Religion Today

Saturday, June 30, 2012

What the Gospels Left Out

June 12, 2012

It is a dream of many Christians to visit the Land of Israel. They think of this region as "the Holy Land," the place where Jesus, Moses, David and other biblical heroes walked. They want to walk where these personages walked and see the land they saw.

Oddly, most Christians who actually visit Israel fail to see what Jesus saw in Galilee. They primarily see what the gospels tell them to see. The accounts of their trips, whether photo travelogues posted on the Internet or ancient pilgrimage itineraries, are filled with sites supposedly relating to biblical events or people. If the gospels did not mention a place, then neither does the visitor.
This lens of faith reveals what believers (and the church) wish to see, but completely misses the land the way Jesus experienced it.
This month, I am living in Galilee and working at an archaeological site at the ancient village of Huqoq, up in the hills west of the Sea of Galilee. It is less than six miles from Capernaum, the center of Jesus' Galilee mission, and less than six miles from Magdala (modern Migdal), the home of Mary Magdalene. This is where Jesus hung out during much of his ministry.
Huqoq's elevation, several hundred feet above the Sea of Galilee, provides regular views of this large lake, breathtakingly surrounded by mountains (OK, large hills) on nearly all sides. It is hard to ignore and the gospels did not, for they regularly describe the lake and Jesus' interaction with it.
But looking inland, one is immediately struck by the land and its rugged character. Its geography is more like Wyoming's than the pastoral idylls often imagined by gospel readers. It mostly goes unmentioned by the gospel writers.
This area, just south of Capernaum, is dominated by Mt. Arbel, a high mountain capped by a large, rugged cliff. Its dramatic character is enhanced by being situated over one of the deepest river valleys coming off the Galilean plateau. The mountain's foot reaches the lake, making the area north of it into a natural basin containing Capernaum, Magdala, Huqoq and many other villages.
When Jesus walked from Capernaum to locations further west, such as Cana or Nazareth, he would have come through this area. There are three places the path could have come through: (1) the valley below Mt. Arbel; (2) the rising hills north of it, rough but walkable; or (3) a narrow cliff-lined valley known today as the Amud ("Pillar") that provides a direct, if rocky, route to the Galilean plateau. None of these are described in the gospels, although they were known to and experienced by everyone in this region.
Villages are another feature missing from the gospel narratives. This area was full of hamlets and small communities, usually situated at springs, wells and other water sources. The paths would have gone through them and travelers would have drunk water there, pausing in their journey to refresh themselves and perhaps eat or even purchase food.
While the gospels mention nameless "villages," a term that allows them to slide into the background, these would have been part of Jesus' everyday experience as he moved between them, preaching. Huqoq was just one of many villages he would have seen on the hills and perhaps even visited.
Another feature of Jesus' everyday experience that goes unmentioned in the gospels is the city of Tiberias. Situated south of Mt. Arbel on the lake, this city was being built by Herod Antipas as his capital during the time of Jesus' ministry in Capernaum. Placed on a promontory, it stands out not just on the land, but also the lake. People walking here would have seen it often from the hills, and the boats of Capernaum's fishing industry would regularly have sailed past this growing city located less than 15 miles south.
Furthermore, the gospels fail to mention Galilee's other city, Sepphoris, which was built -- during Jesus' childhood -- only five miles away from Nazareth. Since the gospels' Greek refers to Jesus' father as a teknon, a word which means "builder" rather than "carpenter," Joseph may have helped build it. 
The gospels' picture of Galilee is gently rural, but not ruggedly so. Their presentation provided a land without cities, one that portrayed Jesus in his own realm and in which urban-based people of higher status, such as priest, scribes and Pharisees, were always out of place.
In the end, it is clear that the gospel writers presented what they thought was important for the believer, but they left out much of the character of Jesus' everyday life and the things he saw.

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Why is Syria Killing its People?

(June 2012)

Last week, military forces in Syria bombed and rampaged through Houla, killing more than 100 civilians, nearly a third of whom were children. This is just the latest in a string of atrocities perpetuated over several months in which the Syrian army has used weapons of war to attack unarmed citizens. The massacre shows the failure of the United Nations-brokered cease-fire that supposedly went into effect in April.

The world’s nations have done almost everything it can short of military intervention to stop the slaughter, but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has not ceased his attacks on his country’s citizens. The international diplomatic core seems stumped, unable to understand the virulent, disproportionate response of the Assad government.

This is because the response is a religious one rather than a political one. Modern Syria has often been described as being ruled by the Baathist Party, an Arab socialist party with branches in Iraq and Egypt. A careful look at the many government coups since independence in 1946, shows a steady move of members of the Alawi movement in Islam towards political power.

Alawist military officers, like Hafez al-Assad, helped bring the Baathists to power in 1963. In 1966, the Alawists reformed the Baath Party, expelling many Sunni leaders. Then in 1970, Assad himself took over the party and in 1971 became Syria’s President, even though the constitution permitted only a Sunni Muslim to hold it. Since then, Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar have held on to that position through the use of force, firmly quelling all political dissent.

The Alawi movement in Islam has always been controversial. It originated within Shiite Islam, with most of its adherents ultimately residing in the Syrian mountains along the eastern Mediterranean coast. There, these rural villagers acquired a number of religious elements from their neighbors, both Ismaili Muslims and Christians.

