What Jerusalem Means To Us: Christian Perspectives and Reflections

Video & Transcript
Fr. Dr. Drew Christiansen, S. J., Dr. Carole Monica Burnett, & Sir Rateb Rabie
Transcript No. 500 (May 21, 2018)

Mohamed K. Mohamed:
Good afternoon everybody. Thank you again for coming and joining us here today. And as I always mention, please silence your cell phones so we can avoid the usual interruptions. My name is Mohamed Mohamed. I’m the executive director here at the Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center. And on behalf of our board of directors and our staff, it’s a pleasure to welcome you here today. And of course, a pleasure to welcome our online audience, whoever is watching online. It is also an honor to introduce our distinguished speakers today. We have Sir Rateb Rabie, Father Drew Christiansen, and Dr. Carole Monica Burnett.

Why do Christians claim Jerusalem as a spiritual home? Why are we all in our own way sworn to protect and serve Jerusalem’s promise by preserving it for Christians everywhere? What is the impact of President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel? And to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, on the status quo and peace of Jerusalem? Why must the three Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, as well as the Palestinians and Israelis share Jerusalem? These answers are found in the book What Jerusalem Means to Us. In today’s lecture, you will hear from three of the contributors to this timely and unique volume of twenty three essays by Palestinian and other Christians of various cultural, ethnic, and backgrounds. Their contributions, authentic, heartfelt wise, faithfully address the Christian stake in Jerusalem as well as the universal meaning of Jerusalem. What becomes evident is that Jerusalem belongs to humanity in general. To all those who aspire, seek, and pursue a higher calling in its hollow ground. And it should remain as such for eternity. Copies of the book will be available for purchase after the event, and I’m sure our authors here would love to sign them for you.

So just a background brief biography of our speakers, we have in the middle, Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, is the distinguished professor of ethics and global human development at Georgetown University, and the senior research fellow at the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. He is a Canon of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem and the co founder of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, and a member of its advisory board. On my far right is Dr. Carole Monica Burnett, who is the editor of the Fathers of the Church Series, an expanding collection of early Christian texts, translated from Greek, Latin, and Syriac, published by the Catholic University of America Press. She has taught church history at the Ecumenical Institute of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore. As well as Greek and Latin at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington D.C. Her spiritual home is the Antiochian Orthodox Church. To my right is Sir Rateb Rabie, KCHS, who is the founder, president, and CEO of the Holy Land Christian Economical Foundation or HCEF. He was born in Amman, Jordan, to Palestinian parents, and he is co founder and past national president of the Birzeit Society, and co founder, vice president, and treasurer of The Institute for Health, Development, and Research in Palestine. He is also a knight commander of the Equestrian Order of Holy Sepulchre and a fourth degree knight of Columbus. Founder and co chair of the Holy Land Outreach Committee of the Knights of Columbus, Maryland State Council. He is the recipient of the faith and tolerance award from the Arab American Anti Discrimination Committee. Sir Rateb Rabie is committed to improving the living conditions for Palestinian Christians in their homeland, preserving Palestine’s Christian heritage, and strengthening the identity of Palestinian Christians in the world wide diaspora. So we have a knight within our presence here. Our speakers will speak for about forty five minutes, after which we will have a Q&A session. We ask as always that you wait for the mic to come to you so that everyone online can hear as well. And the online audience, as always, you can tweet your questions to @palestinecenter. Please join me in giving a warm welcome to Sir Rateb Rabie, Father Drew Christiansen, and Dr. Carole Monica Burnett.

