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Christianity gone haywire, and going down

Steve Apfel says Tom Holland the historian reckons we’re witnessing the total extinction of Christendom in the M-East & Christian leaders’ attitudes & actions in the Holy Land

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Religion

Steve Apfel
 

Tom Holland the historian reckons we’re witnessing the total extinction of Christendom in the Middle East. And Christian leaders’ attitudes and actions in the Holy Land are far from standing in the way

 

Christian people are not like Muslims. They have no tradition of putting themselves out for co-religionists. Under attack they’ll remember to pray for them, perhaps; but picket embassies, occupy piazzas, marshal the media into battle, take the UN by storm – never.

Christendom right now is in dire straits. What would Paul the Apostle have done with some 100 million followers under existential threat? Has there been a time like the present when every hour another Christian is martyred?  

The way the church was afflicted under the Romans pales by comparison. Even under Muslims in mediaeval times the burning and slaying and pillaging to near extinction is dwarfed by the scale of what’s happening now.

Tom Holland the historian reckons we’re witnessing the total extinction of Christendom in the Middle East. He might also have warned about the subcontinent, after Pakistan’s worst-ever attack blasted 85 church-goers to kingdom come.

What have Christians done about it? Pakistan did erupt in country-wide protests; but elsewhere their hallmark behaviour has been passivity. “Everyone is ignoring the growing danger to Christians in Muslim countries,” bewailed Mano Rumalshah, the Bishop of Peshawar. “European countries don’t give a damn about us.”

Not quite. The Archbishop of Canterbury gives a damn. Though his words may have brought cold comfort to the bereaved and afflicted, they will at least take us where we need to go. So here’s what Justin Welby, head of the Church of England had to say after seeing the “mass graves” of latter day martyrs.

“I have no illusions about this. But historically the right response of Christians to persecution and attack is – it’s the hardest thing we can ever say to people, but Jesus tells us to love our enemies. It’s the hardest thing when you’re violently attacked. It’s an indescribable challenge. But G-d gives grace so often for that – to love our enemies.”

Hold onto Welby the consoler of Christians drowning in blood while we revert to people of another faith. When last did a Jew kill a person for being a Christian? When last in the Holy Land did Jews burn down a church? When last was a Christian converted to Judaism under pain of death?

Yet churchmen aim their missiles where?

The Rev David Kim, head of the World Evangelical Alliance, takes aim at the “impossible people”. ”How to Deal with the Impossible People – A Biblical Perspective”, was the title of his paper at a conference in Bethlehem. Ha! Muslims rooting up two thousand years of Christianity, you’d be given to think. Think again.

 

A banner in the hall made his reference as clear as daylight. It had a church and a cross imposed over a menacing-looking part of Israel’s anti-terror barrier. Kim’s paper was about how to deal with Jews. And that is odd because, in one unbelievably thin strip of land in a vast Christian graveyard, Christianity has prospered and burgeoned.

In 1949, Israel had 34 000 citizens of that faith. Today the number is 168 000. In this awkward Christian haven, freedom to practise religion is guaranteed, along with access to holy sites. And what draws more visitors to Israel than Holy Land tourism? Tiberius and Nazareth and Jerusalem practically live off pilgrim excursionism. Under the “impossible people” Christianity is alive and well. 

Oh men of the cloth; with all that G-d-endowed grace for loving your murderous enemy, have you no leftovers of love for your friend? Is it all spent on your Muslim persecutors? Only heed your imperilled flock in “Palestine” and reroute some love to your benefactor, Israel.     


Will the church heed its flock in Palestine? Out of Gaza and Ramallah come leaks and whispers, hole-in-the wall fear-ridden testimonies, tearful stories told behind locked doors. Who knows the totality of fear, cruelty, confiscation, assault, homicide perpetrated on reclusive Christian pockets?

Who cares to know? When did the media run a story on the torments of Gaza’s few remaining Christian souls, or on Bethlehem’s decimated long-time majority of Christian Arabs? When will men of the cloth sound the alarm?

