Ray OwensI’ve taken August and January term (J-term) classes every semester at Candler, but my final J-term experience has been extraordinarily transformational. It was this Israel and Palestine (Holy Land) practical theology excursion that augmented my biased preconceived notions of interfaith relations from an immersed Western perspective.

Ignorance is not always bliss. The Holy Land excursion eradicated years’ worth of my pretentious ignorance. Personal experience has broadened my once myopic perspective of interfaith relations and illumined my internal dawning for scriptural exegesis and biblical studies. Elated to be afforded the opportunity to visit the Holy Land, I was mesmerized with the notion of receiving a spiritual awakening. In my mind, I likened this journey to that of my Muslim brethren who journey to Mecca for their pilgrimage.

Israel settlements from BethlehemPresumptuous in my thoughts, I prepared for unification in the Spirit and to see the place of Christianity’s most sacred spaces. I desired to converse with Christians endeavoring for the same spiritual manifestation (God-encounter) and fulfillment (purposeful and life-altering engagement with others spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ). Much to my surprise, I would later learn of the vast reduction of Christians (2% of the population) in an Islamic-dominant society. This was the most shocking revelation I’d received concerning my faith, which led me to grapple with a myriad of things. Internally pondering, I move between both anticipation of my calling and purpose within the realm of Christianity and dismay at the possibility of what the Holy Land will become in the future.

This Holy Land trip has helped mitigate my ignorance to religious and socio-political issues. I had to grapple with the false illusions I’ve been taught to perceive and receive as definitive truths. I wrestled with the onslaught of disparity of unjust treatment of people in a land deemed Holy, yet the justifiable cause is given as divine justice. I was perturbed at the depth of insolence that abounds amongst those whom are “religious,” yet have a form of religion because they do not recognize, nor honor the “love” that must be imbued to their kindred or brother. This angst that tosses in the depth of my soul is at odds with all that I’ve been taught biblically. How can I be questioned and ultimately rejected if I opt to visit Bethlehem, yet my acceptance is valid in Jerusalem? The birthplace of my Lord and Savior is subject to rejection, yet the very place where he was crucified warrants a welcome. This is problematic for me as I admit to my level of absolute ignorance.

Distinction between Palestine and IsraelConfession is good for the soul, so I must confess I wrestled and was taunted by my newfound revelation. I realize how ignorant I was relative to interfaith relations outside of the United States. I acknowledge that my ignorance is steeped in propaganda established by world leaders and media outlets that frame my perception and thought process when viewing a vastly slighted depiction of Middle Eastern people, particularly Palestinians and Israelis.

Theologically, I wrestled with the Holy Bible, Torah (Tenakh), and the Quran. I am contending with the lineage of my savior and his birthplace of Bethlehem evoking possible rejection from visitation. Being thrust in a position to lie of my visit to Palestine for fear of rejection is debilitating. How can I be rejected to enter in and visit the place of my Savior’s birth? Theologically, Jesus’ lineage traces back to Palestine. If I go back through the Holy Bible and Jewish Bible (within the Kethuvim of the Tenakh), the evidence is clear that both speak to Ruth and the lineage of Jesus Christ. Jesus’s bloodline resonates through King David and Ruth. Both sacred books acknowledge this, yet division abounds. Therefore, I’m flummoxed over the dispensation of the Holy Scriptures and how humanity drives wedges and walls of division to mitigate spiritual uniformity or accessibility. How can a 25-foot wall separate the City of David from the Church of the Nativity? Why must I encounter guns and produce documentation to enter into a place steeped in sacred worth? How can Jesus and Mary be mentioned in the Quran, yet there exists a wall to drive further division of knowledge and truth. People fear what they don’t know, and fear what they don’t understand. It’s easier to build walls, isolate, deprive, steal land, and claim divine sanction, but the reality of the matter only creates tension. Love is mentioned with specificity to interpersonal encounters in each of the main religious books, yet humanity has resolved to diminish the sanctity of love with fear and evoke hate. Walls, borders, and guns paint debilitating pictures of religious peace with injustice toward humanity because we’ve opted to remain ignorant.

The 25-foot wall separating Israel from PalestineIt is rather unfortunate and embarrassing that I would have to confess my absolute ignorance, but in light of my newfound revelatory experience in conjunction with my physical presence in the Holy Land I can no longer indulge in the comforts of my obliviousness. I judged the actions and lives of men without knowledge. I perceived people of innocence to be monstrous and evil-spirited based on the alternative facts provided to me via mainstream news media. Walking throughout the Holy Land has altered my once deceptive interpretation of Western culture, people and the Bible. Journeying to a plethora of locations—including the Syrian border—has fostered a newfound reverence and respect for interfaith relations, understanding the tensions between Palestine and Israel, and reading the Bible through a practical lens. Journeying to Israel and Palestine has challenged decades of religious education, enlightened me to reality versus perceived reality, taught me love despite division and walls, quelled my perception of discrimination (West vs. East), and altered my mindset in how I read the Bible (contextually). 

The epicenter for religion as known around the world stems from the land of Israel and Palestine. Churches must be made aware of the decline of Christianity and the deplorable actions that are occurring in the holiest of landscapes. We must bring the Church to the land, so the Church can see and act. I believe this enlightenment will bring about the change essential to help the people of God unite, so the sacredness of the land and locations can bring the people of God to the Holy Place of God. Wrestling with my newfound knowledge, I continue to grapple with what I’ve seen and how to explain what I know to the world. Like the people of Palestine, I too remain hopeful. My hope rests in the Bible and despite the socio-political climate that creates angst, amid my wrestling, I will persevere now that I came and saw, so I will go and tell.

Candler, I implore you to go to Israel and Palestine and tell through your broadened scope. I assure you, it’s transformative in the best ways possible.