Sir Rateb Rabie:
Good afternoon. I just want to make things clear, I’m contributor to this book, but I’m not the intellectual like these two people. Okay, I just put the things together. This book is very important that we put it together as the Holy Land Christianity Ecumenical Foundation because of what’s happening in Jerusalem. Already we’ve been fighting for Jerusalem, for what’s been happening in Jerusalem. Forget about Trump, forget about the Embassy. We’ve been struggling. Jerusalem is in danger. What’s happening in Jerusalem we’re working on. The Israelis have three things that they’re doing to Jerusalem in order to change the identity of Jerusalem. They are doing little to improve Jerusalem, especially I’m talking about East Jerusalem. The de-development of the city by building the wall around it, this is phase one. The second thing, that is what they’re doing, I want to call it the “Israelization” of Jerusalem because you go there every time you visit Jerusalem, and you see more and more it is losing its identity as Christian and as a Muslim, and as Palestinian, and as international city for everyone should be there. The third thing that they’re trying to do is gentrification of the city. They are trying to kick the Palestinian out, bring more Jewish in, you know. It becomes more Jewish city than Palestinian city.

When I talk as Christian, I don’t want to say it is a Christian city, even I should say that if I think like them because the only prophet was there is Jesus Christ. That means it would be a Christian city, but no. In Christianity, we like to share it! We say it’s for all. But this is where we have to think about it because it is a spiritual city, you know, for everyone. And the story of the book is struggling when they decided to move the Embassy to Jerusalem. It is shocking, you know, because we cannot, first, as a Palestinian, the British gave Palestine to the Jewish. Then, now, Trump gives the city to them, it’s like he owns it. This is the idea of this book. How we can Christians claim the city as a city for all, I’m not saying for Christians. This is why I want to emphasize for that, it is for all of us. And we’ve been living there for long time. My parents were living in the city in 1948 when they were kicked out. That means I have heard the stories and I am a son of refugees when they were kicked out to Jordan. And this is where I was born. And that’s what I’m saying here, the city should be for all. As Christians, we should not be silent because we are silent and this is why they take advantage of this. We should speak out, and I am saying we should have another announcement, let’s have another embassy for the Palestinians in Jerusalem, and we will all be fine. But I don’t involve in politics, and I don’t involve in theology. But I involve in human rights issues, you know, where we should all think about it like our city. If we all think about it like that then we have peace.

This is where changing with this order decided to move the embassy the status quo is gone. Now they are changing things that should not be changed because nobody will accept it. And as you see the whole world is against it except a few countries because economical bases they are following the United States and its unfair and we talk to a lot of people and they say this is not the right thing to do. And the book has 23 leaders, you know, and Christian religious leaders wrote in this book. You know, it is nice articles, it is easy to read, nicely put together. And this is done by our editor, Dr. Saliba Sarsar, who is in charge of HCF publication and research committee, which that he looked into it, and he’s from Jerusalem. And he put his heart into this book. And we published this book as fast as we could. And, even you know, when you have to deal with all these people it is challenging, you know, because they are all over. They are in the Holy Land, in Europe, and here. And to ask each one of them, this was hard for me just to make sure there were contributions. We asked others they couldn’t make it within four or five weeks, we gave them that time in order to put the book together.

When all these articles came together, we looked at them and we find out that they have three things, you know, into this book. One is theological mediation, this is some of the writers like Father David Rennick from the Presbyterian Church. He can see the depth of it, you know, about what is Jerusalem, and he will talk about it in a little bit. The second one was personal views from the Bible to national and political reflections. This is something where I wrote about it, the whole idea of the organization ACF came from Jerusalem. I got the call there, I don’t know, there was in the holy sepulchre and somebody was talking to me. Who, I don’t know, you just look around and somebody talk to you. They need to do something about that. And this is how I moved, I decided to start something for the Christians in the Holy Land. This does not mean I am just for the Christians, I am for all Palestinians, because this is what is our faith regardless. If you don’t do that does not mean you are not Christian. And this is where I thought this is our entrance to the world to listen to us. As a Palestinian activist no one was listening to us. The last things I did as only Palestinian activist was commemorating the 50 years of Nakba, for one full year with all the Arab organizations, and we failed. Failed in getting the message out. I thought there should be another way to do it, is to go through the Churches and ask them to help us and let them know the truth, because this is not our responsibilities as Palestinian Christians to save the faith. It is your responsibilities as Christians to save our faith and save our roots because this is your home, as anybody else. And this is where we started and moved forward on this.

