Religion Today

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Middle East Crisis and the Book of Revelation

This week's column is by a guest blogger, Michael Azar.
Thanks Michael!

The Middle East Crisis and the Book of Revelation
Michael G. Azar

Nearly two millennia after its composition, the biblical Book of Revelation continues to insatiably interest many religious believers. In the United States especially, many Evangelical Christians eagerly relate this mysterious book to current world events. They assert that God has revealed his plan for the end of the world in the perplexing images of Revelation, and it is now being unveiled before our eyes in recent Middle East events.

Revelation was written at the close of the first century, when Christian communities were living under the rising threat of persecution from the Roman Empire and Christian martyrdom was becoming increasingly commonplace. Revelation comprises one example of the popular first-century literary genre we call apocalyptic literature, a literature composed during oppression and persecution. It carried the comforting message that God would eventually conquer the enemies of his people, namely, the persecutors and oppressors. Such a message, naturally, would not sit well with the Romans authorities, so apocalyptic authors resorted to cryptic imagery bordering on lunacy to conceal this message from the Romans.

Thus, Revelation’s images of horses, trumpets, flaming swords, blood pouring from the sky, and multi-headed beasts served one purpose: to tell the oppressed and persecuted that despite their present circumstances, God would conquer evil on their behalf. God was in control of history, though present events might not show it.

Revelation’s earliest readers did not attempt to decipher every sign to understand how Revelation’s images correlated to world events. That method of interpretation was popularized only in the modern world and has led to many Christians using the daily newspaper as the key to unlocking Revelation’s mysteries. Now, the trick to comprehending Revelation lies in understanding which particular image refers to which particular modern event, not in understanding the first-century world that gave birth to Revelation.

For many modern interpreters of Revelation, the State of Israel takes center stage. Every action of Israel, from its creation after WWII, through its border expansions in 1967, and even to its recent military strikes in Lebanon, have all been prophesied and sanctioned by Scripture.

But such an interpretive method does not end there. Many see a warning that if one opposes Israel, one opposes God, and if one supports Israel, one supports God. Much of Israel’s support in the American Christian world comes from people who are not simply interested in just reading about prophecies of the end times but want to take an active role in them. It does not take long for one to see how such a religious position has only furthered the conflict in the Middle East rather than alleviate it.

In the end, to the detriment of Jews and both Muslim and Christian Arabs (the latter most often neglected in such interpretations), Revelation no longer functions as a comfort for an oppressed and persecuted people. In the hands of conservative Evangelicals, Revelation now serves to justify all of Israel’s military and political policies. To some, Israel has now become the good, almost-divine, force that is unmistakably on God’s side, while the State’s enemies are on evil’s side.

Whatever political position regarding Israel and its relations to its neighbors a person may hold, the Book of Revelation, by its very own nature, cannot be used to justify military action, whatever motive may lie behind such action.

It is true: In Revelation, God conquers his enemies; evil is destroyed in almost epic battle scenes. Such motifs have consistently been used to justify violence and war. However, we must take care to understand how God conquers his enemies, or, better yet, through whom God brings victory over evil – at least according to Revelation.

In Revelation, God’s enemies are brutally subdued by Jesus and the army he leads. But Jesus is rarely actually called “Jesus” in Revelation. Rather, he is most often referred to as the “Slain Lamb” – Jewish imagery indicating that Jesus gave his life for his people to free them from the consequences of their sin. The army Jesus leads contains not the powerful and mighty; it is an army of “those who had been slain”; it is an army of martyrs, of those who peacefully gave up their lives rather than fight their enemies.

True victory over one’s enemies according to Revelation comes not through physical battles, but through self-sacrifice and abasement. Those who seek to model the world and their lives on Revelation’s message must become like the paradigmatic figure of Christianity: the Crucified Christ. According to Revelation, Jesus only conquers his enemies through his cross, not through physical dominance. Revelation is at its heart an exhortation of nonviolent, selfless martyrdom and not an exhortation of violence, whether it be as aggressor or defender.

