On sacred spaces

Religiously Inclined

I recently watched the film “Kingdom of Heaven,” and I was struck by one of the final lines spoken by the character Saladin, a Muslim leader who battled to take over Jerusalem during the era of the Crusades. When questioned by Orlando Bloom’s character, Balian, a valiant defender of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, on the significance of Jerusalem, Saladin responds, “Nothing.” He walks away but turns back once more to say, “Everything.” My mind instantly turned toward our modern-day Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the question of sacred land.

Both Israelis and Palestinians have suffered profoundly in the fighting that was recently reignited. The world has seen firsthand that missiles and bullets have the same devastating effect on the flesh of Muslims as of Jews. Yet the recent attacks have produced little more than a tenuous cease-fire agreement, fashioned with the aid of outside mediation, and both sides still cling to their land.

Today, Jerusalem is equally revered by Muslims, Jews and Christians as it was during the time of the Crusades. Old Jerusalem is in fact still divided among them: the Muslim Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter and the Armenian Quarter. While such destruction and death strikes me as quite godless, this place maintains a level of sanctity unmatched by any other place on Earth.

But can God live in a place? Obviously, the answer depends on whom you are asking, but the consensus of many believers is likely yes — consider the pilgrimage to Mecca or Bethlehem or even the common formulation, “God lives in your heart.” I grew up learning that God was omnipresent — but apparently, he/she hangs out a little more in some places than in others. Location, location, location.

What I do not understand is how a faith-filled believer can justify murder and violence in an area that allegedly possesses this divine quality. Let’s consider a comparison with the real estate market. When any crime is committed within a house, especially violent crimes, the value of the home usually decreases if this history is known to the buyer. According to this logic, why do some insist that God is closest to humankind in a place of such great bloodshed?

And of course there are political motivations when declaring a site holy or sacred, but the politics are only one part of the equation. During my trip to Israel last summer, I was absolutely shocked by the tears, prayers and outward devotion that many locals and tourists alike took to in front of the Wailing Wall, on the Via Dolorosa or near the Dome of the Rock. The experience of God amplified in one specific place is very real for some people, and I suspect this notion continues to contribute to the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians today.

For those of us who do not link our religion or our spirituality to one locale, I think this experience of something greater has been felt at one time or another by everyone, sometimes in the strangest of places. It may even be as simple as an acute feeling of insignificance when standing next to the ocean. I often sense some type of holiness, for lack of a better word, when I’m in nature. Whatever it may be, the Earth, or a god, does have a funny way of giving the impression that a place has power.

This power may be real, symbolic or imagined, but it is no less invigorating for the person in its midst. So while it may be tempting to scoff at a population that claims such a force in a certain place, mocking that assertion does not make it any less true for that population, nor does it make it any less attached to that place.

The “everything” that Saladin refers to in the film is elusive, but understanding what that means is essential to resolving conflict around it. I am neither pro-Palestine nor pro-Israel, but I do see a potential common ground in this concept of sacred land. Even though land is notorious for causing disagreement, a “holy land” could be used and shared as a site of peace. Look no further than Jerusalem itself to see that co-existence and mutual respect, though not always perfect, is possible.

Of course, solutions to problems such as these are complicated. I do not claim to have all the answers, but we can only get closer to resolution by thinking critically about and engaging with the subject matter. Over this past semester, these columns have been my place to wrestle with a vast array of issues and problems related to religion and spirituality. At times, I know my opinions have inspired, angered, frustrated and confused. But I am most proud that they have opened a dialogue. And while I doubt there is anything holy among these words, I do hope that they have possessed some power that is bigger than one columnist to create a deeper understanding among people of all faith backgrounds.

Contact Hannah Brady at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter: @brady_hm.