With all his abundant love for the persecutors of his faith, Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu has nothing left to give the “impossible people” but hatred. Indeed Tutu finds them more than impossible. “The Jews think they have a monopoly of G-d. Jesus was angry that they could shut out other human beings.” Like Welby’s, here’s another statement to hold onto.  

Meanwhile people on whom Tutu showers love, the inhabitants of Gaza, have made half the Christian population flee. Decorations for Christmas are banned and public crucifixes forbidden. And the rulers have broadcast calls for Muslims to slaughter their Christian neighbours. Rami Ayad was one of the victims. Owner of the only Christian bookstore in Gaza, he was murdered and his shop reduced to ash.

“We pray for all those Palestinians whose homes have been demolished and those who have been driven away. For Palestinians who suffer because of the separation wall and settlements and for those who have lost their jobs and suffer from poverty, hunger and thirst, we pray to you, O G-d.”

Here’s a psalm to bring that loving spirit enjoined by Welby into the hearts of the flock. The words are part of a liturgy composed by the World Council of Churches. The authors were Anglican, Evangelical Lutheran and Catholic, and they were helped by the “World Day of Prayer Committee in Palestine”, headed by a body named Kairos. It’s the body that lobbied church leaders to declare the Jews a “sinful” people for their occupation.

They all gathered in Bethlehem, Christianity’s cradle, not to defend the faith but to promote another Muslim state that would lose no time uprooting it. Defend Christians or attack Jews: for Bethlehem conference-goers it was a no-brainer.

Can men of the cloth, even pooling their faith, justify the perversity? Can they square the circle of exerting themselves to attack Jews while having no time for Christendom exploding on their doorstep? Yes they can, by leaning back to a St Augustine doctrine and forward to a modern pair.   

Put together, the two modern doctrines do not measure up to St Augustine’s one, so why not get them out the way promptly. Actually they’re more blind faith than doctrine, which is not to say that the doctrines are treated less reverently than the Gospels themselves. One is called “Human Rights” and the other goes under the name “Multiculturism”.

We find the human rights doctrine enshrined in the so-called Kairos Document. The doctrine relies on the bible to make the political views and world vision of the authors sacred. Their approach, if not their intention, converts Christianity into a very human ideology. For example, at the “Christ at the Checkpoint Conference” in Bethlehem, the “priesthood” of human rights deliberated on what Jesus would do and say if he walked through an Israeli checkpoint on a daily basis.

Delegates wanted to know how the Son of G-d would deal with the same feelings of anger and bitterness daily experienced by Palestinian people. So said Munther Isaac, Academic Dean at Bethlehem Bible College. Hence that liturgy and how it resonates with the idea of G-d the human rights activist: “We pray for all those Palestinians…”

A flyer for that conference coloured human rights with even bolder biblical hues. “It seems that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him… The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily”.

Thus Naim Ateek, an Arab cleric, weaves the Gospel narrative into pro-Palestinian ideology.

Desmond Tutu, appealing to the United Methodists to punish Israel, is also a busy weaver. “The harsh reality endured by millions of Palestinians requires people and organisations of conscience to divest from companies… profiting from the occupation and subjugation of Palestinians.”

Apparently, then, employing time and energy on Palestinian Arabs is another way to get to heaven. Grace will come if a Christian can only learn to love his enemy and hate his friend.  

What of multiculturalism? Is it a more credible-seeming doctrine for a good Christian believer? Going into it we find it is not far removed from the first doctrine of Arab rights and Jewish wrongs. And it seems easier for people to keep. All you have to do is pay homage to the “I-word” – Islamophobia. Parody Islam, point a finger at the barbaric behaviour of Islamists, speak out against how they treat their women, and you’re Islamophobic. Your fate as a “bigot” is sealed.  

The doctrine, though strict but easy to follow, is not very consistent. Towards people of another faith the rules are ultra lax. If Muslims are off limits and sacrosanct, you’re allowed to say what you like about Jews, provided you call them Israelis or, better yet, Zionists. And you can write a made-to-order record of that people, replete with blood libels, ethnic cleansing, apartheid and all manner of crimes a Jew can inflict upon humanity. Say about Zionists or Israelis whatever you like, only avoid the fatal “J-trap”. 

