Religion Today

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The USA Needs a New Policy for the Middle East

Writing in the Oct. 3 Washington Post, Andrew Bacevich points out that United States soldiers have been fighting in the “Greater Middle East” almost continuously since 1980. By bombing the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), we make Syria the 14th Middle East country in which we have fought in 34 years.
Is it helping? Are we making the Middle East a safer place? No. Despite our goal of social and political stability, wherever the U.S. military has gone, volatility and insecurity have followed.
The problem is not our fault. We intervened in places where groups of people with long-standing hatred for each other used their political or military power to oppress each other. We helped eliminate oppressors such as Saddam Hussein or Col. Gaddafi, but when we left, new power struggles erupted and instability continued.
The anti-ISIS bombing campaign seems headed in the same direction. The Turkish attacks on Kurdish fighters, our allies, is symptomatic of the inability of these different parties to work together. And, this new struggle, has clear potential to lead to U.S. ground combat once again.
It is time to change the USA’s approach before more of our soldiers die? But to what? A truly new strategy requires us to reconceive the situation from the ground up.
Bacevich describes the problem in geographical terms, the “Greater Middle East.” But a better way to characterize this region is the “Muslim heartland.” With the exception of the former Yugoslavia, the United States has been fighting in the territory to which Islam spread during its first century. The region’s inhabitants see the situation in religious terms and so should we.
Islam apparently is undergoing a “reformation,” a period similar to the Protestant breakaway from Catholicism that began in the 16th century. And just as the Christian Reformation caused great volatility in Europe, so too, this Islamic Reformation stokes ongoing instability in the Muslim world.
The Protestant Reformation often conjures up thoughts of theologians: Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Knox. We forget their new theologies brought on more than 120 years of fighting across Europe, starting in 1524.
The Thirty Years’ War ravaged Germany, Central Europe and Sweden. The Eighty Years’ War caused great suffering in the Netherlands, Belgium and coastal Germany. It took the Peace of Westphalia to end them. The English and Scottish civil wars likewise stemmed from Protestant/Catholic enmity.
And don’t forget the Anabaptist leaders who took over towns and turned them into radical Protestant theocracies. John of Leiden, for example, captured Munster in 1533, leading it as prophet and king until Catholic forces defeated him in 1535. His religious government included extensive polygamy.
Today, Islam is in the midst of its own theological reformation. Historically, Islamic law and religion has been governed by centuries-old schools of interpretation. Mosques have been led by mullahs who belonged to one of these schools and educated their followers in its traditions.
Modern Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda and ISIS promote alternative theological approaches. They reject the schools’ traditional interpretations and claim to restore authentic Islam, even Muhammad’s original practices. In this, they sound surprisingly similar to the Protestant rejection of Catholic tradition. Their use of violence to promote their views also parallels the European Reformation.
If Al-Qaeda’s tactics have been fragmented and local in approach, like the Anabaptists’, then the Muslim Brotherhood’s strategy in Egypt and the Islamic State’s approach in Syria and Iraq is much more like the nationalist approaches that emerged in Martin Luther’s alliance with the German barons and King Henry’s removal of England from the Catholic Church.
What are the policy implications? If the Islamic world is experiencing a reformation similar to that of European Christianity, there is nothing outsiders can do to stem the frictions. U.S. military involvement is like refereeing a boxing match. As soon as we step away, the combatants start punching each other again.
So, we should get out of the way. The United States and western countries should leave the Middle East. Rather than interfere with its internal religious struggles, non-Muslim nations should simply work to contain those struggles within that region. The West has done containment before, during the Cold War, so we know how to do it.
Does that leave civilians to suffer the difficulties of a war zone? Yes, it does, as it did during the Cold War. But that suffering will take place whether the West is involved or not. And if our soldiers are there, they will contribute to the suffering. So, let’s get them out of the way so the Muslim groups can work out their differences as they choose. After all, the outcome of an Islamic Reformation can only be determined by its believers, not by outsiders. What they see as “Christian interference” won’t help.
Note: This essay draws from Andrew J. Bacevish’s essay, “Even if we defeat the Islamic State, we’ll still loose the bigger war,” Washington Post, Oct. 3, 2014.

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Monday, October 13, 2014

America among Muslims and Christians: After 1776

When America was a colony, it was heavily involved in shipping and foreign trade. Britain garnered the lion’s share of American goods, but today every school child learns about the slave-sugar-rum triangle with the Caribbean and Africa. It is less well-known that a significant number of American merchants plied the waters of the Mediterranean, trading with many nations and cities on that sea.

