God is in the Crowd (& Goliath is in the Wings): A Review of Tal Keinan’s New Book

IMG_7244When you go to the Holy Land and discuss the current realities of Israelis and Palestinians, you’ll often hear about two biblical characters—David and Goliath.  Palestinians will point out how they have been consigned to two small patches of their former homeland—Gaza and the West Bank, how Israeli settlements and security encroach on these, and how many rights they do not have.  Little David against a great Goliath.

Israelis will point out that their country, the world’s only Jewish democracy, is just a small sliver of land hugging the Mediterranean—only nine miles wide at one point, that it is surrounded by Arab nations that have sought, on multiple occasions, to sweep it into the sea, and that they are the refuge of last resort for the Jewish people. Little David against Goliath.

Tal Keinan’s new book, God is in the Crowd: Twenty-first Century Judaism, doesn’t invoke the biblical story of the boy and the giant, but he wants to issue a clarion call in the face of a new giant threat. The difference is that the threat is not from external foes but from forces within and its not just to Israel but to Judaism itself.

I met Tal Keinan on trips I have led to Israel and Palestine.  Keinan is an Israeli-American entrepreneur who co-founded Clarity Capital, which has offices in New York and Tel Aviv.  He also chairs Koret Israel Economic Development Funds, a nonprofit lender supporting development projects that include Israeli Palestinian businesses. There’s a whole lot more to say about him. He’s a former Israeli Air Force fighter pilot, a social activist, a visionary, and, from what I understand, a pretty good skateboarder.

All of that, (with the possible exception of the skateboarding), comes into play in this compelling book in which Keinan sketches out the crisis of contemporary Judaism and his thought experiment about a possible future.

It’s not that the old David and Goliath story that Israelis tell themselves doesn’t concern Keinan. He has his eyes wide open to the threats and the combat experience to know what they look like. He also has given thought to what an endgame with the Palestinians might look like.  It is isn’t pretty. Surveying the landscape of settlements, Palestinian resistance, and broken dreams of peace, he sees only one avenue for Israelis to take—a withdrawal from the West Bank, if necessary, unilaterally, to allow for the creation of a Palestinian state. 

That the resulting state could look a lot like the chaos of Gaza is a reality Keinan recognizes. He also acknowledges that many Israeli Jews would see the abandonment of historic Judea and Samaria, (the names most Israelis use for the West Bank), as “an egregious injustice.”

“But,” he says, “fairness is not the most compelling objective here. For many Israelis, most I hope, Israel’s survival is the most compelling objective. Israel is not likely to survive if the Jews become a minority. It is not likely to survive as an undemocratic state. This leaves only one option.” (78)

If the Palestinian question does not occupy center stage in this book, it is because Keinan wants to turn the attention to the crisis facing Judaism. The picture he paints is stark. Despite the creation of Israel as a national homeland of the Jewish people, despite the end of generations of exile and the general lack of persecution of Jews in modern Western societies, despite a kind of victory of Zionism, Keinan sees the prospect of “the last generation of Judaism as we know it.” (296)

Keinan’s focus is on Israel and North America which now contain 90% of the world’s Jewish population, a shocking change from just a century ago when Jews had substantial communities across the world in places like Baghdad. In America, notwithstanding periodic atrocities like the recent synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Jews have assimilated fully into the culture. Along with this remarkable success have come new questions.

“By my generation,” Keinan says, “we were taking ownership in America for granted…If our Jewishness mattered little to the Gentiles around us, why should it matter to us?” (52)

Jews have made themselves at home here. Keinan grew up in a secular family and attended Exeter, a WASP institution if there ever was one. He has siblings, who like 58% of American Jews, married non-Jews. But something stirred in Keinan to connect him to his Jewish roots—an awareness, forged in his Israeli military service, (well-documented and vividly related here), that there was a value in his Jewish identity.

