Many were appalled by the announcement that Bishara Shlayan, a Christian merchant seaman, plans to build a 100-foot (30-meter) Jesus statue in Nazareth, where the Muslim population has grown to 70 percent of the residents.

As Fox News’s Paul Alster noted, “The statue could prove a boon to tourism.”

But is this the right direction for religious tourism in Israel? The statue, which will stand on Mount Precipice, the start of the “Gospel Trail” to Capernaum, will be even taller than the Christ the Redeemer that dominates the city of Rio de Janeiro, where most of the population is Roman Catholic.

At the same time, unrelated, there has a political debate sparked by the architect Quilian Riano’s repetition of the old saw that “all architecture is political.” All architecture may not be political elsewhere, but there is a long, sad history of political architecture, especially monumental, religious architecture in Israel.

One hardly knows where to begin. Solomon built the First Temple, which David had not been permitted to build, establishing the house of David in Israel and among the nations. Herod built the Second Temple, a marvel of the ancient world, attempting to gain favor with those who opposed him, because he was of Idumean descent.

He also built the Antonia Fortress on the northwest corner of the Temple and named it in honor of his friend Mark Anthony.

After Constantine embraced Christianity, his mother, Helena, rebuilt Jerusalem around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, strategically situated to overshadow the ruins of the Second Temple. Two centuries later Emperor Justinian built the New (Nea) Church of Mary Theotokos in Jerusalem (which commemorated Mary, the mother of Jesus), which was so large that it too overshadowed the Temple.

When Omar took the city in 638, the Temple Mount was being used as a garbage dump (to offend Jews). Omar cleared two places to worship, one over the foundation stone of the Temple and one to the south of it (where the Aksa Mosque stands). When Abd al-Malik completed the Dome of the Rock in 691-692, it surpassed the splendor of the churches of Constantine and Justinian.

Circling the building, 800 feet (244 meters) of inscriptions denounce the divinity of Jesus. The Mosque of Omar and the minaret at the entrance to the Khanqah Salahiyya, identical in structure and exactly the same height – taller than the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – were then built on either side of the church by the Mamluks.

Shlayan’s Jesus statue, he says, will be a response to the signs in the main square of Nazareth that declare, “There is no power but Allah.” But against this sad history of erecting religious monuments as political statements – an architectural arms race between religious traditions – it is a grossly inappropriate response.

There is much we do not know about the historical Jesus, and most claims serve one political or ecclesiastical agenda or another.

If we know anything about Jesus, however, it is that he rejected political acclaim.

According to the Gospel of John, “When Jesus realized that they [the crowd of 5,000 in the Galilee] were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (John 6:15). Similarly, when two of his disciples asked for the left- and right-hand seats in his kingdom, he responded, “Among the Gentiles, those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.

But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:42-43). When Jesus entered the Temple, he drove out the money changers and merchants, saying, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” How sadly ironic that the prophet who refused power and condemned the desecration of the Temple for commercial purposes should now be depicted for political and commercial purposes.

At the same time, the plans for the Jesus statue in Nazareth, politically and commercially motivated though they may be, raise the deeper question of the role of the Christian minority in Israel and Palestine, and the vexing issues regarding how the Christian community should relate to Israel, to Jews and to Muslims. Christians have often been truest to their faith when they were in the minority, fulfilling Jesus’s metaphors of salt, light and leaven. The international images of Mary and Jesus in the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, many of which call for peace, point in a promising direction.

What if Christians in Israel and Palestine found their role as mediators and peacemakers? What if the thousands of Christian pilgrims who come to Israel every year were confronted with the inspiration and challenge of these activities, rather than interfaith competition and triumphalism? The image of Jesus all Christians should work to present is not that of the Christ triumphant over all, but the Jesus who worked as mediator, reconciler and servant in what has always been a contested center of religious and at times world history.

The Rev. Dr. Alan Culpepper, steering committee member of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s New Paths: Christians Engaging Israel Project, is founding dean of the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University of Atlanta. Learn more about New Paths at newpaths.org.il.

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