In his semi-autobiographical novel Life with Father, Clarence Day writes of having to memorize the Twenty Third Psalm when he was a child. His mother had given him a number of Bibles to help with this task. He writes:
|Rev. Mark Schaefer|
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
November 3, 2013
Psalm 128; Romans 11:16-24
I got out another Bible that Mother had lent me. This one was in French, and it sometimes shocked me deeply to read it. As my belief was that when God had created the world He had said, “Let there be light,” it seemed to me highly irreverent to put French words in His mouth and have Him exclaim, “Que la lumière soit!” Imagine the Lord talking French! Aside from a few odd words in Hebrew, I took it completely for granted that God had never spoken anything but the most dignified English.1http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0608341h.html#c15
It’s fair to say that while not many people would seriously believe that God spoke only in English, or that Jesus and the Apostles were English speakers, there is a sense sometimes that Christianity is in English. Or if not in English then definitely in one of the respectable languages like Latin or Greek. And even when we should know better, we don’t always act like we know better.
For in the West we tend to act as if Christianity were a decidedly Western phenomenon. Oh, sure, it may have gotten its start somewhere in the Middle East (all the religions do, you know) but it really took root in Europe and from there was spread to the Americas. In America, Christianity became about America, such that the early Pilgrims even thought of New England (and then the rest of the country) as a “New Canaan”, a new Promised Land in which God would work his purposes. Mormonism, a locally grown offshoot of Christianity, teaches that the Garden of Eden had been in Missouri and that Jesus visited North America after his resurrection and revealed himself to the inhabitants of the continent then. Some Evangelicals have interpreted the book of Revelation as predicting the destruction of the United States because they are perplexed by the book’s omission of any mention of America in its verses.
But even apart from the odd religious expression, there is definitely a sense that Christianity is primarily a Western phenomenon. The whole idea of the “clash of civilizations” (based on Samuel Huntington’s book, among others) is that there is a Western Christian civilization that will clash with Eastern Asian civilizations or Middle Eastern Islamic civilization. It is also fair to say that Huntington did not invent this idea—it has existed in some form or other in the West for a while. (For those of you who are Lord of the Rings fans, take a map of Middle Earth and superimpose it over Europe and you’ll see that Mordor is basically Turkey and the evil Easterlings and Southrons are basically from the Far and Middle East whereas the good guys are all from the ‘West’.) In many people’s minds, Christianity and ‘the West’ have been conflated. And even those Christians that people can think of in other places, like Africa or Korea, are usually the result of Western missionaries at work in those places.
I remember once seeing a photograph of a rally in Jerusalem by a group of Israelis claiming that Jerusalem was eternally ever and only a Jewish city. One of the protestors was holding a sign that read “Muslims have Mecca, Christians have Rome, Jerusalem is ours.”
That really hit me—Christians have Rome? Now, part of my reaction to that might have something to do with the fact that I am not a Roman Catholic and do not feel that Rome is in any way my spiritual center. I don’t feel that way about Epworth Parish or Aldersgate Street or Baltimore, Maryland either for that matter and all those places are much more closely tied to Methodism. But also, everyone knows that Jerusalem is claimed by all three Abrahamic religions. Long before Muslims prayed in the direction of Mecca, they, the prophet Muhammad included, prayed in the direction of Jerusalem. Christianity got its start in an upper room in Jerusalem. But the more I have thought about it, all this sentiment about Rome is doing is reflecting in words an unspoken sentiment that Christianity belongs in the West. It may have had its origins in Galilee and Judea, but it is now primarily a Western phenomenon. And it is not simply the opinion of some random protestor in Jerusalem; there are a fair number of Christians who believe the same thing.
II. THE ANCIENT CHURCH
Prior to his Ascension, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” and he replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:6–8 CEB)
The center of the action for the early church began in Jerusalem and radiated out into all the world. In fact, the church in Jerusalem was the center of the church in the first century. In the Book of Acts, it is reported that some teachers came from Judea to Antioch teaching that gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be saved. And we are told: “The church at Antioch appointed Paul, Barnabas, and several others from Antioch to go up to Jerusalem to set this question before the apostles and the elders.” (Acts 15:2 CEB) That is, the Jerusalem church was the Vatican of the ancient church. It was the place where important questions were asked and where authority was resident. According to tradition, the Jerusalem church was led by James, Jesus’ brother.