These new elements of Alawism make its adherents look different from other Muslims. They neither fast during Ramadan nor make pilgrimage to Mecca, both of which belong to the five basic “Pillars of Islam.” They also lack mosques, Islamic prayer houses, leading other Muslims to question whether they even pray. 

Unsurprisingly, other Muslims have questioned whether the Alawis are even Muslim. Although one Grand Mufti of Jerusalem recognized them as such, many Sunni scholars, including the still influential Ismail Ibn Kathir, saw them as pagans.

Islam has rarely treated its minority religious groups well. Since 80% of Muslims are Sunni, that majority movement has understood itself as having the God-given right to ensure correct belief and practice. It has often persecuted religious groups who have taken other paths.

The Alawites have been no exception. Sunni persecution, especially under the Ottoman Empire, explains their reputation as warlike soldiers and rebels. These conflicts have led to long-standing distrust between Alawites and Sunnis.

This history of conflict should not be surprising. Few majority religious movements in any religion tolerate splinter groups (heresies) and often try to stamp them out. In the early centuries of the Protestant Reformation, for example, European Catholicism tried hard to rid Europe first of Lutheranism and then Calvinism. The Thirty Years War between Catholic France and Protestant Germany was Europe’s longest and perhaps most destructive war, resulting in a depopulation (by death) of much of central Europe.

The Thirty Year War ended in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia, which said that the religion of a nation’s king was the nation’s religion, and that minority religious groups could worship as they saw fit, but only in private. This guaranteed the religious rights of individuals, but hardly on an equal basis.

Assad and his Alawite army view present-day Syria according to the same dynamics. Alawites are a distinct minority in Syria, where the majority are Sunnis. The Assad regime sees itself as the guarantor of Alawite liberty and even existence. Should the Assad regime fall, they believe the Alawites will be wiped out by vengeful Sunnis. They may not be wrong; Syrian social media is full of angry comments suggesting that the only solution to the conflict is to rid Syria not just of Assad but of all Alawites.

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Marriage: Before God or Man?

(May 2012)

Last week President Obama finally did it. After several years of an evolving position on gay marriage, he stated unambiguously that he thinks people of the same sex have the right to marry; no compelling reason exists to prevent it.

Why is the President’s opinion important anyway? If marriage is religious, it should not be.

In the Catholic Church, marriage is one of the seven sacraments. Like communion and baptism, marriage constitutes a religious ritual conducted before God. It is led by a priest and witnessed by the entire community, to be sure, but God is asked not only to bless the marriage, but to sanctify it. In essence, God creates the marriage bond.

Although the Protestant Reformation did away with many sacraments, marriage remains a religious rite unifying two individuals before God in the witness of the congregation.

This understanding provides no place for government officials and their views. Marriage takes place before God and the religious community. Marriage belongs to the church, right?

Well no, actually.

Governments took over marriage centuries ago. It became a way of keeping tabs on people. Today in North America and Europe, the church wedding is not what makes one legally married. Legal marriage occurs only when a person gets a marriage license from a government bureau and signs it before the appropriate witnesses.

If ever there was a failure of the separation of church and state, government control of marriage is it. While allowing churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions to continue their rituals and celebrations, governments took away their power to contract marriage.

Church weddings may take place before God, but in the eyes of the state, a marriage is not legal until the papers are signed.

Over the past century, furthermore, many people’s religious views have changed. It used to be rare to marry outside one’s church or denomination, now it is common. And many people have given up official religion altogether. In both cases, government control of marriage enables these individuals to marry with ease. If religious institutions had retained control over marriage, the ability to marry of people in these situations would have been highly curtailed.

So the President’s opinion on this question is important. As the head of state, his views have significant weight in deciding how the government approaches marriage—probably more than the views of religious organizations themselves. There is no separation of church and state here. Undue entanglement of church and state? Absolutely.

That is clear in the political arena as well. Over the past two decades, state laws and constitutional changes have been enacted around the nation almost entirely in the name of “Biblical Marriage”—defined in practice as the union of one man and one woman. Religious leaders and groups have worked to establish their religious beliefs about marriage as the law of the land.

What the churches have failed to realize in this rush to enshrine one man-one woman marriage is that when they ask the government to define marriage, the government defines it for them.

The churches have not only lost control of marriage, but the government now enforces its marriage requirements not just upon the gay community but upon the churches as well. The churches gave to the government any remaining power over marriage.

Was this wise? Maybe churches and other religious institutions should try to get back their power over marriage before it is too late.

Since the debate over gay marriage is far from over, the churches can use it to restore their power over marriage. They should insist on the separation of church and state and get the government out of the religious business of marriage.

How? In principle it is simple. The government should be restricted to civil unions, which all couples would contract, straight as well as gay. This addresses the legal aspect of the union of two people.

The part of a union of two individuals that takes place before God would take place only in religious institutions. Each church, synagogue, temple and mosque would enact the marriage before their god(s) in the way they believed was correct.

Religions thus could define marriage according to their principles and refuse to conduct ones that did not fit their definitions. Some religious organizations would carriage out gay marriages, some would not. Everyone would thus have access marriage who wanted it, and no religious organization would have to go against its beliefs. 

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