To See Jesus in Holy Land Travails

We traveled to Israel-Palestine at the end of September for three weeks to see the situation ourselves, to show our caring for the people we would meet, and to see the sites where Jesus had (most likely) been.

But Jesus was hard to see, as churches had been built over many of the sites. After trying to wrestle through the overlay unsuccessfully to see how the terrain would have appeared to Jesus, I finally relaxed and enjoyed the ancient structures: the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, considered to be the site of Jesus’ birth; Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Old Jerusalem, presumably over Golgotha; and Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, one of the two spots (Catholic; the Greek Orthodox have another site) where Gabriel brought Mary news of her pregnancy.

In the north around the Sea of Galilee, I could get a better sense of Jesus having been there. Peter’s house in Capernaum, where Jesus stayed and healed Peter’s sick motherin- law, could well be historically accurate. The beautiful modern church built over it is elevated so you can see the results of the archaeological dig. I could easily imagine Jesus living in this village, boating on the big lake, and walking from there across Galilee to preach and heal.

Jesus came from Nazareth, a town of 200-400 people, not big enough to have a synagogue building. A poor carpenter, he obviously made a tremendous impact on the residents of Galilee. Mark’s Gospel, which I read as my wife and I traveled (or "travailed," the word is the same in mid- 17th century Quaker English), speaks repeatedly of people being "amazed."

It came to me, however, as I looked at this semi-arid, rock-strewn landscape and beautiful lake, that it could have been different. Other peasant leaders had arisen and died in obscurity, and it could have happened to Jesus. He was human, like us (the creeds say "fully human"). And his life, like ours, was chancy.

Yet his contingent life has been transformative for many, and so he has been remembered and honored by the construction of churches over the places associated with his life. I understand that impulse, but to me these architectural structures obscure the concreteness and contingency of Jesus, freezing him in stone. Similarly, dogmatic structures have been erected over the contingent Jesus. They claim that what Jesus did was all part of God’s eternal plan. God foresaw and willed it all: birth, life, crucifixion, and resurrection.

These impositions of architectural and doctrinal structures over Jesus’ chancy existence are intended to make us feel secure in the divine inevitability of a cosmic plan. But such certitude of divine manipulation obscures the spontaneity of Jesus’ decisions and interactions with God and the context that made up the weave of his life.

It is as though Jesus could not be as significant as he is, the Savior, for millions unless what happened was planned. But why is something only of eternal importance if it is the result of a plan? Are not our lives of eternal moment even though our being born and how we have interacted with our human and natural environment consist of considerable chance? Is not my meeting and marrying my wife, Beth, of eternal value even though there was no cosmic plan? Is not the beauty of this autumnal day refulgent with divine presence even though it is the result of meteorological concatenations? Even if my parents planned to have a child, they did not plan to have me, and yet I experience my life as rife with meaning.

The need for a plan to justify significance is similarly at play in the "creationists’" view of evolution. The creation of our world could not hold the value it does for us without God’s plan and manipulation.

Why do we fixate on being and control? Can we fully feel and celebrate the wonder of becoming human in our world, of our emergence out of the mystery of being?

Waiting in silence in a Quaker meeting is an event of contingency par excellence. Without a plan and with no guiding structures of liturgy or symbols, we open to the sheer chance and spontaneity of what will emerge out of the formless depths. Friends should be experienced with the plan-less contingency of divine agency.

Jesus’ life was similarly contingent and spontaneous, and he used his own Jewish heritage and God-given capacities to interact with what was given. What a wonder that such beauty and power should exist, and take fire among so many. That the power we know in our depths should be shaped by what we know about him in and outside the New Testament is cause for wonder—without recourse to a plan that explains it.

In our travels, we not only encountered structures of architecture and dogma imposed on the simple and amazing transformative life of Jesus, we also felt the travails of those living under political imposition. Palestinians living in Bethlehem (whether Christian or Muslim) are not permitted to travel the ten miles to their holy city of Jerusalem. Palestinians living in Old Jerusalem cannot leave without being forbidden to return. The Wall (or "Security Fence") divides families from each other and farmers from their farmlands. An Israeli citizen, upon returning to Tel Aviv after seeing her new grandson in Houston, was body searched, including between her toes, because she was Arab. When she asked the guard, "Is this a matter of security?" the woman replied, "We don’t argue." She then asked, "But how does this make you feel?" and was answered, "We don’t feel."

Soldiers with rifles standing in clumps around the Old City may feel to Palestinians the way 2,000 years ago Roman soldiers with spears standing around the same city may have felt to the Jews of that time. The occupation of, and building of settlements in, Palestine makes me think of what our European American ancestors did to Native Americans through "manifest destiny" in the 19th century.

We looked for Jesus in these travels and travails. Jesus drew heavily upon the "law and the prophets" in his understanding of love of God and neighbor (Mark 12:29-31). The words of an earlier inhabitant of Jerusalem, a prophet, with whom Jesus was no doubt familiar, came to me: "Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place." (Jeremiah 22:3) In Torah (the law) God says: "The land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me." (Lev 25:23) The Jewish people after all, long before Jesus took up the theme, introduced justice as a divine mandate to the world.

While my seeing Jesus was obstructed by the overlay of architecture, dogma, and politics, I could feel his spirit shaped by his Hebraic sense of justice and the presence of God. I could feel the contingency of this unique—and for many centrally significant—revelation of divine love, creativity, and justice. In his experience of God he knew that no structure— especially the political—is permanent. His spirit speaking within my spirit drew me down into the depths of love and held forth the potential for these travails and hardheartedness to change towards the inclusion of the "other" within a shared existence. Sinking into silence beneath all these structures (what early Friends called "forms"), I know the power—whether given Christian, Jewish, or Muslim names—beyond any visible hope, that can transform individual and social structures, making us all Children of Light.

Keiser Melvin

R. Melvin Keiser, a member of Swannanoa Valley Meeting in Black Mountain, N.C., is emeritus professor of Religious Studies at Guilford College.