The Middle East is the cradle of monotheistic religion. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were all born there. All three of these religions, at their best, speak about reconciliation and living with your neighbor in peace. And yet last month Israel and Gaza were at war again in what has become a repetitious pattern of military confrontation.
What has gone so terribly wrong? Why have these three religions failed so miserably in inspiring their adherents to act in terms of their highest values of peace and reconciliation? The answer is simple. For most of these adherents, religion is about belief. Take the city of Jerusalem as an example. Religious beliefs centering on Jerusalem have transformed the city into a sacred piece of real estate for Jews, Muslims, and Christians.
Jews believe that God gave them Jerusalem as a gift to be their eternal capital. A look at this gift from the perspective of history is interesting. Prior to David invading and conquering the city around 1,000 BCE, Jerusalem was settled by a wide array of peoples. David ruled a united Israel from Jerusalem until 970 BCE. His son Solomon succeeded him, and ruled to 930 BCE. Following Solomon’s death, Israel split into a Southern and a Northern kingdom. Jerusalem remained the capital of the Southern Kingdom while Shechem became the capital for the North.
Jerusalem was never again the united capital of Israel until 1980. The city fell out of Jewish control completely in 586 BCE following the Babylonian invasion. With rare exceptions, Jerusalem remained outside of Jewish control for 2,500 years. The Jews regained sovereignty over West Jerusalem at the end of the Arab-Israeli War in 1948. They gained full control of the city following the Six-Day War in 1967. The government of Israel declared Jerusalem the eternal capital of Israel in 1980.
What was God’s position on this matter? God spoke through the classical prophets following the Babylonian invasion in 586 BCE promising that Israel would become free of colonial rule, and that Jerusalem would again become the capital of a unified Israel. God also promised that the family of David would again rule Israel from Jerusalem, and that Jerusalem would become the center of the earth. It took God more than 2,500 years to work this out with only partial success.
Jerusalem is the third holiest site in Islamic faith after the Sacred Mosque in Mecca and the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina. Jerusalem is sacred to Muslims because of Muhammad’s night of ascension in 620 CE. According to Muslim belief, Muhammad was miraculously transported from Mecca to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. There he met the angel Gabriel who took him on a journey from the Temple Mount to heaven where he spoke with Allah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. He returned to earth, and died twelve years later in Medina.
Where did Muhammad go on his trip? Where in the vast spaces of the universe is heaven? How did Muhammad travel there and back on his heavenly horse in such a limited amount of time?
Jerusalem is a holy place for Christians because of the activities of Jesus there. The Bible reports that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem which is historically credible. Luke’s gospel tells us the post resurrection encounters between Jesus and the disciples took place in Jerusalem, but that view is not universally held. Mark’s gospel is ambiguous, while Matthew claims this encounter took place on a mountain in Galilee. John relates that there were two post resurrection encounters: one in Jerusalem and the other along a lake in Galilee. Finally, on a related question, Luke tells us in the first chapter of Acts that Jesus physically ascended to heaven in Bethany, a small town near Jerusalem. Jesus is pictured as physically rising from the ground. The disciples watch until they lose him in the clouds. Again, we can legitimately ask: where did Jesus go? Is he still traveling through space on his journey?
From the tone of this review, it is obvious I do not find the beliefs of the three religions relating to Jerusalem to be credible, but that is not the central problem. The real problem is that belief is central to national identity, and national identity is an important component of nationalism, which fuels war. This set of circumstances is made worse when a people come to believe God is on their side.
The sad fact is religion is compounding the problem of peace in the Middle East. How do we change this situation? The first step is to admit that religious doctrine of all stripes is a human creation. God does not participate in this process. There are no exceptions. The examples above point to such a conclusion. Christians interested in examining this issue in greater depth can consult my book on Evangelical Christianity.
Once that is done, it will be possible for adherents to focus on what the three religions have in common. The first shared principle is the idea that God is ultimate mystery. From Jewish scriptures, Her name is Yahweh, I am who I am (Exodus 3: 1-15). The second shared value is the idea that one relates to God through love. The second part of this formula requires a lifelong commitment to enlarging your circle of neighbors and learning how to relate to them with love. When adherents of the three religions acknowledge these shared values, religion will finally become part of the solution rather than an important part of the problem.
Rick Herrick is the author of The Case Against Evangelical Christianity. In addition, he has two published novels, and his musical play, “Lighthouse Point,” will be performed in May of 2013.