A few days ago, Bishop William Shomali, auxiliary bishop of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, implored us to share the good news about Jerusalem. I want to do just that. Last week, Christians, Muslims and Jews gathered in Jerusalem to speak about the topic of “Mercy.” They shared with each other the conviction that in each of these great religious traditions exercising mercy to one another is an obligation. The message was clear: if we follow the ethics of our religions, we will find the way to healing our Holy Land.
Bishop Shomali was presiding over an event held at the Salesian Pontifical University of Jerusalem (Ratisbonne). The event was entitled “Mercy Without Boundaries” based on a phrase coined by St Francis late last year, when he described God’s love, justice and mercy as being without boundaries.
The opening presentation was made by Khadi Iyad Zahalka of the Jerusalem sharia court. He elucidated the obligations that all Muslims have to imitate Allah in His attributes of mercy. The Khadi focused on the forgiveness element of mercy but explained that it was much more than that. He defined “mercy” as the attitude and activities that seek to make the world better. All that God wills for us is good. The human response should be the pursuit of that which is good and the rejection of that which does harm. Behaving towards others with “mercy,” precludes inflicting violence on them. Members of the audience challenged the Khadi about whether Muslims today were following the sharia injunctions to behave with love towards others and his response was unequivocal. Those acting without mercy are not behaving as Muslims. Many using the name of Islam to justify their political activities have moved far from the values of their religion.
Khadi Zahalka’s presentation was followed by Rabbi David Rosen, who received a papal Knighthood in 2005 for his contribution to Jewish-Catholic reconciliation and in 2010 he was made a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) by H.M. Queen Elizabeth II for his work promoting interfaith understanding and cooperation. Rabbi Rosen emphasized the etymology of the word for “mercy” in Hebrew – rachamim, coming from the word for “womb”. Of course, this elicits ideas of mothering protectiveness. However, there are other relevant terms such as chesed, usually translated as “lovingkindness.” Rabbi Rosen explained that in Judaism, God’s mercy is experienced within the context of His Covenant. This Covenant demands that the Jewish people live in accordance with the Divine will and if we do so, Divine mercy will be the consequence. The Covenantal responsibility of the Jewish people is to live according to both the revealed commandments and in imitation of the Divine qualities. God demands righteousness in the way we approach the world.
The audience was invited to ask questions of the speakers and the Christian participants had clearly experienced less than “merciful” behaviour from Jews here in the Holy Land. Asked how someone who was imitating God and viewing all humans as created in the “image of God” could spit on another, Rabbi Rosen began with an apology on behalf of the Jewish people. He then posited that this sort of behavior is borne of fear. He explained that most Israeli Jews never meet Christians and that their view of Christianity is based on the collective memory of persecution through the ages. Their visceral reaction to Christians comes from a sense that Christianity remains a threat to Jews and Judaism.
Reverend Dr Francesco Giosue Voltaggio made the final presentation of the morning and provided a comprehensive analysis of Christian biblical and theological perspectives on mercy. Like Rabbi Rosen, he began by analyzing the etymology of the various terms for mercy in both the Hebrew and Christian bibles. He made the point that the Church is much more than a “charitable NGO.” As in the Jewish tradition, the basis of its good work must always be imitation of God. In doing continuing his argument of the common understanding between the two traditions, Dr Voltaggio offered an original reading of F.W. Nietzche’s analysis of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. He interpreted the meaning of Christianity as springing from “a Jewish root” and growing “on this soil” as meaning that they were absolutely aligned in their mission to become a light to the world. Both the faiths are called upon to exercise love and mercy and to understand the pain of those who are suffering.
It was striking how all three religions placed mercy among the highest values and demanded the same behaviours towards others from adherents. All the speakers agreed that justice is incomplete unless it includes mercy.
Having heard authoritative speakers from each of the traditions uphold the importance of behaving with lovingkindness, forgiveness and compassion towards one another, the subsequent discussions noted the distance between the ideal and the reality. Participants resolved to try to live up to the ideals described. They realized that this would mean investing in education about their own and other religious traditions as well as training themselves to appreciate the goodness around them – a challenge at all times but particularly difficult when vengeance seems to be so much more attractive than mercy on the streets.
Bishop Shomali was right. It was a good news story indeed.