I’m glad the Prime Minister (Scott Morrison) has pledged that he’ll have another crack at passing his Religious Discrimination bill should the LNP get back in. It’s an important piece of legislation and for too long believers have been marginalised at work and at school or on the sporting field because they either subscribe to the wrong type of god or have dared to express their faith-based intolerance of other people’s lifestyles.
I was in Jerusalem a few years back with an End of Days minister from Texas. His name was the Rev. Irwin Baxter Jnr and I say ‘was’ because sadly he passed away a couple of years ago from Covid 19, something he regarded as a divine punishment for things like homosexuality, abortion and unmarried couples living in sin.
He was showing me where Jesus was going to land on Judgement Day.
‘Just here, he said, indicating the pulverised earth outside the walls of the Old City. ‘All the dead will be raised up and Our Lord will separate the sheep from the goats.;’
The Reverend held his arms up high and wide, giving me the impression that Returning Jesus was going to be enormous. Our Saviour would descend from the skies, gather up his flock (Pentacostals only, he explained) and take them body and soul to heaven. Irwin was certain he’d be accompanying Jesus on the trip back and so keen was he to help out he’d even leased some office space down the road.
The Old City was bustling. Traders, tourists, soldiers and scholars squeezed past a procession of Christians carrying a life-size crucifix on their way to Golgotha. Our Israeli film crew hustled us through police checkpoints and onto Temple Mount where Irwin pointed out the likely spot the Anti-Christ would hold his first press conference (Hebron Dome, as it turns out). Our Palestinian guides then showed us through the Al Askar mosque. No one seemed to mind that we were a bunch of Christians, Jews and Atheists.
We walked around the small circle. There was no furniture and little going on but for a few women sitting with their children, quietly chatting to each other. Central to it all was the large stone Mohammad had ascended from when he left the Earth for Paradise. If we looked closely, we were told, we could see the imprints of his feet.
People have been fighting in, over and about Jerusalem for the last 3000 years and from where we stood there were no sign of it letting up any time soon. From the Old City, where an expert in the Arab-Israeli conflict declined to speak with me, we repaired to the American Colony Hotel for a cool drink. Traditionally a neutral zone, the hotel was same one Yassar Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin first met at in ‘93 to talk about what would eventually become the Oslo Peace Accord. Despite their efforts, someone had just been stabbed outside its gates half-an-hour before we drove in.
Many famous people have stayed at the American Colony. The elderly porter who showed me to my quarters told me that not only had Laurence of Arabia been a guest, but also the people who made Laurence of Arabia.
‘I met him,’ he said proudly. I was incredulous. The porter wasn’t that elderly. Turned out he meant Peter O’Toole. ‘And Sir Alec Guinness stayed here in this very room,’ he added, nodding respectfully to a framed portrait of the actor over the bed. Guinness had played Prince Faisal.
I was impressed. So much so that I thought I’d treat the porter to my impression of the famous actor-knight. Feeling it wouldn’t do these days to quote from the Qur’an as Sir Alec had done in the movie, I instead recreated his role of the Reverend Lord Henry D’Ascoyne from Kind Hearts and Coronets.
My west window,’ I said in my best approximation of Sir Alec’s orotund tones, ‘has all the exuberance of Chaucer but none of the concomitant crudities of the period.’
The porter nodded at me with a fixed smile. ‘Yes,’ he said gesturing to the window. ‘You can see into the garden.’
Jerusalem is split in two with Temple Mount in the Palestinian half. Some of the non-Palestinian folk who live in that Palestinian half really like ramming the point home. One balcony we drove past was flying a flag of Israel so huge that when the wind was blowing from the west, it flapped over the whole of apartment next door, completely obscuring their view. Maybe that was the point. Or maybe they were just proud of their flag.
We were on our way to the scenic lookout at the Mount of Olives to capture some footage of the twilit Dome of the Rock. The shot was beautiful but I couldn’t help notice that the plaque outside the Orson Hyde Memorial Garden had been defaced with a swastika. As aggressive a use of symbol that you’ll find anywhere and one that easily trumps blotting out your neighbours’ sunlight with the Star of David—and all this despite the fact that Orson Hyde was actually a Mormon.
The trouble with competing claims about ownership is that the farther back you reach into history to justify your argument, the more likely you’ll be relying on myth. Truth-telling tends to fray a little at that point.
Full disclosure here: I’ve got no skin in the game and so am probably the last person who should be warning anyone against the dangers of cherry-picking the past. If I’m entitled to twit anyone, I guess it’s those tourists in the Old City re-enacting the Passion of the Christ. To help them with accuracy, the rest of us should have at least been shouting abuse at them. Then again, maybe they weren’t after too real an experience or they would have crucified themselves once they got to Golgotha instead of sitting down for sandwiches.
My point—assuming I need one at all to make a statement under the proposed Act—is that lusting after an idealised world that never was is folly. Save that for the movies. Live in the now—or at least for the future.
With that in mind, I wound up my trip at the River Jordan, choked with pods of roped-off people being baptised into their various denominations. The Rev. Irwin Baxter, who had been the model of patience and grace during our trip, approached me with a change of clothes in a little plastic bag and a hopeful look in his eye. Our director would have loved to end the documentary with me jumping into the water, but I just couldn’t do it.
‘I’m sorry,’ I told Irwin. ‘I take it too seriously to treat it so lightly.’
He said he understood, which was generous of him given what I’d said didn’t really make any sense.
What I think I meant to say was: ‘You take it too seriously for me to treat it so lightly.’
Here endeth the lesson.