Newsletter: Vol. 14, Iss. 3
December 2015

As If the Other Mattered
Dr. Thomas Phillips

As I sit to write this column, I am preparing to lead a fresh SBS pilgrimage to Israel/Palestine in a few days. I’ve done this before. I took my first trip SBS trip to Israel, Palestine and Jordan in January 2000 (anyone remember the Y2K scare?). I have gone back often since then. Every single journey—to Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece—has produced new adventures, insights and friendships. I love the lands of the Bible! I have learned much; I have much left to learn. But let me share the one thing that I have learned above all else.

Pilgrimage is not tourism. Bethlehem is not Six Flags over Jesus; having lunch in Jericho is not like driving through McDonalds; and the graffiti on that damn wall is not what makes the wall ugly.

Back in 2000, before my passport had any Middle Eastern stamps in it, I was already a college professor with a Ph.D. in New Testament and publications in the field. I knew the content of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, the ancient history and geography of the holy lands, and cultural traditions from which Christianity arose. But I knew nothing—and cared little—about the contemporary lands of the Bible.

Together, Peter Miano and I planned that trip to the Holy Land back in the fall of 1999. Peter encouraged me to visit Palestinian refugee camps. I was uninterested; I wanted to visit “Biblical sites.” Peter coaxed me to include interfaith peace-making organizations on my itinerary. I was dismissive; I wanted nothing to do with “modern politics.” Peter urged me to allow Israeli and Palestinian speakers to address our groups in evening forums. I reluctantly agreed—as long as that would not interrupt our sight-seeing.

So, my 22 students and I set out for the holy lands on January 1, 2000. We had three evening forums in our Bethlehem hotel, one Palestinian and two Israelis. We had no idea what would come out of those conversations. One speaker, Jack, an Israeli settler from just a few miles away in Occupied Palestine, explained how God had given this land to the Jews and that all non-Jews should be immediately expelled. One student asked Jack what he would do with people who refused to leave. Jack said, “Shoot them.” The student was shocked and said, “What do you mean?” Jack responded, “Line them up against a wall and shoot them, then reload and shoot until no one moves.”

My students and I were horrified, but we assumed that Jack was a statistical outlier who was offered to us for shock value. Then we met Jeremy, a rabbi and a peace activist. Jeremy asked my students a haunting question: “What do you do when your own people behave in a way that betrays their own faith tradition, when they insist that other people do not matter?”

Finally, we met George, a young Palestinian Christian who reported that his family had lived in Bethlehem since the time of Christ. In tears, George said, “I don’t hate the Israelis; I don’t hate anyone, but they have to leave me a place to live.” Then he pointed out the hotel window at what was then a small outpost on top of a distant hill. He said, “That’s the beginning of an Israeli settlement. They are already protected by the Israeli military. That settlement will grow. Soon they will have that entire hill.”.

January 2000 was a very optimistic time in Palestine—at least by local standards. The Jordanians and Egyptians had established a seemingly lasting peace with Israel; the first Intifada had ended; and Pope John Paul II was about to visit Israel and Palestine. Many people believed that the Oslo Accords would soon bring about a two state solution. Still Jack’s hatred, Jeremy’s sense of betrayal and George’s fearful anguish rendered my optimism guarded.

Although my students and I learned a great deal on that pilgrimage to the holy lands, the most important thing that I learned was that pilgrimage is not tourism. Pilgrimage—whether it’s Jewish, Christian, Muslim, interreligious, or secular—must take the well-being of the peoples of these lands seriously. That means pilgrimage must do more than visit biblical sites. Pilgrimage must engage in modern politics and pilgrimage must heed the voices of the real people who still inhabit these lands. Apart from sincere engagement with the contemporary populations—Jews, Christians, Muslims and others—who inhabit these sacred lands, travel to the holy lands is merely an exercise in self-indulgence. Such tourism is not pilgrimage. Its influence on spiritual development is largely regressive and its impact on the local people is almost entirely detrimental.

Although I now work in an intentionally interreligious context and I am personally deeply committed to working for peace, justice and non-violence across all faith traditions, I am a Christian. If pilgrimage is to be Christian pilgrimage, we must take the incarnation seriously. That is, Jesus of Nazareth, regardless of what else he may have been, was a real person in a real place at a real time. Jesus was not a mythical being unaffected by his world and his times. Jesus, just like you and I, was a real person who enjoyed the joys and delights of a physical existence, but who also endured the vulnerabilities and hardships of physical existence.

As a Christian, I have become convinced that visiting the holy lands without engaging the vulnerabilities and hardships of the Palestinian people is a denial of the incarnation. Visiting the holy lands without ever encountering even one local Palestinian or Israeli person in conversation is tantamount to saying that Jesus’ physical existence was of no significance, that Mary’s pain in childbirth was inconsequential, and that Jesus’ homelessness, physical privations and tortuous death don’t really matter. So, pilgrimage is not tourism. True Pilgrimage must be conducted as if the other person and all people matters.

So, pilgrimage is not tourism. True Pilgrimage must be conducted as if the other person and all people matters.

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