It was also a recognition that Judaism could die. “In the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian pogroms, or the Holocaust, Jewish extinction would have been the cumulative result of the violent deaths of millions of individual Jews. In America, it will have been the result of love.” (62) 

But only in America. For global Judaism to lose its connection to its identity and to Israel would mean a much more violent end for the Jews of Israel.


Tal Keinan

Keinan’s description of Israel’s realities is rich and extensive. He introduces you to four segments of Israeli society: the Territorialists, who are besotted with a vision of greater Israel that includes the Palestinian territories, the Theocrats, whose restrictive hold on definitions of Judaism ruffle other Jews, the Secularists, who dominate the military and economic sectors, and the Fourth Israel, those who struggle to achieve the Israeli dream, including Israeli Arabs. 

Keinan’s sympathies are clearly with the Secularists, the group to which he belongs. He sees their sacrifices as critical for Israel’s survival and yet they are generally unrecognized. He also knows how tenuous their connection to Israel can be. “Individual Jews, in America and Israel, are beginning to vote with their feet [by abandoning Israel]. The breaking point will arrive without warning.” (295)

Given the urgency of this scenario, Keinan proposes “medicine” drawn from centuries of Jewish tradition…and his own expertise in capital fund management. He sees, in the reformation of the Jewish religion around the Talmud, the development of a kind of crowd wisdom that allowed diverse populations of Jews to survive the Diaspora for 1900 years. He sees a form of that same wisdom in markets, which can be analyzed using a moving average model that reads a running trend rather than random points of data.

In the final section, Keinan delineates a code that might define Jewish identity in the twenty-first century. He builds on three pillars: a technological method to aggregate Jewish thought and provide a picture of the wisdom of the crowd, a new Jewish World Endowment that would invite Jewish families into an educational project that would include summer experiences during high school built around Jewish education and service and free college tuition, and a reformed Israeli presidency that would give a global community of Jews a say in maintaining Israel as the nation-state of the Jews.

If you come to this looking for a theological narrative, you won’t find it here. Keinan’s God in the Crowd is not an entity beyond that crowd wisdom. But his sense of the crisis is real, his analysis strong, and his proposal intriguing, even for someone like me who stands outside the community. It is an exemplar of what I have always appreciated in my visits to Israel—the energy, creativity, and ability to reimagine that makes for a vibrant society. We can only hope that leaders with gifts like Keinan’s will continue to commit to Israel as an idea or his darkest fears will surely materialize.

We could also hope for some leaders like that in America.

When Angels First Trod the Earth: A Review of Philip Jenkins’ Crucible of Faith


A Cave at Qumran

It was 113 degrees when I was at Qumran a few weeks ago.  Set up on a ridge near the Dead Sea, the site is unforgiving—no escape from the sun, salt flats and barren wilderness in every direction, a claustrophobic gift shop and lunch room packed with tourists who never seem to make it to the ruins.  One hour and a chicken schnitzel later and I was ready to go.

The folks who built Qumran?  They stayed for 200 years.

If you know Qumran at all, you’ve probably heard of it in connection with the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were found in caves near this site beginning in 1947.  The scrolls revealed the presence of an ascetic, dissident sect of Jewish religious revolutionaries who made their home here during the volatile period from the mid-2nd century BCE to 68 CE.  A video at the visitor’s center suggests that John may have been a member here before becoming “the Baptist” and heading over to the Jordan River.  Whether he was or wasn’t, the scrolls show that the world in which John and Jesus operated was full of ferment and change and the ideas that we associate with later Christianity and Judaism were finding their first expression in places like Qumran.

Philip Jenkins, in his new book Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution that Made our Modern  Religious World, makes a sweeping claim in the opening pages:

During the two tempestuous centuries from 250 through 50 BCE, the Jewish and Jewish-derived world was a fiery crucible of values, faiths, and ideas, from which emerged wholly new religious syntheses. Such a sweeping transformation of religious thought in such a relatively brief period makes this one of the most revolutionary times in human culture. These years in effect created Western consciousness.

