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A city; atrocity

I haven't, in spite of frequent lapsus linguae to the effect, recently finished reading "Jerusalem: The Autobiography". I have, though, on the recommendation of several trustworthy recommenders, made my way through Simon Sebag Montefiore's Biography of said turbulent and fascinating city. I found it to be intriguing, challenging, thoughtfully researched, well-intentioned in its attempt at impartiality -- but somewhat falling short in this attempt on certain points on which I felt informed enough to judge. More on that another time, perhaps. Suffice to say, although I gained a lot from it, I read it with an attitude of healthy scepticism. After all, it's hard enough to reconstruct historical realities of neutral subject matter, let alone contentious. There are lots of bits I would like to re-visit, sources I'd like to check, alternative perspectives I'd like to explore -- maybe for my next PhD.

One aspect of the last two thousand years of its history which I shudder to acknowledge to be pretty unambiguous is the number of appalling actions carried out there in the name of Jesus [1]. This excerpt, for example, describes the 1099 Siege when Christian crusaders successfully seized the city from the Egyptians:
The fighting raged there for hours; the Franks went berserk, and killed anyone they encountered in the streets and alleyways. They cut off not only heads but hands and feet, glorying in the spurting fountains of cleansing infidel blood. Although carrying out a massacre in a stormed city was not unprecedented, the sanctimonious pride with which the perpetrators recorded it possibly was. 'Wonderful sights were to be seen,' enthused one eyewitness, Raymond of Aguilers, the Count of Toulouse's chaplain: 'Our men cut off the heads of their enemies, others shot them with arrows so that they fell from the towers, others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands and feet were to be seen on the streets. It was necessary to pick one's way over the bodies of men and horses.' Babies were seized from their mothers, their heads dashed against the walls. As the barbarity escalated, 'Saracens, Arabs and Ethiopians' -- meaning the black Sudanese troops of the Fatimid army -- took refuge on the roofs of the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa. But, as they fought their way towards the Dome, the knights hacked a path across the crowded esplanade, killing and dicing through human flesh until 'in the Temple [of Solomon, as the Crusaders called al-Aqsa], they rode in blood up to their bridles. Indeed it was a just and splendid judgment of God that this place should be filled with the blood of unbelievers.' (From Chapter 21 of Jerusalem: The Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiore)
The book documents plenty of other comparably bloodthirsty accounts across the city's 4000-plus-or-minus-whatever-year history, but this was the description that most lingered in my mind. Many of the other hostilities were actually within the church -- between different Christian sects and groups, exacerbated by cultural and geographical differences as well as theological disputes. The book, in its Epilogue, relates that even today relationships between the different Christian groups associated with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are carefully mediated by its Muslim custodian:
Nusseibeh knows there is likely to be a priestly brawl several times a year. Even in the twenty-first century, the priests veers between accidental courtesy, born of good manners and the tedium of long sepulchral nights, and visceral historical resentment that can explode any time but usually at Easter. [...] Nusseibeh shrugs wearily: 'Well, as brothers, they have their upsets and I help settle them. We're neutral like the United Nations keeping the peace in this holy place.' (From the Epilogue to Jerusalem: The Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiore)
All of which prompts impassioned response... Who could possibly want anything to do with a religion that has been complicit in unleashing some of the worst atrocities in recorded history? If Christians can't even cease from warring between themselves, how can any of the claims of Christianity be taken seriously? For many, it's an unambiguous decider: "if this is what following Jesus accomplishes, I can confidently say that I want none of it". Increasing numbers feel that personal statements of rejection don't go far enough; a defining feature of the informal movement usually referred to as New Atheism (spearheaded by the likes of Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens) is the intention to actively combat the spread and (as they see it) damaging influence of religion -- citing evidence such as the above.

Arguments from bloodshed and disunity within the church are compelling -- but do they suffice as a rational basis for rejecting Jesus? To quote the Internet quoting Abraham Lincoln (quoting, in all likelihood, some unattributed less famous wit) "How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg." Calling something an act of obedient faith doesn't make it an act of obedient faith. The measure of 'Christian' outworking is not whether somebody invokes the name of Jesus or the authority of the Bible, but whether they submit to and accord with the name of Jesus and the authority of the Bible.

