Religion Today

Friday, January 23, 2015

Charlie Hebdo's True Goal

The Muslim terrorists who murdered the staff at Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, claimed to be retaliating for the magazine’s attacks on Islam and on Muhammad, its founding prophet. Islam was not Charlie Hebdo’s only religious target. Jews, Catholics, the Pope and even Jesus were often subjects of the publication’s cartoons.
The killings of Charlie Hebdo’s staff are horrific, both for the loss of life and for the shockingly appalling way they were carried out. And the “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) phrase brought together the people of France, and indeed people around the world, in mourning, resolution and protest.
But, as David Brooks pointed out in his New York Times piece last week, most of us are not Charlie Hebdo. The satirical publication is widely hated in religious and political circles of all stripes. And before the murders, so few French people read it that it was in serious financial difficulties.
The publication launches rather sophomoric attacks on just about everything that some segment of western society holds dear. If you were not offended by something in one issue, wait for the next one. A recent sketch featured the Holy Trinity in an explicitly sexual ménage a trois, while another made fun of gay marriage. Many of its graphic covers could not be displayed on the magazine shelves of American shops.
But Islam and Catholicism were not Charlie Hebdo’s primary target, even when they were the cartoons’ subject matter. Jonathan Turley pointed out in his Jan. 8 New York Times essay that the French government, in recent years, has passed legislation that restricts the free speech of French citizens. Charlie Hebdo worked to push back against these new laws.
The new restrictions on speech gained ground in France after the worldwide protests (and deaths, both planned and accidental) over the Muhammad cartoons in 2006. France and other European nations passed a variety of laws restricting anti-religious speech, in part, out of a concern for public safety.
But since then, actress Bridget Bardot has been sentenced for criticizing gays and Muslims in a letter to the French president, while fashion designer John Galliano was convicted and fined for making anti-Semitic remarks in a café. The “speech police” have gone beyond public speech to monitoring semi-private and private speech here; whether or not you agree with these speakers’ views, this is an insidious development.
This situation reminds us of a truth that America’s founding fathers recognized: Namely, freedom of religion is linked to freedom of speech, even though speech can be for or against particular religions or religion in general. Our Constitution’s First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.” The free exercise of speech and religion go hand in hand.
Of course, even in America, freedoms are not absolute. The rights of a single individual must be balanced against the rights of every other individual, as well as against the rights of various groups, including religious and ethnic groups, educational institutions, governments and so on. We usually refer to this opposition as the individual vs. society. The question is, where do you set the fulcrum to ensure the correct balance? This is the ongoing debate.
In western countries, where the Enlightenment has freed us, as Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address, for government rule “of the people, by the people, for the people,” we put the fulcrum quite close to the individual side of the bar. To move the balance toward the society end of the scale, as France has done by protecting religious groups from criticism, not only removes freedom of speech about these groups, but freedom of speech within the nation as a whole.
If one group can be protected from criticism, then other groups can be protected (e.g., businesses, politicians, government). It becomes only a matter of legislative whim. The ability to deprive people of their freedom of speech thus strikes at the very heart of democracy and the French value of Liberté.
By its extreme satirization of religions, Charlie Hebdo worked to create a safe place for free speech, where average French citizens could discuss and debate without fear of arrest or accusation. It aimed to re-establish the fulcrum of free speech way over on the side favoring individual rights.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Friday, January 09, 2015

The Great Moral Debate

The biggest ethical debates in American society have been issues where there is not an obvious right or wrong, where one side is not definitely good and the other side obviously wicked.

Indeed, the most difficult moral struggles our society has faced over recent decades are ones where Christian churches have been prominent on both sides. This was certainly true for the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the women's rights movement of the 1970s. For both of these, churches were on the forefront of both sides of the debate. Why was this? How can Christians who all follow the teachings of Jesus Christ disagree so passionately over the practice of those teachings?

At the risk of oversimplifying these difficult ethical issues, I want to suggest that they are actually part of a larger moral debate that has been going on since the start of Christianity and will probably continue until its end (and perhaps beyond). I refer to the debate between moral principles and moral answers.