Jenkins, a professor of history at Baylor University, has made a career out of helping us look at Christianity from new perspectives ever since he made a splash with his 2002 book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.  That book forced U.S. Christians who were mired in narratives of decline to grapple with the explosive growth of the faith that was taking place in the Southern hemisphere.  Maybe, Jenkins suggested, Christianity was just making one of its periodic, geographic shifts, this time from the West to the South.

In Crucible of Faith, Jenkins wants to lift up a period often neglected by biblical students—the so-called intertestamental period that is not reflected in most Protestant bibles.  For many Christians, the biblical story skips directly from the return of the exiles to Jerusalem in the 6th-century BCE to Jesus’s appearance in the city at the start of the Common Era.  Jenkins points out, however, that much of what we associate with the new Christian worldview, from angels to the role of Satan to apocalyptic expectations, was forming in this period, particularly the 200 year window that he calls the Crucible.

Jenkins doesn’t break a whole lot of new ground in this book. Scholars have been mining extrabiblical sources like 1 Enoch and Jubilees for many years now and have seen what Jenkins describes.  What Jenkins does effectively is to tell this story clearly and with an eye to a general readership.  The result is convincing, if a bit repetitious.  It also helps that figures like Judas Maccabees and Herod the Great make such great copy.

The kind of scholarship Jenkins does makes biblical literalists nervous. He dates biblical books long after the periods in which they are set, (such as Daniel, a putative narrative of the Babylonian Exile, which Jenkins (and many other scholars) date to the 2nd century BCE). He also finds major historical forces at work, influencing the development of religious thought, such as the cataclysmic entry of the Hellenistic world into the Middle East with the arrival of Alexander the Great.  For those who like their biblical inspiration unadulterated by current events, this can be distressing.


Philip Jenkins

But Jenkins’ measured view and sturdy method are convincing and he forces the reader to look at old assumptions in new ways.  For instance, the story of early Christian church in the West is often told as an attempt to graft Greek philosophy onto Hebrew thought.  But Jenkins makes clear that that confrontation happened long before the Christian moment and the Judaism that Jesus’ disciples swam in was fully engaged with Greek ideas and a Greek cosmology and had been for some time.

Looking at the excavated ritual baths and scriptoriums of Qumran, it’s hard to imagine a revolution sprouting from this desert site.  But something big was happening that pushed this disaffected group out from Jerusalem.  They saw angels of light and darkness at work in the world.  The Roman legions may have eventually succeeded in reducing Qumran and Jerusalem to dust, but the religious dynamism unleashed in the Crucible years goes on.

What You Can Learn from 3 Hilltops: West Bank Edition


Flagpole in Sebastia


On the highest point in Sebastia, where a Roman Temple, the Northern Kingdom’s palace, and innumerable pagan holy sites once stood, there is a ramshackle wooden flagpole sporting a small Palestinian flag.  Or at least there was last week when I visited.  Locals report that the flagpole is the frequent target of attacks in which Israeli soldiers or others come to knock it down, its presence being an offense to the Israeli settlement on the next hilltop over.  Invariably a new group of youth will sneak up to the top of the hill in the dark of the night with a makeshift replacement, risking detention in the process.

So it goes on the hilltops of the West Bank.  Where once the kings of Judah and Samaria slipped off to engage in illicit worship, (like old King Ahaz, who “sacrificed and made offerings on the high places, on the hills, and under every green tree” [2 Chronicles 28:4]), now statements are being made. Israelis and Palestinians know the high ground is the landscape of power and they are staking a claim.

Beit Jala

IMG_8173Southwest of Bethlehem, Daoud Nassar is the Director of Operations for his family farm, which is scattered over 100 acres on a hill with an enviable view.  Standing in Daher’s Vineyard, as the farm is known, you can see terraced landscapes, olive trees, and three Israeli settlements ringing the property his grandfather bought in 1916.  Nassar’s family has the papers to prove their long-standing claim to the property, a claim they have asserted from the time of the Ottoman Empire through the British Mandate and Jordanian control up until the present.  Even so, they have been fighting with Israeli authorities to keep their land, which has no access to water or electricity and which can only reached by car via a circuitous route around the settlements.

