I’m back in the office now, but for a few days I was in another world; another time. I knew it to be so as our group drifted down the slopes of a valley toward a grove of gnarly old olive trees: some of them rather like empty wooden tubes with fresh green branches growing out of the cracks and holes, as though searching for the light. Our guide told us we were now in the Garden of Gethsemane, or the “oil presses.” He told us the trees were more than 2,000 years old. He reminded us that it was here that Jesus Christ agonized over continuing on with His mission. Ahead were betrayal, arrest, trial, scourging, mocking, and crucifixion. Even a Christ might shrink at the prospect.
To visit the Holy Land is to realize firsthand the cauldron of religious enthusiasm that still bubbles among those arid hills and narrow alleyways. And to see a high concrete wall riding the contours of the land around Bethlehem is to sense a divide as much religious as political. A golden dome and minaret atop a temple mound proclaim loudly that the sediment of history lays down more than the strata of archaeological time; it adds ever more weight to religious imperatives.
One day we drove up to the Golan Heights and looked over into Syria. The air that day was too opaque to make out Damascus on the horizon, but we could see the village close by where a few months earlier, as another tour group looked down on the scene, a little mosque and minaret suddenly crumpled in a dynamite dust storm of ISIL intolerance.
I had thought we might make out the contrails of Russian, U.S., and even Australian warplanes jockeying for position to bomb terrorist others, but there was no sign. It was not till much later in the trip, while our family was in Istanbul, Turkey, that we saw the television images of a Russian warplane shot down for trespass. It was on the day that we visited Hagia Sophia, once a cathedral and a symbol of Christian power and then undone by invasion, which turned it into a mosque. In many ways the present conflict seems just the substitution of metal wings for cross and crescent.
History, as William Faulkner once said, “is not even past.” Never more true than in the Levant and up to the rift between Asia and Europe, which is Turkey. It seems that all the major players have either forgotten history or are determined to replay it in one form or another. The United States persists in imagining that faith can be stratified and one faction successfully played off against another. Western Europe thinks it is just a clash of cult and globalism. For many in the Middle East it is the moment to undo the Sykes-Picots of imperialist determinism—and some of them want to go further and create a new global caliphate. No wonder the warplanes are jockeying for position to bomb away such existential thinking!
On the same itinerary to Israel I went again to Masada. This ancient mesa fortress, sitting 1,000 feet above the plain, overlooking the Dead Sea in the Judean Wilderness, was in A.D. 74, the last stand of the Jewish revolt against Rome. After a long siege the Roman attackers performed a logistical miracle and built an attack ramp against the hitherto-impregnable fortress. They pushed up a battering ram and weakened the gates, which they then set on fire. Their plan was to wait the night and in the morning defeat and enslave the remaining defenders and their families—a total of 960 people.
But commander Eleazar ben Yair and the defenders were determined to deprive the Romans of victory. Choosing honorable death over slavery they drew lots and systematically killed each other and their families, after destroying all but the food—to show they perished not from want. Today their sacrifice is memorialized by countless Israeli soldiers who make their loyalty oaths on the same mountain.
The winds of war have never quite abated in that part of the world. Indeed, this century and the previous one that many of us remember well have included not just two world wars but a continuing succession of conflicts, increasingly deadly in spite of smart weaponry.
Far too many wars of the past had a religious component; but not all by any means. Many wars were over resources, many over land disputes, racial arrogance, and distrust. But with the rise of global terrorism we are seeing a reversion to the more elemental conflict of faith vision pitted against faith vision. This is a recipe for Masada, for beheadings along the road, for cultural annihilation.
Back to Jerusalem and the olive trees—symbols of peace for many. In the same few hours before His death Jesus Christ is recorded as pausing on the Mount of Olives after a rather triumphal procession into the city with all the trappings of victory. However, He is said to have paused to weep over the city. This troubled His followers. “Tell us,” they asked (rather urgently, I imagine), what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” (Matthew 24:3).
For those panicked by the current state of affairs, Jesus’ answer gives some clarity. “Ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows” (verses 6-8).
Then He hits the religious liberty button! Next sentence: “Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted. . . . And then shall many be offended” (verses 9, 10). Of course, from a religious point of view the real issue is a conflict of faith, not of physical warfare.
We need to watch this phase of modern warfare very closely, precisely because it is so loaded with faith imperatives: jihad, caliphate, Christian nation, exceptionalism, Western values, Promised Land, manifest destiny, and the constant invocation of good and evil. It is swirling about the battlefield, and its thick darkness is already to be felt in the streets of Paris and the suspicion that attends each ratcheting up of the homeland security imperative.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."