Religion Today

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Christian Way of Death

Religions across the world reveal a variety of different ways of disposing of a body once a person dies. Some burn the body and send the ashes floating on a sacred river, others let the body dry out and then gather the bones into an ossuary, while others expose the body to be eaten by vultures. Although Christianity never indulged in anything as exotic as vultures or even river trips, there is an interesting tale in the changes to burial practices as the polytheistic Roman Empire became Christian in the fourth and fifth century AD.

This transformation appears clearly in the ancient city of Rome. Like all major cities of the ancient world, Rome was surrounded by a wall. The pagans of the Roman world, like the ancient Jews, buried their dead outside the wall. With few exceptions, dead bodies were not permitted to remain within the city, for they were considered to be religiously impure and capable of polluting the temples to their gods and goddesses.

Wealthy families purchased plots of land outside the wall where they built massive tombs to bury generations of their dead. Even today, if you walk along the Appian Way (the ancient road from Rome to Appia), you can see the ruin of tombs from many rich families. These tombs were built as monuments honoring the deceased.

Every road out of Rome had an area lined with these tombs. This area was called a “necropolis.” Since “polis” means “city,” a Roman graveyard of tombs was literally a “city of the dead.” Romans cremated their dead and so the tombs contained urns of ashes.

At Rome, Christianity changed this way of death. Christians buried their dead not in a necropolis, but in a “cemetery.” This word comes from the Greek verb “koimao,” which means “to fall asleep.” This is related to the Biblical passage of 1st Thessalonians 4:13-17, which reads in part, “God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep….the dead in Christ will rise first.” On this Scriptural passage, Christian built a theology that saw the dead as “sleeping,” instead of being completely finished with life. So rather than cremate the bodies, Christians buried them as whole corpses, as if they were sleeping, so they would be ready to rise at the coming of Christ.

This theological shift had a practical consequence. Since the dead were “sleeping,” Christianity did not consider them impure, as did the pagan religions.

The most striking example of this shift came from Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century. The bones of St. Peter, who had been crucified in Rome, were buried in the necropolis to the west of the city. Constantine decided to build a cathedral over these remains to honor them. He constructed a massive church in the necropolis, which became the center of Christianity in Rome and to which large numbers of people came to worship, some on a religious basis and others as a pilgrimage.

Rome’s western necropolis thus changed from a pagan necropolis containing impure dead to a Christian cemetery containing pure “sleepers,” to a hallowed (or holy) site of the important Christian cathedral of St. Peter. Indeed, we could understand St. Peter’s as being sanctified by the relics of Peter, the Saint whom the cathedral honors, and it in turn sanctifying those buried within and near it.

As Christianity supplanted polytheism in the city of Rome, St. Peter’s and other churches and cathedrals were incorporated into the growing metropolis. The cemeteries and tombs associated with those institutions became part of the city as well. The dead were no longer excluded from the city, but became a key part of it. Over the coming centuries, this new Christian way of death would spread across the Empire, Christian Europe, and beyond.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Faith-Based Charities and Government Grants: Take Two?

On July 1, Barack Obama, the Democratic Party's presumptive nominee for president, took up an early idea of the Bush White House and proposed to extend it, should he win the presidency. This is the concept that religious groups that provide services to the poor should be eligible to apply for government funds to support those programs. This right would apply only to non-religious activities, such as soup kitchens, health clinics, and adult literacy classes.

President Bush argued that government funding for such programs should not have a litmus test for religion applied to the potential provider, but that the providers, whether secular or religious, should be evaluated on whether they can actually provide such services.

On the surface this is a wonderful idea, having government support to allow such religious institutions to continue providing services to the needy. However, the idea of religions taking money from the government, for whatever purpose, raises many ethical, religious, and legal issues.

Unfortunately, before President Bush could get his program up to speed, it ran afoul of political problems both from the right and the left. And so it has failed to approach its potential throughout the Bush presidency.

Obama's support could give new life to this approach for helping the poor, moving it beyond the political issues into full implementation. However, to overcome the legal hurdles, implementation will require careful attention to the legal concerns of church and state, as I wrote in a column from February 2001.

The primary legal issue will be: Which religions will be eligible to receive money? The very first phrase of the Bill of Rights states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." The courts have interpreted this to mean that the U.S. government cannot favor one religion over another, i.e., by "establishing" one as better than another. This means religions could receive money for their charitable work providing that the government treats all of them equally and does not favor one religion over another.

President Bush made clear that his initiative would not be limited to a few branches of Christianity or even to Christianity alone. Mr. Bush regularly used the phrase "churches, synagogues and mosques" as organizations whose charitable activities should be eligible for his program. Unfortunately, the program's limited implementation made it difficult to achieve this intended balance.

Obama's approach, if he is elected, will not only need to achieve this balance, but also extend the grant program to non-Western religions as well. Will Buddhist temples and meditation organizations be permitted, for instance? This is an important question for western states; although Wyoming contains few Buddhists, both Colorado and Utah have significant populations, as does the West Coast. How about Native American religious organizations, to bring matters closer to home? Will the government treat these religions without disfavoring them in comparison to Western religions?