So much for new Christian doctrines which will bring G-d’s grace to those who love their enemy and hate their friend. A very old doctrine is a far more serious candidate. For all we know it may even be true.

Augustine in the 4th century made the exile of the Jews a matter of theological proof. Long after him, Pope Pious X, giving an audience to Theodor Herzl in 1904, reiterated Augustine: “The Jews, who should have been the first to acknowledge Jesus Christ, have not done so to this day. And so if you come to Palestine and settle your people there, we will be ready with churches and priests to baptise all of you.”

A Jesuit journal at the time explained that the Jewish people “must always live dispersed and vagrant among the other nations so that they may render witness to Christ by their very existence”. So, the Vatican’s refusal to recognise the new state of Israel in 1948 was not a matter of pro-Arab bias, but a matter of dogma.

The likes of the World Council of Churches, the Presbyterians of America, the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches, and many Christian leaders and icons, think in St Augustine’s terms. Get the hell out of Palestine, they yell inwardly (and sometimes outwardly) at Israelis. You rejected the G-d Messiah. The Church took your place as G-d’s Chosen. Return to being the witness wanderers HE meant you to be.

 

In parallel, Israel’s rise from Holocaust ashes equally troubles secular anti-Zionists. For them the problem is not religious but perceptual. Anti-Zionists just cannot come to terms with the military Jew. Since when was that people meant to be stronger than its persecutors?

The stereotype of the Jew of old – that bearded bookish stateless wanderer – could never have evolved into a mean machine. What a vinegary mind anti-Zionists turn on it, what sourball gaze at the juggernaut Jew. Get the hell out! Go back to your natural born fate! 

With biblical fire Desmond Tutu, Stephen Sizer and co, look to punish the unchosen people. “Your destiny was never to make the desert bloom, to build a Tel Aviv of Manhattan skyscrapers, to win Nobel Prizes by the wheelbarrow full, to boast a bustling hi-tech economy with a currency stronger than Europe’s.”

The pores of Israel-hating Christians leak not envy but error – the faith-losing error of dogma. Hence the driver of Christian angst and bluster towards friendly Israel: the spoilage of the plot, the shattering of the icon.

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Religion

Moving from tumah to tahara

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This week’s parsha introduces us to the detrimental spiritual effects of tumat met, the impurity that comes from being in contact with the dead and the requisite process of purification through the mechanics of the sprinkling of the ashes of a red heifer – the para adumah.

Tumah (ritual impurity) is a prevalent topic in the Torah and in many instances, we are warned to distance ourselves from numerous sources of tumah.

But what is it anyway? The English translation does it no justice (as is the case with most English translations of Hebrew concepts).

I have heard rabbis and teachers try and compare tumah to a type of “spiritual radiation”, which can affect anyone who comes close to its source.

Another idea which I read a while ago describes tumah as deviation from an object’s designation, while tahara (the opposite of tumah) is the return or recalibration of an entity to its purpose and goal. For example, a dead animal is by definition tamei (impure) while an animal shechted in accordance with halacha, is tahor (pure), and can be eaten by the holiest and most pure Jew around – apologies to all the vegans out there. A human corpse carries the highest form of tumah, as he can no longer fulfil his purpose in this world, namely living and sanctifying Hashem’s name in the world.

But I think the best explanation is that tumah is the erroneous sensation that Hashem has abandoned us. Hashem is all of reality. (The ineffable name “havaya” talks to this concept.) The truth is that Hashem is always everywhere and intimately involved in our lives. When we perceive and appreciate this, we live on a lofty level of tahara and kedusha. However, when we don’t perceive Hashem’s presence because of a death or being in contact with certain spiritually tainted objects, we are labelled as being tamei.

It’s for this reason that a mourner, someone who by definition came into contact with a relative who passed away and mistakenly felt that Hashem had abandoned him, has to recite kaddish publicly in shul and re-infuse himself with kedusha – sanctity and the realisation that Hashem was always there and would never forsake him.

Shabbat shalom!