Currently, hundreds of civilians, including many Christians (40 percent of Lebanon’s population is Christian) who value the Book of Revelation, are being killed or injured in Lebanon. The Evangelical interpretations of Revelation that paint these civilians in Lebanon as condemnable enemies of God only harm their fellow Christian believers.

Those who seek to use Revelation as a justification of violence and aggression must choose a different text – because Revelation’s image of the Crucified Christ – the Slain Lamb – does not serve. If Revelation is to be used for anyone, it is to be used for the oppressed and persecuted, not the oppressor and persecutor – for Revelation itself was written on behalf of the former and against the latter.

Michael G. Azar ( is an instructor in UW’s Religious Studies program.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Religions, Evangelism, and Government Support

Protestantism has long emphasized evangelization, the bringing of new people to Christianity. This has been particularly true for America, where early settlers such as Roger Williams launched numerous missions to the natives. The nineteenth century saw the great American missionary movements in which Americans sent thousands of their compatriots to evangelize the Africans, the Polynesians, and the citizens of many other countries. It continues today in evangelical Christianity’s encouraging of its followers to “witness” to those around them and bring them to “know Jesus as their personal savior.” The model for these activities is the early church, Protestants have often said, which grew through the evangelizing preaching of Paul, Peter, and hundreds of early Christians.

The Protestant emphasis on the personal evangelistic activities of individuals, whether one-on-one or in larger revival meetings, causes us to overlook the other way Christianity has grown, namely, through government support of the church. This can be seen most readily in the British Empire of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The British conquerors were always accompanied by the Church of England (the Anglican Church) which established schools, hospitals, and health centers for the natives and through them spread the word of Christianity. While conversion was never required, those who did convert found that gained preferential treatment, including jobs, from the imperial administration. Today, the worldwide Anglican Church has churches in more countries than any other Protestant denomination.

While missionary labors are important, the most effective missionary work is to convert a political leader, such a king. When the King of Tonga converted to Mormonism a couple decades ago, a large number of his subjects converted as well. Today, perhaps 40% of Tonga’s population is Mormon.

A similar thing happened at the dawn of Christianity. The period of the early Church is often thought to end when Emperor Constantine began favoring the Christians in 311 AD. In subsequent years, sponsored the Church, gave enormous funds to help organize it administratively, and encouraged the formation and adoption of its official doctrine. He established bishops as key players in his court, and set the stage for the Roman Empire’s adoption of Christianity as its official religion and its ultimate ban on paganism in later decades. A century later, nearly the entire empire had become Christian, from the southern Mediterranean shores as far north as the Empire reached into Europe, including parts of France, Germany and England.

It is not only Christianity which has spread through the combination of government and religion, but other religions that encourage conversion, such as Islam and Buddhism. In Islam, the alliance between government and religion began with the Prophet Muhammad (died 632 AD), who in the last decade of his life became the governor of a region around a city in Arabia now known as Medina. After his death, rebellion among some of his followers forced his successors to enforce a combination of political and religious allegiance. This led to the religious and military sweep of Islam across the Middle East and North Africa, ultimately traveling as far west as Spain.

Buddhism was a moderately successful religion in India during the centuries following Buddha’s death in 483 BC. But it was only with the conversion of Emperor Ashoka, who reigned from 273 to 232 BC, that Buddhism gained a significant following. Similarly, it was Buddhism’s support by the Thai dynasty that made it into the official religion of Thailand. In China, after centuries of low-level acceptance, Buddhism became widespread through the support of the Tang dynasty in the early ninth century. Buddhism’s dominance in Tibet prior the Chinese invasion of 1959 came from the dual role played by the Dalai Lama, namely, as the religious head of Tibetan Buddhism and the head of the temporal state.

