Religion Today

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Ariel Sharon: Israel’s Security-Maker


Ariel Sharon, at the time prime minister of Israel, suffered a stroke and went into a coma eight years ago this month. He died two weeks ago without ever regaining consciousness. I wrote the following column in 2006 shortly after he entered a coma. The observation is worth repeating. Only the last paragraph is significantly changed.
Throughout his long military and political career, Prime Minister of Israel Ariel Sharon had a one-track mind. He has wanted the people of Israel to live normal, placid lives, lives without the fear (and reality) of suicide bombers, random murders, kidnappings, rocket shellings, military invasion and other violent acts. As a soldier, when he rose through the ranks to become a general, he fought to protect his fellow countrymen from outside invaders. As a politician, whether on the back-benches of the Likud Party or in the office of prime minister, he supported actions he believed would strengthen Israel militarily and weaken its enemies. At all times, he focused like a lightning bolt on Israel’s security. His single-mindedness about this one concern explains nearly all key decisions of his military and political career.
Despite the accolades since his collapse from a massive stroke in January 2006, and now his death, Ariel Sharon was not a peacemaker. He never developed policies for making peace with the Palestinians. Although he paid lip service to the Bush administration’s “Roadmap for Peace,” he met none of its deadlines, undertook none of its confidence-building measures, and participated in none of its intended negotiations. His courageous withdrawal of the Israeli army and civilian settlements from the Gaza Strip during the summer of 2005 was done for security reasons, not to bring about peace.
Sharon acted on a insight that no previous Israeli prime minister had credited: namely, that peace negotiations -- even successful ones -- brought few benefits for Israel. They certainly did not bring security. The peace with Egypt was a “Cold Peace”; it brought only slight cooperation and no friendship. The same was true for the peace with Jordan. The Oslo Peace Accords from the early 1990s turned out to be empty promises with no lasting solutions. During the same period, relationships between Israel and the Palestinians deteriorated, terrorist acts against Israelis increased, and law and order in the occupied territories broke down (due in part to Israeli military operations, to be sure). Security actually worsened.
So rather than try to provide security through peace agreements, Prime Minister Sharon decided to act to achieve security as his primary goal. If peace came, that would be good as well.  The key to security in his mind was the separation of the two parties to the conflict. Sharon did not negotiate a separation; he simply imposed one unilaterally, forcing it on both the Palestinians and his own political party. In the Gaza Strip, Sharon simply withdrew all Israelis, both civilian and military. This left the Palestinians to fend for themselves, by themselves, in their own territory. For the West Bank, Sharon decided to build a security wall all along its borders. As the wall went up, it became clear that it constituted a de facto border, imposed without any consultation or negotiation.
Ariel Sharon’s main strength as prime minister was that he had a workable plan. It could stop the suicide bombers and, most importantly, it could be implemented because Sharon would simply impose it. It was not subject to the incessant infighting that characterizes Israeli politics, and it was not dependent on the Palestinians who, after the Oslo Accords of the early 1990s, had shown themselves to be unable to agree with the Israelis on anything of significance. It gave hope to a hopeless situation because it broke the logjam that had been in place since the assassination of Prime Minister Israel Rabin.
Since Sharon’s incapacitation, no significant movement toward peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has taken place. While there are a number of reasons for this, a key one is that the security that Sharon imposed has reduced the immediate threat to Israel so that peace negotiations can essentially be ignored. The wall separating Israel from the West Bank has essentially reduced terrorist attacks in Israel to zero. When terrorists in the Gaza Strip shell nearby Israeli territory, a short and sharp invasion, followed by withdrawal, ends it.
While Sharon might have made peace as prime minister, his coma prevented him. And no other prime minister since then has had the need, let alone the courage and the surety, to negotiate peace.

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Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Prophesying 2014

