The Cloister Walk, III: Jerusalem
through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
You probably never noticed this–only a preacher would notice this–but King David and George Washington actually have a lot in common. Both were soldiers of legendary ability, of course, and both presided as beloved and charismatic chieftains over young empires, and both were trying to manage a loose, quarreling confederacy of twelve tribes–or, in President Washington’s case, 13 colonies–who did not trust one another.
Suspicion was particularly rife between the northern tribes–or colonies–and the southern tribes–or colonies. King David and President Washington both needed a neutral capital that was neither northern nor southern but in No Man’s Land. So President Washington created the District of Columbia, and David found…Jerusalem.
Now, to be honest about it, Jerusalem had little to offer David besides its strategic position in No Man’s Land between North and South. Beyond that, it had no natural resources and a poor water supply. It was not on any major trade route and thus way off the beaten path. Jerusalem was like Flint: you only go to Flint if your grandmother lives there.
In both population and land area, Jerusalem at the time of David was smaller than Kenilworth–about 2,000 residents on about 15 acres, or a rectangle of about 12 football fields.
Not only that, but in David’s day Jerusalem was already fortified, occupied, and defended by foreigners, and had been for 1,500 years before David, which means that today, Jerusalem is at least 4,500 years old, or almost as old as God himself. Ironically, at the beginning, there was nothing Jewish about Jerusalem. It was named for a Canaanite god named Shalem, the God of Dusk, or Twilight, or the Setting Sun.
When David and his soldiers made a move to take the city, the current inhabitants, a clan called the Jebusites, were so confident of the city’s defenses that they made fun of David. “You’ll never take this city,” they sneered. “The blind and the lame could hold this city. Eight guys with dark glasses, white sticks, and wheelchairs could keep you out.”
The Jebusites, however, had never before reckoned with a warrior as shrewd as King David, who must have a couple of CIA agents feeding him intelligence from inside the city, and David manages to sneak a few Navy Seals up a secret water shaft and takes the city with minimal loss of life.
Rather than massacring the current residents of the conquered city, which has been the accustomed practice of Middle Eastern conquerors from the Pharaohs to Jihadi John, David shows uncharacteristic mercy to the current residents, and lets the Jebusites stay if they will let him use their city as the Jewish capital.
He builds a magnificent palace for himself and lays plans for a splendid Temple which will be the very home on earth of God Godself.
This all happens in 1,000 BC, and ever since, Jerusalem has been the most beloved and treasured, but also, for that very reason, the most disputed, city in human history.
Someone calculated that over the centuries Jerusalem has been attacked 52 times, captured 44 times, besieged 23 times, and completely destroyed twice. It must be very special.
And it is. For all three great monotheist faiths–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–Jerusalem is the center of the earth. On old maps, that’s where Jerusalem is situated; the rest of the earth revolves around Jerusalem.
For the Jews, Jerusalem is the place where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac. It is known as the City of David, the most celebrated hero in Hebrew history. Solomon’s cherished Temple was in Jerusalem.
For Christians, every significant event in our faith happens in Jerusalem. Palm Sunday, Last Supper, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension. It is in that Upper Room at the Festival of Pentecost that the Christian Church is born in the rushing wind and flickering flame and lucid speech of the Holy Spirit.
The only significant event of the Christian faith that didn’t happen in Jerusalem is Christmas, and that happened in Bethlehem, a Jerusalem suburb, about five miles to the southeast. In every way that matters, Jerusalem is the locus of our salvation.
For Muslims, Jerusalem is the destination of Mohamed’s famous and fabulous Night Journey. Under the miraculous power and sure guidance of his God, astride his mighty steed Buraq, Mohamed travels from Mecca to Jerusalem, and when he gets there, the angel Gabriel takes him to the Temple Mount, to the very site of the Holy of Holies, and from there, Mohamed ascends to heaven to meet his God face to face.
Seven hundred years after Jesus ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives, the Muslims will build a shrine atop the Temple Mount, on the very site of the Holy of Holies, to shelter and honor the Rock from which Mohamed launched his own ascension into heaven. It is called the Dome of the Rock.
Jews, Christians, and Muslims can’t agree on much, but, for better and worse, they all agree that Jerusalem is the most sacred place on earth. For all three monotheist faiths, it’s as if Jerusalem is a a wormhole in the fabric of space and time. It’s a shortcut from heaven to earth, and from earth to heaven. It seems to be the portal by which God parachutes into time from eternity. The whole thing is quite remarkable really.
Ironically, the holiest place on earth has become the source of violent, ceaseless, insoluble dispute. In 1099, “Christian” Crusaders trying to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim control killed 30,000 men, women, and children.