Another category that will need care is that of religions with the same names as ones condemned by Scripture in antiquity, such as Paganism and Wicca, whose practitioners are colloquially known as "witches." Will soup kitchens or medical centers run by these groups be eligible for government funding? This is more than a rhetorical question. In Wyoming, some sources indicate that more citizens claim to be Pagan or Wiccan than claim to be Jewish.

Furthermore, at least one charity organization operates under their auspices in Wyoming. Will the government be able to work with these groups in its faith-based charity program despite predictable pressure from some Christian groups arguing they are illegitimate?

Finally, what about religions with strong political enemies? Take Falun Gong, for instance, a meditation society based on Buddhism with millions of adherents in mainland China. The Chinese government has declared it an "evil cult" and has carried out an extensive campaign of persecution, including arrest, rape, torture and execution. What if Falun Gong adherents in the United States applied for government funds for their charity operations in New York City and the Chinese government opposed it? Would the U.S. government be able to evaluate Falun Gong's application fairly?

If Obama has the chance to develop President Bush's "faith-based charities" initiative, he will face a number of challenges. Our forefathers placed the separation of church and state at the beginning of the Bill of Rights to indicate the pitfalls of having the government make decisions about religions. The program may be able to meet the legal requirements of constitutional law, but it will be able to do so only by seeing and carefully negotiating those pitfalls of equal treatment.

Ancient Readers

When people read the Bible, the works of Homer, or any other ancient text, they link themselves to the people who read these works millennia ago. “We have read the same text,” they may think, “so we are alike.” This happens particularly within religions; modern Christians who read the Bible, for instance, may imagine themselves to be like the ancient Christians who read the same Bible.

But nothing could be further from the truth. In the ancient world, reading was a different kind of activity from what it is today. In this column, I will lay out three ways ancient reading differs from modern.

First, in ancient Mediterranean cultures, the ability to read marked someone as elite, as an influential member of society. Not many people in countries such as Egypt, Palestine, Rome, or Greece could read more than a few, special words. Reading required learning, which required time. Few members of agricultural societies had the leisure to attend school rather than working for the food and other materials that enabled them and their families to survive.

Although there is some debate over the exact numbers, only two to seven percent of adult males in antiquity could read. Almost no women could read. Since ancient Judaism emphasized reading’s importance, perhaps a percentage point or two more of their men could read, but probably only in the cities.

Second, in antiquity, people did not read books; they read scrolls. Scrolls were heavy, awkward rolls of parchment or leather, which required manual dexterity to be read. Readers looked at one column at a time, perpendicular to the scroll’s length. To read a new column, one had to take up the finished column onto a roll at one end of the scroll while letting out a new column from the roll at the other end. The new-fangled notion of a codex, or book, with pages bound together on one side, did not become popular until the end of the fourth century AD—almost the Middle Ages.

Third, people always read out loud. They did not read silently, as we are taught today in school. St. Augustine, fourth century, tells of his astonishment upon discovering that St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, not only read without sound but without moving his lips. Apparently, Ambrose became hoarse quite easily from speaking. So he developed a technique of reading that did not strain his voice.

To read, then, was to perform the text, even when one was alone. The meaning of the text resided not on the page, but in the performed, spoken words. This performance required choices, even interpretation, for writing during antiquity had not yet developed ways of representing all elements of the language.

As late as the fifth century, for example, Greek was written in a continuous form with no breaks between the words. Nor did it indicate accents and breathing marks yet. Different accents and breathings changed the sound and meaning of the words being read. A reader had to know by memory the possible spoken words represented by the incomplete written code. So the task of a Greek reader was to decipher the written text and render it into speech so it could be understood.

As Semitic languages, Hebrew and Aramaic had developed the practice of word separation many centuries before the Greeks. The problem facing these languages was that writing represented the consonants but not the vowels. Readers had to know every possible oral combination of vowels that could be placed with a particular set of consonants to make valid, spoken words.

Readers had to choose the right vowels to give the right meaning. For instance, take the two consonants R and N. One could supply vowels to make the present-tense “run” or the past-tense “ran.” The letters could also stand for the boys' name “Ron” or the girls' name “Erin.

This requirement of decoding the written text into spoken language means that the complete text existed only while the reader performed it. To be sure, someone could try to remember it. But if a reader returned to study the written text a few days later, they would have to perform it again, and they may not perform it the same way as they did the first time.

This uncertainty led groups of Rabbis known as Masoretes to create a set of signs to represent vowels and accents for Hebrew and Aramaic. But it was not until the early Middle Ages, in the ninth century, that these signs were used extensively in writing. At that time, the Masoretes used them identify the words in the biblical text and thus to fix its meaning. This aimed to guide future readers so that they would no longer know the uncertainty of the reading experience which had been common in Antiquity.

[This is the second June column.]