The declaration of independence in 1776 brought home an overlooked truth. When it was a British Colony, American shipping trade had been protected by the might of the British Navy, which dominated the seas at that time. Now that it was independent, America had no such protection. Indeed, it had no navy at all. This fact was not lost on the Barbary Pirates of the North African coast. They preyed on American shipping with impunity, taking captives, demanding ransom, and stealing American goods.  They even sailed into the Atlantic Ocean and interfered with American trade with Western Europe.

The problem arose from the religio-political situation of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. The Empire was based in Istanbul, in modern-day Turkey, which nominally controlled the countries along the north-eastern, eastern, and southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, from Greece clockwise around to Algiers.  Unfortunately, the Ottoman Empire was decaying and some North African leaders had carved out independent states under the Ottoman umbrella. Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli were ruled by pashas who had created their kingdoms by force, and they continued to use force, piracy to be specific, as a tool of state to earn their countries revenue.

Although the Barbary kingdoms targeted Americans, the Ottomans themselves held America in great esteem. At a time when the British, Russians and Austrians were pressuring the Empire, and Napoleon even had the temerity to invade Egypt and Syria, Sultan Selim III was impressed when the ship George Washington sailed into Istanbul harbor in 1800, representating the one nation in the world that had thrown off European over-lordship.

If divisions in the Muslim Mediterranean caused America’s pirate problem, then divisions in Christian Europe hindered the solution. France had just sided with America against Britain in the War of Independence, as had the Netherlands and Spain. But their alliance with the nascent America did not lead to alliances at home. Rather than confront the Barbary Pirates, each nation paid them an annual tribute to leave their ships alone.

The problem was that this did not work for America. When it offered tribute or tried to ransom a captured ship, Algiers or Tripoli would simply seize another ship and demand a another, higher ransom. Since America had no navy, it could not enforce ransom or tribute agreements. The European nations all had navies. Even though some were small, they were large enough to keep tribute and ransom demands in check and could, in theory at least, launch an attack on Tunis or Tripoli if ship attacks got out of hand. Since America had no navy, it was at the mercy of the Barbary kingdoms.

At first, America tried diplomacy. In the 1780s, they suggested an alliance with the French, the Dutch, and other nations with smaller navies to create a force to rid the Mediterranean of the pirates. Although some thought this was a good idea, no nation volunteered the use of its ships.

In the end, it took the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which formally created the United States of America, to lay the conditions for the creation of the US Navy. And it was not until the end of the second war against the British, the War of 1812, that American naval power was sufficient put down the state-sponsored activities of the Barbary Pirates. In June 1815, ten American warships entered the Algerian harbor. The Pasha appealed to the British, who gave him no help. So he accepted the terms of Admiral Stephen Decatur, which included payment of compensation to the USA. Tunis and Tripoli followed suit.

America solved its pirate problem. American merchants were once again free to trade on the open seas. And the nation had created a navy. Although Americans today think that involvement with Islamic countries is new; it is as old as the nation itself.

This essay is indebted to Michael B. Oren’s book Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present (New York: Norton, 2007).

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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.

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Changing American History, One Movie at a Time

It is time to pick new textbooks in Texas and the big publishing companies are hawking their newest works. Every five years, the Texas State Board of Education selects textbooks to be used in all schools across the state. Given the size of Texas’s student population, the winning books reap enormous profits for their publishers.

Competition for the American government selection for grades six to twelve is particularly stiff, but several publishers decided to give themselves an edge by playing to the Board’s well-known conservative religious leanings. Some even linked the founding of the United States’ government to Moses! Here are two claims.

McGraw-Hill’s entry states that Moses’s “idea of a covenant…influenced the formation of colonial governments and contributed to our constitutional structure.”

Pearson Education submitted a book containing a “Biography of Moses” that likens the Ten Commandments to the US Constitution. “Moses helped establish a legal system, including the Ten Commandments, to govern his people. Similarly, the founders of the United States wrote the Constitution and established a system of laws to govern Americans.”

A group of ten academics working for the Texas Freedom Network indicate the problems with giving Moses credit for these ideas. Their main point, and one that has been known since America’s founding, is that the writers of America’s Constitution were influenced by Enlightenment principles rather than Scripture.

The misrepresentation in the McGraw-Hill work is that our country’s “constitutional structure” is actually based upon John Locke’s idea of social contract, which was an idea set in explicit opposition to the biblical covenant. 

Pearson’s howler is that the US’s Founders created a republic, rather than the monarchy put forth in Moses’s laws. In fact, the Founders were explicitly “reacting against several of the crucial elements of the moral, legal and political tradition associated with Moses and the Ten Commandments.” One element was of course the divine right of kings to rule their subjects.

The notion that Moses provides anything more specific to American government than a desire for good governance is unfounded. So why is he showing up in these textbooks?

Well, we can thank Hollywood. The link between Moses and America was most profoundly portrayed in that 1956 film, “The Ten Commandments,” directed by Cecil B. DeMille, with Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as Rameses. 

