Pilgrimage hit me in my gut in the moments of holy irreverence: jokes made, laughter too loud for a holy site, strangers becoming friends, attempting to make sense of this place, learning as we walked that we were responsible for the stolen stones both ancient and current.
In this, the altar seems like something of an allegory for the core of Christianity. In the altar there is a tension, for the altar is a place of both giving and receiving. In the altar we are reminded at once of the gifts we receive and the responsibilities we have.
Compare the distribution of resources and the Israeli occupation of the narrative with racism in America, where the distribution of wealth, land, and resources systematically favors white Americans. Where the narrative about African-Americans in the U.S., or the black countries on the African continent, or the neighboring migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. from Mexico, or the oppression of people of color anywhere on the planet, favors a white perspective.
To truly see Bethlehem — or other parts of the West Bank, including a Jewish settlement — is indeed a dangerous undertaking for a follower of Jesus. The Jewish theologian and civil rights activist Abraham Heschel wrote, “Faith is not clinging to a shrine but the endless, tameless pilgrimage of hearts.”
I found each place we traveled to, both in Israel and Palestine, whether incredibly new or old, was a place where people felt connected to the land and in many places expressed that through various forms of art. From holy sites from 2,000-plus years ago to schools, farms, and settlements in the present, God has always sought us out where we are, in our bodies, embodied, so this makes sense that we humans would mark these experiences of the holy in our lives with art.
If survival were the goal, the Nassars’ chosen responses would make little sense. With settlement boundaries creeping ever nearer to their property, it is hard to imagine the family will be able to remain there forever. Eventually, they — like so many of their neighbors — will be displaced.
The Israeli checkpoints have the same feel as their Cold War antecedents: young military guards with automatic weapons. As you approach, you hope they are busy or bored and not feeling aggressive or confrontational. The latter is always a risk as research shows that simply the presence of weapons significantly increases aggressive cognition, hostile appraisals, and aggressive behavior.
In an era of instant photos and posts, what would it be like to remember this story and the suffering and oppression that is in the rocky soil we traverse? Pilgrimage is in remembering the shared grief and in the solidarity that binds us and them, wherever us and them may be.
Pilgrimage is telling our story. What we experienced begs to be told. We walked in the footsteps of Christ learning the realities of life for Palestinian, Arab, and Israeli Christians, Muslims, and Jews today.
We set out as 35 pilgrims to explore Israel/Palestine in a pilgrimage of learning, laughter, and tears. We encountered stories of promise, hope, and struggle in the Holy Land.