This is one thing, the other thing is we managed to get the endorsement from main head of churches in Palestine–the Latin, the Orthodox, and the Lutherans. Because they’re very important to us, we are all together. You know, for Jerusalem. And it cannot be for one faith, it has to be for all faiths. And this is what the book is all about, you know, that we are doing that. I am not going to stop here, we’re going to do now we are working on what Jerusalem means to us, Muslim perspectives and reflections. And the third one about the Jewish, who believe in sharing Jerusalem, and all of that. Because we need to hear that all in one, three books and put them together. And put them together, in order to let the world to know that we all want Jerusalem to all of us. We are not prejudice, we are not against anybody, we don’t discriminate against anybody, and this is the message we have to do because when we say Jerusalem is the city is peace, how we can be city of peace when we are all fighting over for it for our own selves? And this is not acceptable. And this is where the book, you know, it really wants to know the opinion of the Christians, it is in the book. The book is not for commercial when we made it, we need to use it as tools. Tools for schools, seminaries, wherever there are people interested n Jerusalem to know what are the views of the Christians for now. There are people interested in Jerusalem. What are there views of the Christians for now? And this is good change [from] the way things had been in Jerusalem, and we need to speak up as Christians, not as politicians or anything […] and this is where…I just came back from Boston. I spoke at the Boston College and other…and the high school now…they are interested to know…they are young but you need to start with them in order to figure out how we can make everybody aware of the situation—not as just, you know, Jerusalem [claimed] by Israelis…and to be claimed and if you talk about it then you are [an] anti-Semite. And the good thing…we are Palestinian. We are Semites too, and always I cannot […] and this is where I’m fighting for sharing Jerusalem and where everybody should think about it that way. I’m gonna give up my other 30 minutes and let Father Andrew speak. Thank you very much.

Fr. Dr. Drew Christiansen, S.J.:
If you don’t mind, I will speak here from my place. I want to thank Mohamed for his hospitality. It’s always good to be back here at the Palestine Center, and thank Rabie for organizing the book, for finding a publisher for it, and inviting me to be part of it. This is especially important because it’s the 20th anniversary of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, so this is a special kind of undertaking. I hope you’ll be able to participate in our celebration of that 20th anniversary this coming October. For those of you who are of a certain age, as a retired editor, I want to point out that the print of this book is large, and the leading—that is, the space between the lines—is wide, so it’s much easier to read, especially when you’re getting sleepy. It’ll keep, your eyes will be able to relax on it. You don’t have to squint to, kind of, look at the print as you often do. It’s really for an audience at my age and older. It’s a help to kind of read it that way.

I want to talk first about my own piece and kind of said it is something that I think we all share. And that is that, as much as we want to act, we’ve been stymied by our failures in the past. We admire people like Rateb for never giving up and finding new ways to, kind of, express his commitment to the people, the Holy Land, and to build solidarity around that cause. Maureen may remember when we had the appeal from the churches of Middle East Peace back in 1994. I guess it was ‘95 when the ecumenical finally realized for united Jerusalem. That was a response of the American church leaders to request of the heads of churches in Jerusalem to take a position on Jerusalem, and we eventually designed a campaign that was very widely broadcast and well-received but also received a lot of hostility because, again, it was making challenges to an exclusivist claim to Jerusalem. And out claim still is…our calling is still that Jerusalem is a city for all. As Pope John Paul II described it, it’s a place of encounter with God for all humanity. Through the three monotheistic faiths, the whole of the human family encounters God, and, therefore, the place where that happens—Jerusalem—is sacred to humanity as well as to the people of those three faiths. I wanna come back to that a little later. That was really the core of the appeal of the patriarchs and the churches and the appeal that we’re going to make today.

