I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to express what I want to say here. Forgive me if I offend or shock, but here goes…

A few days ago reports were doing the rounds of the latest round of violence between Greek and Armenian monks in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I have been reflecting on such incidents a bit and realising that I am quite uncomfortable with the attention that they draw, both in the media and in the conversations that “enlightened” western Christians have about such things.

Don’t misunderstand me. I do not think that monks, or any other Christians, should go around beating each other up. Neither do I think that the divisions between Christians, as they find concrete expression in the holy places, are anything other than scandalous. But…

In thinking about this I was reminded of a conversation I once had with the Melkite Patriarch Gregory III, when he was still bishop of Jerusalem. I was left to make small talk with him when the abbess I was accompanying was unexpectedly called to the telephone. Not knowing what to say I commented on the divisions of the Churches in Jerusalem and, in typical western liberal Christian fashion, lamented how terrible it was. I was quite taken aback by his sharp response, which basically reprimanded me for commenting on things that I knew little about, although he was too gracious to put it quite so bluntly. He proceeded to tell me how the Churches in Jerusalem were working together and how their leaders met regularly to discuss matters of common concern, accounts of which I later heard from other sources as well.

Perhaps it is inevitable that sensational news like monks beating each other up attracts attention, but it does make me wonder about the power dynamics and the cultural presuppositions involved on the part of those who are so shocked by it. The Churches are divided and we are all of us violent creatures. Perhaps it should not be so shocking that this erupts in the Church’s holiest place, but perhaps it should also stimulate us to reflect on the divisions and the violence that we all-too-easily camouflage under a “civilised” discourse, whose presuppositions may have more to do with the respectability of the enlightenment than with the Gospel.

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