Is the beloved Pope a hypocrite?
He’s gotten big billing this past week for charging through Latin America blasting capitalism. And he’s received much press for two years with his comments about drones, contraception, the big bang theory, and the role of women in the church. The Pope has proven to be a sound byte machine and he’s created plenty of fans and more than a few haters along the way.
But in last Sunday’s news conference from the papal plane, Pope Francis said he would be opening his ears — and presumably his mind — to hear his American critics. Let me suggest two places he should start if he wants to be taken seriously by the people he’s attacked: weapons and war. The Pope’s critics claim his comments don’t always align with his behavior. They’re right, and he would do well to listen.
At a gathering of young people in Turin last month, the Pope said Christian businesspersons who manufacture weapons were guilty of “hypocrisy” because they “talk about peace and make weapons, or sell them to the two warring sides.” He added, “duplicity is the currency of today . . . they say one thing and do another.” This wasn’t the only time the Jesuit leader has fired shots at these believers. In May, he said that gun makers were complicit in “an industry of death.” And in February, Francis called them “merchants of death” who are “furthering a cycle of hate, fratricide, and violence.”
Pope Francis said weapon makers need to learn “not to trust riches and worldly powers,” but where is the Pope placing his trust when he arms his own guards?
American Christians have more in common with ISIS than they may assume, says theologian Miroslav Volf.
Some Christians may find the Yale Divinity School professor’s comments difficult to swallow in light of a propaganda video released on Sunday that reportedly showed the beheadings of 21 Coptic Christians by ISIS militants in Libya. Volf says that many figures in both Christian history and American history thought about faith and politics in a similar way to modern Islamist extremists. He also says that even though he doesn’t believe the Christian and Muslim faiths are one and the same, we should search out and celebrate the good commonalities. Volf is author of many books including, Allah: A Christian Response and Do We Worship the Same God?
RNS: With what we’re seeing now with groups like ISIS and Boko Haram. What do you make of the persecution of Christians by Islamist extremists?
MV: I take it to be an extreme reaction to globalization processes, which are perceived as being driven by Western interests and are associated with Christian tradition. I see it as a form of extremism that is perceived by majority Muslims as out of step with what Islam is. Your run of the mill Muslims in many parts of the world will generally refer to Islamic State as un-Islamic state. I think it is an attempt to assert Islam as a political religion as a unity of religion and government. Now that’s been a way religions have functioned throughout history–from Constantine until recently. America was founded by folks who thought like this.
RNS: America was founded by folks who thought like Islamist extremists?
MV: Like many Islamist extremists, yes. Which is to say, they believed God would bless this new experiment if we integrate our obedience to God’s laws and we ensure that this is indeed a city set on a hill.
RNS: A lot of people say that violence is inherent to the Muslim faith. Is that correct or are violent expressions a distortion of their faith?
Who knew that so few words could cause so much hysteria?
During his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama discussed the need to oppose militant groups that misuse religion to justify oppression or violence. But then the president said this: “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”
That single sentence launched conservative Christians into the stratosphere. From Bill Donahue to Franklin Graham, it seems like everyone is taking time to criticize the comment. Some were restrained while others—like Texas preacher Robert Jeffress who said Jesus is “incensed” over the speech—bordered on silly. But most of these denunciations ignore or even twist the facts about what the president said and clearly meant.
Saying “Jesus was Jewish” sounds so obvious to most Christians that it doesn’t seem worth the energy to exhale. Yet, many Christians never give the idea a second thought, which is why it needs reasserting despite its obviousness.
Christians, according to author James Carroll, have forgotten Jesus’ Jewishness. And this has has severe consequences. So the New York Times bestselling author and National Book Award winner has penned Christ, Actually: The Son of God for The Secular Age to reintroduce Christians to the Jewish Jesus. Here, Carroll discusses the negative effects of forgetting Jesus’ religious tradition and how modern Christians can recover a more accurate understanding of their Messiah.
RNS: You point out that we often overlook Jesus’ Jewishness. But Jesus in some ways bucked the Jewish law and the strictest Jewish leaders were often at odds with him. From a religious standpoint, how Jewish was he really?
JC: This is the key question. Religion is a human adaptation to the basic fact of the human condition that the Holy One is not directly accessible to finite creatures. Religion is an indirect, mediated, but real way of being connected to God. Jewish religion is a case in point. The Temple, the Law, the Tradition, the Scriptures, Sabbath observance, keeping Kosher, reciting the Shema–all of it serves the purpose of bridging the gulf that stands between creatures and their Creator.