I chose a meditation as a format because of this experience of constant effort and, only whenever there were victories, they were partial victories and mostly setbacks, especially in recent years, with respect to Jerusalem. And I took the biblical format of lament as the place where I would reflect because lament really kind of expresses a built up reservoir of energy, of disappointment, of regret, of frustration. And you just let a little roll out to God. I’d say this is…I’m afflicted. Because we all know lament from Jeremiah and the Book of Lamentations, but you find it elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures as well, particularly at the end of Tobit, which is the lament that I used as kind of my text in this book. Lament kind of enables you to name that suffering but also name your expectations, your hopes that have been dashed. And it also invites God to renew you with courage and hope, and I think that’s the important part to be able to say that kind of prayer. Until you can cleanse yourself of those negative feelings of loss and hostility that rises from that loss of repeated pain and repeated obstacles..until you can, kind of, put them aside you can’t really be committed to making it a city…making Jerusalem a city for humanity. And we’re reminded that Jesus himself wept over Jerusalem. When he approaches the city, he goes to above the Mount of Olives and that way we have today the Shrine of Dominus Flevit commemorating that event where he cried because Jerusalem had missed its moment of peace—that is, this opportunity to recognize him as the bearer of God’s message. And he was longing that that would happen, and it didn’t happen for him, so we share with him that lament as well as sharing with one another.

The other side of lament, of course, is the movement to hope, hope that Jerusalem will become a city for all. I’m very much inspired by the vision of the mountain, Mount Zion, in Isaiah where he says, “All nations will come here and worship.” And then there’s the wonderful—if you haven’t read it recently—go back and read the wonderful Psalm 87, which people come from Assyria, they come from Ethiopia, they come from around the then-known world and say, “This is our home. This is where we were born.” And it seems to me that that Psalm more than any other expresses the desire for Jerusalem to be a city of universal peace.

Let me just say a bit about how this relates to the current situation. It seems to me that what we have in the prophetic tradition—at least in some of the psalms, particularly Psalm 87 but elsewhere as well—is a hope for a city that will really open its doors for everyone. Under Israeli control, we’ve had [difficulties] opening the shrines to all people, especially Palestinians from the West Bank, but people from our countries as well. They’ve been refused admission to the places that are holy to them. But it’s more to a sense that the Zionist claims for Jerusalem are deliberately exclusivist. Historical reasons for that may be plain, but they also emphasize a certain hardness that needs to be overcome by welcoming, generous hearts. And there’s a sense that other people have to be excluded for it to belong to Israelis, and that’s not the case. It can be shared. It can be a shared city. Our appeal of ‘95 was for a shared Jerusalem, and I think that’s still the expectation. I hope that Jerusalem will be able to be shared by Christians, Muslims, and Jews because the city is sacred to all. I think there are some events coming up in the coming year that can be of help. I think that in the high-level meeting following the…at the end of the General Assembly this year will be on migrants and refugees. And I think that, you know, there ought to be occasion there to talk about the need of the right of return of Palestinians to their homeland—particularly right to enter into Jerusalem.

I think also that those of us who’re concerned about the fate of Palestinians need to be very concerned about the refunding of UNRWA—the release of the funds [was] already allocated but the resumption of the large amounts that the U.S. used to give. The Trump administration reduced that amount considerably by more than a hundred million dollars and then withheld 65 million dollars at a peak when Palestinian folks condemn the movement of the [Israeli] embassy to Jerusalem. But most of all, it seems to me that what we have to do is to hand over our frustrations to the Lord in that spirit of lament, so that we’d be free to act in new ways—as Rateb continues to do—to work for Jerusalem as a city that represents universal peace. Thank you all.