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Religion

Quarrels and Korach

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I remember once being peripherally involved in a community dispute (a rare occurrence in Jewish life to be sure) some years ago. Discontent had been bubbling for a while, but it all boiled over around this time – parshat Korach. As support was being mustered, one party approached me during the week and asked, “Are you with me, or are you with Korach?” About a day later, I was speaking to the other party, who raised the dispute and asked me, “Are you on my side, or that of the other party, who is clearly Korach?”

In the end I was able, more or less, to stay clear of it (thank G-d), but the nature of that interaction is indicative of the challenge of learning the lesson from our parsha generally. Is the lesson that we should be confident in our position, invoking the wrath of G-d to strike down those who are clearly in error since they disagree with us? Obviously not. Is the lesson that there’s no right and wrong, and it all just depends on your perspective? I don’t believe our Torah is compatible with such moral relativism. The parsha can teach us how to engage in such difficult situations through two-fold analysis of a situation, as we can see with the Korach dispute.

First, look at the merits of the arguments raised by each side. Korach is claiming that Moshe has claimed power for himself, without divine mandate, in order to rule over the Jewish people. Moshe is claiming that he has no personal desire for power, he’s simply doing what G-d instructed. We, the astute readers of the Torah, know that Moshe is correct, that in fact, he shunned leadership at the burning bush, and accepted the position only at Hashem’s insistence. Besides, all of the Jewish people have seen that Hashem entrusted Moshe to deliver the ten commandments, and that he succeeded in achieving atonement for us after the sin of the golden calf. Is it more logical that such a man would attempt a power grab, or that the troublesome former slaves needed a leader with a firm hand on the wheel?

Second, look at the approach of each side. Korach begins by wheeling and dealing – mustering support, putting spin on his position, and using soundbites to signal his virtue. Moshe appeals for de-escalation, reaches out to other disputants Datan and Aviram, and asks for trust based on his history of dedication to the people.

Our cognitive biases, particularly what’s known as the “halo effect”, nudge us to prejudge people and situations and to take sides based on who we like better. But, before deciding who is Moshe and who is Korach, we would be well served by applying these parsha lessons.

Shabbat shalom!

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Religion

How to avoid blindness

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Do you want to preserve your eyesight? Mishna Berura (24,7) quotes an ancient custom that will prevent blindness. Passing the tzitzit over our eyes when reciting the third paragraph of the shema will guarantee that we don’t lose the ability to see. How are we to understand this blessing?

The final passage of this week’s Torah reading teaches us the mitzvah of tzitzit, the fringes we are instructed to attach to the edges of four-cornered garments in order to remember all of Hashem’s commandments. After spelling out the details of the laws of tzitzit, the portion concludes with a seemingly unrelated reminder that Hashem took us out of Egypt.

Egypt is actually the embodiment of the polar opposite of remembering. This was the country that forgot all about Joseph and all the blessings he had brought upon the land, saving them from a certain famine. A generation later, his erstwhile VIP family, who had been invited to settle in Goshen as the king’s preferred subjects, were enslaved and committed to hard labour. This was a blatant display of ingratitude – a total lack of appreciation for Joseph’s contribution.

Instead, the Egyptians turned a blind eye to the plight of the Hebrews around them, never objecting to the injustices decreed upon them by Pharoah. This explains why one of the ten plagues was darkness, a physical manifestation of their ingrate sightlessness. The Hebrew word for this plague is choshech, which is written with the three letters chaf-shin-chet, letters which also spell the words shachach (forgot) and kichesh (denied).

The precept of tzitzit is about remembering – the antithesis of the Egyptians’ behaviour. Hashem took us out of that land, physically and spiritually, removing us from and from us the evil of ungratefulness. The tzitzit, on the contrary, are all about gratitude, a reminder of the 613 commandments given to us after the exodus. (The numerical value of the word tzitzit, 600, added to the number of strings, eight, and knots, five, that make up each of the four fringes, serves as a mnemonic of these obligations.)

Hence, the custom to pass these fringes over our eyes each time we call out the word tzitzit when reading the third paragraph of the shema every morning. This will ensure that we aren’t struck with the blindness of the Egyptians. And, please G-d, the merit of the mitzvah will also preserve our physical eyesight.

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