Living God in Jerusalem – Disputed territory

It has not been an easy day, but then entering into anyone’s disputes is never easy or comfortable.  We began with a visit to the Dheisheh Palestinian Refugee Camp in Bethlehem.  We then moved on to the Efrata Israeli Settlement which is just outside Bethlehem.  Then we concluded the day by visiting the National Holocaust Memorial and Museum, Yad Vashem.  It is almost impossible to take in all of that.


Martyrs of the Dheisheh Camp

In both the Refugee Camp and the Settlement we met passionate men who told us the truth from their perspectives.  The displaced Palestinians had a right to their land even though it was a full seventy years since they were forced to move as the State of Israel was first created.  They were waiting for the restitution of what is rightly theirs.  The settlers, on the other hand, knew that it was their God given right to be on this land.  The international community may condemn them for their illegal act but they do not care.  This land belonged to no one but them.  They are here and here to stay we were told very clearly.


The calm beauty of the synagogue at Efrata Settlement

Then we saw what can happen when antisemitism becomes part of a distortion of a national psyche, becomes part of a political agenda.  The horrors of the Holocaust are never diminished however many times you listen to the testimonies, however many times you see the piles of discarded shoes and the yellow stars waiting to be sewn on to clothing.  It seems impossible that this happened in such recent history – yet it did.

Some one commented to me that it was like putting a frog in a kettle.  Put the frog into boiling water and it will leap out; put it in tepid water and bring it slowly to the boil … it’s a famous metaphor for how we are sometimes unaware of what is creeping up on us, incrementally destroying, until you wake up and find that it is too late. Was that what it was like under the Nazi regime?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that whilst people speak about wanting peace their passions do not allow them to make peace, because peace will involve talking and ultimately compromise and recognising in some ways the rights of the other person, not just to have what they need, but to have a right to exist.

The Psalmist describes the problem so clearly.

Too long have I had my dwelling
   among those who hate peace. 
I am for peace;
   but when I speak,
   they are for war. (Psalm 120.6-7)

There were no winners among those we met today – but there were a great many losers.  Standing in the Hall of Names in Yad Vashem I was overwhelmed by the images in the dome that surrounded me – all those lovely, innocent faces, and among them all those children.  One and a half million Jewish children died as part of the six million Jews who were slaughtered in the Holocaust.  Each of them was innocent.  Palestinian children suffer every day and experience deprivations that they should never have to suffer.  Each of them is innocent.


The faces of the innocent in the Hall of Names

The land may be disputed but our children must never be the victims of our disputes – yet all too often they are, and they pay the price for the rest of their lives.

Lord, may this Holy Land be truly holy,
for all its children.


Warming the heart

Listen sweet Dove unto my song,
And spread thy golden wings in me;
Hatching my tender heart so long,
Till it get wing, and flie away with thee.

In every generation there are great story tellers, Homer and Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens, Blyton and Rowling.  They all tell their stories and those stories, which we then tell to each other, help to interpret truth to growing generations.  Among my favourites is Hans Christian Anderson.  By the harbour in Copenhagen sits the Little Mermaid testifying to the power of his storytelling.  But my favourite amongst the stories he tells is ‘The Snow Queen’, which, as the story begins, we hear ‘Tells of the mirror and its fragments’.

A new generation know a bit of that story through the work of that other great storyteller of our times, or rather an interpreter of stories, Disney, because Hans Christian Anderson’s great story can be glimpsed, just about, in that popular animated movie, ‘Frozen’.


Heartlessness on the Israel -Gaza border

Both versions of the story centre on what happens when a shard of the evil mirror or the frost from Queen Elsa’s hand, enters the heart.  The heart at the very centre of the person is frozen, dies, is turned to stone.  Humanity is lost, love is lost and, as in those final moments of the film ‘Frozen’ on the icy wastes of the harbour, it takes an act of true love to bring the warmth and life back to the heart.

‘I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.’ (Ezekiel 36.26)

It’s the promise of God through the prophet Ezekiel, it’s the life of which St Peter speaks so eloquently to the enraptured crowd on that first day of Pentecost.  The apostles, with Our Lady, have been locked away in the room that’s become for them both security and prison ever since, in an expression of true divine love, in that space Jesus broke bread and shared it, poured wine and drank it, gave them his body and blood and washed their feet.  But that warmth of divine love was replaced by the chill of fear.  The windows were bolted, the doors were barred, their hearts were locked until the wind blew out what locked them in and fire warmed their frozen hearts.

George Herbert uses another metaphor to tell the story in his poem ‘Whitsunday’.  Instead of a frozen heart, a stone heart, he likens it to an egg being hatched.

Listen sweet Dove unto my song,
And spread thy golden wings in me;
Hatching my tender heart so long,
Till it get wing, and flie away with thee.

The mother bird sits on her eggs not allowing them to get cold.  She uses her own heart’s heat to warm those eggs until life breaks through the shell and the chick takes wing ‘and flie away with thee.’ It’s a wonderful image.

Pentecost brings us to life, like a hatching egg, a tender heart brought to true life, so that that heart beats with the beat of God, the rhythm of life is the rhythm of God.