Dr. Carole Monica Burnett:
My chapter in the book is going to appear to you as different from what I’m about to say. In other words, I’m not going to stick with what I have written. Because—partly because—if I did stick with what I’ve written, you wouldn’t wanna read the book because you’d say “Oh, been there, done that!” But both my chapter and what I’m saying today could have a title “Confessions of a Reformed Religious Romanticist.” Now, being a religious romantic is not a bad thing, but it can be taken much too far. To speak about my mentality before, say 2005-2006, I would say that I was in the long line of Western pilgrims who would come to the Holy Land and engage in prayer and worship, and it was so special to them to be in the very same place where Jesus had been because, as Christians, we believe that God became incarnate and walked this Earth. God is not a detached God; He came here to be with us and to feel what we feel as humans. And so, we know that when you come to Earth you have to come to a specific spot; you can’t just come to whole Earth all at once. So, to touch that spot is a very special experience. And, when you grow up with the Bible, those biblical narratives become part of your own personal identity. It’s who I am—identifying with this panoply of characters and events. So, I was—I would have to say—a typical pilgrim.

Now, as far as Western pilgrims coming to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in general, you probably know that this stream of pilgrims started with the reign of the Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena who visited the Holy Land and the construction of churches at places where it was decided that specific things had happened. The earliest record that we have of one of these pilgrimages comes from the year 333 when the Emperor Constantine was still alive, and that’s the Pilgrim of Bordeaux in France, and he left behind some records—they’re sort of dry to read—but of where he had been and what is located where. And then you probably have heard of Egeria, who, it is thought, was probably from northern Spain and was a nun [who] came and left detailed descriptions of her prayer and worship experiences.

Then there’s feisty old Saint Jerome who came towards the end of the 4th century and settled down. He wrote letters back to his friends in Rome, pleading with them to come and join him in the Holy Land. He had gone with two of his women friends, Paula and Eustochium, but he wanted to be joined by more of his women friends, and so he wrote these letters. One of them is particularly moving to me, I think. He’s writing it to Marcella. This is letter number 46, saying “Please come! Please come! Please come!” And he says, “When you come, we will go to the Holy Sepulchre, and we will weep with the blessed Mother Mary. We will go to the Tomb of Lazarus, and we will see him emerge in his grave clothes. We will go to the Mount of Olives, and our spirits will rise in prayer as we see the Lord ascending.” It’s very beautiful. And what he’s saying there is that if you come to the exact spot where things happened, you can re-experience it; it will happen again for you. It will not just be something written on the page of the Bible. So, I really identified with that. And, also, there have been many other pilgrims that have left behind descriptions. A couple of them have said that your religious education is not complete unless you come here.

Today, we just say it’s the fifth Gospel. The Holy Land is the fifth Gospel. But I would have to say that the most lyrical, and eloquent, poetic expression of delight in the holy places, came not from a Westerner – this is just my taste, my opinion – it came from someone who was born in Damascus, who joined the monastery of Saint Theodosius which is near Bethlehem – you can still go there, by the way – and spent time in Alexandria, Egypt, traveled around the eastern Mediterranean with a friend named John Moschus. And you may have guessed, or you may not, his name was Sophronius. He was the patriarch of Jerusalem at the time when the Caliph Umar arrived with his Muslim contingent. So, he oversaw the transfer of Jerusalem into Muslim hands, which actually went quite smoothly. But that is Saint Sophronius. Now, he wrote these poems when he was away from Jerusalem. And, let me just read a section to you. Sophronius writes: “Holy City of God, Jerusalem! How I long to stand even now at your gates and go in rejoicing. Let me walk thy pavements, and go inside the Anastaseos (the Church of the Resurrection, that is) where the King of All rose again, trampling down the power of death. Through the divine sanctuary, I will penetrate the divine tomb. And with deep reverence, will venerate the rock. And prostrate, I will venerate the navel point of the Earth, that divine rock in which was fixed the wood which undid the curse of the tree. How great thy glory, noble rock, in which was fixed the Cross, the redemption of mankind. Exultant, let me go into the place where all of us who belonged to the people of God, venerate the glorious wood of the Cross.”

