Monday, September 27, 2004

"Murder in the Cathedral' (Almost)

The news today reported a melee that occurred in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. According to Haaretz:

Greek Orthodox and Franciscan priests got into a fist fight Monday at Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Christianity's holiest shrine, after arguing over whether a door in the basilica should be closed during a procession. Dozens of people, including several police officers, were lightly hurt in the brawl at the shrine, built over the spot where tradition says Jesus was crucified and buried.Jerusalem police spokesman Shmulik Ben-Ruby said four priests were detained.Custody of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is shared by several denominations that jealously guard territory and responsibilities under a fragile deal hammered out over the last centuries. Any perceived encroachment on one group's turf can lead to vicious feuds, sometimes lasting centuries.Monday's fight broke out during a procession of hundreds of Greek Orthodox worshippers commemorating the 4th century pilgrimage by Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, to Jerusalem. Tradition says that during the trip, Helena found the cross on which Jesus had been crucified.Church officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that at one point, the procession passed a Roman Catholic chapel, and priests from both sides started arguing over whether the door to the chapel should be open or closed. Riot police broke up the fight, witnesses said.

There is a very important lesson to be learned (or rather re-learned) here. People fight for that which they believe. Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Armenians and Protestants consider each other to be heretics. That's a very serious business, since one's salvation depends on one not being a heretic. So, when one denomination infringes on another's prerogative, its symbolic legitimacy (as in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre), conflict is inevitable. Symbols are important for those whose entire essence is expressed therein. Like it or not, that's how things work in the world.

This is not something that so-called sophisticated, i.e. skeptical, moderns can fathom. It is something that only medievalists can teach. Only students of an age wherein people actually believed and were willing to follow their beliefs can understand (and interpret) events that reflect that dynamic. I say that not only in light of my own longstanding conviction to that effect, but because my friend Professor Richard Landes recently demonstrated it. He was interviewed in a Canadian Newspaper about millenial and apocalyptic elements lying behind jihadist thinking. (The article was posted on the History News Network). The reporter's conclusion was: It's interesting that a historian of the Middle Ages is able to articulate, better than any professional security strategist, exactly what is at stake in this global conflict.

It's merely 'interesting.' It makes total sense. Thank you Richard.

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