Nassar has made a demonstration camp out of the property.  On the day we visited, a group of New Zealanders were working projects, some of the 7,000 or so international visitors who come to the site each year.  Forbidden to build new permanent structures, Nassar’s family has created a Tent of Nations out of caves and cisterns.  It’s part environmental education, part non-violent resistance, and part 1960s-era Christian commune.  

At the entrance to the farm a carved rock declares, “We refuse to be enemies.”  It’s a statement of the philosophy of the Tent of Nations.  Despite daily indignities, such as being harassed by people in the settlements for the behavior of the farm’s bees, the site persists as a witness. They’re still there on the hilltop and they will remain and keep fighting for their heights through legal means.




West of Ramallah, the bustling, de facto capital of the Palestinian Territories, a city has risen on another mountain.  Rawabi is the dream of Bashar Masri, a Palestinian developer who has pulled together $1.4 billion in investments to build a new city.  It’s a place that would seem at home in the Western world.  Shops like Mango and American Eagle sell up-to-the minute fashions in an outdoor mall.  Apartments hug the hillside, housing the first 4,000 of the hoped-for 40,000 residents.  A 12,000 seat Roman-style amphitheater welcomes big name musical acts for concerts. Families come in for the day to picnic and rent four-wheelers.

For all this, Masri has had to deal with a myriad of obstacles.  Despite being in Area A, the Palestinian-controlled zone of the West Bank, water and road access had to be negotiated with Israel, which controls the zones surrounding Rawabi. An inadequate two-lane road connects the city with the road to Ramallah. Site workers have had to deal with harassment from nearby settlements.

On the other hand, some Palestinian leaders have decried the use of Israeli products in construction.  Activists in the BDS [Boycott, Divestment, & Sanction] movement claim that such cooperation “normalizes” the occupation of the West Bank by Israel and weakens the resistance that Palestine needs to show in its struggle for true self-determination.  Others believe that the very unremarkable nature of life in Rawabi is an affront to the suffering of other Palestinians whose daily lives are marked by repression and constriction.

But why shouldn’t there be a place where Palestinians can draw a long breath in a city of their own?  Thousands of jobs have been created in the construction of Rawabi and Masri’s priority is to bring in thousands more.  Women have unprecedented roles in the city, including a cadre of female engineers that have led construction efforts.  And the city is providing schools that are among the best in Palestine.

What You Can Do With A Hilltop

When Israel moved into the Palestinian Territories following the 1967 War, the hilltops became the most visible sign of the occupation.  Israel took over old Jordanian military bases and created new ones of their own. Settlers, now numbering over 500,000, moved onto others.

IMG_8220But Palestinians have some hills as well. And though Israel worries about the security risk they would pose if the peace process ever results in an autonomous Palestinian state, the three hills I visited show some of the potential for what Palestine could be.  Those with connections to capital and a vision can build Rawabis.  A Tent of Nations can offer environmental education, pioneer new conservation concepts, and foster peacemaking and justice.  And in Sebastia, the biblical city of Samaria, an historical park could bring visitors and preserve the cultural heritage of the land.

All of this, of course, depends on a political solution to the ongoing struggle between Israelis and Palestinians, a solution that seems like a far-away dream given the leadership on both sides at the moment.  But in the meantime, while large car-dealership-sized Israeli flags fly on many a West Bank hilltop, others sport a Palestinian flag—either on makeshift timbers, or, as at Rawabi, on a large, metal pole at the summit surrounded by a statue of diverse people holding hands.  

It’s true.  You can seek to kill peace from a hilltop.  But you can also build it.

