Commentary Magazine


Topic: Christianity

Who Will Listen to Pope’s Call on Middle East Christians?

During his three day visit to Turkey, Pope Francis joined with the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I to offer some words of solidarity with the Middle East’s fast vanishing Christian communities. The sentiments expressed here were valuable, not least because in their joint statement the two Christian leaders called for “an appropriate response on the part of the international community.” Yet one only has to look at the comments by Turkey’s president Erdogan to see just what they are up against.

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During his three day visit to Turkey, Pope Francis joined with the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I to offer some words of solidarity with the Middle East’s fast vanishing Christian communities. The sentiments expressed here were valuable, not least because in their joint statement the two Christian leaders called for “an appropriate response on the part of the international community.” Yet one only has to look at the comments by Turkey’s president Erdogan to see just what they are up against.

The Pope’s comments no doubt went some considerable way toward adding moral clarity to this matter, while President Erdogan—in previous statements—has already been busily muddying the waters. So while on his flight back to Rome the Pope called for Islamic leaders to condemn terrorism and specifically linked the plight of the Middle East’s Christians to the rise of ISIS, Erdogan breathtakingly blamed the rise of ISIS on alleged Islamophobia in the West–a demonstrably absurd claim that was no doubt in part a desperate attempt to divert attention away from Christian suffering and to instead reframe the conversation around Muslim victimhood and the wickedness of the West.

For a sense of just how outlandish the Turkish president’s rhetoric on the subject has now become, in his speech just prior to the pope’s arrival Erdogan stated “Foreigners love oil, gold, diamonds and the cheap labour force of the Islamic world. They like the conflicts, fights and quarrels of the Middle East. Believe me, they don’t like us. They look like friends, but they want us dead, they like seeing our children die.” It is worth noting that Turkey’s own Christian population has diminished considerably. A century ago 20 percent of those living in what is now Turkey were Christian; today that figure stands at a pitiful 0.2 percent. The Greek Orthodox population has been whittled down to fewer than 3,000 while what remains of the Armenian Christian community lives in almost constant fear. Just a few years back Hrant Dink–editor of a leading Armenian newspaper—was murdered by Turkish nationalists.

An unrepentant Erdogan can blame an Islamophobic West for the rise of ISIS all he wants, but his country stands accused of allowing ISIS fighters to flow freely into Iraq and Syria where they have carried out the most unspeakable crimes of murder, rape, and torture against the Christian communities that they find in their path. Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew spoke of how unacceptable they find the prospect of a Middle East free of its native Christianity. And yet, if no one is willing to intervene seriously in the region, then that is precisely what is going to happen.

Knowing this, one has to wonder why Christian leaders have so far failed to create a serious campaign to pressure Western governments to back serious intervention on humanitarian grounds. After all, in the 1990s the West—led by the United States—intervened in Bosnia to stop the massacre of the Muslim population of the Balkans and thus prevent a genocide on Europe’s doorstep that most of Western Europe appeared ready to sit back and let happen. Shouldn’t Christians now be demanding the same kind of meaningful intervention on their behalf?

Christian groups have in recent years campaigned for all kinds of people and causes all around the world. Perhaps it is in some way an expression of the Christian virtue of selflessness that churches have promoted other causes over the welfare of their own coreligionists in the Middle East. Yet it is particularly striking how the denominations at the liberal end of Protestantism have so enthusiastically taken up the campaign against Israel, while almost ignoring the plight of Christians in the same region. From the American Presbyterians and the British Methodists with their boycotts to the annual “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference, it’s the same story. And then there is the Church of England’s flagship St. James’s church in London which, as Melanie Phillips recounted in COMMENTARY earlier this year, previously marked the Christmas festivities with their “Bethlehem Unwrapped” campaign featuring a nine meter high replica of Israel’s security barrier.

