Saturday, March 10, 2007

Jerusalem, Jerusalem

Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." He said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.' Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'" (Luke 13:31-35)

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Next Year in Jerusalem, say my friends around the Passover Table. Jerusalem is the city that is holy to three faiths. It is the axis mundi, the city of spices and music and narrow streets in its old quarter, a city that, at least according to my friend Dorothy who lived there for awhile, speaks with a music all its own. It is also a city where much blood has been shed, the city where, at least according to Jesus, prophets go to die. Perhaps it is the city that brings us face to face with our truth.

There can be no One Earth Lent without a stop in Jerusalem. At the very least, Jerusalem raises the critique that many enviromentalists have laid at the feet of the Judeo-Christian tradition, that we are an urban faith, that we worship a God who wants to lift us off the earth rather than guide us in its ways. St. Augustine did not locate God in nature; his magnum opus was The City of God. Our Israelite forebears were less otherworldly, but for them, too, excepting Abraham, the wilderness was a place of travail. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the City of God was Jerusalem, the city conquered when David and his troops entered the water shaft via trickery, and which became the capital of the undivided kingdom:

On the holy mount stands the city he founded;
the Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwellings of Jacob.
Glorious things are spoken of you,
O city of God. (Ps. 87)

Many of us are troubled that war rages in a land called holy, that Israelis and Palestinians shoot each other’s children and most of the Christians who once lived there have fled. Many say that this war is an indictment of religion itself. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you were not willing.” Jesus does not yet live in the world of St. Augustine. Augustine, watching the Roman empire fall all around him, dies in thrall to what he believes is God's vision of Imperial Law and Order. Jesus, on the other hand, just comes to earth and walks around and proclaims that we’re all in this together, a clutch of baby birds, terrified of anything that does not look like us. Therefore, we may be reading the city wrong. The city is not a negation of nature, but a gathering place for scattered and frightened life.

Fear and bad assumptions may what ail Jerusalem. Robert Putnam, Harvard sociologist and author of the well known study Bowling Alone, discovered a very uncomfortable statistic. In a survey of 26,200 people in 40 American communities, it turned out that the more racially and culturally diverse the community, the lower the level of trust. Needless to say, certain interests who oppose multi-culturalism were happy to hear this, but I think they may be a little hasty. Statistics are not the same as conclusions.

Jerusalem is a city of Jews, Christians and Muslims. Far from being disturbed by this, I wonder whether God wants it this way, not as a sinful locus of conflict, but as a sacred classroom of trust. To live well with those who are not like me requires that I work at it. To live in a diverse world calls me to work on community. In homogeneous communities like the affluent suburb I inhabit, our sameness allows us to pursue our private lifestyles without much regard for what others might think. We don’t smoke. We all drive expensive cars. There are no grizzled prospectors among us who failed to stake their claim, so we need not look failure in the face. But biology favors diversity. Creatures that are forced to contend with the Other grow wiser than those who don’t. Cities, according to essayist Jay Walljasper, are human ecosystems. “In terms of the environment, cities clearly offer the most earth–friendly lifestyle. A resident of an inner–city neighborhood who takes public transit to work, walks to local businesses, and shares a modest home with family or friends imposes far less damage on the environment than most Americans do.” (1

The story of the Bible begins in a Garden and ends in the Heavenly City. We should not confuse either of these places with the sorry state of our world today. Even as our world may be falling apart, both the Garden and the Heavenly City are masterpieces of collaboration. Both contain all the means of life. As Chicago New Testament professor Barbara Rossing reminded us at this year's Trinity Institute Lectures in New York, in Revelation’s Heavenly City we taste, at last, of the Tree of Life, the Tree whose fruit we were not ready for in the beginning. The Tree bears its fruit in due season and all of its leaves are healing.

Perhaps we should think more carefully about eating peaches in January. Perhaps the decay of the inner city is an outward and visible sign of the decay of our own inner lives.

(1 Toward the Liveable City, Emilie Buchwald, ed. Minneapolis, Milkweed Editions; 2003, p. 243

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