Other centers arose in the region: the church at Antioch was an important Christian community, rivaled only by the church that would be established in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. But for the ancient church, Jerusalem was the epicenter of everything that was happening.
It was only after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans during the Jewish Revolt in AD 70 that that landscape shifted, as many of the city’s Christians fled to nearby Pella and would not reestablish a Jerusalem center until the second century.
But the real shift began later.
As Christianity spread across the Mediterranean world, it gravitated toward the metropolitan centers of the ancient Roman world and eventually Christian communities were throughout the Empire. But when the Emperor Constantine legalized Christian faith and allowed its practice throughout the empire, the center of gravity began to shift from the East to the West. The five holy sees of the ancient world were Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and the new city of Constantinople. But while Alexandria and Antioch remained major centers of theology and teaching, honor and prestige began to shift toward Rome and Constantinople. Eventually, the church in Rome began to assert not only that it was foremost in honor, but also in authority, and the bishop of Rome claimed authority over his fellow patriarchs in the other holy sees.
But the Christian world was a lot more complex than is generally assumed. In his fantastic book The Lost History of Christianity, John Philip Jenkins describes a thousand year history of the churches of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia that stretched from Morocco to China.2https://www.amazon.com/dp/0061472816/ In so doing, he describes a Christian church, the majority of which was non-European. But the changing fortunes of the world and its religious landscape changed that reality and the perception of it among Christians.
By the end of the eighth century, the churches of Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch had been subsumed within the borders of the expanding Islamic empire. After the schism between east and west occurred in 1054, Western Christianity became centered exclusively around Rome. Curiously, even when Western powers sought to liberate the Holy Land from Muslim control during the Crusades, they did so not for the sake of the Christians living there, but for the sake of Western pilgrims who felt they couldn’t reach their pilgrimage sites any more. What’s more, when they established a crusader state, it was called the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. It was never about indigenous Christianity, but about the projection of Western Christian power.
Centuries later, when Constantinople fell to the Seljuk Turks in 1463, the other major European center of the church found itself in the bounds of the Islamic world. From that point on, Western Christianity seemed to focus exclusively on itself and while perhaps some acknowledgement of Orthodox Christians in Russia and Eastern Europe was made, for most European Christians, the Holy Land and Middle East were the domains of “Turks and infidels.”
And while the characterization of the residents of the Middle East may have changed somewhat, it has remained a fact that most Christians in the West think first and foremost of the West when it comes to their fellow Christians. They imagine that the West—particularly America—has a special role to play in the advancement of Christianity and therefore will send missionaries into areas to bring a particularly Western brand of Christianity. And memory and communion with the Christians of the region has been altogether lost.
IV. CHRISTIANS OF THE HOLY LAND AND MIDDLE EAST
But contrary to most people’s assumptions, there are still many, many Christians in the Holy Land and Middle East. At last count there are about 20 million Christians in the region comprising Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria.3http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_by_country Twenty million. More people than there are in the State of New York. Almost as many Christians in the Middle East as there are in Canada. And each represents and important part of our Christian family and is worthy of our care and concern.
The largest Christian community is in Egypt with numbers nearing 8 million. Egypt was an ancient center of the Christian church with a vital center in Alexandria, a church according to tradition founded by St. Mark. The Coptic Christian church of Egypt still uses Coptic—the original Egyptian language—as its language of liturgy and prayer. It has roots that go deep in the history of our common church.
In the wake of the upheaval of the Arab Spring and the recent coup against Mohammed Morsi, Coptic Christians have come under attack by Islamist forces or others believing that the Coptic community was responsible in helping to orchestrate the overthrow of Morsi.4 http://www.persecution.org/2013/10/27/senators-condemn-violence-against-egyptian-christians-call-on-us-to-respond/ Observers are becoming increasingly concerned about the fate of the Coptic community in Egypt.
The country of Lebanon has the largest percentage of Christians of all the countries of the Middle East, around 39% with 1.5 million Christians. The church in Lebanon traces its existence all the way back to Jesus’ visit to the region of Tyre and Sidon and some even believe that the first Lebanese Christians were the Phoenicians that were evangelized by St. Peter himself.
