Friday, February 10, 2006

Interfaith Dialogue at University of Florida, Gainesville

Jerusalem: A Hotbed of Religious Animosity was the title for an interfaith dialgoue organized by Islam-on-Campus, a student organization in University of Florida on Thursday, February 9th at Gainesville. The event was attended by over 300 people. Although Rev. Dr. Bob Edgar was originally scheduled to speak for the Christians, a schedule conflict prevented him attending and I spoke in stead. The event was co-sponsored by the Jewish Student Union and the UF Campus Crusade for Christ. For a news report on the event click this link:

Imam Mohammed Abdul-Malik (Brooklyn, NY), Rabbi Jonathan Seiger (UF, Gainesville) and I formed the panel that addressed the gathering. My presentation follows:

Jerusalem: A Hotbed of Religious Animosity
Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana
February 9, 2006
University of Florida, Gainesville

Thank you for inviting me to address you on this very important topic. I am not Bob Edgar. He sincerely apologizes for not being able to be with you today. But I am glad he is unable to come, because that meant that I could come in his stead to your beautiful campus and participate with you in this important gathering. I commend you, “Islam on Campus” for having the insight and courage to organize events like this.

Last week, on February 3rd an interesting event took place in Washington DC. It was the National Prayer Breakfast. What has traditionally been an Evangelical Christian event was for the first time an interfaith worship. Sen. Norm Coleman, Minnesota Republican, was its first Jewish co-chairman, and Jordan's King Abdullah II, a leading Muslim ambassador for peace attended the breakfast and gave a major luncheon speech.

In his speech, the King called on the moderates of Christianity, Islam and Judaism to unite. "In every generation, people of faith are tested," the king said. "In our generation, the greatest challenge comes from violent extremists who seek to divide and conquer. Extremism is a political movement, under religious cover. Its adherents want nothing more than to pit us against each other, denying all that we have in common. To overcome this foe we must explore the values that unite us, rather than exaggerating the misunderstandings that divide us. Together, we have a duty to this generation and many to come to witness to the positive role of faith in public life," the king said. "Humbled through that faith, strengthened by that faith, we can, with God's help, create a more just and peaceful future." I applaud the King, and want to do everything I can to take his message out to the world.

So, I want to fuss with our title “Jerusalem: the hotbed of religious animosity.” No doubt its a catchy, sexy title, and some of you may have come here to see a fight! And clearly there’s a lot one can say about religious animosity these days – and it’s not only about cartoons. I think it is right and appropriate for us to examine the theological causes of religious animosity and how a city like Jerusalem, holy to these three religious traditions plays into it. But rather than leave it there, I hope we can find ways in which all our religious traditions can undercut the extremism that perpetuates animosity. After all we are thinking today of Jerusalem: the city of peace.
As you know, like the Jewish and Islamic traditions, Christian tradition is not monolithic. There is no way I can say to you, this is the Christian view, for there are many Christian views. The National Council of Churches itself represents 35 Christian denominations in the Anglican, Orthodox and Protestant families. The Orthodox communion has been in Jerusalem and the Middle East since the beginning of Christianity. There is a story about how western Protestant missionary went to Jerusalem. He met a Christian there and as is typical for Evangelists, he asked the man if he was Born Again. “Of course,” he said, his family has been Christian for generations. “Really,” asked the missionary, “who converted you?” assuming it was the work of a recent missionary group. The man looked at him squarely in the eye and said “St. Paul.”
Before I get to more detail about the theological reasons why this city is so important to Christians let me read to you two short paragraphs. First, from a 1996 document issued by the National Council of Churches entitled A Message on Jerusalem: City of Holiness and Hope.
“A Jerusalem that is called holy by Christians, a place where every Christian can feel at home, cannot reflect values that are at odds with fundamental tenets of our faith. This, too, is our stake in Jerusalem; not a territorial claim, not a political design, but rather a steady insistence that the city we call “holy” and “home” reflects common values of love, sharing and justice…. We join our brothers and sisters in the Abrahamic traditions in striving together, in hope and love, for a Jerusalem that remains holy for all.”

