Friday, May 16, 2014

When Religion Goes Rogue

Mosaic in the Church of the
Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem
Pope Francis goes to the Holy Land next week and the welcome is not universal.  Over the past several weeks a number of Christian churches have been vandalized by ultra-orthodox Jews in protest of the Pope’s visit.  While the majority of Israel’s Jews are highly secularized, there is a small minority that, due to the idiosyncrasies of Israel’s parliamentary constitution, wield disproportionate power over the Israeli government.  The plurality of political parties in Israel almost always ensures that no one party has sufficient support in Parliament to govern without bringing the small ultra-orthodox political factions into a coalition government in order to have the number of votes in the Knesset to insure its policies can pass.  By threatening to withdraw from such coalitions, the small orthodox groups can pressure the larger secular parties to take positions that impose Jewish theological perspectives on the larger and secularized society. 
One of the positions held by Orthodox—and some not-so-orthodox—Jews is that the land is theirs by the gift of God and that they have an absolute right to it.  This compromises the safety of non-Jews in Israel.  Orthodox Jews have gone with impunity onto lands held for centuries by Palestinian farmers and uprooted their olive groves, devastated their farms, and demolished their homes to build new settlements for Jewish settlers.  Since the land belongs by right to the Jews (to whom God allegedly gave it) Muslims and Christians have no right to it and it can be taken away from them at any time. 
In anticipation of the Pope’s visit some ultra-Orthodox have, not unlike cats pissing in corners to mark their territory, taken to spray-painting hostile messages and otherwise defacing Christian Churches including some of the most sacred shrines of the Christian faith. 
The historical facts of the matter are that the Palestinian people are the descendants of the ancient Syro-Phoenician Canaanite peoples who inhabited the land at the time of the Exodus and from whom much of the land was taken in the times of the Judges and of Kings Saul and David.  These people, along with the Greek settlers who came there about three centuries before Jesus converted to Christianity in the Byzantine period and a significant number of them converted to Islam between the seventh and the twelfth centuries.  As late as the time of the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 about half of the Palestinians were still Christians.  As the majority of the Christian Palestinians were merchants and townspeople it was easier for those in Israel, and after 1967 those in the West Bank and Gaza, to sell their businesses and emigrate in order to escape the apartheid policies of Israel that discriminate against them, than it was for the Muslim Palestinians who were, by and large, tied to the land by their farms, orchards, and groves.  Nowadays, only about ten percent of the Palestinians who remain are Christians.  The plight of the Palestinians in the West Bank or in Gaza, Muslim or Christians, is desperate as more and more land is confiscated for Israeli “settlements.”  
The visit of a Pope to the Holy Land always shines a bit of a spotlight on the plight of the Palestinians—especially the Christians—and this makes the Israeli government very uncomfortable as their racist policies are exposed for the world to see.  But for the ultra-Orthodox the visit of such a prominent Christian leader is not so much an embarrassment as it is a sacrilege that a gentile is allowed not only to tread the land given to them by God, but to offer worship where God should be honored only by his own people and according to the rites he established for them in the sacred books.  But such fanatical views are not restricted to ultra-Orthodox Jews.
I noticed in one of the Katholic Krazy blogs a few days ago a complaint about Buddhist and Shinto worship being allowed in the Cathedral of Saint James in Compostella and how this “desecrated” the shrine.  Christian worship being offered in Jerusalem would have just the same stigma in the minds of the more extreme Orthodox Jews.  I think this highlights the danger of religious extremism whether by Muslims or Jews or Christians.  Religion, for too many people, has become an end it itself—and the supreme end of life.  They confuse their love for religion—with its ceremonies and dogmas and regulations—with the Love for God.  They take the created reality of religion and it becomes their god.  Jesus in his day had issues with both the Temple cult and the Pharisaic interpretation of the Law over this very thing. In this idolatry religion becomes more important than the believer; the cult more important than the person.  At least in Christianity this can never be allowed to be.  The Sabbath is made of us, not us for the Sabbath.  The Dalai Lama—who I admit does not share in the magisterial office of the Church (but who is a much more authentic teacher than many who do)—admonishes us that “the aim and purpose of religion is cure the pains and unhappiness of the human mind.”  He later expands this idea: “Finally, I would like to point out that the purpose of religion is not to build beautiful churches or temples; it is to cultivate positive human qualities such as tolerance, generosity, and love.  Fundamental to Buddhism and Christianity, indeed to every major world religion, is the belief that we must reduce our selfishness and save others.”  While this teaching come from a most eminent Buddhist teacher, it is totally consistent with the Gospel which Jesus entrusted to his Church. 
The greatest possession of the Church is not itself, it is the Gospel which Christ entrusted to it.  I think we too often forget that.  Too often he Gospel is something we have encased between golden covers to carry high overhead and then to sonorously proclaim as we surround it with candles and swing a censer rather than be the living message that transforms our lives.  If there is one thing that this blog is dedicated to making manifest is that the Church is most authentically the Church of Jesus Christ not when it is absorbed in its own religiosity but  when its members are focused on putting the Gospel of Christ into practice in our lives.  And if there is one thing I hope to expose is that obsession with its own power and majesty that is the greatest threat to the fidelity of the Church to its Lord.

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