One Crusader said that he rode across the Temple Mount in blood up to his horse’s knees. He called the massacre “a just and splendid judgement of God that this place should be filled with the blood of unbelievers, since it has suffered so long from their blasphemies.” And today, a thousand years later, the Islamic State is exacting its revenge for the Crusades in Syrian cities not far from Jerusalem.
Maybe Jerusalem is too precious to people of faith. Maybe our historical and religious memories of the momentous events that happened through the wormhole that is Jerusalem are hobbling the existence of the city.
You remember Psalm 137, don’t you, one of the most famous songs in the Hebrew Psalter? It was written from Babylonian captivity after the destruction of the Holy City:
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
But maybe what Jerusalem really needs is a little more forgetting. This might be a good thing to think about on Memorial Day Weekend. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said, “the trouble with history is that there is too much of it.” Yes? There is too much history in Jerusalem. This is true for cities and for nations and for marriages.
A character from a novel I once read is in a troubled marriage, and when her husband reminds her of some small unkindness she hurt him with years and years ago, she is stunned by his prodigious memory and says, “You remember everything–every slight, every injustice, every discourtesy. You remember everything. No marriage can survive so much remembering.” Is anybody here in a marriage with too much remembering? Don’t answer that.
This week in The New York Times, in preparation for Memorial Day, Roger Cohen wrote a thoughtful article called “The Presence of the Past.” He mentions the powerful grip our memories have on us, often to our detriment. He quotes William Faulkner, who famously said, “the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.”
In a place like Jerusalem, he says, overpowering memory perpetuates ancient enmities. Jerusalem is under the tyranny of memory. “Peace will never come to Jerusalem,” he says, “until a tour guide tells his group ‘You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important. But next to it, left and down a bit, there is a man who is buying fruits and vegetables for his family.’” The arch is in the past; the family is the future.
Jerusalem is a city of overpowering memory, but it is also a place of exhilarating hope. For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Jerusalem is the place where our faith begins, but it is also where our faith ends. Jerusalem is our origin and our destiny.
This is the last page of the Bible, the very last page: “Then I saw the Holy City, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. And behold, the dwelling of God will be with mortals. They will be God’s people and God himself will be with them, and God will wipe away every tear from their eye, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be crying or mourning or pain any more, for the former things have passed away…The city lies foursquare, as wide as it is long…the walls are made of jasper and the streets are paved with gold and the foundations adorned with every jewel…The city has no need for the sun, because the glory of the Lord will be its light. And the waters of the river of life flow down the middle of the street and next to the river, The Tree of Life, whose leaves shall be for the healing of the people.”
That is the place to which we are all headed. Jerusalem is our dearest memory and our most cherished hope, and this is a hope that might be particularly important for those of us who live in or near the cities of the Midwest. For us, the New Jerusalem seems a long way off.
From 3:00 on Friday afternoon till 3:00 Saturday morning, 18 people were shot in Chicago, including Jacele Johnson from the South Side, who was shot in the head; she is in critical condition; Jacele is four years old. The murder rate in Chicago is three times that of New York, and twice that of Los Angeles; our young people are killing each other. And in Cleveland, you can fire 49 shots at unarmed Americans and get away with it, if you wear a badge.
A while back I read a nice story about Pittsburgh’s Hill District. I’ve only been to Pittsburgh a couple of times and knew nothing about the Hill District except what I learned from Hill Street Blues on television, but apparently in the middle of the twentieth century, the Hill District was to Pittsburgh what Harlem was to New York–the sophisticated center of African-American culture. Jazz great Art Blakey came from the Hill District. Pulitzer playwright August Wilson was from the Hill District and set many of his remarkable plays there. Satchel Paige pitched there. Duke Ellington performed there.
And then of course the Hill District declined after 1950, like so many neighborhoods in Chicago, Detroit, and New York. By the dawn of the twenty-first century, the Hill District was one of the poorest and most beleaguered neighborhoods in the city; it was blighted by drug houses and abandoned buildings, just a shadow of its former self.
And then at the beginning of this century, a funny thing happened. People who loved cities started coming back to the Hill District. Steven Radley was a 29-year-old engineer who lived in a charming, quiet town south of Pittsburgh when he decided he wanted a more authentic and adventurous geography, so he purchased an abandoned brick row house and began renovating it.
When people ask him why he wanted to do such a crazy thing, he says, “I was looking for…an experience.” Standing there in front of his derelict row house, Mr. Radley says, “When I look at the Hill District, I don’t see it as it is. I see it as it could be, because I know what it was.”
And so we work for the welfare of our own city: we don’t see it as it is; we see it as it could be, because we know what it was.
And the beautiful dream inspires us:
O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
Or as St. John of the Apocalypse puts it on the very last page of the Bible: “Then I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. The walls were made of jasper and the streets paved with gold and the foundation adorned with jewels.”
And that will one day be my happy home.