The Christians of Lebanon are predominantly Maronite Christians, affiliated with the Catholic Church but using a liturgy that is in Syriac Aramaic and Arabic. There are also Nestorian Assyrian Orthodox Christians and Syrian Orthodox Christians in Lebanon as well.
The country has a delicate sectarian balance with a power sharing agreement wherein the President is always a Maronite and the Prime Minister is always a Sunni Muslim. But as Lebanon has become from time to time a battlefield in a proxy war between Hezbollah as proxy for Shi’ite Iran or Syria, and various Christian militias (usually as proxy for Israel), the Christian community has often been involved in sectarian violence and strife.
There are under a million Christians in Iraq, in some of the oldest Christian communities in the world. The majority of them are Aramaic speaking Assyrian Christians. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent destabilization of the country, there were increasing reports of violence and abductions of Christians. According to some reports, nearly half of Iraq’s Christians have fled the country since the sectarian violence began.5http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_in_Iraq#Post-war_situation Oftentimes, Christians in the East, suffer because of their perceived ties to Christians in the West, and Christians in the West are seen by many, especially the extremists, as invaders and crusaders.6“The Forgotten Faithful: Arab Christians,” National Geographic, Vol. 215, No. 6, June 2009, p. 86.
Syria is home to the second largest Christian population of the region, some 2.25 million Christians, making up 10% of the Syrian population. These communities are also among the most ancient Christian communities, with the Church in Damascus being among those evangelized by the Apostles themselves. The churches of Syria have been a part of Christian civilization from the earliest days. There is a fair amount of religious diversity within the Syrian Christian community including autonomous Orthodox churches, Uniate Catholic Churches, the Assyrian Church of the East (the Nestorian Church), and a smattering of Western denominations.7http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_in_Syria The Syrian Christian population has historically been integrated into broader Syrian life, although Christians tend to be more urbanized than the Muslim populations and gravitate toward city centers.
The recent conflict in Syria has upset the religious balance in that country where Christians, as a religious minority, are often seen as sympathetic to the Assad regime as the secular government had provided them the most protection. As a result, a number of Christians have been targeted, including some bishops who have been kidnapped or murdered, and Aleppo, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, has been a target of heavy violence. And so the conflict has provided opportunity for extremist elements to attempt to sow division in Syria by attacking Syria’s Christians.8http://www.persecution.org/2013/11/01/50782/
And then there are the Christians of the land in which Jesus was born, lived, taught, suffered, died, and was raised again. The Christians of the Holy Land are the oldest Christian communities and date their origins to the most ancient church. In Israel and Palestine, there are about 200,000 Christians, making up 11% of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and about 10% of the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Most of the Arab Christian population fled after the 1948 Israeli War of Independence and the percentage of Christians among the Palestinian population of Israel has shrunk from 50% to 10%. Under Israel’s constitution, religious freedom is respected, but Christians, along with Muslim Palestinian citizens of the State of Israel often face challenges in terms of access to housing and other societal benefits. In addition, those who fled their homes in 1948 are unable to return to those same homes.
Unlike Christians of other countries, Christians of Israel and Palestine have not experienced systemic state-sponsored (or state ignored) violence. One Palestinian Christian leader has even said that violence against Christians is usually the work of “hoodlums” or small gangs rather than the Fatah or Hamas governments.9http://fr.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1239710889374 The US State Department report has said that while both the Israeli Government and Palestinian Authority often give preferential treatment to Jews and Muslims respectively in terms of social services, generally Muslim and Christian relations are good and may even be better than the “strained” relations between Jews and non-Jews.10http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2006/71423.htm#occterr
However, Christians have not been completely without peril. A Baptist bookstore manager in the Gaza Strip was murdered by Muslim extremists who considered him to be engaged in missionary activity. And increasingly, Christians churches and property have come under attack by Israeli settlers engaging what are called “Price Tag” attacks, vandalizing property in an effort to exact a cost for any attempt by the Israeli government to curb settlement in the Occupied West Bank. In one incident, defamatory statements about Jesus and statements of “Death to Christianity” were spray painted on the church.11http://mobile.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE81J0CU20120220?irpc=932, see also, http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/iEngage-The-price-we-pay-for-ignorance-315750 While acts of settler violence are not state-sponsored, many in the West Bank see this as an ongoing trend of settler intimidation that is unchecked by the security forces.