Other posts about Israel and Palestine:

Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor: Yossi Klein Halevi’s Call Across the Wall

Fake Candles at the Tomb: A Holy Land Reflection

Also check out my book on the conflict: A Space for Peace in the Holy Land: Listening to Modern Israel and Palestine [Englewood Review of Books, 2014]

Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor: Yossi Klein Halevi’s Call Across the Wall

IMG_6997I don’t talk much on this blog about Palestine and Israel, even though you’ll see a link here to my 2014 book, A Space for Peace in the Holy Land: Listening to Modern Israel and Palestine.  That’s partly due to the fact that the commitment of this site is to understanding rural life and ministry, particularly in the United States.

“But wait!” you may be saying.  “I saw your review of the Skylight Inn BBQ.  I saw your takedown of online surveys.  Heck, I even saw that ridiculous picture you posted of a screen window captioned with a dad joke.  Your editorial standards are pretty darn lax.  I think you could fit in more about one of the major conflicts in the world today.”

To which I say, “Thanks!  I had no idea you were reading so closely!”  But also.  Yes.

In my defense (and just why am I being defensive, anyway?), I did post a reflection last fall after my last trip to the region.  But there’s more to say.  Much more.  And some of it feels like a strange mirror on our own divides here in the U.S.

Reading Yossi Klein Halevi’s exquisite new book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, I am aware of how much Halevi’s way of talking about the conflict has given me a language for speaking about it.  Halevi is an American-born Israeli who lives in the French Hill neighborhood of East Jerusalem, separated by mere yards (and a security barrier) from his Palestinian neighbors who live…where?  Palestine?  The West Bank?  The Occupied Territories?  Judea?  The conflicting names for the same land form part of the disparity Halevi wants to overcome in this book, which is structured as ten letters intended for his unknown neighbors on the next hill.

Halevi has been attempting this journey for many years, though he started out as an unlikely candidate for the job.  A writer and commentator, Halevi began as a right-wing Jewish idealist.  His vision for the land of Israel included not only the West Bank of the Jordan, but the eastern bank as well.  

Since the 1980s when he moved there permanently, however, Halevi has been evolving along with his country.  “Few societies are as malleable, so prone to fundamental change in so short a time, as Israel,” Halevi says. (172) And he himself has undergone major shifts, thanks to a stint as a soldier patrolling Gaza, a spiritual journey into the Palestinian territories in the late 1990s that resulted in his first book, At the Entrance of the Garden of Eden, and his current role as a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute where he has been trying to build bridges with American Muslim leaders.

I met Halevi in 2011 on my first trip to Israel.  He is a wise, warm soul who is more than ready to acknowledge that Israel has its flaws.  The 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation?  “It was your side that suffered the most devastating consequences,” he tells his interlocutor.  “Some 700,000 Palestinians became refugees.” (82)  The occupation?  “It penetrates the soul” and Israel must end it “not just for your sake but for ours.” (108) The fatal flaw of the settlement movement? “The sin of not seeing, of becoming so enraptured with one’s own story, the justice and poetry of one’s national epic, that you can’t acknowledge the consequences to another people of fulfilling the whole of your own people’s dreams.” (106)


Yossi Klein Halevi

But don’t let these insights convince you that Halevi is a dove.  He sets out with all his spiritual openness to understand the Palestinian situation, but he is just as insistent that the Israeli narrative be heard as well.  “Can we,” he asks, “see each other as two traumatized peoples, each clinging to the same sliver of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, neither of whom will find peace or justice until we make our peace with the other’s claim to justice?” (21)

For the Palestinian neighbor to see this, s/he must hear about the long longing of the Jewish people, which was always a desire for return to this land.  In the 19th century, “the impetus for creating a political expression of the longing for return—restoring the Jewish relationship to Zion from time back into space—was dire need,” a need for an end to homelessness and persecution that gave birth to Zionism. (35)  

The only home that the Jews had ever had was in this land.  When suggestions were made that perhaps another place might suffice, (Uganda was offered in 1903), the Zionists refused the option of becoming colonialists and pursued the dream of return.   And when the opportunity arose, they came, from Eastern Europe, yes, but from all across the Arab world as well, to join the Jews who had remained in the land.

