It’s about 4.30am and the man with the very loud loudspeaker is chanting at us: ‘God is great … it is better to pray than sleep.’
If we had taken a poll of the 30 of us I’m sure we would have agreed on the first statement, but I’m not sure we’d have agreed on the second – not at that time of day in any case.
Of course this was all going on in Arabic and we were in a city that gets up pretty early to avoid the worst of the heat. Bethlehem is hardly a little town lying still, it’s a bustling metropolis clinging to the hills outside Jerusalem and separated not by fields but by the Israeli security wall. Its streets thrum with the sound of traffic – even the narrowest streets seem to have a small tractor or a couple of cars trying to thread their way between ancient buildings. They are alive with the smell of spices, Turkish coffee, diesel and the strange roadside snacks (anyone fancy a bag of beans to munch on?). And everywhere you go they seem to be selling luggage.
The wall has been populated with extraordinary works of art and graffiti. Banksy has been here, and for some reason there’s a giant mural of American actor Morgan Freeman next to a quote from Nelson Mandela – as if they hadn’t realised that he was just the actor playing the part, not the real thing. And there is humour here too. The hostelry next to the wall is called The Walled-Off Hotel. A notice declares that everything the other side of the wall is a big car park. One guard post along the wall has a portrait of the American president with the caption Trump Tower.
Get through the security wall (being careful to avoid the dogs laid out along the road), and you come to a different place – from the Middle East to Europe. That, at least, is what Israel seeks to project. The cars are less dented, the traffic… well in fairness that’s just as chaotic, the streets cleaner, the houses shinier.
As you spend time in Israel and the West Bank you begin to realise that everything works by a delicate balance. There are no peace talks and yet there is peace. Problems arise when someone upsets the balance. In the Christian sites you quickly realise that it is the same thing. Catholic and Orthodox spent years battling for possession of the ‘holiest’ sites, sometimes literally battling. Rival gangs of monks would duke it out in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. People died fighting for religious real estate.
By the middle of the 18th Century, the Ottoman Sultan had had enough. Yes, it took a Muslim to bring order to Christians in Jerusalem. Now everything remains the same, sometimes frozen in time. A ladder in place for repairs at the Holy Sepulchre must stay where it is. It was even replaced when it rotted away.
There is an absence of war in the Holy Land – but is this really peace? It doesn’t take many trips through the wall to make you think of Paul’s words to the Ephesians. We reflected on them at communion in the Garden Tomb:
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.Ephesians 2:14-16
This is real peace. It is costly and yet a free gift, and it is mankind’s only hope for real peace. Whatever divides us, Jews and Gentiles or anything else – Christ is our hope.
Yours in His Name,