This Christmas can we expect to see “ISIS Unwrapped” at St. James’s? Of course not, just more events about the Palestinians. If these denominations focused even half the energy they put into demonizing Israel into instead campaigning in solidarity with Christians in the Middle East then we might see this issue receiving the kind of public attention it deserves. It was of course the former head of the Anglican Church, Rowan Williams, who insinuated that the West was to blame for provoking the persecution of the Middle East’s Christians. And so while it is encouraging that the Pope has decried what ISIS is doing to Christian communities, one wonders how many Christians in the West will actually be more sympathetic to Erdogan’s claim that the real culprit here is Western Islamophobia for having “made ISIS do it” in the first place.

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Christians and the Loss of Cultural Influence

In an interview with Ken Myers, host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, the theologian N.T. Wright spoke about the importance of narrative in understanding Scripture and the ways of God.

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In an interview with Ken Myers, host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, the theologian N.T. Wright spoke about the importance of narrative in understanding Scripture and the ways of God.

What Wright emphasizes is the eschatological message that God is doing something in history; that the Jewish and Christian faiths aren’t simply about moral laws, abstract concepts, and disconnected canonical books but are rather about a grand story starting in Genesis and moving forward, “a project going somewhere,” in Wright’s words.

The story has a beginning, soon followed by disaster, which is followed by God’s effort to transform and renew the world, to redeem it and to make things right and whole. (Obviously the Jewish and Christian faiths, while sharing a common origin, differ in how they eventually unfold.)

I was reflecting on this insight, this important reminder, on both a macro and a micro level. The macro level has to do with the situation of Christianity in America today, as the dominant culture moves further and further away from traditional Christian beliefs, particularly in the area of sexual ethics. This is causing tremendous fear, uncertainty, and anxiety among many people of faith. They are struggling with how to deal with this loss of cultural influence. Christians are not all that familiar with being a minority faith, at least not in America. Yet in some important respects, that is what’s occurring. The reaction among some is to push back even harder, to tighten their grip during what they perceive as a tipping point. For others, the reaction is to warn of the impending wrath of God. And for still others, the reaction is resignation and giving way to the temptation to withdraw.

On an individual level, think about when life is marked by shattering experiences: the death of a loved one, a life-threatening illness, a failing marriage, being estranged from your child, a besetting sin, the loss of a job, a life-altering accident. We all know these stories of grief and loss and sadness; we all eventually travel through one valley or another. That is the nature of life in this fallen world. The question is how we process these things, how we make sense of it all. Which brings me back to Tom Wright and the power of narrative.

In my experience, the people who see their lives as part of a great drama tend to be the most liberated of all. That doesn’t mean individual chapters aren’t difficult and painful and confounding. But if you believe that your story has an Author and direction, that there is purpose even in suffering and that brokenness in our lives is ultimately repaired, it allows us to live less out of fear and more out of trust. That is true of us as individuals, and it’s true of us as citizens.

“We used to be the home team,” one person of the Christian faith said to me. “Now we’re the away team.” The challenge facing Christians in America is to remain deeply engaged in public matters even as they hold more lightly to the things of this world; to rest in our faith without becoming passive because of it; to react to the loss of influence not with a clenched fist but with equanimity and calm confidence; and to show how a life of faith can transform lives in ways that are characterized by joy and grace. How all this plays out in individual cases isn’t always clear and certainly isn’t easy. Some circumstances are more challenging than others. But it is something worth aiming for.

Engaging the culture in a very different manner than Christians have–persuading others rather than stridently condemning them–may eventually lead to greater influence. But whether it does or not isn’t really what is most important. Being faithful is. And part of being faithful is knowing that God is present in our midst even now; that anxiety and hysteria are inappropriate for people who are children of the King, as a pastor friend of mine recently told me; and that hope casts out fear.

A story is only as good as its author. It’s worth reminding ourselves from time to time that we have a pretty good one. That, I think, it what N.T. Wright is saying.