What do I mean by this? In the gospels, Jesus presents most of his ethical teachings as principles. Usually, they are given in the form of short, wise sayings, such as "love your neighbor" or "judge not, and you will not be judged." Other times they are given as parables, such as when the young man to whom Jesus said "love your neighbor," responded by saying, "who is my neighbor?” Jesus then told him the parable of the Good Samaritan.

A moral answer comes from the application of a moral principle to a particular circumstance. For example, an acquaintance angers me. Should I hit him? The application of the moral principle "love your neighbor" gives the moral answer that I should not. In this particular situation, the answer is "do not hit!"

So, what is the “Great Moral Debate?” Over the years, generations and centuries, Christians have taught both moral principles and moral answers. Moral answers serve well for guiding behavior when the answer is already known (I know I'm not supposed to hit others). But, guiding behavior by moral answers, requires learning lots of circumstances and the appropriate moral answer. What happens when one encounters a circumstance for which there is not a learned answer?

Moral principles, by contrast, are more flexible, and one principle might cover a number of situations (including unexpected new ones). Loving my neighbor, for example, also indicates that I should help people in trouble, as well as refrain from hitting them.

But, the problem with moral principles is that they come without clear instructions. There is no clear-cut delineation of circumstances in which to apply them, for instance. When the young man asked Jesus who his neighbor was, he was expecting a clear definition. Instead, Jesus answered by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus thus increased the possible definitions of "neighbor" rather than limiting them.

So, how does the distinction between moral principles and moral answers address our opening question of why serious Christians take opposing sides on ethical issues? The difference comes from whether the Christians respond to an issue with a learned answer or with the application of a principle. To the question of whether women should take a speaking role in worship services, for example, the apostle Paul gave the moral answer that women should keep silent in church.

Today, many Christian denominations have looked at the issue of women’s roles again and applied the moral principle of equality -- of everyone being equal in the eyes of God. In those denominations, women have become ministers, priests and, in some, even bishops. Both sides gave a Christian response to the issues, but one side gave a moral answer while the other applied a moral principle. The Anglican Church in England, for example, just appointed its first female bishop in December.

In the newest moral dilemma in America, gay marriage, different Christian denominations are again on different sides. So, watch for the “Great Moral Debate” behind the scenes, the one between moral principles and moral answers.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Why did Joseph live in Galilee? (column for 12/27/2014)

When Caesar Augustus decided to conduct a census of the Roman Empire, he did not send interviewers door-to-door to count each village’s residents, as is the practice in the USA’s census taking. Instead he required each man to return “to his own city.” In Luke’s gospel, chapter two, this accounts for why Joseph leaves his northern home in Galilee and undertakes a week-long journey with his wife-to-be to the town of Bethlehem, which is in southern Judea.

But why is Joseph in Galilee in the first place?  If his ties to Judea are so strong that he must return there for the census, what could have motivated him to ever leave it? Although we cannot give a definite answer, there is a sequence of historical events that may indicate why Joseph, a descendant of David’s royal house, a house identified with Bethlehem of Judea, lived in Galilee. In short, the answer is that a century or less earlier, Joseph’s ancestors took part in a mass migration of Judeans to settle in Galilee.

The story actually begins in 732-722 BC, when the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern Israelite kingdom of Israel, which included the regions of Galilee and Samaria. The book of Second Kings relates in chapter 17 how the inhabitants were carried off to Assyria in exile. A few years later, residents of other regions of the empire were brought to Samaria and settled there. 

Galilee’s situation after the conquest has long been unclear. Was it treated like Samaria, which 2 Kings specifically mentions, or was it treated differently?

Archaeologist Zvi Gal has recently discovered that Galilee was emptied of population by the Assyrian conquest and essentially remained desolate until the beginning of the first century BC.  His on-the-ground examinations of the occupation history of 80 different Galilean sites showed a six-century break in habitation. Other archaeological investigations confirm this conclusion.

So where did the Galileans of Jesus’ day come from? 

The ancient historian Josephus indicates that in 104-103 BC, the Maccabean king of Judea, Aristobolus, took control of Galilee on his way further north to conquer the Itureans who lived west of Mt. Hermon. His successor, Alexander Janneaus, sent thousands of Judeans north to settle Galilee and farm its rich agricultural land during his 25-year reign. Not only did this give Judeans access to an increased amount of agricultural products, but it also solved an apparent crisis of over-population in Judea.