At the same time, there are increasing restrictions on movement that are state sponsored and that affect the lives of Christians. The city of Bethlehem, which has a large Christian population, is increasingly isolated from the rest of the West Bank by Israeli checkpoints and security barriers. Furthermore, it has become incredibly difficult for Palestinians who do not possess a Jerusalem ID to enter Jerusalem, which affects the ability of thousands of Christians to observe Good Friday and Easter. And last spring on Holy Saturday, security forces at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher prevented a number of worshipers, including many of the leaders of the Church, from entering.12http://mondoweiss.net/2013/05/holdchristians-manhandling-apologizes.html In that event, worshipers and leaders of the church were treated with violence at the hands of security forces, such that thirteen heads of the various churches of Jerusalem issued a statement decrying the heavy-handed security presence that prevented worshipers from entering the church.13http://en.lpj.org/2013/05/13/a-statement-concerning-the-israeli-police-measures-on-holy-saturday/ And perhaps because the conflict has escalated to the point of an existential crisis for some, Christians are sometimes seen as a threat to Israel’s Jewish character. The town of Upper Nazareth has banned Christmas trees from display in that town, despite a sizable Arab Christian population there, and the city’s mayor has stated that they will remain banned so long as he is mayor.14http://news.yahoo.com/christmas-trees-still-banned-nazareth-illit-214353673.html; see, also http://www.jonathan-cook.net/2012-12-24/the-terror-lurking-in-a-christmas-tree/
For the Christians of the Holy Land, ordinary Christian life has often become a burden, and the shrinking numbers—from 13% of the population of the Holy Land a century ago to 2% today—reflect a community feeling squeezed and unsupported. Caught between Jews, Muslims, and increasingly, Western Christians.
You would think that as members of the world’s most populous religion, with two billion adherents, the Christians of the Holy Land would have ready allies throughout the world, especially in the West. But in a curious paradox, many of the most vocal Christians when it comes to the Middle East seem to all but ignore the Christians resident there. The same leaders who are often incensed because Wal-Mart won’t wish you a “Merry Christmas” at the door are seemingly oblivious to the real world difficulties faced by their fellow Christians in the Holy Land.
In fact, some Christian groups have been a proponent of something known as “Christian Zionism,” which believes that because God promised the land to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the duty of the Christian is to ensure that the Jewish people have full possession of the land of biblical Israel (which, by the way, would include not just all the West Bank but substantial portions of modern-day Jordan and Syria as well). In addition, it is generally believed in these circles that doing so will hasten the return of Jesus and the Apocalypse. Leaving aside the shoddy Biblical interpretation (and the bizarre goal of getting all the Jews back to Israel so that they can either convert or die when Jesus comes back), the bigger problem is that in all of this it ignores the indigenous Christian church of the land. They hold huge conferences and invite all kinds of political leaders from Israel but do not hear the voice of a single Christian who lives in the territories they are discussing. In this, they share the perspective of the Crusaders who “look right through [Palestinian Christians] as they race past to stake their claim on God’s holy ground.”15“The Forgotten Faithful: Arab Christians,” National Geographic, Vol. 215, No. 6, June 2009, p. 95.
How can Christians be so single-minded in some plan for the End Times as to ignore fellow Christians who are in the here and now? I am all about building better relationships between Christians and Jews, indeed a fair amount of my career has been spent doing precisely that. The rapprochement between Christianity and Judaism over the last several decades was long overdue. But it is a poor imagination that can conceive of a way to bring Jews and Christians closer together only at the expense of one’s fellow Christians.
