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Christian faith and the ‘theology of place’

A footbridge leads from the Western Wall to the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City June 2, 2015. Picture taken June 2, 2015.
A footbridge leads from the Western Wall to the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City June 2, 2015. Picture taken June 2, 2015. | REUTERS/Ammar Awad

For several weeks in spring 2022, and then again in the summer, the world witnessed a recurrence of tensions between Israelis and Palestinians over the Temple Mount/Aqsa Mosque area in Jerusalem.

It is not only religious Jews and religious Muslims who feel passionately about control of that specific spot. Even less religiously observant members of the two communities and beyond across both the Jewish and Muslim realms tend almost instinctively to become emotional on this issue with many tying it to political agendas and national priorities.

By contrast, Christians who understand their theological tenets well and are clear about the primacies of salvation taught by their faith cannot allow themselves to be swept up in any such frenzy, for religious reasons.

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Nationalist Christian Palestinians specifically who take their faith seriously ought to guard against the temptation of embracing an unqualified theology of place. 

Of course, there were times when sincere professing Christians took up arms and launched military Crusades to “recover the Holy Land from the infidels.” Since the entanglement in the early fourth century of the battered but triumphant Church with a converted imperial order under the emperor Constantine, the advice in the Gospels to leave to each of God and Caesar what was respectively theirs appeared to have been relegated to the backburner while giving way to the rise of theocratic Christendom.  Many centuries later following much bloodshed, confusion, and ruin Christians of all stripes reawakened to the default position laid out by Jesus regarding the separation of the sacred from the profane. 

It is very natural for Christians to venerate space they view as sacred. The term “Holy Land” does carry profound meaning for the believing Christian. Indeed, of the three Abrahamic religious creeds it should be the believers in Jesus before the other two who view with unique awe the places where, according to their faith, God Himself was incarnated as a human person, lived, taught, performed miracles, forgave sins, suffered, died, and rose again on the third day. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the River Jordan, Lake Tiberias in the Galilee, the Mount of Olives and the Temple in Jerusalem, the Via Dolorosa, Gethsemane, Golgotha, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City, and other places visited by Jesus as the Gospels relate — all these plus countless venues around the world where miracles were allegedly performed by saints through the power of the Holy Spirit have a very special significance for the believing Christian. 

Two crucial distinctions, however, need to be highlighted here. First, the reason why all these places are holy to begin with is infinitely more important than the places themselves. Second, the Good News is that anyone can have a direct, personal, and salvific relationship with this reason (Jesus Christ) anywhere in the cosmos, and especially, for Orthodox and Catholic Christians, in the Holy Eucharist at Mass. It is the Person who redeems, who saves, not the place. To be a fulfilled Christian, I don’t need to undertake a pilgrimage anywhere including to Rome or Jerusalem, let alone to exercise political control over these sacred places, as prerequisites for my personal salvation. Christ has liberated His followers from many things, and a theology of place is thankfully one of them. 

Again, it is very natural to love and preserve your homeland, and if necessary to fight for and protect it and those loved ones living there. The Maronites of Lebanon, for instance, have clung tenaciously over the centuries to their homeland in Lebanon’s mountains and defended it against external attacks. This is a legitimate position to take as a native Christian community facing many life-and-death challenges throughout history; however, the crucial nuance to be kept in mind is that such a stance has never entailed soteriological dimensions for the individual Maronite believers. The same is true for all beleaguered Christian populations rooted in the Middle East and elsewhere. For, in the end, this remains your earthly-worldly homeland and not the Kingdom of God where you should aspire to be — this Kingdom, as we are told by the Redeemer Himself, is within you, and is where the Father resides, both of which are wholly other conceptions of “place.” 

As a Christian believer, therefore, one need not partake in the ongoing struggle over places considered as sacred by adherents to the two other Abrahamic faiths. And this opens the way for the committed Christian to be the peacemaker, the healer, the brother who extends a loving hand to both sides pleading that, whenever possible, they let go a bit of this focus on place and concentrate instead on the Transcendent. After all, isn’t this precisely what ought to be expected of the native Christian, of Abraham’s missing child? 

Habib C. Malik is Senior Fellow on Lebanon and Middle Eastern Christians at The Philos Project where he also works at the Philos Charles Malik Institute. 

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