The heartlessness of so much around us needs challenging.  Watching the horrific scenes from Israel last week as live ammunition was used on unarmed protestors on the Israel/Gaza border, seeing how the administration of the USA could heartlessly and for purely political and ideological reasons make a change to the status of Jerusalem by moving its Embassy and so unsettling and threatening what is always a fragile paece, registering how our own government deals with the status and rights of long term residents of this nation, our friends and neighbours, all these things remind us that the cold, frozen heart is not just something that can exist in the individual but in the structures that we create, in the places and communities that we inhabit.

When Jeremy Irons was in this Cathedral a few weeks ago reading to us T S Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ he read these words

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror

The descending dove hatches the egg, warms the heart, turns stone to flesh and brings us to life, so that our heart beats in time with the divine heartbeat making Easter live for the whole of creation, as what was dead was brought to life.


A heart warmed by the Spirit

As Peter says to the listening crowd

“You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.”


This is a story really worth telling, the truth of God come down from heaven which gives life to the people and thaws the frozen heart and makes flesh the heart of stone.

Come, Holy Spirit,
fill the hearts of your people
and kindle in us the fire of your love.

Bethlehem bound

Israel-Palestine is not a large country, the size of Wales and so the distances that Mary and Joseph travelled over Christmas were real enough but not so far to make travelling impossible.  The journey would not have been easy, there were political complexities to be negotiated – how would they negotiate around Samaria for instance which lay between Galilee and Judea? There was an occupation by the Romans and it was a consequence of that that was making them have to leave their home at the most inconvenient time.  But when they got to Jerusalem they knew that their journeys end was not far.  Bethlehem is only about five miles from Jerusalem, just over the hills and that, as St Luke tells us, is where they were heading.


‘So, what do we do now?’


The sad truth is that if the story happened now Mary and Joseph would be unable to make the journey.  The remains of Samaria still lie in between Galilee and Judea, Jerusalem is still just five miles from Bethlehem but the problem would come as the couple made their way down the main road that leads from one city to the other.  Quite simply they would encounter a wall that divides Israel from the Palestinian Authority, Jerusalem from Bethlehem.  Would the holy couple have the right papers, would the crossing point be open, what mood would the guards be in? The wall that snakes around Jerusalem causes problems everyday for Palestinians trying to go about their normal lives, getting to work, to the hospitals, to see relatives on the other side of the wall, to get to their own olive groves on their own land which has been taken from them.  The Separation Wall or Fence begun in 2000, called by the Palestinians the Wall of Apartheid is one of the most painful things that you encounter when you visit the Holy Land.  It is an affront to humanity and a desecration of the holiness of the place.

So I was delighted that the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution condemning the illegal building of settlements in the occupied West bank and I am delighted that the USA finally saw sense and abstained rather than using its veto therby scuppering the vote.  Of course Israel is furious but the authorities there and those who are settlers need to hear world opinion about what is going on.


One view of settlers


The terms ‘settler’ and ‘settlement’ are of course as innocuous sounding as the term, ‘fence’ for what is a new Berlin Wall.  When I hear the word settler I think of ‘The Little House on the Prairie’, apple pie cooking, Mum on the veranda looking for Pa returning after an honest day working in the fields.  It’s warm and homely and courageous.  But what is happening in the Occupied West Bank is nothing like that.

I was in the Holy Land in February co-leading the Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage and I was there again this autumn on sabbatical.  The intervening months saw more developments, ever expanding ‘settlements’ which are in fact new towns built on the tops of the hills looking down on Palestinian villages in an aggressive manner.  The countryside, the olive groves, the wilderness where Bedouin sheep and goats grazed is being dissected by new roads which can’t be used by Palestinians with the wrong number plates but by Israelis getting quickly between city and settlement.


This is a settlement


Neither is it an issue just affecting the countryside of the West Bank.  In the Old City, in East Jerusalem, in Silwan, on the Mount of Olives, in Hebron and other Palestinian communities, settlers are moving in.  Huge Israeli flags and banners fly from and hang from the buildings, provocatively announcing that settlers have settled.

I’m not being over dramatic when I use the words ‘aggressive’ and ‘provocative’. Walking through the streets of Hebron to get to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs I had to pass under netting that had been strung across the streets to stop Palestinian Muslims on their way to the mosque for prayer being showered with rubbish by the settlers who are occupying buildings in the city centre.

So this UN Resolution is a welcome Christmas gift to Palestinians who are looking for some recognition by the world community of what is happening to them and their heritage, their communities, their future.  Recognising the truth and the scale of what has been happening on illegally occupied territory must be a first step towards a true deal for the future.  Israelis and Palestinians both deserve to live in peace and security but the evidence is that the settlers and those who support them don’t want that and whilst ever we collude with that for fear of offending the State of Israel I fear that nothing good will happen.

Fortunately, Mary and Joseph got to Bethlehem and through the generosity of an innkeeper they found simple shelter and a place to rest.  In that borrowed home, in that ox’s stall God entered the mess of the world and God still does.

Holy God,
you entered our world
in time and place
as Jesus was born.
Bless all who live in the Holy Land
and give them peace.

Holy Land

A pilgrimage for returning pilgrims

My Lent Diary

A journey from ashes to a garden

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015


Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark