Religion Today

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Egypt's Good Guys and Bad Guys

The news coming out of Egypt these past couple weeks tells a dramatic story. Millions of Egyptians protested the authoritarianism of a political party that controlled not just the presidency but both houses of parliament. These demonstrations led to a military take-over and the appointment of a civilian government led by a high court judge.
According to the western media, the villains of the story are clear. They are the Muslim Brotherhood and Muhammad Morsi, the party’s leader who had been elected president. The Brotherhood is an “Islamist” religious party, which became a political force after spending decades as an outlawed religious organization.
The media likes stories that have clear good guys and bad guys. And so, in the months following the 2011 Arab Spring revolution, the good guys became the people who had protested, who were presented as civil heroes interested in the public good of the nation; and the bad guys were the Islamists, who were suspected of putting religious beliefs above the interests of the Egyptian people.
And so the ouster of President Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the installation of a secular interim government, forms a fitting climax to this story.
The problem is that matters are much more complicated than that. And, to be fair to the press, some writers have tried to present a broader picture as well. These stories have usually focused on the role of democracy in the Arab world and whether these events will make the democratization of Islamic countries more or less likely.
But there is an even deeper struggle in Egypt, as well as other Muslim nations, and that is the divide between Islam and western secularism. In Egypt, this divide began when Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798 and defeated the Egyptian armies with his superior weaponry -- namely, cannons and guns that had been developed by cutting-edge science.
From that beginning, western powers brought to Egypt superior science and technology, as well as western culture and ideas, but did so nearly always through foreign oppression. The French and the British used their economic power to run the country beginning in 1875, a role that became official in 1914. Even though Egypt gained independence in 1922, British troops remained there until 1952.
In 1952, a revolution led by the Free Officers Movement resulted in rule by a long series of military officers serving as president. The last one, Hosni Mubarak, stayed in power from 1981-2011. These governments often had the trappings of democracy, but not the reality.
Military rule required a source of weapons, and these came either from Soviet Russia or the United States. Along with them came western-style education in science, engineering and other western subjects. This resulted in a large portion of Egypt’s population becoming secularized and westernized.
Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution in 2011 was primarily promoted by this secular section of society. But its success resulted in a political power vacuum. Into this vacuum stepped the only organized political party, the religious Muslim Brotherhood. Their superior organization enabled them to win both the parliamentary and presidential elections that followed.
This July 3, these elected bodies were overthrown by the branches of government controlled by members of the secular wing of Egyptian society, the judiciary and the military. The western nations applauded. But none of these officials have ever been elected. In fact, most of them are holdovers from the Mubarak regime.
So the irony is that in our media reporting Egypt’s good guys of this July turn out to be the remains of the bad guys from the 2011 revolution. The military and the judiciary may be western-style secularists, with a scientific world-view and a diplomatic orientation towards the U.S. and Europe, but they are not necessarily in favor of democracy, at least not when election results do not go their way.
In the United States, we think that democracy and western secularism go hand-in-hand. (This is true even for our religious believers, for in comparison to Egypt’s religious believers, our religious believers are western secularists, no matter how much they may disclaim that label.) But, in Egypt, the problem may be that apparently that neither the religious side nor the secular side of society sees democracy as necessary to the successful governance of the country. Only the future will reveal whether either side is truly democratic or whether democracy is rather a means to acquiring authoritarian political power.

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Wednesday, July 03, 2013

American Religions and Gay Marriage

As the Los Angeles Time’s author David G. Savage observed last weekend, the Supreme Court’s rulings on gay marriage, the voting rights act, and affirmative-action admissions policies stem from a single legal principle. They aim to ensure that all parties receive equal treatment, whether they are individuals (in the case of marriage and university admission) or states (in the case of voting rights).

Equality is one of this country’s founding principles and “Equal justice under the law” is carved into the Supreme Court building’s façade. Whether or not we agree with the specific decisions, on this July 4th weekend it is fitting to observe that equality still guides our country’s justice system.

How did the nation’s religious groups respond to the decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)? Their reactions have varied. Some welcomed it. The Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and both the Reformed and Conservative branches of Judaism welcomed the decision.

The more conservative branches of Christianity and Judaism were condemnatory. Evangelical and Catholic leaders strongly criticized the ruling, while the LDS Church was predictably disappointed about the striking down of California’s Proposition 8 i. While Judaism’s Orthodox Union strongly disapproved, it also included the tolerant comment, “Judaism teaches respect for others and we condemn discrimination against individuals.”   

The national media have largely portrayed the opposition to same-sex marriage as religious. Following its typical strategy of giving a “balanced view” by citing pro and con positions, the news services have characterized the opponents of gay marriage as almost exclusively religious.

And religious leaders have certainly cooperated in giving this view. Cardinal Dolan of New York called the decision a “tragic day for marriage and our nation.” A similar thought was expressed by Southern Evangelical Seminary President Richard Land. “Today is a devastating day for traditional marriage and religious freedom.” Pastor Jack Graham, a former president of the Southern Baptist Conference, used Twitter to say, “The attack on the family continues. . . Don’t give up the fight.” Mike Huckabee, former presidential candidate, called it an “unholy pretzel.”

This characterization should be worrisome for religious leaders. How does it look when the secular Supreme Court comes out in favor of equal rights and it is religious organizations and leaders who condemn equality?

This portrayal could be taken as just a momentary phenomenon that will disappear when the next big story comes along. But perhaps not. The same religious groups are attempting to deprive people of other rights. For example, Catholic and Evangelical leaders (including presidential candidates) argued during last year’s presidential election that all women should not have equal access to health care, particularly maternity health care and birth control. Legislation at state and national levels has since been introduced to enshrine that view in law.

It is beginning to appear that the Christianity these leaders and groups bring to the public is one that restricts the rights of others. Is this how Christianity should be seen?

The central message of Christianity is of course salvation for all. Jesus came to save all humanity and Christianity’s evangelizing over the millennia has emphasized that everyone can avail themselves of God’s saving grace if they choose.

But now the loudest voices in American Christianity are saying that even though everyone is equal in God’s eyes, they should not be equal in the government’s eyes. 

The future is not set in stone and there are a variety of ways to move forward. It is time for all religions and denominations of the United States reconsider their strategy for incorporating this new reality into the way they present themselves to their community and the nation.

Religious organizations do not need to change their beliefs, but rather how they express those views in public forums. It is important to have clearly stated theological positions, but it is also important to respect others and to act with respect towards others.

If Christianity truly “hates the sin but loves the sinner,” as is commonly said, then it is time to show that love through tolerance and acceptance of all America’s citizens rather than sound a call to battle. After all, isn’t that what the message of universal salvation is about?

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Building by the Sea

Last Saturday evening I went to a concert by the Idan Reikal Project in Caesarea, Israel. The concert was held in the ancient roman theater built by King Herod the Great on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea more than 2000 years ago. The audience faced the water and when my eyes were not being blinded by the light show accompanying the music, I could see the moon shining on the water as it set.

Breaking into the moon’s reflection, the remains of a flat bedrock platform stretched out into the sea. Here Herod had built his palace. I realized that in the first century BCE, the most prominent view of the theater’s patrons had been Herod's well-lit place rising just 100 yards behind the stage.  Herod had designed his city by the sea to display the source of Judean power at that time, namely, himself.

A couple days later, I visited the remains of Capernaum, where Jesus headquartered his ministry for three years—just a generation after Herod’s death. At that time, it displayed no power at all. Capernaum was a poor fishing village. Its people were not impoverished but had little extra after food, clothing and shelter.

Capernaum today looks little like the ancient village. When I visited years ago, it was just a set of archaeological ruins. A partly reconstructed white limestone synagogue rose above the black basalt of what had once been the walls of houses along streets.

Long abandoned, stone had been the ruins’ main feature. Signs directed the visitor towards the synagogue or towards the remains of a church believed to mark the location of the house of Peter’s mother. The man who became St. Peter had grown up there and his mother allowed Peter, Jesus and his disciples to live there.

Without the signs, the ruins would have been unremarkable. Most tourists’ eyes turned automatically to the Sea of Galilee on whose shore the village sat. The lake which had provided the livelihood of those who had lived in the town, now attracted the attention of the visitors.

