Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Commodification of Faith

Recently, Aitor and Mrs. Aitor visited Israel/Palestine/the Holy Land/the Promised Land/ whatever you wish to call it, and I've been meaning to post on it for a while now.  Obviously much has, can and will be written on the current political situation there, and the security precautions prevalent throughout Israel are legendary (on our flight home, for example, we had to go through two security checks before we checked in!). However, what I found surprisingly remarkable, at times disturbing, and certainly disappointing about the trip was not the obvious security and political issues, as summed up by this image:
The West Bank Security Wall seen from the hills around Jerusalem
But rather the commodification, commercialisation, and at times trivialisation of faith, as perhaps can be summed up by the below image: 
The exact point - the exact point- where Jesus was laid in the manger
That's right folks, the very spot where Christ was laid in the manger in Bethlehem. We visited Christ's tomb -  I can believe that is possibly the real thing, as He would have had sufficient following at the time of the crucifixion to make the location noteworthy. We visited the exact spot of Christ's birth, (which was in the same Church as the manger above) which was stretching things somewhat for me. After all, Christ may have died well-known, but His birth passed unnoticed by most people (save those three dudes from Persia - and hey, they were wise!).  But the manger? The exact spot where the manger rested? C'mon!

Now, I am no atheist, I am very much a Catholic, believe in God, go to Mass, the whole nine yards. A bit miffed at the Pope at the moment, admittedly, but in part that's because I think the hierarchy is seriously damaging the church (or should that be Church?). But it is precisely because I am relatively religious that Jerusalem and Bethlehem were so disappointing to me. It felt, for all the world, like a faith-based Disneyland. Don't get me wrong, as a Catholic I am certainly not averse to a little bit of relic-heavy religious worship, and I can appreciate the appeal in being able to place your hand in the supposed spot Jesus leaned against a wall on the Via Dolorsa:

Some might dismiss that as mere superstition, others might see it as a legitimate expression of faith. As far as I am concerned, as I'm sure is the case with most of you, it's a matter of personal belief. What I found disturbing was not the attempt to make elements of all three of the main monotheistic faiths a literal reality in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but rather what the literal presence (supposed or otherwise) of religious locations did to the allegedly faithful, and how they aimed to cash in on the territory they held. And I'm not talking about the Jews and Muslims here.

When a local noteworthy in Bethlehem asked were we Catholic, he was only interested as he already had a prepared sales pitch designed to tug at our Rome-influenced heartstrings, telling us of the plight of our co-religionists in Bethlehem, who would be immeasurably helped if only we bought a limited edition, hand-crafted olive wood rosary in his shop. For those of our companions who were not Roman Catholic, no problem! He had simple, sleek crosses for the Anglicans and Lutherans among us, and icons for the Orthodox Christians, with an (unspecified) donation from each sale going to the relevant Church. 

Given the razmatazz and constant hustling surrounding the Christian sites, I suppose it is not really that surprising that I found the Western Wall to be one of the most spiritually inspiring locations: That the Western Wall is not actually a part of the Old Temple didn't detract from it as a focus for faith and belief. And whatever you think about modern Israel, the idea that this site, after nearly two milennia, has returned to Jewish hands is remarkably powerful. 

Alone among the Christian sites, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre actually felt spiritual. As I outlined above, it is not impossible that the site of Christ's tomb might actually be where people say it is, and within the Church there was a definite sense of peace and calm. Indeed, what impressed me most was the tour group of Muslims (who I think were from Pakistan) visiting the Church while we were there - their presence underlined the common elements of the Abrahamaic faiths, and suggested that whatever we all believed in did have a real, tangible root. Yet even here, man's ego and greed was able to profane the sacred: 

If you look closely at the picture above, you will see a ladder under the righthand window on the second floor above the door. This ladder has been in place since 1852, when the status quo agreement was signed under the Ottomans, and agreement which set out the rights and responsibilities of the 6 Churches (Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox.) that claim ownership of the church. Due to the careful division of powers within the building, no one can agree on taking the ladder down, and even organising basic repairs can be difficult. Men of God, eh?
And finally, the Dome of the Rock. I'd love to tell you what it is like inside, but apparently non-Muslims are not allowed in (or is that just what our Israeli guide told us?). 

P.S. If you want a truly heavenly experience in Israel, go to Benedict's in Tel Aviv, an all-day breakfast place. Oh my God, their white chocolate pancakes!

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