As Bob Torry and I demonstrated in our 2007 book, “Film and Religion,” DeMille’s blockbuster infuses the Ten Commandments and the Jewish Law with a decidedly Christian character. Despite the tablets, God says that the Law is most importantly written on the Israelites’ “hearts and minds.” This spiritualization of the Law likens it to the work of the Holy Spirit in Christianity, which enables inner transformation. In turn, the Jews of the Exodus become the model for the future Christians.

But DeMille takes a further step. His Israelites are not just future Christians, but Americans as well. In the pressure cooker of the Cold War, this mid-fifties film explicitly links Moses’ followers with the United States and the Egyptian enemy with the Soviet Union.

And in case the film’s symbolism was not clear enough, DeMille himself comes onstage before the start and states that this is a story of how God’s “Law of Freedom” opposes tyranny and that “this same battle continues throughout the world today.”

And audiences lapped it up. “The Ten Commandments” became not only a wildly successful movie, but it placed the Cold War into a cosmic scenario in which God sided with America against the godless Communists.

Moses’ founding of the Hebrew nation through the giving of the Law, as portrayed by DeMille, formed the model for the foundation of the United States of America. The tensions of the Cold War were allayed by the firm conviction among many Americans that we were in the right and God was on our side. God guided this nation, just as He guided Moses and the ancient Israelites. DeMille’s filmic reinterpretation of the Exodus set the rhetorical basis for linking America’s founding to Moses found in these textbooks.

Credits: Texas Freedom Network, “Writing to the Standards” . Paul V.M. Flesher and Robert Torry, “Film and Religion: An Introduction” (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007)

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It's OK to Pray in your School

[The following appeared in late August, 2014.]

The school year is arriving again. This seems like a good moment to revisit that continually confused and confusing issue, prayer in schools. There is a great deal of misinformation and misunderstanding of what kind of prayer is permitted in the public schools of the United States of America. So let me take this column to review what is and what is not allowed with regard to prayer in public schools.

What kind of prayer is allowed in a public school?

Everyone and anyone who goes to a school may pray there. "Everyone," that means students, teachers, staff and administrators, may offer a private prayer to the divine at anytime they choose. "Anyone," that means any person of any religious faith, be they Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, or Mormon, or Native American. It also includes members of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Wicca. Even Pagans and Neo-Pagans can pray, as can members of any religion or worshippers of any god or goddess I have not mentioned. Thus praying in the schools is permitted to everyone there, as long as it is private and personal, and does not interrupt legitimate school activities.

It is also OK for students of like beliefs to join together to pray, whether informally ("let's meet at the west door before the bell") or more formally in a religious club of voluntary membership. This club may meet on school property, such as in a classroom, at times when clubs are usually allowed to meet. The only exception to this is if the school has banned clubs altogether. The rule of thumb is that religious clubs must be treated the same as other clubs.

Similarly, it is permitted for teachers, staff, and even administrators to join together voluntarily to pray. Again, this may occur in formal or informal settings.

What kind of prayer is not allowed in a public school?

It is not OK to pray in a school in way that would knowingly or unknowingly coerce anyone of a different belief to join in. Thus teachers, principals and others in a position of authority should not use that position to persuade, require, expect, or intimidate students or others under their supervision to take part in prayer that they otherwise would not. Schools are inherently hierarchical and those who are higher in the hierarchy should do nothing that would seem to exercise that position to make those below them pray.

Similarly, prayer should not be part of public school functions. Although this rule can be a bit vague, the main principle is clear. A general prayer offered in a manner designed to be inclusive of all present, whatever religion they adhere to and articulating generally positive sentiments agreeable to them, is sometimes acceptable, if not done too frequently. Graduation ceremonies can usually include this kind of prayer. Prayers that adhere to a single doctrinal line or reflect a non-inclusive theology do not belong at school functions, even if said by a student. These general prayers should not be ended with a religion-specific phrase, such as, “In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”

In general, prayer should not be conducted in such a way to exclude or stigmatize those who do not participate in or follow a particular religion.

Finally, participation in prayer should not be used as a basis to reward or promote those who take part or to withhold such rewards from people who do not. Favoritism should not be shown to members of the same faith and discrimination should not take place against members of different religions. Administrators should takes pains to ensure that even the appearance of favoritism does not arise.

These rules, both positive and negative, are designed to ensure every individual's freedom to believe and worship as they choose, and to prevent the power of the state (as exercised by the school and its employees) from interfering with that right. Those who do not follow such rules may be exercising what they see as their own religious freedom, but they will be doing it at the expense of the religious freedom of others. It is the balance of everyone’s religious freedom that the rules aim to maintain.

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