The affirmation of Jesus’ divinity, which is essential to Christian faith, has often led to the conclusion that Jesus had no need of the bridging elements of Jewish religion. If Jesus engaged in these cultic practices, he was going through the motions, since his communion with God was a given of his condition. Religiously speaking, He was pretend Jew.
But that is like saying he was a pretend human being. If we start with his humanity, we affirm, with the tradition, that Jesus was like us in all ways, except sin. That means he could not foresee the future, could not defy gravity, could not avoid death. Nor could he, while alive on earth, have direct access to what’s called the beatific vision. Therefore, his need of Jewish religion was real and absolute. [tweetable]Jesus was no pretend Jew.[/tweetable] That must be the starting point of our commitment to Jesus.
If Jesus was at odds with fellow Jews over what it is to be a faithful Jew–and the tradition suggests that he was–we must understand such contention as occurring within the Jewish community, not from outside it. So he did not “buck the Jewish law;” he insisted upon it, even if he disagreed with others over its meaning and applicability at a given moment.
RNS: Early Christianity was more like an offshoot of Judaism, wasn’t it? When did this shift?
The sea of tents reminds me of a scene from M*A*S*H from a distance, but there is no laugh track here. No, these Lebanese makeshift refugee camps or Informal Tented Settlements (ITS) are some of the most sobering places I’ve ever witnessed. Many of the more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees currently residing in Lebanon now call an ITS “home,” but the conditions are far less than pleasant.
I was invited to visit refugee settlements in Lebanon and Jordan by World Vision, a global Christian humanitarian organization focused on poverty and injustice. In these dwellings, I encountered stories of human suffering for which I was unprepared.
One story was that of Hamide, a mother of 10 whose entire family shares a two-bedroom tent with a dirt floor and walls constructed of old billboard vinyl. She lives in an ITS in Rawda, Lebanon. Her family was forced to flee here from Syria because of violence two years ago. She has no idea if her parents or extended family are still alive.
Poverty cripples her family’s existence in Lebanon. Three of Hamide’s teenage children now work in the fields for $4.00 US a day (despite Lebanon’s anti-child labor laws). She and her husband, Khalil, married off their 14-year-old daughter to a 22-year-old man she’d never met because they could barely afford to feed her. One child is afflicted with Hepatitis C and asthma that require expensive medicines, and Hamide must purchase formula for her 2-month-old daughter because she doesn’t produce milk.
The Syrian civil war has produced more than 3 million refugees like Hamide, and U.N. officials are calling it “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era.” And on the front lines of the relief effort, working alongside UNICEF and UNHCR, are a collection of Christian relief organizations committed to ministering in the midst of catastrophe.
“Convert to Islam, leave, or die.”
This is the ultimatum, given by Islamic extremists in Iraq, that has forced thousands of Christians to flee the communities they’ve inhabited for almost 2,000 years. In the wake of this crisis, some conservative evangelicals here in the United States have been unsurprisingly quick to point the finger at the Obama administration for its lack of urgency:
- Tony Perkins of Family Research Council commented, “I’m not sure what’s more shocking: the atrocities of ISIS or the silence of the Obama administration.”
- Todd Starnes, Fox News radio host and career bomb-thrower, said via Twitter: “Obama: The fate of Iraq hangs in the balance — so we’re just gonna sit this one out.”
- David French at The Christian Post blamed the president for the chaos in Iraq, adding that when it comes to Obama’s foreign policy, “We’d laugh if lives weren’t at stake.”
Now look: The Obama administration’s pullout from Iraq has doubtlessly contributed to this crisis. But these evangelical pundits fail to recognize that Christians in Iraq have faced extreme persecution since well before Obama took office. And though admitting it may taste bitter, evangelicals themselves must share the blame for the persecution of their brothers and sisters.
In a 60 Minutes interview filmed in late 2007 — more than a year before Obama moved into the White House — the Rev. Canon Andrew White, known as the Vicar of Baghdad, said the situation for Christians in Iraq was “clearly worse” than under Saddam Hussein.
“There’s no comparison between Iraq now and then,” White told correspondent Scott Pelley. “Things are the most difficult they have ever been for Christians. Probably ever in history. They’ve never known it like now.”
Such persecution was made possible by a bipartisan American faction that supported the invasion of Iraq — an invasion that created a violent void in which sectarian violence raged. And let’s not forget that this coalition included the strong, vocal, and public support of influential evangelicals — claiming to speak on behalf of the “Prince of Peace” no less.