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Ted Cruz, IDC, and the Politics of Solidarity

Yesterday, as the controversy over Ted Cruz getting booed off stage at an In Defense of Christians event for his focus on Israel was picking up steam, the nation’s largest Christian pro-Israel organization stepped in to defend Cruz and Israel. They did not mince words. And my initial reaction, as I tweeted last night, was: the Jews need to be in the middle of this intramural food fight like we need a hole in the head. But I’ve since reconsidered somewhat, having seen some productive things come out of this controversy.

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Yesterday, as the controversy over Ted Cruz getting booed off stage at an In Defense of Christians event for his focus on Israel was picking up steam, the nation’s largest Christian pro-Israel organization stepped in to defend Cruz and Israel. They did not mince words. And my initial reaction, as I tweeted last night, was: the Jews need to be in the middle of this intramural food fight like we need a hole in the head. But I’ve since reconsidered somewhat, having seen some productive things come out of this controversy.

My instinctive response was based on the fact that Jews really don’t love being the reason Christians are angry with each other. And that remains true. But the fact that the Jewish state was in the middle of this has revealed some common ground that usually flies under the radar, and deserves more attention.

First, there is the issue of Cruz telling the crowd, which was there to support the oppressed Christians of the Middle East, that Israel was their best friend. Over at the Federalist, Mollie Hemingway takes issue with Cruz’s focus on Israel and David Harsanyi defends it, noting that Israel is the one country in the region where Christians can live safely and practice their faith, and are therefore thriving.

I would only add to Harsanyi’s point that not only is Israel a safe destination for Christians, but Israel is currently actively involved in saving Christians in the region. It is simply a fact that for the oppressed Christians of ISIS strongholds like Syria, Israel is their ally–in practice, not only in theory. It’s not particularly well known, thanks to the tangled politics of Christian Arab groups being supported by Israel. But it’s quite clear now that since this controversy broached the subject, it must be pointed out that Cruz was not merely engaging in hyperbole.

Second, while this issue has become extremely divisive, there might be a silver lining in terms of common ground between Christians and Jews. I have no desire–and more importantly, nothing approaching the knowledge level–to get involved in the intramural theological disputes here. (Though it’s clear that many of those understandably defending their fellow Christians are quite plainly unfamiliar with IDC.)

But one reason Jews have been such steadfast allies to the beleaguered Christians is that they understand exactly what Syrian, Iraqi, and other Christians are going through. And they also understand the need for interfaith help. To Jews, the concept of hakarat hatov is important; the term represents the need to display proper gratitude. And so earlier in the week, the Jerusalem Post reported on the wealthy Canadian Jewish philanthropist who has been dubbed the “Jewish Schindler.” His name is Yank Barry, and he “last week surpassed his goal of helping 1,200 Middle Eastern refugees, Muslim, Christian and Yazidi, from war-torn and oppressive countries, helping them rebuild their lives in Bulgaria.”

He took the number 1,200 from the number of Jews Oskar Schindler saved during the Holocaust. Think of this as the Jewish version of “Lafayette, we are here!” Jews don’t forget those who helped them, of whatever faith. And we have been commanded “you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Don’t forget where you come from or what you’ve been through, in other words.

And there is also something encouraging in the way Christians (on the right, anyway) have responded in fellowship and solidarity with their oppressed brothers and sisters elsewhere, with Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry even calling on American Christians to rethink casting a vote for Cruz. Many of these Christian thinkers and writers are reliably pro-Israel and certainly consistent in their philosophical, political, and ideological outlook. (Gobry is a contributor to COMMENTARY.)

But for some of them this is far more interesting. One clearinghouse of pro-IDC anti-Cruz reaction has been the American Conservative magazine’s website. That’s appropriate, and it’s been quite heartening to watch the magazine’s writers call for putting Christian unity above American politics and to prioritize the fate of Christians in the Middle East.