Now, where did that attitude leave me? I was starry-eyed, I’ve got to confess to you I was, ok? But being starry-eyed can only take you so far. In 2005, I stood with my oldest son on a street in Jerusalem, just outside the New Gate of the Old City. And across the street, I saw a humble-looking man dressed in poor clothing, who was walking along the sidewalk, not carrying anything, just strolling slowly. Not doing anything suspicious at all. And two IDF soldiers descended upon him. One of them trained a gun on him, and the other searched him. I said to my son, “Why?” And he said, “That’s what happens around here.” Now, as Americans, this is outrageous! There’s no way we would tolerate anything like that. That was the seminal incident that sparked my investigation of the Holy Land today. And, being concerned to stay with Christian sources, I first read Elias Chacour’s book. Actually, his first two books. And I saw what the Nakba was all about. I had not realized, having grown up with Paul Newman’s beautiful blue eyes in the movie Exodus, I had no idea. But Archbishop Elias Chacour lays it all out through a Christian lens, but not trying to dull the pain of what he suffered as a child, and as an adult. Subsequently, I did some travelling with some Sabeel groups, and I investigated settlements, the wall, checkpoints in the wall, and the flying checkpoints, which are totally unpredictable. And my own mobility in the Holy Land was interfered with by the Israeli apartheid system. And so, I was beginning to get a feel of what’s going on today. Then, I thought, “Well, how can this be the Holy Land? How can this be a holy city?” And, I realized that we’ve got to act. If we don’t act, we’re gonna have to start calling it the Unholy City to be honest human beings. So, I looked back at Jerome – his letter to Marcella-, and apparently Marcella has said she doesn’t want to come to Jerusalem. She says, because “It’s not really holy.” The Holy City is in the Book of Revelation, the holy city that descends from Heaven in the vision of Saint John. And she says, “That’s the one I’m waiting for.” Apparently, she has written to him earlier, and now he’s responding to her objections. And he says, well, he goes on about the good behavior of people in Jerusalem in his time. I would not have responded that way, but here’s how I would have responded to Marcella. I would say that if you consign today’s Jerusalem to cruelty, injustice, and oppression and suffering. If you say, “Well, this is just the way it has to be — I give up.” What are you [then]? You are engaging in a Christian heresy called “dualism”, which says that this Earth is corrupt and sinful, and that only the Heavenly Powers can bring us out of it. That there are good forces and evil forces at war with each other, and we’re kind of helpless. And so, I think – I’m not saying Marcella was a dualist – but I’m saying we should not be dualists. We should not sit back and say, “Well, there’s a war in Heaven, there’s some kind of metaphysical combat between good and evil going on here.” We have to stand up. If we don’t, we’re on the side of evil. That’s the way it is.

So, what can we do? Well, for one thing, we should never shut up, ever. We should write letters to editors, editors of papers, magazines, church newsletters, you name it. Anything that comes out in print or online — respond! Tell people what’s going on, because Americans don’t know. Also, there’s writing to legislators too, attending events, and rallies, and so forth. And, I want to talk particularly to this business of writing to editors, because if editors don’t receive letters, they won’t know what their readership is thinking. They might think, “Oh, you love to read these articles about how terrible Hamas is, or how saintly the Israeli army is.” They might think that you’re eating all that up, if you don’t speak out. And so, I have actually – and I did not mention this in my chapter at all, I didn’t even allude to it – but, I have a medium monitoring service called “Right Alert”. It’s not affiliated with any organization. It’s just some other people and me – as friends – who got together and monitor, we monitor the newspapers in the United States. When there is an Op-ed or an incredibly biased feature article, we send out an alert to our subscribers. And it’s free. It’s a free service. Nobody pays anything, there’s no obligation. But, we send an alert with suggested talking points, and how to write to the editor of that particular publication. Likewise, if there’s an op-ed that we want to applaud and to support, we also send out an alert. To subscribe, you send an email to writealert@outlook.com (spells email). No obligation whatsoever. If you don’t write the letter to the editor, I’ll never know. But at least it’s a little heads up that here’s a place where you can speak out. It’s a notification of an opportunity. As Americans, as Christians, we cannot let the Holy City be so unholy. We are the light of the world, and we’ve gotta let that light shine. Amen!