A land beyond our possession

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
8 Mar 2007

During the Lent season Christians recall, among many other things, the ‘seven woes’ of Jesus (Matthew 23) – all of them pointers to the way in which those who most eagerly espouse religion can end up exemplifying a terrible deafness to love, mercy and justice.

The culmination of this passage echoes a tragedy which has resonated down the ages: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”

Two thousand years later Jerusalem remains a piece of territory still divided between peoples and faiths. It has become painfully symbolic of different ideological claims and competing territorial ambitions.

Yet, actually, it stands as the opportunity for peace – for heeding the words of those across the ages who have called for love, justice and mercy to triumph over hatred, greed and possession.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” says Jesus in what we call the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5.4). The reference is to a group of women who stood outside the gates of the city rending their garments, agonizing over loss and dispossession. The land was divided. Its common inheritance was barred. A new way forward was needed.

It is easy for those dazzled by the ‘virtual’ complexity of postmodern culture to forget that land – like that which lies at the core of the Israel-Palestine struggle – is basic to every aspect of human being and becoming. Each of the four elements produces it. Cultures build on it. Architects, gardeners and planners shape it. It is the arena of love, play, imagination, hope and conflict. We are born, we live, and we die on the land.

For people languishing in squatter camps and for those denied access to a home, land remains a vital source of hope. Travellers eye it for guidance. Traders seek its fortune. City dwellers turn it into allotments. Rural communities are sustained by it. Aboriginal peoples experience it as a source of connectedness between past and present. Artists see in it an inexhaustible source inspiration.

Yet urban life routinely loses touch with the passions that arise from a sense of landedness. ‘Location, location, location’ (as the TV programme advertises) is about property more than place. Children grow up with little idea of how food is produced and the role of the land in sustaining them. For the tourists we have all become, landscape is ‘scenery’. Its life struggles are fleeting images competing for attention on a million TV screens.

Even refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people fail to remind the secure and the prosperous that the basics of living on the land (food, shelter, water, work) are not givens for most of the world’s population. And when those things are taken for granted by a technologically rapacious society, they frequently lead to the exploitation of the earth and its creatures. Thus our current ecological crisis.

For ancient Eastern and Southern cultures, with all their bloody struggles, stewardship of land traditionally provided the basis of memory, identity and community - the things that relate people to each other and (in most religious traditions) to God, the source and giver of life.

But in recent history, not least under the colonial custody of modern Western and Northern cultures, the character of these relationships changed. Memory has now given way to the lure of the image. Community has been sacrificed for conquest. Identity has been confused with commodity exchange.

There is loss and gain in all of this. In the old world, landed security was often purchased at the price of freedom. In the new world, it is the other way round. So what is the solution? We need to look deep into history to gain a clue.

When it made peace with established political order, Christianity forgot the history which produced it. It began in occupied Palestine. Its story involved displacement (exile), moving on (mission), sojourning (diaspora), settling (church planting) and journeying (pilgrimage).

Followers of Jesus are, as Stanley Hauerwas has said, ‘resident aliens’, strangers in the land. They have ‘no abiding city’ and are constantly in search of ‘another country’, a territory free of domination, the New Jerusalem. A Cross marks the place where the contradiction between this freedom quest and the logic of top-down religious and political order is seen at its most deadly.

What we should learn from this is that possession and conquest are not paths to security. Land alone is not hope or glory. To be at home is to be loved, not to be in control. It is in seeking mutual relationship that we learn a fruitful disposition toward each other and toward ‘the land’.

These are very hard lessons. Christians made a tragic mistake when some of them sought to end their early captivity not by exodus, but by buying into empire. They gained the world but lost their souls. And the Jews paid the price, among others.

Similarly, it is a tragedy that some Jewish people now seek to gain security for themselves not by sharing the land with their Semitic neighbours, but by occupying it and building walls.

Likewise, some Muslims seek to recover their dignity not by the spiritual struggle of the heart (which is what jihad truly means) but by a battle for possession involving fear and bombs.

This land, our land, your land, any land will not be made inhabitable if we seize it (by war), any more than it we neglect or despise it (by greed and ecological destruction). It will only bear fruit when we see it, and each other, as a gift to be cherished and shared. In the process that will involve recognizing each others wounds, not just our own.

Such a change of heart may seem unimaginable in a world darkened by the politics of aggressive counter-assertion. But it is what Lent, the willing embrace of the wilderness, is about. Only from a position of voluntary dispossession can we get a true picture of what is at stake in remaking the city as a land for all: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets … how often I have longed to gather your children together… but you were not willing.”

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Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. His background is in journalism, adult education, politics and theology, and his weblog is: http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com. His other columns can be found here and here.

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