So although personal evangelism is important to religions of conversion, often the most effective conversion strategy is to convert a single person, i.e., a national ruler, to the religion. That ruler the uses the administrative powers of his or her government to promote the religion, resulting in the conversion of many members of the society to that religion.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

America’s Challenge to the Worldwide Anglican Church
Paul V.M. Flesher

Professor Jacob Neusner observed, “All Scripture is sacred, but not all Scripture is relevant.” Despite this comment’s sacrilegious sound, even religious believers who stress most strongly the Bible’s importance would agree that they both believe this and practice it. In Christianity, for example, few think that the guidelines for animal sacrifice found in Exodus and Leviticus should be followed in Christian worship. Most American Christians uphold the Bible’s rules that permit divorce, rather than those that do not; indeed, divorce rates are highest among the denominations most emphasizing biblical literacy. Even the Bible’s strictures against dealing in monetary interest are ignored in our capitalist economy.

It is one matter to ignore a biblical injunction out of customary practice; it is another to move a scriptural rule from being followed to being not followed. This is the underlying problem with the Episcopal Church (USA), as the American Anglican church is called, and its ordination of a gay bishop in 2004. In the view of most Anglican bishops around the world, this move contravenes scriptural mandates against the mere practice of homosexuality, let alone approval of such activity through ordination. Some national Anglican churches, including the Nigerian church, have “broken communion” with the American Church. Indeed, the unity of the worldwide Anglican Church is threatened over this issue. At their national convention last week, the Episcopal Church endorsed a compromise that encourages ongoing dialogue with the rest of the Anglican Church and avoids immediate expulsion.

The heat generated in this dispute overshadows the history of debate about sexual matters among Anglicans and indeed within Christianity in general. The Biblical books were written within patriarchal societies in which the family was the basic social unit. While this led to the rejection of same-sex unions, it also restricted the ability to women to participate in public religious activities. Christianity followed these restrictions. Indeed the Apostle Paul wrote, “Women should be silent in churches, for they are not permitted to speak but should be subordinate” (1 Corinthians 14:34). While some churches still follow this practice, such as the Roman Catholics and most Baptist denominations, most mainstream American Protestant churches have changed to allow women to enter ministerial roles over the last century or so.

The Episcopal Church’s struggle to bring women into the priesthood and then promote them to bishops reveals that it is torn between its American setting and its international ties. Within American Protestantism, the Episcopal Church was a late-comer to women’s ordination. The United Church of Christ ordained women as early as 1810, while the Presbyterians ordained their first woman in 1893. The United Methodist Church started its policy of women’s ordination in 1956, while the Lutheran Church in America began ordaining women in 1970. In contrast, it was not until 1976 that the Episcopal Church sanctioned women’s ordination.

This was immediately seen as a challenge by the worldwide Anglican Communion. Although the Hong Kong Anglican Church had ordained its first woman in 1944, few other national churches permitted the ordination of women. When the American church announced its intention to ordain a female bishop in 1985, the Communion reacted with shock, with several national churches threatening to break communion. The Anglican leader, the Archbishop of Canterbury, formed a commission to develop a solution to the situation. Essentially, the result was an agreement to disagree, yet remain united.

This has led to a confusing situation. At the start of 2006, only 24 national provinces of the Anglican Church permitted the ordination of women to the priesthood, while only 14 allowed the ordination of women as bishops. The Church of England itself, the founding church of the Anglican Communion, does not yet permit women to serve as bishops. Furthermore, only three provinces have actually appointed women as bishops. So when the Episcopal conference voted to appoint Katherine Jefferts Schori as the next Presiding Bishop of the entire American church last week, it was pushing the envelope of women’s acceptance in the Anglican Communion. Bishop Schori will be the first woman in the world to hold that position and it will be interesting to see how she will be accepted by her peers. She now holds the highest position in the Church outside the Archbishop of Canterbury and she will be interacting with the Presiding Bishops from many nations. Only two of them will have experienced a woman bishop of any kind, and most have yet to allow any type of female ordination. Will they insist on her being biblical, that she be silent and submissive? Her authority, like their own, comes from the bishops and church members who elected her. They elected her to speak and to lead. It will be interesting to watch.