When I visited this time, the ruins had been transformed. The Sea of Galilee no longer claimed attention. Instead, as I approached, my gaze was drawn by a large, black stone “saucer” suspended on cement pillars above the village. Indeed, it dominated the view. The synagogue, the village’s ruins and the lake were all visible, but only around this building.

The Catholic Church owns the land on which Capernaum sits and this modern architectural structure is a chapel. When one climbs the stairs into the saucer-shaped building, one enters a round, western-style chapel. While there is an altar (and an organ) on one side, it is the chapel’s center that the building features. 

From the entrance, the visitor looks down a few tiers, with pews on each one, to a glass-covered viewing area about 20 feet across. Under the glass, the center of the church commemorating St. Peter is visible. Of course, the fourth or fifth century church completely lies in ruins. It is only the archaeologically excavated and restored octagonal walls that are visible. 

The saucer-shaped chapel suspended on strong beams thus directs the pilgrims’ attention to Capernaum’s source of power in today’s world. The chapel built by the Catholic church directs one’s gaze to St. Peter’s “house,” to the source of Catholicism’s leadership. After all, in Catholic belief the Pope is the successor of St. Peter.

While God may be the Church’s source of power, whether as Jesus the Son or as God the Father, the papacy constitutes the visible symbol of that power here on earth. Just as Herod the Great built his palace by the Mediterranean Sea to remind Caesareans of his earthly power, so the Catholic Church has built this chapel by the Sea of Galilee to remind visitors of the heavenly source of the Church’s strength.

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Galilee and its Thorns

When religious tourists travel to Israel looking for the land where Jesus walked, they often anticipate pleasant, peaceful places. Their expectations may include a quaint lakeside village of Capernaum, a town like Chorazin nestled among gently rolling hills, a moderate climate, lush farmland, or quiet woodlands filled with birdsong.

Reality differs significantly. Jesus spent most of his ministry in eastern Galilee, around the freshwater Sea of Galilee. The landscape is more like Arizona or New Mexico than the American Midwest or the South. Rugged landscapes dominate, where hills rise and fall rather than roll. Cliffs and precipitous rocky outcrops appear frequently, often rising high above narrow fertile strips of land by the lake.

By mid-May, temperatures are already in the 90s and can crack 100. Spring and its rains are long gone and the wild vegetation has mostly dried out. The streets are dusty, the winds are hot, and you almost expect a tumbleweed to roll across the road.

It brings to mind the 1948 western film, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” although without the ever-present cacti. Indeed, cacti are surprisingly uncommon in Galilee, even though the Sabra cactus is widespread in Judea and southern Israel.

The absence of cacti should not be taken as an absence of thorns however. Indeed, thorn bushes and thorny weeds grow in abundance in this area, and they are nasty.

During my childhood, I often heard Jesus’ Parable of the Sower from Matthew 13. In the story, the farmer sows seed in the good earth and it grows strong and tall, but some of the seed falls elsewhere and fails: rocks, pathways, and among the thorns which “grew up and choked them.” As a child, I thought the thorns were thistles or nettles and could not understand why the farmer simply did not weed them out. After all, that’s what my mom had me do in our garden.

It turns out that plants with thorns grow everywhere in the Galilee and in a wide variety. This month, while I am working in Galilee, I daily walk a mile along the side of field. Along its edge I have counted eight different types of thorny weeds, to say nothing of the trees and bushes with thorns.

The thorn weeds are beautiful in their blooms, with flowers ranging from yellow to blue to purple. There is a calf-high plant with blue stems which dries to a crown shape. There is a waist-high purple thistle with pointed leaves as well as vicious thorns.

But it is the Globe Thistle which really stands out. It frequently grows in stands, and can reach as high as 5 or 6 feet. In the spring it bears a beautiful round, blue flower about the size of a baseball. But as it dries, it hardens so that any soft areas become hard and spikey.

Along the side of a field, it is easy to see why a sower would leave behind any seed that fell among them. A hedge of dry Globe Thistles comprises a formidable obstacle that would discourage even the most keen farmer.

