Temple to worship, to Christians walking the path that Jesus walked, to Muslims journeying to Haram where Mohammad is said to have ascended to heaven.
There have been great leaders, David, Solomon, Saladin, as well as mediocre leaders, weak leaders, corrupt leaders and unwise leaders. Unfortunately, one great leader does not mean those who follow will be equally great. Site of the brutal killings of the Crusades, it was not the Christian crusaders who exemplified Christian values of mercy but a Muslim, Saladin who showed mercy to those of other faiths. “Christians in the West were uneasily aware that this Muslim ruler had behaved in a far more ‘Christian’ manner than had their own Crusaders when they conquered Jerusalem. They evolved legends that made Saladin a sort of honorary Christian.” (p. 294)
Armstrong states in her introduction: “It is not enough to experience the divine or the transcendent; the experience must then be incarnated in our behavior towards others. All the great religions insist that the test of true spirituality is practical compassion. The Buddha once said that after experiencing enlightenment, a man must leave the mountaintop and return to the marketplace and there practice compassion for all living beings. This also applies to the spirituality of a holy place. Crucial to the cult of Jerusalem from the very first was the importance of practical charity and social justice. The city cannot be holy unless it is also just and compassionate to the weak and vulnerable. But sadly, this moral imperative has often been overlooked. Some of the worst atrocities have occurred when people have put the purity of Jerusalem and the desire to gain access to its great sanctity before the quest for justice and charity.” (p. xxi) In this area, all three of the faiths making claim to Jerusalem have failed.
Armstrong does not speculate about the future of Jerusalem, just takes us through the history to the present day. In doing so she gives us insights into the differences among the three faiths that inhabit the city and how we have come to our current impasse. Perhaps someday this city of three faiths under one God, might show us the way to peace, how to live together respecting the beliefs of each faith, recognizing our connection under one God. Then it truly would live up to its name as being holy.
Copyright June 2012, Robertson