Halevi effectively shows the inaccuracy of the saying that Holocaust guilt in the West led to the establishment of Israel.  But the Holocaust lingers in the Israeli determination never to be victims again.

“Jewish history…spoke to my generation with two nonnegotiable commandments.  The first was to remember that we’d been strangers in the land of Egypt and the message was: Be compassionate.  The second commandment was to remember that we live in a world in which genocide is possible, and that message was: Be alert.  When your enemy says he intends to destroy you, believe him.” (110)

These commandments haunt the Israeli response to Palestinians today.  They are, at the same time, called to see and respect the Palestinian, but also take seriously the constant denials of Israel’s legitimacy that permeate Palestinian media and culture.

“We are trapped, you and I, in a seemingly hopeless…’cycle of denial.’ Your side denies my people’s legitimacy, my right to self-determination, and my side prevents your people from achieving national sovereignty.  The cycle of denial defines our shared existence, an impossible intimacy of violence, suppression, rage, despair.  That is the cycle we can only break together.” (115-6)

There is so much more here, as there is to any discussion of this seemingly bottomless relationship between the two peoples.  Halevi pushes hard on the religious understandings of both sides, believing that diplomats have been wrong to ignore this dimension.  “For peace to succeed in the Middle East,” he says, “it must speak in some way to our hearts.” (7)  In doing so, Halevi mostly reduces the conflict to Jews and Muslims, despite the fact that Christians still make up a significant minority of the Palestinian population.

The one place where a Christian does make an impact on Halevi’s story is on a joint pilgrimage to Auschwitz.  A Melkite priest from Nazareth, Abuna Emile Shoufani, takes a group of Jewish and Palestinian Israelis to the concentration camp—a group that included Halevi.  Despite his skepticism, Halevi was moved by the experience and appreciated Shoufani’s idealism.  “A Christian with an open heart to both sides had managed to bring Muslims and Jews together in Auschwitz.” (189)

American Christians try to bring so much intensity to Israel and Palestine.  We either accept Israel uncritically as a sign of God’s end-time plans or attack it mercilessly for the suffering of the occupation.  We are generally pragmatists who want to choose sides and fix things.

But what the Christian Shoufani brought was an openness to hear and see the people in front of him, in all of their humanity and with all of their story.  It’s the same openness Halevi is striving for.  He recognizes that the ongoing conflict is devastating to both peoples and it is “a spiritual crisis.” (186).  He wants to be heard, but he is listening, too.  There’s no better introduction to the heart of the Israeli people than this powerful book.

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Absence Makes the Heart: A Jerusalem Reflection

IMG_1708On Easter Sunday…some thoughts from my first visit to Jerusalem in 2011…

I would say that the world is a hopeless place…except it’s not.  Somewhere around here – at the Garden Tomb, under a church – there’s an empty tomb to prove it.  It’s what we have to offer this place – emptiness.


If we take on what this place is full of – despair, hatred, violence – then we place the body of Jesus right back where it was at the end – dead, lifeless, abandoned, abused, scorned, and hopeless.  But if we yield to the absence…If we retain nothing…If we get rid of the pretension that we know what God would have them do…we would at last be true to the truth that is uniquely ours to tell.

And what does that empty space proclaim?  The presence of God who once met us face to face and we survived.  The emptiness says God has gone on before us.  The absence of anything pure reason and feeling would lead us to pushes us back to the way we always reject – Jesus’ way.

Remember how he told you this would be necessary.  Remember how he told you that he came to bring a sword.  Remember how he told you to love your enemy, your neighbor, your projimo.  When you are empty…when you have nothing to give…when you know what it means to lay down your life…you will find it.

Considering Our Hearts (& the Future of the UMC): A Review of The Anatomy of Peace


photo by Gerome Viavant via Unsplash

Let’s get this out of the way first: If Dan Brown wrote a book about conflict resolution it would come out looking something like The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict.  If that sounds like an endorsement to you, you’ll love this book.  If, like me, you threw The DaVinci Code across the room sometimes out of sheer frustration with its cardboard characters, forced allusions, wooden writing style, and overall smugness, well, you’re not going to have a good time getting through this book.  The author is listed as the faceless Arbinger Institute but I suspect a member of the Institute is, in fact, Dan Brown.