The start of January has brought the usual rash of predictions for the new year. Guests on MSNBC, CNN and Fox News tell us that “2014 will be the year of (fill in the blank).” Newspapers, magazines and Internet blogs predict everything from the success of sports teams to this year’s growing season to the state of unemployment. Fashion trends feature heavily, and don’t forget the predictions of psychics in the grocery store scandal papers.
Will any of these predictions come true? Well, perhaps. Some conjectures may be fulfilled, but more by chance than by actual knowledge of the future. Just as any dart that hits a dart board scores at least a point -- if a subject receives lots of different predictions -- one of them may be correct.
Let’s face it, most predictions are just wishful thinking. They are pronouncements that this year my, or my group’s biggest desire will happen. Republicans predict they will take over the Senate, for example, while Democrats project they will regain the House of Representatives.
A few predictions derive from the study of information. Their proponents look at information about trends, often found in government statistics or polling results. They then analyze them in terms of known patterns, and predict whether a trend will continue or change. Thoughtful forecasts of increasing (or decreasing) employment exemplify this approach.
Such prognostications have a higher probability of accuracy, but they still suffer from looking into the future, which no one has ever seen. Unexpected events can easily ruin such forecasts. An expected continuation of economic success can be stymied by an oil embargo, a drop in electricity availability or a shortage of supplies brought on by extreme weather. Just think of the cold, snow and wind of recent days, which not only made driving difficult but grounded thousands of flights.
Predicting the future is not limited to the modern world. Forecasts and prophecies are known throughout human history. The most familiar to us may be those found in the Old Testament. Even the New Testament claims Jesus was predicted by Isaiah, Micah and other Old Testament prophets.
Perhaps a look at Old Testament prophets might give some insight on telling the future in our own time.
The Bible frequently distinguishes between true and false prophets. It approves those who tell the future accurately and disapproves of those whose predictions fail. And there are many more of the latter than the former.
In 1 Kings 22, more than 400 prophets told the kings of Israel and Judah that if they attacked the nation of Aram, they would be successful. Just one prophet, Micaiah, foretold their defeat. Micaiah was right. So, most prophets in ancient Israel were false prophets.
What was the difference between the two types? The Old Testament presents prophets as having a direct link to God and clearly receiving their predictions from Him. So, they deliver God’s message.
Can anyone else tell the difference between God’s chosen prophets and false prophets at the time of the prediction? No. Even in Scripture, the mark of a true prophet is whether their prophecy comes true. So, true prophets could be identified only in hindsight.
And, given the total number of prophets, true prophets were scarce: only a couple dozen were known over hundreds of years.
It is important to note that prophets did not merely predict. They urged others to act in particular ways. Old Testament prophets spoke to the powerful, usually to kings, but also to generals or high priests. They usually addressed political or religious concerns of the day. They encouraged action: attack or don’t attack, don’t make an alliance with that nation, don’t worship other gods. Sometimes kings followed the advice; sometimes they did not to their detriment.
Do we have prophets today? Yes. We call them pundits. Pundits regularly prophesy, usually about the actions and decisions of powerful people. They attempt to predict the future and sometimes urge action to improve it.
Like the prophets of antiquity, there are lots of them. And they all look the same: there is no way of separating accurate predictions from the false ones ahead of time. Only with hindsight can we determine who spoke true.
So, the predictions about 2014? Don’t worry. Who knows the future?

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Why there is no Christ in Christmas

(The Christmas column)
When you think about it, it really is odd how rarely Jesus Christ is part of popular Christmas celebrations. Santa Claus, elves, reindeer, gift-giving, feasting, lights, decorations, snow, Christmas trees and even Scrooge feature heavily. But none of this portrays the Christmas story of the birth of Jesus, the child who Christians believe will later become humanity’s savior.
To be sure, if you attend church, you will participate in religious celebrations of Christ’s coming; Mary’s experience with pregnancy and birth; Joseph’s patient understanding; as well as the visits of the shepherds and the wise men. And don’t forget the Nativity pageant performed by the Sunday school children.
But, if it was not for the manger displays nestled between the flashing-lights of Santa’s sleigh and the twice-life-size blow-up snowman in the seasonal panorama on the courthouse lawn, Christian themes would be totally absent from American popular culture’s celebration of Christmas.
Consider our video entertainment. Few (any?) made-for-TV shows or movies feature Jesus’ birth. Feature movies are just as bad. Take a look at the lists of top five Christmas films -- or top 10 or top 15. No movies featuring Christianity’s story appear.
Even “Nativity Story” (2006), a well-done major-release film about Mary’s pregnancy, Bethlehem journey and ensuing birth, has dropped from view. If the supposed market for Christian-themed films exists for Christmas movies, it is off the radar.
Why is Christ absent from Christmas? The film “Love, Actually” points to the answer. This 2003 British film has recently taken on new life as a favorite Christmas film, appearing regularly in lists of top 10 Christmas films. It features vignettes of eight quite-different “couples” and their relationships in the run-up to Christmas.
The film has no Santa or snow themes, surprisingly, and the only gift-giving has negative outcomes. But neither does Christianity feature. The Nativity pageant at the film’s climax includes lobsters and an octopus, as well as a bluesy Christmas song with full instrumental backup. Neither religious nor non-religious motifs get more than a passing glance.
Instead, “Love, Actually” focuses on family, family relationships and family-like friendships. The older couple has difficulties (forgiven in the end) but the love of their children comes through. The storyline featuring the 10-year-old boy chasing the girl spends most of its time on the support of his divorced father.
Other couples’ plots feature romance, both serious and silly, some heading straight to marriage proposals, while others go less far. The aging, single rocker realizes his closest relationship is with his single, longtime manager.
In the end, what is important in “Love, Actually” are the human relationships, whether portrayed as family, romance or friendship. The links among human beings, whether long-established or just beginning, provide the film’s climax and its focus of celebration.
Many Christmas films share this emphasis, from “It’s a Wonderful Life” to “Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas” from “White Christmas” to “The Santa Clause,” the many variations on “The Christmas Carol” and, of course, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”
If our popular-culture Christmas entertainment themes emphasize family, what does that reveal about the meaning of Christmas? It shows our Christmas celebrations are about us, we human beings and the central element of our lives. While we may need food, shelter and clothing for physical survival, we need relationships with other people to truly live. It is not the body’s needs that make us human, but our emotional ties to other people.
So, while Christianity’s Christmas may be about God and the gift of his Son, American culture’s Christmas is about ourselves and the gift we humans give to each other, namely, our love. That love may be imperfect and subject to all our human foibles, but it ties us together and provides for the foundations of our lives. This is celebrated by non-Christians, Christians and everyone in between.
Is it selfish to celebrate human love and relationships at Christmas? No, for relationships are about what we do for other people. To celebrate that, one day a year, recognizes what we do for each other every day of the year. “Christ” is absent from our cultural Christmas because it emphasizes humanity rather than divinity.
Flesher is director of the University of Wyoming’s Religious Studies Program. Past columns and more information about the program can be found on the web at To comment on this column, visit

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