In the shadow of the ancient walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, on a sunny day in April, I am leading a small group of prophets down a pathway into the Kidron Valley, and then up the slopes of the Mount of Olives. I call them “prophets,” but these women and men in their twenties are not in old-fashioned robes or unkempt beards, nor roaring dire warnings about the end of time. Rather, their appearance is quite ordinary for these days in Jerusalem. Some of the Jewish men wear yarmulkes, some of the Muslim women wear the hijab; all see themselves deeply connected to their traditions. These are not misfits or anomalies, or foreign tourists or pilgrims, but native sons and daughters of today’s Al-Quds/Yerushalayim.
Over the years, I have guided hundreds of visitors of many faiths who have come to Jerusalem, but this group is totally different. I realize that this moment, these young companions, this journey in the shadow of a wounded and torn Jerusalem, will remain in my memory for the rest of my life. In their decision to walk together in the public sphere of Jerusalem, I am witnessing a divinely human courage, a sacred prophetic vocation, a conscious choice to take action and to step out into a society not yet ready for holiness.
Anyone not familiar with the ugliness and alienation, with the fear and loathing of the “other” that scars the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in its present form, will find it hard to understand how walking together can be miraculous. But a miracle it is, and I know that I am privileged beyond words to see it.
The young Palestinian and Israeli activists who have chosen to walk on this path, on this April afternoon, are participants in a program called “Dialogue to Action,” an initiative of the Kids4Peace movement. I have been asked to lead this pioneer group in a shared walk into the holy places of Jerusalem’s contested, wounded, and dangerous public sphere. The question we are asking together is: “What is holiness, and how can we live it, together, in this time of most unholy violence, rage and terror?”
“Holiness,” like “peace,” is ideally a practice, not a product. In Jerusalem, however, in these days, “holiness” seems still imprisoned in an externalized ontology. It is a divine “power” or “substance,” or a divinely gifted “place,” jealously guarded and viciously fought over, rather than the freely embraced and liberating “practice of the divine presence” that it should be. Strangely, Jerusalem may be among the last human societies to awaken to the essential humanity of holiness.
While there is abundant loyalty to the three monotheisms among Jerusalem’s inhabitants, the practice of humanism toward the “other” is not their guiding principle. In public discourse and on the streets of the city, one sees more zealotry for religious and political “messianisms” than empathy and an inclusive spiritual vision of the future. When holiness and humanism are totally alienated like this, the result is crippling. As the activist and contemplative Thomas Merton wisely wrote in Life and Holiness, if we devote ourselves only to a “cult of other worldliness,” we are not able to act responsibly in the world of humanity. Holiness must be practiced in the here and now, and with “others,” not just those like us.
In Palestine and Israel, the past hundred years have been one long conflict. The children of the last generation of this violent century still live in constant fear of enemies too grotesque and too intimate to name, and in constantly disappointed hope that some new political regime will bring about an impossible peace.
And here, today, on the slopes below the looming walls of Jerusalem, I walk together with this very “last generation.” The “Dialogue to Action” project is proactive, confronting helpless disappointment with an intelligent practice of hope. The miracle is not only that we are walking together, but also that these young prophets have refused to continue the narrative of despair and hatred. They are in the process of forging a new language of holiness in the public sphere.
In 1957, the great historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, in the closing chapter of The Sacred and the Profane, challenged the theologians of the future to take up the quest for an authentic theology and practice of holiness after the collapse of secular modernism. Eliade’s “future” is now, and we are the theologians who must dare to respond to that challenge. It is fitting that Jerusalem should be one of the first contexts for this response, and that it should come in the form of an interfaith pilgrimage to truth, not a single-faith crusade of coercion.
New realities require new language. To live together, to walk together, rather than to be separated by fear and loathing – this will require rewriting the religious narrative of Jerusalem in a way no less radical than a political revolution. This revolution, though, is one of new attitude and inner orientation, not of more power and more defeat. The young people committing themselves to the “Dialogue to Action” program, are living examples of what the philosopher James Carse has called an “infinite game” – that is, a process of engagement and discourse that goes beyond the “winner/loser” imperatives required in a “finite game.” We might call the “Dialogue to Action” initiative an “infinite process” that will continue to grow and become more inclusive, widening the boundaries of social and theological possibility, even as its participants push against the physical boundaries of checkpoints and forbidden zones.
To walk an infinite process in a very finite city is physically and mentally dangerous. Each holy place that this group visits has been marked in recent months by the spilled blood of Israeli and Palestinian victims. Life in the public sphere in Jerusalem today is a “finite game,” if there ever was one. Winners take all, and celebrate their victories with demonstrations of unbridled zealotry, while the defeated suffer constant humiliation, abuse and despair. The idea of a public narrative that is not based on “winners” and “losers” is perceived as downright threatening to the status quo. A week ago, these same young Palestinians and Israelis were together in another part of town, just walking and talking on the sidewalk, when some anonymous fear-monger, shocked to see Jews and Arabs peacefully sharing the same public space, called the police. The “men in blue” in fact arrived, and questioned the group. Then, satisfied that this was not some new strain of “interfaith terrorism,” the police drove away.
Not all encounters are so relatively benign. Rocks have been thrown; threats are being made. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that there will be an increasing scrutiny of and increasing hostility toward the “Dialogue to Action” participants. Their unique dedication to each other and to their shared path will not be tolerated by societies committed to bottomless hatred and total separation between Jews and Arabs. Already the interrogations and shunning have begun. This is where the truly holy vocation of these contemporary prophets of peace emerges into the light of day.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel, the Jewish theologian who walked with Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement, wrote that a true prophet does not foretell the future, but rather tells forth the truth. It is in this sense that these young Israeli and Palestinian companions, walking through Jerusalem together, are prophets. Participants in “Dialogue to Action” are not trying to predict what will become of their societies, or of their narratives, or of the city they all love. Rather, they are trying, with all their hearts, to speak truth to their societies, and to each other. The truth they speak echoes the practice of compassion they have undertaken in their daily lives, and reflects the path of spiritual humanism they are walking together. This is a courageous and holy truth, and it will be heard.