An international crisis was created after the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) told Christians in Northern Iraq to leave the region or risk death. Hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled their homes, sparking criticism and concern from Westerners. Reports surfaced that many Christian homes in the region were being marked with the Arabic letter “N,” which stands for “Nazarene” or “Christian,” as a way to target those residents.
But Jeremy Courtney, an American living in an undisclosed location in Iraq who started the popular #WeAreN hashtag, says the media isn’t telling the whole story. Courtney is the founder of Preemptive Love Coalition, an organization that provides life-saving heart surgeries for children in Iraq, and author of Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time. Here, we discuss what he’s experiencing in Iraq, what the media misses, and who he thinks should be blamed for the crisis.
RNS: You say the American media isn’t reporting the whole story about Christian persecution in Iraq. What are we missing?
JC: What Americans don’t quite understand is that what we call the “Christian community” in Iraq has strong nationalistic aspirations. The American media often assumes this ancient Christian community is evangelistically vibrant and is being persecuted because they are trying to convert Muslims. But this is false.
RNS: What is the importance of Iraqi Christians’ “nationalistic aspirations?”
JC: One way the new Islamic state and the neighboring legitimate Kurdistan regional government could perceive the Christian community as a threat is that the Assyrian Christian community longs to see an Assyrian state rise again. There are strong nationalist desires, and many want a federal solution to carve out an Assyrian state. Some would say that’s why the Kurds have all too cynically welcomed the fleeing Christians–because they can Kurdify them.
This doesn’t mean that the persecution is justified. They shouldn’t be subject to genocide. They shouldn’t lose their homes. But Western Christians want to view these issues only through Christian evangelism, while overlooking Christian nationalism, Christian politics, and Christian violence abroad—all of which are real things.
RNS: So why are these Iraqi Christians being persecuted then?
As violence rages in Gaza and the war in Iraq comes unravelled, many Americans evangelicals are rethinking their positions on war and violence. In the midst of this moment, pastor Brian Zahnd of Missouri’s Word of Life Church encourages Christians to take a “journey from embracing violence to pronouncing peace.”
In his new book, A Farewell to Mars, Zahnd questions how violence and power seeped into our understanding of faith and grace. He argues that the message of Jesus differs radically from the drumbeats of war we hear all around us. Here we discuss his provocative proposal.
RNS: This book details your “journey from embracing violence to pronouncing peace.” What do you mean by “embracing violence?”
BZ: I accepted violence as a legitimate way to shape the world for good. I was comfortable with celebrating, memorializing, and endorsing American war violence. I believed that the infliction of American violence—whether upon Hiroshima or Hanoi—was just and justifiable. For most of my life I simply did not feel there was any tension between being a follower of the Prince of Peace and enthusiastically endorsing the waging of war. But in my long and winding journey I’ve come to understand that to live gently in a violent world is part of the counterculture of following Christ.
RNS: Tell us about your 9/11 prayer and why you think it was a failure?
In the land of religious history, Philip Jenkins towers like a giant.
Among the many works written by the distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, his history of Christian violence in “Jesus Wars” and exploration of the increasingly global nature of Christianity in “The Next Christendom” were especially influential. But now Jenkins, a contributing editor for The American Conservative with a monthly column for The Christian Century, has catalogued some fascinating observations about World War I. Namely, that this great conflict was a global religious revolution.
Here, we discuss the religious dimension of World War I and his newest book, “The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.”
RNS: You say that World War I was “a religious crusade.” This sounds like a scandalous idea. Can you explain what you mean?
PJ: If I myself believed that it was a crusade, that would indeed be scandalous. Actually, I am arguing that a great many people at the time saw it in those terms, which is also scandalous, in a different way.
When we look at the history of that war, we have to be struck by the religious and supernatural language in which it was imagined, throughout the whole conflict, and at all levels of society. This was not just a case of statements put out by propaganda agencies trying to scare up recruits. Nor was the religious fervor confined to the opening weeks of the war, before people knew better.
Throughout, and in every country, the war was presented as a holy war, a cosmic struggle. The war was fought by the world’s leading Christian nations, and on all sides, clergy and Christian leaders offered a steady stream of patriotic and militaristic rhetoric. Many spoke the language of holy war and crusade, of apocalypse and Armageddon.
Without that religious dimension, we cannot understand why the nations went to war, nor how ordinary people imagined the conflict.
RNS: If this is as you say, then why is religion such a minor note in many discussions of and books on World War I?