Whew.  That said: I came to the book at the recommendation of the Rev. Tom Berlin, one of the most gifted (and un-Dan Brown-like) communicators in our United Methodist connection. Berlin, pastor of Floris UMC in northern Virginia, is a member of the Commission on A Way Forward, the 32-member group appointed by the Council of Bishops to craft proposals for maintaining the unity of the denomination in the face of divisions around questions of human sexuality.  The Anatomy of Peace is being used by the Commission to help them grow closer to one another as they confront their own differences.


Tom Berlin

Berlin has led the Virginia clergy delegation at the most recent sessions of the General Conference, the global gathering of United Methodism held every four years to rewrite The Book of Discipline, the denominational rule book.  In that role he has seen the sad way that such gatherings devolve into the same rancor that plagues our national political dialogue.  “When these topics [e.g. ordination of LGBTQ clergy] are discussed,” he told the Virginia Annual Conference last summer, “the hearts of many delegates are at war rather than at peace.”

Berlin chose that phrasing purposefully.  It comes right out of The Anatomy of Peace and its unusual choice to use the Era of the Crusaders as an analogy for developing a ‘heart of peace.’  The conquest of Jerusalem by Christian crusaders in the Middle Ages was bloody, a character tells a group of parents who have been united by a desire to help their troubled teenaged children.  He goes on to describe how the Crusaders plundered and murdered in the wake of their victory, seeing their foes merely as objects to be eliminated.

By contrast, the Muslim sultan Saladin’s reconquest of the city was marked by acts of mercy towards the defeated Christians.  “The secret of Saladin’s success in war,” one of the leaders of the parent group says, “was that his heart was at peace.” (28)  Thus, he concludes, “there are two ways to take Jerusalem: from people or from objects.” (33)

If you can accept your history flat and unambiguous, this analogy might work for you.  Similarly, if you can accept the repeated interpretations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as offered by the pair of leaders (one of each nationality) at face value, you may be able to see through to the point of the book more easily than I could.  I found these attempts to use one of the most complex international situations of our day as a simplifying and clarifying tool misguided at best.  I’ll chalk that up to Mr. Brown again.  But I digress.

41XwiBMyjRL._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_The point of the book is very simple.  The heart of conflict is seeing people either as people or objects.  When we see our opponents as people we can have hearts at peace.  When we see them as obstacles or objects, our hearts are at war.

The book goes on to show how that plays out in any number of situations, from dealing with family conflict to business relationships to international relations.  The journey towards peace, as in most journeys with a spiritual dimension, is first an internal one.  When we address our own “way of being” it begins to have an impact on those around us.  “As important as behavior is…most problems at home, at work, and in the world are not failures of strategy but failures of way of being.” (39)

There are some good psychological insights here.  The book addresses how we collude with those we oppose in producing the very things we say we’re fighting against.  There is a long section on self-justification and how our own preferred methods for doing it serve to perpetuate conflicts.  And there is a pyramid of actions that emphasizes personal work and building relationships before attempting anything like correction.

There is no doubt that our relationships and institutions would be better if we approached one another with hearts of peace.  Given our tendency toward anxiety and the belief that we can only lose in conflict, we need some practice in the art of engaging with those we regard as enemies.  That’s just what Rev. Berlin suggested to the Virginia Annual Conference last summer.  Noting his own congregation’s attempt to start some conversations on human sexuality, Tom said, “The church hasn’t fallen in.”


photo by Ian Schneider via Unsplash

I’m grateful for Tom’s encouragement to keep trying.  We all know the deadly taste of cynicism and despair in our mouths.  We are thirsting for something more.

