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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

What makes you wealthy?

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Some time ago, a friend shared a personal anecdote that has stayed with me because of the simple yet powerful message it conveys.

Beggars are, sadly, a fixture of the South African landscape. One particularly eccentric panhandler has lived in our neighbourhood for as long as any of us can remember. He is a colourful fellow who regularly changes outfits, likes to sport sunglasses, earphones (not that they’re plugged into anything), and quirky cardboard signs. He always makes a point of getting the kids in passing cars to smile. Truth is, we haven’t seen him for months now. The other day, someone reported a sighting, in a different suburb, and it brought back the memory of this story.

It must have been a chilly July night when my friend stopped to fill his car, and popped into the Quick Shop to buy a drink. As he stepped up to pay, our eccentric beggar-friend approached him for a donation. Apologising, my friend mentioned that he was unable to help the fellow. In fact, he promptly realised, he didn’t even have enough cash to pay for his own drink.

“How much are you short?” asked the homeless man.

“Two rand,” my friend admitted sheepishly.

Without hesitating, the older man drew out his bag of coins – a day’s “salary”, and happily handed over two rand! My friend was astonished by this needy man’s largesse.

This Shabbos, we’ll read of the half-shekel. G-d baffles Moses by instructing him to have each member of the nation contribute exactly half a shekel towards the maintenance of the sanctuary and communal sacrifices. Just half a shekel, yet these simple donations were supposedly enough to atone for the Golden Calf debacle. Moses grappled with the notion that a token contribution could repair such a heinous mistake.

Here’s one possible angle to the story: everyone bought the story of investing in the Golden Calf because they all anticipated that it would offer solid returns (a replacement for Moses, the oracle they feared would never return).

Still today, people happily throw millions at business or even philanthropic opportunities if they forecast a decent payback. But, when stocks crash and fortunes halve, we downscale and hang on to what we have. We often also become charity-averse. If a billionaire should lose a few hundred million, he may well feel the need to tighten the purse-strings.

Then, we hear of a fellow who lives hand to mouth, yet is able to part with a few bucks to help someone better off than himself because the man was stuck.

As long as you can still give, you are wealthy. When you cannot share your money, regardless of how much of it you may still have, you have become poor.

Perhaps that was G-d’s message in the half-shekel – a reminder that big bucks to float a golden project don’t indicate wealth, but giving away even just a small contribution does.

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Religion

Believing in Hashem; believing in ourselves.

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When would Hashem ever want us not to daven? In Parshat Beshalach, as the Jewish people were standing between the sea, the Egyptian army, and the desert, they naturally turned their faces upwards and pleaded to the Almighty for help. Remarkably, Hashem responds: “מַה־תִּצְעַ֖ק אֵלָ֑י (Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward).”

It’s not as if Hashem doesn’t want our tefilot (prayers). On the other side of the sea, we are attacked by Amalek, our long-standing enemy, and the Torah tells us when Moshe’s arms were raised, we took the upper hand. Moshe’s arms didn’t magically cause us to win, but rather, when the Jewish soldiers looked at Moshe’s posture of prayer, they were inspired to daven, and through the combination of G-dly intervention and human effort, we were victorious. What’s the difference between these two confrontations – against the Egyptians where we shouldn’t daven, and against the Amalek, where we had to?

One needs to understand the purpose of both wars. The Izhbitza Rebbe explains that the battle with Egypt was one of the awareness of the creator. Hashem displayed His might through the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea. We just needed to walk, and Hashem would do everything, supernaturally, to respond to Pharaoh’s original response to Moshe when he asked for the Jews to be free to worship Hashem: “’מִ֤י ה (Who is the Lord?)”

On the other hand, Amalek, who descended from Eisav, believed that our existence was meaningless and coincidental. Eisav sold Yaakov his birthright for the quick satisfaction of hunger. He wasn’t interested in the long term commitment of temple service. Eisav exclaimed, “Here I am going to die, so why do I need the birth right?” Amalek despised the idea of a world to-come where we receive reward or punishment for the actions we do here on earth. In order to persuade the world otherwise, we needed to fight him with meaningful human action. We partnered with Hashem through physical effort and prayer to display how, together, the creator and created can make a difference.

On Purim, we celebrate the fact that the Jews defeated Amalek once again. Hashem was, of course, behind our success, but He would remain quite hidden, allowing Esther and the Jewish people to come forward with bravery and self-sacrifice. At first, Esther refused to step up on behalf of her people. But after Mordechai inspired her asking, “Who knows, perhaps for the sake of a time such as this you have come to join royalty?”, she accepted responsibility and asked Jews to pray. Through her cunning and leadership, Haman, descended from the Amaleki King Agag, is trapped, and eventually hung on the gallows he built to kill Mordechai the Jew! Coincidence? I think not!

There are times in life where we raise our hands in prayer knowing that only Hashem can help as He overcomes the natural laws He put in place. At other times, He beckons us to act and overcome our natural tendencies to remain stagnant and passive and “join” Him to bring about the change. Esther revealed her hidden G-d-given potential to save the Jews, and for that we are eternally grateful.

Purim sameach!

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Religion

Blueprint for a holy society

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In Exodus: 25:1-2, “G-d spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take my offering.’” Exodus 25:8-9, “And they shall make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst according to all that I show you, the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its vessels; and so shall you do…”

Now if I was a real Israelite, my first reaction might be to roll my eyes and say, “Great! I just spent all of these years slaving in Egypt, toiling over all of these pyramids, and now I have to do more building?” And of course, G-d isn’t content to let the Israelites use their expertise at turning sand and dirt into bricks. G-d has more specific plans, asking those who act generously, and using only the best of materials.

You get the idea. The Torah offers so many specifics, right down to the details of the golden cherubs. The Talmud (BT Yoma 54a) describes the cherubs as a boy and a girl. Rashi writes, “Their faces bore the images of the youth,” reminding us that the true custodians of the Ark and the Torah are our children, the sons and daughters of Israel, in contrast to the tradition’s literal count of the Israelites – 600 000 adult men, we are told. This portion reminds us that in all the institutions we build in accordance with G-d’s plan, our children, our youth count, and through them, we hear the voice of G-d.

This verse from Exodus 25:8-9 usually sparks discussion about the necessity of having a building in order for G-d to be present. We are so used to having a building as a symbol of G-d’s presence, but I believe we can find that sense of G-d in so many places. It may not be within a formal building. Perhaps it’s the fact, as it has always been, that we find G-d where we allow our souls to let G-d in, that the sanctuary within which G-d dwells must begin with our own soul. If our soul has been created to live with a foundation of faith and spiritual practice, then surely G-d will dwell within it.

But back to the tabernacle story. We have a G-d who can turn water into blood, sand into lice, the very air we breathe into a thick darkness that makes it impossible for others to move. This is a G-d who split the Sea of Reeds, who saved the Israelites from a future of slavery. Why does G-d need to draw a blueprint and then ask us to complete the plan?

The text offers the answer. When G-d is placing this very lengthy, detailed order, G-d says “they will make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst.” G-d didn’t build the tabernacle alone, nor assign it to Moses to build on his own. There was a blueprint and detailed instructions that were shared with everyone.

In my work as a rabbi, and indeed in our efforts as a Jewish community as a whole, we must be prepared to sit together, generate ideas, shape plans, and draw blueprints.

The future of the Jewish community is our shared responsibility. But if we are really involved in this, if we do it with all our heart, then by working together, we can build a magnificent holy society.

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