My wife and I have led 13 groups of college students to the Middle East since 1991 as part of Eastern Mennonite University’s required cross-cultural program. During the semester-long immersive travel, we stop each year at a special chapel.
The Dominus Flevit overlooks the city walls of ancient Jerusalem and the stunning golden dome of the Al Aqsa Mosque. According to tradition, Jesus paused here on the Mount of Olives on his way to cleanse the temple. “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” Jesus cries as he laments the corruption of religious/political power and the violence against the prophets who dared to denounce it.
When we come to this chapel, the students have spent three weeks in nearby Bethlehem in Palestinian Christians homes. We’ve also spent several days on a sprawling Jewish settlement close by.
So when we look out over Jerusalem from the Dominus Flevit, we remember our wonderful Palestinian and Jewish hosts who fear and misunderstand each other.
We look out over the city. Oh Jerusalem the Holy! Oh Jerusalem, City of Peace! We can pick out the Muslim, Jewish and Christian Quarters of the Old City, the mosques, churches, and synagogues. How lovely, fragile, holy and tense!
Jerusalem, I tell the students, is the heart and soul of both the Middle East conflict and any prospect for peace in the region. I try to prepare them for the experience of living there: They will experience how the hopes and fears of all the years meet in the Old City daily.
Then we continue as always down the Mount of Olives, through the Garden of Gethsemane, into the Old City of Jerusalem, into reality.
Reality. On September 28, 2000, the political leader, Ariel Sharon, in a show of force and in the name of reality, entered the Temple Mount with thousands of soldiers. While the visit lasted 34 minutes, it helped ignite the Intifada, which has continued in various forms to this day. Violence. Suffering. Pain. Reality.
On Wednesday, in the name of reality, surrounded by Christmas decorations in the White House, President Donald Trump announced that the United States declares Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel. This is a “recognition of reality,” he said. President Trump and pundits somehow make the argument that this will contribute to peace.
In Bethlehem, four miles away, the Palestinians turned off the lights of the Christmas tree in Manger Square when they hear this announcement. No joy to this part of the world. No peace on earth.
In one Christmas-season announcement, President Trump contributed fuel to the simmering fire of the Middle East. Trump’s announcement managed to sabotage any vestiges of goodwill and trust and unite the world against this reckless, politically-motivated change of policy. I predict the following:
The announcement will contribute to violence, fear and suffering. Hamas has already called for a new Intifada.
The announcement will derail any attempts to go ahead with a genuine peace process. Peace negotiations were always connected to the final agreement on Jerusalem. If that is not negotiable, there is little motivation on either side to engage in genuine peace settlement.
The announcement will put American travelers in the Middle East at a higher level of risk. Look for additional warnings for travel in the Middle East from the U.S. State Department.
The announcement will diminish the reputation of American values such as justice, peace, fairness and democratic ideals.
The announcement will confirm to many in the Middle East that American Christians are powerful, but naïve and biased. This puts the Christians of the Middle East in an even more vulnerable position.
Jesus not only wept over Jerusalem, he confronted it.
As followers of Jesus, we need to confront this latest American failure by living out the Good News like Jesus. Go ahead and weep with Jesus over Jerusalem, but also follow Jesus by taking the risk of loving all enemies, relating to all people, living out hope, using our American Christian identity to challenge misuse of power wherever it can be found, beginning in America.
Dr. Linford Stutzman has spent two decades teaching culture, religion and mission courses at Eastern Mennonite University and leading EMU’s semester-long and summer cross-cultural study programs in the Middle East. He now directs Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s Biblical Lands Educational Seminars and Service (BLESS) program.