The second is an Easter message sent last year by the Heads of Churches of Jerusalem. Let me offer a parenthetical note to say again, yes there are Christians in Jerusalem and in Palestine and their numbers are dwindling rapidly. Churches are concerned churches in Jerusalem, which a still living and vibrant communities may end up being museums, if we are not careful. This is a serious concern to the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem. In a letter entitled A call from Jerusalem to the World, they wrote:
“We are a Christian community made up of Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Episcopalians and Lutherans bound together by a common identity and have been witnessing together for the Risen Lord since the first Pentecost…. We believe in Jerusalem as a city of Peace shared by Muslims, Jews and Christians. We also believe that Jerusalem should serve as the capital for Palestine and Israel….. We are calling on both Israelis and Palestinians to see God in the other and accept the humanity of the other and recognize each other’s human, civil, religious and political rights. Once we recognize our common humanity and rights, peace with justice becomes a reality.
There’s a lot one can say about biblical and theological value of Jerusalem for Christians but I am going to have to limit myself to a short period of time, which means that I cannot be as comprehensive as I would like to be. I can only point you to a few key issues.
It’s necessary to say at the outset that Christianity arose from Judaism. Jesus himself was Jew as well all his disciples. If there is one thing I’ve learned from two-years of coordinating a dialogue table between leaders of mainstream Jewish organizations and leaders of mainstream Christian denominations is the primacy of land to Jewish theological self understanding. Christians and Jews in the United States have worked together at many issues from civil and human rights to issues of peace and justice. We’ve struggled together to keep church/synagogue/mosque separate from the state. Given that history, Christians around that table, including some who have spent years of study of Jewish scripture and tradition, puzzle over the need for our Jewish friends to have a self-consciously “Jewish” state in Israel with Jerusalem as its capital. While we recognize that this tradition that is rooted in the land was also the self understanding of early Christians, what marks the Christian ambiguity towards the land is a “de-territorializing” tendency that has its roots in the New Testament. In other words even though we think of that piece of land as “Holy Land,” from its early days Christian theology moved towards dissolving spatially localized notions of the “Holy.” It is not the temple and the Holy of Holies that is at the center, but Christ; it is not the Holy city or land that constitute the area of holiness, but the new community, the Body of Christ.
It all starts with Jesus. The first thing we need to notice is that that Jesus was primarily concerned with the Kingdom or Rule of God. There is considerable agreement that Jesus was not about to overthrow the Roman government and set up an alternative territorial, political entity in Jerusalem. Rather, the way he went about inaugurating the Kingdom was by getting together a community of twelve disciples. He was clearly concerned with his own people. But that concern was not so much with the house of Israel, whose leaders were subject to his growing criticism, but with the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” It seems clear that his attempt was to create a new, alternative community of the People of God. This was the meaning of gathering twelve (the number of tribes in nation of Israel).
Jerusalem was important to Jesus. The synoptic, (first three) gospels have him traveling from Galilee in the North to Jerusalem where he taught, preached and healed, but more interestingly led a grand demonstration on the city riding on a donkey. But notice: upon his entry into Jerusalem it was the temple that he cleansed – indicating that his challenge was indeed a religious one. His prediction of the fall of the temple points to the need to replace it not by a new political policy, but by a new way of religion and a new community to embody it. So, by investing in and mentoring this group of disciples he worked at creating a community, that would live by the values of God’s kingdom which he elaborated in contra-distinction to the Jewish law, and as a more inclusive and universal reality. It was a community that would be governed by selfless service and would stand in sharp contrast to those existing national political entities.
Jerusalem is the place where Jesus’ life and ministry reaches its climax. It is the city where he was captured, and outside its walls he was crucified. It is easy to expect that when this catastrophe occurred, the community of disciples would scatter and nothing more would be heard from them. But something unexpected happened. In the disciple community’s words, Jesus resurrected, walked and talked with them, indeed ate with them and in 40 days ascended into heaven. And on the feast of Pentecost when the disciple community had gathered in the Jerusalem temple, the Holy Spirit came upon them and they became energized and empowered to boldly speak the gospel or the good news: that this Jesus saves.
That day 3000 people came and joined with that original community of disciples in Jerusalem and the church was born. And it was from this city and this original church that the church spread out as the book of Acts says, “from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria to the utmost parts of the world.” The last chapter of the book has these words, “And so we came to Rome,” as if to say, that was the point of this entire story. Indeed, by the end of the book, the church had moved its center of gravity from Jerusalem to Rome (the center of the world).
Much of the New Testament contains the letters of the Apostle Paul to the churches he established around the then known world, particularly in the Jewish diaspora. With the development of the synagogue tradition, the value of temple worship, and therefore of Jerusalem was waning for the diasporic communities. Perhaps building on this sentiment, and, I believe, wanting to put some theological distance between the tradition of his birth and his new articulation of faith, his writings push the church towards a self understanding that’s more universalizing. For instance, for Paul, this new community in Christ is the New Israel. He is very clear that God has not revoked his covenant with the Jewish people, but insists that what we have here is a new universal community.
This universalizing trend continues in the Fourth gospel as well, perhaps the best known in the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4. The woman, realizing that Jesus must be a Jewish prophet, asks him a question that had been bugging her, possibly a question that may have been bugging John’s readers as well – at least a question that John wanted his readers to be bugged by. Here’s the quote:
The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say (i.e. Jewish religious leaders) that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem. Jesus said to her, “Woman believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”
It is easy to notice the displacement of both Gerazim and Jerusalem as being “holy places” appropriate for worship. What matters now is the spirit and the presence of Jesus.
Now you might notice that this is not just a universalizing tendency, but a spiritualizing one. In order to worship one does not need a place on terra firma, but spirit and truth and the worshipping community.
This tendency reaches its zenith in the book of Revelation. And here we see that New Testament theology takes us from a place of concrete reality to sophisticated theological imagination. Listen to these words from the last two chapters of the Bible.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “see the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And then it goes on to describe this new Jerusalem: "Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the city. On either side of the river, is the tree of life, with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations."