Whether this book, beyond its flaws, holds out hope for United Methodists is an open question.  I know that others are reading it as well and earnestly seeking a new day.  The hope Berlin talked about as a result of reading it seemed to be that we Methodists, by “walking together loosely” instead of seeking to come to conformity or agreement, might be able to concentrate on the mission objectives of the church rather than its divisions.  In the year to come, as we see the Commission’s work come to the form of proposals, we’ll all have a chance to sound our hearts to see what’s there.  I’m praying we find hearts of peace.

Fake Candles at the Tomb: A Holy Land Reflection


Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

We’d all like a Holy Land made in our own image.  I’ve just spent two weeks in Israel and Palestine and there are a few things I’d change.  Yes, ending the occupation and a two-state solution are on the list.  (More on that to come.)  But, less grandly, how about the simplicity of a church with an open tomb without stalls selling ‘Guns & Moses’ T-shirts just outside the door?

Early on a Sunday morning, I walked the Via Dolorosa past Crusader churches, Byzantine arches, Mamluk stonework, and mass production-era kitsch.  I ended up at the Edicule of the Tomb, the recently-restored shrine in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre marking the spot where Jesus’ body was taken following the crucifixion.


Candle outside the Edicule of the Tomb

Waiting with the polyglot pilgrims of a hundred points of origin, I felt the power of the place, but I couldn’t help being distracted by the huge candles at the entrance of the tomb.  Highly ornamented, twice my height…and topped by lightbulbs.  It looked like something your Aunt Lulu would construct from a kit she got down at the Hobby Lobby.  (Though it should be noted that the bulbs were of the high-efficiency LED variety.)

I touched the rock slab of the tomb—the impact of which was not diminished by the muffled cursing of the man ahead of me when he bumped his head on the low entrance.  Then I headed to a beautiful prayer chapel where I found the silence I craved.

In the chapel, you could hear the shuffling and muted conversation of tour groups, the chanting of monks, the rhythm of a familiar prayer.  Incense filled the air, an olfactory reminder of the beauty of God’s sacrificial act in Christ.  A riot of iron sculptures depicting the stations of the cross lined the wall.  Behind the eucharistic table, a blue mosaic of tile formed a fitting backdrop for a globe—the world summoned and surrounded by God’s grace.

We didn’t deserve this place, this church, this peace.  Just days before I met with an Israeli police spokesperson who had been at the scene of 48 suicide bombings during the Second Intifada, the memory of which is not cast away like the shoes he had to discard after each one.  One day earlier I met with a Palestinian woman of East Jerusalem who doesn’t know how to describe her nationality.  Israel, which annexed her neighborhood but sometimes treats her like a foreigner or a potential terrorist?  Palestine, which only exists as a profession of nationhood?  Jordan, the country on her papers, but which hasn’t ruled here since before she was born?

IMG_0800We pray for the peace of Jerusalem, as the Psalms prescribe, but any peace we can glimpse is tawdry, contingent, messy, rude, conditional—like the uneasy truce between the seven Christian groups that stake a claim to this church.  Ethiopian monks squat on the roof to preserve their foothold.  Fights break out from time to time between others.  And all the while the masses come and take their photos, genuflect at the sites, kneel beneath the table to touch the rock of Calvary, wonder what trinket to take back home.  Perhaps an olive wood Jesus?  Some Dallas Cowboys gear in Hebrew?

I tried to settle my mind.  My life is no less distracted than the street.  My attention wanders.  My enemies plague me even here.  “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are still not saved.” [Jeremiah 8:20]

Jesus meet me here.  This holy land teems with the violent, frivolous, stupid things we do.  And yet children play in the streets, couples smile at one another, pilgrims stare wide-eyed in wonder as the guide ahead waves a flag to keep them from losing their way, spices fragrance the air, a neglected cat finds food left on a stone wall by an unknown hand.

FullSizeRenderThere is light in this chaos.  Brilliant light like the burning sun of the Judean desert.  True, sometimes it’s mounted to a fake candle and needs to be replaced every 5-7 years.  But light.  Light which burns through and burns on to reconcile all things.