Fall Books

September 6, 1996



By Karen Armstrong

Alfred A. Knopf, 471 pages, $30 hardcover


["The Rev. Vern Barnet is minister in residence at the World Faiths Center for Religious Experience and Study in Kansas City, Mo., and writes a religion column for The Kansas City Star."]

When David united the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, he wanted a neutral place claimed by neither for his capital. So he took Jerusalem. He respected its Jebusite inhabitants, kept their city administration and honored their sacred sites. Karen Armstrong laments that as the 3,000th anniversary of that event is being celebrated this year, Israel has not measured up to his example."

Jerusalem is shamed by the expropriation of others' lands, denial of human rights, rejection of international [aw and assaults on sacred places by Israelis and by the murder of an Israeli prime minister by a fellow Jew. It is also shamed by Christians whose bitter quarrels among themselves persist today even at the holiest shrine of that faith, the Holy Sepulcher Church, where a Muslim family keeps the keys because none of the various Christian groups that use the church trusts the other Christians to let them in when it is their turn. It is shamed by Muslim violence that strikes from the occupation camps and lurks within groups like Hamas.

The city is holy to the three great monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But instead of inspiring the highest spirituality, it often has generated violence and tragedy. The crusaders, for example, exulted in massacre as a triumph of Christianity. One eyewitness, noting piles of Jewish and Muslim heads, hands and feet, wrote that

As Armstrong gives us the history of the city, she asks what goes wrong when believers desire to possess a physical symbol of the sacred more than the sacred itself.

When the children of Israel sought the Promised Land, they carried the Ark of the Covenant with them. Solomon ended this divine portability by building a Temple in Jerusalem on what probably had been a site sacred to the god Baal. The Temple so overshadowed other holy places that when it was destroyed in 586 B.C.E., most Jews felt their world had ended.

Yet this catastrophe led to a new creativity. In exile they rediscovered that God's glory needs no fixed abode. The home became the temple. One could respect the Torah, the law, at all times and places. More important than Temple ritual is compassion. The physical city laid waste, Jerusalem became a symbol of inner holiness.

Later, after Herod's Temple was destroyed by the Romans, the Sabbath met God in consecrated time rather than sacred space. Mystics developed a conception of an indestructible heavenly Jerusalem whose temple could be reached by an inner 'aliyah,' ascent.

The physical possession of Jerusalem and its sites was not so important. Until the 16th century, the Western Wall remaining from Herod's Temple had no particular interest to the Jews. In the 20th century, most early Zionists offered no devotion to the Western Wall either. But when Jordan annexed Jerusalem in 1948, the wall was no longer accessible to Israelis. In 1967 the Israelis broke into the Old City and the soldiers aimed for what had become the holiest place in the Jewish world.

Nonetheless, the claim made today that Jews have a right to Jerusalem is not grounded historically [Jews did not "get there first"], theologically [the truest Jerusalem is a spiritual reality] or morally [throwing others out of their homes is hardly compassionate].

Ironically, Jewish life in Jerusalem was most secure under Muslim rule. Those who say "Muslims and Jews have been fighting forever" do not know history. Byzantine Christians had expelled Jews from Jerusalem, so Jews welcomed the Muslims in 638, six years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The Muslim leader Umar accepted Jerusalem and ordered no killing, expulsion, expropriation or desecration, and no efforts to convert Christians or Jews, who were now protected. Jerusalem flourished.

In 688, a successor to Umar commissioned the famous Dome of the Rock. Later it was thought that Muhammad ascended from the Rock to heaven after his night journey.

In 1099, the first Crusade expelled Jews and Muslims from the Holy City and brought Jerusalem under Christian control again. When Saladin appeared in 1187, Christian Jerusalem surrendered and Saladin took no revenge. Muslims were amazed to see wealthy Christians leaving without helping the Christian poor. Saladin invited Jews back to the city. Later, Suleiman [1520-66] enabled Jews to hold government posts.

Jerusalem is the third-holiest city for Islam, after Mecca and Medina, and Muslims originally prayed facing Jerusalem. Unlike Judaism, whose idea of holiness is based on separateness, Islam sees holiness arising from inclusiveness. Perhaps this explains why, despite some severe lapses, the Muslims generally brought a better practice of holiness to the city than the others.

Early Christians rejected the idea of holy places. The Jerusalem Temple Holy of Holies could be entered only by the high priest and only once a year. When Jesus died, the Temple veil separating the Holy of Holies was torn asunder. Now everyone could have access to the holy in the person of Jesus. Paul took the new religion from Jerusalem to the world. Jerusalem was despised as the guilty city that killed the savior.

Christians, however, argued about Jesus. In the fourth century, the party of Arius said that because God was revealed to us in Jesus, holy places were unnecessary. The belligerent Athanasius understood Christ differently. Constantine resented quibbling within the faith he adopted for the Roman Empire in 313 C.E. He enthusiastically accepted a proposal from an Athanasian to demolish the Temple of Aphrodite in Jerusalem in order to unearth the Tomb of Christ said to be buried beneath it. A rock tomb discovered two years later was declared to be the sepulcher of Christ.

The ensuing excitement in Jerusalem assured the triumph of the Athanasian doctrine in the Nicene Creed, set a precedent for the Christian desecration of nonChristian sites and prepared the way for the crusader preoccupation with Jerusalem, which continued until science dislodged Jerusalem from the center of the Christian universe.

But sentiment remains. Jerusalem the city of Christ's death and resurrection, captures the mind perhaps more readily than his teachings. Viewing what is said to be his tomb is easier than following his example. Possessing the city has been desired more than being possessed by his Spirit.

If Jerusalem is a sacred city, why has it fostered so much self-righteousness, hatred and killing? Can a city so profaned really be holy? Who would want to claim that Jerusalem embodies one's highest ideals? The reader might wonder if Jerusalem is cursed or the work of the devil.

To guide our thinking about holy sites, Armstrong draws on Mircea Eliade, the great scholar of thc sacred. But the theological equipment she provides is too slender and too political. She shows that neither Jews nor Christians originally considered Jerusalem holy, but as they sought to prove and define themselves against others, it became so. She documents how Jerusalem has been used to confirm religious identity within the three faiths but fails to examine whether these faiths are right to encourage this lust for identity.

Consider a contrary view, say from Buddhism: Clinging inevitably causes suffering, and the most harmful form of clinging is the desire for identity. The squabbles over keys, the invention of supposed relics and the fanatical wars for the city itself may arise not because the city is holy but because the three faiths cannot offer or practice a perspective beyond a pathological concentration on their identities. If Jerusalem could become a city that embraced compassion over cruelty and openness over identity, then it might become holy.

[in sidebox] - "Armstrong asks what goes wrong when believers desire to possess a physical symbol of the sacred more than the sacred itself."