Some of the real high points of Christian theological thinking are closely aligned with this theological imagination. Martin Luther King, Jr. for instance, was deeply moved by the image of the New Jerusalem. The hymns of Zion which are favorites in the African American Christian tradition help people to sing out this faith. But there was a problem with that too. Too often that dream was located in the “sweet by and by.” Martin King wanted to bring that New Jerusalem down to earth. Here’s what he said, in what was to be his last sermon, preached in Memphis the day before he was shot dead.
"It's all right to talk about 'long white robes over yonder,' in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It's all right to talk about 'streets flowing with milk and honey,' but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preachers must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.

But there are many low points. Despite what I wanted to show in this quick survey it is also the case that in the ebbs and flows of history, Christians have had a real love affair with the terrestrial Jerusalem. How can we not talk about the crusades. King Abdullah’s point is valid here as well. Extremism tends to manipulate religion to achieve its ignoble ends. And religion with all its divisions often capitulates. I don’t have the time to say much about this. And I hope it is sufficient to acknowledge that the church was intimately involved in organizing and often motivating the crusaders, in its attempt to gain control of terrestrial Jerusalem.
Now in recent times, some Christians have begun another love affair with the terrestrial Jerusalem. Motivated by a particular apocalyptic theology which arose in England the 19th century, it was popularized here in the 1970s by Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth a book that became was the decade’s best selling non-fiction book. And then you may know about the current sensation, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind series: twelve books that have sold over 60 million copies. Although this is presented as fiction, many Christian readers understand the story as prophetic. The details vary, but most accounts feature the rapture of believers. This is why you have seen the bumper sticker: In case of rapture this car will be unmanned. Someone asked me if that means that rapture is what happens on the backseat of a parked car! No, it means that one day Jesus will come in the clouds and believers will be suddenly taken up to the sky where they will have front-row seats to the tribulation that is to follow for a 1000 years. At the end of the tribulation Jesus will come and there will be huge battle in the field of Megiddo, in Israel, hence the word Armageddon. At this time Jews will convert to Christianity and those who do not will be killed, when Jesus establishes his kingdom. I don’t know about you, I think this stuff is scary!
Here’s how this theology plays itself out. A recent headline in the Jerusalem Post announced: Evangelicals to Launch Christian AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee). Pastor John Hagee of San Antonio, TX will call a group called Christian United for Israel. Because of the theology that connects with terrestrial Jerusalem, CUFI will support Israel unilaterally. The article says, CUFI intends to "interact with the government in Washington" and persuade it "to stop pressuring Israel to give up land for peace. Besides the fact that this does not work, Israel has a Bible mandate for the land.” CUFI will also support moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, this in keeping with “the Bible issue” says Hagee, not Israeli politics.
I hope you understand that from time to time in history, Christians tend to get infatuated with terrestrial Jerusalem, and when that happens we all need to watch out. When we begin speaking through our theological imagination of the de-territorialized, or heavenly or New Jerusalem, we all ought to join in.
One final note: Despite all of that, our connection with the territorial Jerusalem is really our sisters and brothers who have lived there a long time, and live there today. Today, I received an email letter from Bishop Munib Younan, the Lutheran Bishop of the Holy Land and Jordan. We writes in the context of the turmoil over the cartoon controversy, like King Abdullah, calling all us Muslims, Jews and Christians to re-assess our attitudes and actions, and to ask ourselves how we can transform this global volatile hostility into a world-wide willingness to seek common values of mutual respect and care for our neighbor. At the end of his long letter he offers this challenge and I think from Jerusalem, he speaks to all of us:
"People of faith and courage, it is time we stand up and lead the way back to 'the public commons' and civil discourse that values and builds community. We as Christians believe that we are all one, united in the Body of Christ, and that when one part of the body suffers, we all suffer. As humans, we are also one united global family, and it is time to realize that what hurts one part of that family hurts us all. From Jerusalem, we challenge Muslim and Christian leaders to gather here in the Middle East, over the chasm of the supposed "clash of civilizations," to meet and create a code of ethics and conduct by which religions and nations should treat one another and deal with religious differences. From Jerusalem, we pledge to take on this urgent task of making religion a driving force for reconciliation and justice, part of the solution to our world's problems rather than a source of conflict. If people of faith and living conscience do not stand up and call our religions and our people back to the common values and commitments of love, justice, peace, mutual respect – even forgiveness - who will?"

And that’s a Christian leader from the terrestrial Jerusalem speaking out of the values of the celestial holy city, of which I believe all people of faith, courage and hope are a part.


At 8:28 PM, Blogger Rose Austin said...

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At 6:53 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

I wish I could've been involved in this. Do you think that a perspective on atheism would be welcomed next time?


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