So I suggest that skeptics at least look at Jesus, and the Bible as a whole, before deciding on the basis of the strange and sometimes dreadful things that people have paraded under the 'Jesus' banner. The disconnect between the two can be sadly rather striking -- of course, that raises other questions in itself. But first, here's some examples that spring to mind reflecting on Jerusalem:

1. The Kingdom of God vs. worldly ideas of significance
Christians (as well as Jews and Muslims) have felt (and defended) a claim on Jerusalem as being 'the place where it all began'. But these words of Jesus' seem to indicate that God was doing something new and big which went beyond geography: no longer would people need to be in a special place (i.e. the Temple) to worship God -- the relationship would be accessible to all, in all places.
The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:19-24)
2. Peace and forgiveness vs. violence and hatred
Seizing cities, wreaking vengeance, slaughtering, dismembering and spilling blood -- well, it is pretty unambiguously difficult to think of actions more at odds with Jesus' teaching and example...
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42)
 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 5:43-45)
He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:22-23)
3. Trusting to God's perfect plans vs. taking matters into our own hands
Christian involvement in the Holy Land has often been driven by eschatological motives. The bits in the Bible about Jesus' return and new creation have been understood in many different ways, but the belief that certain events must happen before these things take place have prompted some to try to hasten the day with political or military action. I'm ill-equipped to talk theology, and there's passages I struggle with, but the New Testament seems to teach that our role is to accept that certain things remain unknowable and to live lives of patience and holiness in readiness for whatever God is doing...
But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. (Matthew 24:36) 
But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. (2 Peter 3:13-14) 
4. Brotherly harmony vs. division and infighting
As for the underlying, periodically-erupting disunity between the Christians in Jerusalem (and elsewhere) -- this flagrantly and anguishingly disregards Jesus' repeated exhortations to love and unity. It also ignores specific instructions by Paul to actively resolve issues without recourse to outside mediation...
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers! (1 Corinthians 6:4-8)

But if violence, bloodshed, disunity, distorted agendas, hypocrisy, unkindness, bigotry, laziness, gossiping, self-righteousness, apathy, greed, materialism, vanity, dishonesty and the like are not the product of obediently following Jesus, then why do they so frequently characterise the lives of those keenly associating themselves with his name? On the one hand is the fact that sincere believers fall far short, hence the constant need for grace. But within the Bible there are also many warnings that imposters and deceivers will come purporting to serve God and will disrupt, harm and mislead for their own gain (e.g. Romans 16:17-18, 2 Timothy 3:1-9). There are also warnings about the potential for Scripture itself to be twisted and deliberately misinterpreted:
And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15-16)
Peter's recommendation in the light of this? Diligence, caution, and a faith and understanding based on relationship with Jesus, not just human interpretation of words...
You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. (2 Peter 3:17-18)
Here's a thoughtful talk by Greg Boyd which I found helpful (to a point). He acknowledges and explores the way that Scripture can be re-fashioned to destructive purpose when people read it through the lenses of their own agendas; we see what we want to see, what we expect to see...and what we see (and how we respond) can say as much about what is in our hearts already as it does about the Bible. He doesn't offer quite enought of a solution as I'd like -- I agree (in faith) that the 'correct' way to understand the Bible is in the light of God's love and the character of Jesus, but -- aargh, that's kinda a lens as well, no? -- even if one believes it to be the 'right' one... or can it be considered the removal of all lenses? even then, how does one discover the reality of God's love and the character of Jesus if not through the Bible to begin with? The short answer is perhaps the type of revelation Paul describes -- "For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." (2 Corinthians 4:6). But still, for me this raises other questions -- for another time perhaps!



[1] I hardly need point out that Islamic and Jewish as much as Christian concerns are deeply significant to the history of that region, but in the interests of finding a vaguely manageable sub-topic in this overwhelmingly huge subject I figured I'd stick to what resonated most personally as I read.

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