But that is not the worst of it. Upper Galilee produces something like a Scottish Thistle which grows to 8 or 9 feet, towering over any human being. Walking through a grove (what else can you call it?) of these tall thistles becomes an experience of ducking and dodging to avoid the spikes, and even thick clothing provides only a small amount of protection.

In the end, the soft and attractive Galilee of American Christian imagery exists only in imagination. The reality is that it is a challenging land whose weeds seem to be dominated by those with thorns, some of which grow to an intimidating size.

Caption: A six-foot man stands beneath Galilean thistles, while another stands before a thicket of dead Globe Thistles.  Inset: A blooming Globe Thistle. Thanks to Randy Mohr for his design assistance.

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Movie Superheroes and Divine Play

When is a human not a human? When he or she is a superhero! 

As you race out to see the summer’s latest superhero film, whether it is “Iron Man 3,” Superman in “Man of Steel,” or “The Wolverine,” take a moment to think about the nature of superheroes. What are they really?

While we can kid ourselves that they are merely super-human, that they are people with extra powers, we are really watching divine beings. Like the gods of Mt. Olympus and Valhalla, they may have human characteristics, even human failings, but their powers take their capabilities so far beyond human nature that they can only be thought of as gods.

Sure, Spiderman is a dorky kid who seems incapable of romancing Mary Jane, and Iron Man’s fight against alcoholism (see the comic series “Demon in a Bottle”) is almost as tough as his other battles, but their featured fights are against foes who are beyond the ability of mere humans to combat.

Without their super powers, superheroes would be limited to abilities possessed by other people. But their super-natural character places them into the realm of the gods.

Indeed, rather than disqualifying them, superheroes’ humble, human origins and existence enhance their god-like story. The Hindu god Krishna was born into and raised by a human family. He is known for liking butter balls when a child and, as a young man, for attracting and entertaining the village’s young women (always chastely).

Even Christians believe that the god Jesus was born to a human mother, and at twelve he behaved like a thoughtless (not quite) teenager who upset his parents when he failed to come home with them.

Many of today’s film superheroes began in comic books, such as the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, the Black Widow and Captain America. By the middle of the twentieth century, the comic book genre was established in India as well, and the Hindu pantheon of gods, especially those with active and warrior reputations, have had their stories featured.

From the male gods Vishnu and Krishna to the female goddesses Durga and Kali, Hindu children have absorbed the exploits of these divine beings through comics. And the adventures narrated in those works are surprisingly similar to those of our comic-book heroes.

Take Superman and Krishna, for instance. Superman is from a heavenly realm, which we call a planet, where he was born to a different life. His strength and abilities are not unusual where he comes from. But he comes to earth and lives humbly among human beings, revealing himself only when danger threatens, and then returns to his humble identity as Clark Kent. 

Krishna lives a similarly humble life. He works as a charioteer for a young nobleman named Arjuna, and only reveals himself on the eve of battle to impart wisdom and fight. After his amazing exploits, he returns to his identity as a chariot driver.

What about Jesus? On the one hand, in the gospels he only rarely strays from his character as a humble human “prophet” doing god’s will. Even though the film “King of Kings” gave him opportunities to exercise his power, its message is that he did not do so.

On the other hand, beyond the gospels Jesus has taken on a warrior identity. Not only does Dispensational Theology portray him as coming to Christians’ rescue at the rapture, swooping down to bring them up to a safe place, but during the final tribulation, he will fight Satan and his minions to the finish.

While dispensational beliefs routinely describe Jesus as a mighty warrior, it seems he will accomplish this without getting blood on his robe or mussing up his beautiful, long hair. While in Hinduism and Buddhism, the protector gods take on powerful, angry and frightening visages, American Protestants and other Christians continue to depict him as a mild-mannered, benevolent figure, whose loving attitude and smile is more apparent than his power to subdue God’s enemies. 

So perhaps our fascination with superheroes forms a substitute for a Jesus who is so kindly presented that we cannot imagine him uttering an angry word, let alone struggling against someone in battle and subduing them. Watch this summer as our films present the divine, military struggle missing from Christianity’s iconography; the superhero gods are continually called upon to “save” humanity.

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