Archaeological evidence also makes it clear that these new inhabitants were from Judea, for the excavated finds from the first centuries BC and AD follow the same characteristics as those of Judea. In particular, Galilean finds reveal the same concern for ritual purity with regard to the Jerusalem Temple typical of Judea. The finds characteristic of Judea and Galilee that differ from the surrounding regions include: immersion pools for purification baths, stone drinking vessels which protect from impurity, the practice of ossuary burial, and an absence of pig bones in the waste heaps.

If Joseph’s family came to Galilee by this scenario, then it is quite possible that it was his grandfather who migrated from Judea to Galilee in the early decades of the first century BC. Or, it could have been his great-grandfather. In addition, the same scenario may apply to Mary, but her engagement to Joseph caused the gospels to record only his family lineage, and leave hers out.

The implications of this repopulation of Galilee during the first century BC are quite significant, for it indicates that the people called Galileans had lived in that area for less than a century at the time of Jesus’ birth; they did not represent a centuries-old population of that area. Their identity was still primarily Judean and had not yet been transformed into a Galilean distinctiveness.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,

White Christmas (column for 12/10/2014)

OK, admit it. You like the Christmas song, “White Christmas.” Or at least you did until you heard it too many times as muzak.  Well, maybe I am overdoing it. But even if
only half of us enjoy the song, that fact illustrates the piece’s popularity and success. In fact, this song may be the best-liked song in the USA, and not just for Christmas. It has been recorded more times, and those recordings have sold more copies, than any other song.

The popularity of “White Christmas” is more than just a interesting tidbit to be remembered for the Christmas edition of the Jeopardy quiz show. It reveals how a large part of America has thought about Christmas for over half a century.

Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas” in 1942 for the film “Holiday Inn,” starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire; it won Berlin an Oscar. In 1954 a second film along the same theme was released with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. To help promote the film, they named it after its featured song, “White Christmas.”

The 1950s were a pivotal time in twentieth-century America. Young people returned from WWII, got married, and started families. Families required places to live, which led to a boom in new houses and new neighborhoods. And these families were religious and required places to worship near them. In response, more churches (and synagogues) were built in America during the 1950s than in any other 10-year period of our history. People attended the new churches in droves and for those who could not, the new technology of television devoted Sunday morning to religious programming.

In this context, it may come as a surprise that “White Christmas” was such a popular song. It had no religious content. It did not mention the gospels’ Christmas story, nor even refer to worship, a church, or anything that could be construed specifically Christian. Instead, the words recall the glistening of snow, the sound of sleigh bells, and writing Christmas cards. The last two lines even sound like a greeting card, “May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white.”

Nor does the film “White Christmas” fill in the religious elements lacking in the song. The film emphasizes the importance of seeking and holding on to relationships after WWII, in particular, finding marriage partners. The two male leads, both song-and-dance men, are ex-soldiers and still single. By the movie’s end, they have found women who love them and who the movie implies they will marry. The film telegraphs the message that Christmas is a time for families, and the holiday’s special character helps create them.

The film neither emphasizes nor even mentions the religious aspect of Christmas. The closest the film comes are references to bells, once referring to sleigh bells and the other time to “merry bells,” rather than to church bells. The show’s other songs avoid mentioning the word “Christmas,” singing about “Snow” and “Happy Holiday.”

So how should we interpret the popularity of the secular song “White Christmas” with the high level of American religiosity in the 1950s?  The answer is simple: American society was comfortable acknowledging and even celebrating all aspects of the Christmas holiday. To talk about family, snow and Christmas cards at one moment did not mean that a person did not talk about Jesus, Mary and the shepherds at another. To say “Happy Holiday” in one breath did not mean that a person did not say “Merry Christmas” in another.

The explicitly religious character of the holiday did not block out elements that lacked such links. America’s heightened religiosity of the 1950s was inclusive and multifaceted; it allowed for a wide variety of religious and non-religious expression and did not find it threatening.

Labels: , , , , , , ,