V. THE ROOT OF THE OLIVE TREE
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he engages in a long reflection on the righteousness of God, particularly as it relates to the place the Jewish people will have in God’s salvation. After ten chapters of wrestling with the issue, Paul uses the metaphor of an olive tree to discussion the relationship between the children of Israel (the cultivated olive tree) and the gentiles who have come to faith in Christ (a wild branch grafted in):
If some of the branches were broken off, and you were a wild olive branch, and you were grafted in among the other branches and shared the root that produces the rich oil of the olive tree, then don’t brag like you’re better than the other branches. If you do brag, be careful: it’s not you that sustains the root, but it’s the root that sustains you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Fine. They were broken off because they weren’t faithful, but you stand only by your faithfulness. So don’t think in a proud way; instead be afraid. If God didn’t spare the natural branches, he won’t spare you either.Romans 11:17–21
In this passage, Paul notes that God can graft any branches that had been cut off back into the tree and that the Israelites are the “root that produces the rich oil of the olive tree.” It is a reminder for Gentile Christians not to imagine that they have wound up in any better circumstance than non-believing Jews. And this passage sits among a remarkable three chapters that have shaped much of the modern conversation between Christians and Jews.
But the same lesson applies to those of us in Western Christianity: we are the wild branches grafted onto the tree of the churches of the Holy Land and Middle East. The churches of the Holy Land and Middle East are the root of the entire Christian church: it was in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt that the apostles preached and taught. It was there that the foundations of Christian faith were developed and established. It was there that the core teachings of the faith were articulated and shared. It was in those Aramaic-speaking communities of ancient Palestine that the seeds that Jesus sowed were planted first in the soil and first took root.
We in the West, having come up in traditions shaped by Greek culture, or Latin scholasticism, or German reformationism, or English middle-of-the-road theology, or American pragmatism, are the wild olive branches grafted onto the cultivated tree of the Ancient Church. We allow that root to wither at our peril.
Today is All Saints/All Souls Sunday, when we remember our connectedness to all saints, all Christians living or dead, everywhere in the world. Right now, there are Christians in the cradle of the Christian faith who are in need. They are in need of our help, in need of our prayers, in need of our advocacy, in need of our support. And most of all, in need of our solidarity.
It’s good to remind ourselves that the Bible was not written in English. That Jesus and the disciples were not all blond haired, blue eyed white guys. And it is good to be reminded that God’s story, the Church’s story, is larger than the communities of the West. We have brothers and sisters throughout the world.
And they might have something to teach us as well. They might have something to teach us about maintaining a tradition that goes all the way back to the very beginning. A tradition that speaks not in the most “dignified English” but with a decidedly Semitic accent. A tradition that has lived in a minority Christian context for a long time and understood faith that does not automatically come with power and privilege attached. And they might have something to tell us about a witness that transcends our common cultural assumptions.
When we reclaim our relationship with the churches of the Holy Land and the Middle East, we nurture the root of the olive tree onto which we have been grafted. In so doing, we are reminded that it is not we who sustain the root, but the root that sustains us. And in so doing, we keep faith with one another as one universal church and ensure that the rich oil of the olive tree continues to be shared with all the world.
A pilgrimage song.
Everyone who honors the LORD, who walks in God’s ways, is truly happy!
You will definitely enjoy what you’ve worked hard for— you’ll be happy; and things will go well for you. In your house, your wife will be like a vine full of fruit. All around your table, your children will be like olive trees, freshly planted. That’s how it goes for anyone who honors the LORD: they will be blessed!
May the LORD bless you from Zion. May you experience Jerusalem’s goodness your whole life long. And may you see your grandchildren. Peace be on Israel!
But if part of a batch of dough is offered to God as holy, the whole batch of dough is holy too. If a root is holy, the branches will be holy too. If some of the branches were broken off, and you were a wild olive branch, and you were grafted in among the other branches and shared the root that produces the rich oil of the olive tree, then don’t brag like you’re better than the other branches. If you do brag, be careful: it’s not you that sustains the root, but it’s the root that sustains you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Fine. They were broken off because they weren’t faithful, but you stand only by your faithfulness. So don’t think in a proud way; instead be afraid. If God didn’t spare the natural branches, he won’t spare you either. So look at God’s kindness and harshness. It’s harshness toward those who fell, but it’s God’s kindness for you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise, you could be cut off too. And even those who were cut off will be grafted back in if they don’t continue to be unfaithful, because God is able to graft them in again. If you were naturally part of a wild olive tree and you were cut off from it, and then, contrary to nature, you were grafted into the cultivated olive tree, won’t these natural branches stand an even better chance of being grafted back onto their own olive tree?