I say it’s heartening because the magazine’s website has also been an easy place to find accusations of dual loyalty against Jews who express their displeasure with an American politician because of that politician’s perceived lack of understanding and sympathy for the plight of the Jews in the Middle East. Here is the charge leveled against Sheldon Adelson, for example, with the added bonus of saying he purchased Newt Gingrich’s candidacy to turn the Republican presidential candidate into an agent of the Israelis. Here is the site speculating about whether Eric Cantor, who is Jewish, lost his election because he was “Bibi Netanyahu’s congressman.” And of course, the magazine’s founder, Pat Buchanan, is famously of the opinion that pro-Israel Jewish Americans are an Israeli “Fifth Column” in America.

So the discovery that faithful solidarity and American loyalty are not mutually exclusive is a revelation (no pun intended) of common ground to some writers. The controversy surrounding Cruz’s speech might be divisive, but it’s also a reminder that Christian Americans and Jewish Americans are on the same side here.

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If the Yazidis Were Mainstream Muslims, Would the West Still Save Them?

The decision to strike ISIS in Iraq and airlift supplies to save the besieged Yazidis from their Islamist pursuers is the right thing to do. Never was a genocide so easily prevented, and the United States has an obvious stake not just in Iraq’s future and the (relative) stability of the region but in containing, wherever possible, the spread of ISIS terrorism and tyranny. And yet, there is something disquieting in the self-satisfaction and backslapping pride the West is taking in this supposedly most moral of doctrines.

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The decision to strike ISIS in Iraq and airlift supplies to save the besieged Yazidis from their Islamist pursuers is the right thing to do. Never was a genocide so easily prevented, and the United States has an obvious stake not just in Iraq’s future and the (relative) stability of the region but in containing, wherever possible, the spread of ISIS terrorism and tyranny. And yet, there is something disquieting in the self-satisfaction and backslapping pride the West is taking in this supposedly most moral of doctrines.

The support for saving the Yazidis has brought the realist right and the humanitarian-interventionist left to join traditional interventionists in a broad call for action. It’s a heartening coalition, and it’s always encouraging to see what’s left of American realists assert the primacy of moral action, just as it is encouraging to see the remaining interventionist Democrats free themselves from the angry gaze of the antiwar left long enough to take a stand. Nonetheless, the rhetoric coming from some of these quarters, while meant well, does not reflect nearly as well on the Western conscience as it appears.

The Yazidis fit certain qualifications, according to this coalition of the willing. Foremost among them is that they are a persecuted community on the verge of being the victims of genocide. They are an ethnoreligious minority sect in Iraq (and elsewhere) whose theology has traces of Islamic and other influences, often mentioned alongside Zoroastrianism.

But what if they weren’t? What if they were mainstream Muslims indistinguishable from those around them, being persecuted because of a political rivalry gone violent? I think the answer is: the West wouldn’t lift a finger to save them. And this is not something to be proud of. Noninterventionists who support helping the Yazidis are certainly in the right here. But they also seem eager to check a box–to have something on their resume to dispute their characterization as heartless or borderline isolationist.

“I’ve said before, the United States cannot and should not intervene every time there’s a crisis in the world,” President Obama said when announcing the airstrikes. Fair enough, and he described the plight of the Yazidis:

In recent days, Yezidi women, men and children from the area of Sinjar have fled for their lives.  And thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — are now hiding high up on the mountain, with little but the clothes on their backs.  They’re without food, they’re without water.  People are starving.  And children are dying of thirst.  Meanwhile, ISIL forces below have called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yezidi people, which would constitute genocide.  So these innocent families are faced with a horrible choice:  descend the mountain and be slaughtered, or stay and slowly die of thirst and hunger.

Good for the president for going back to Iraq when the situation called for it, and certainly preventing genocide is an admirable, if obvious, red line. But the Yazidis are neither the first nor the last Iraqi minority to find itself in the ISIS crosshairs. “Most analysts agree there’s not a religious or ethnic minority in northern Iraq — Shabaks, Turkmens, Yazidis, Christians — that isn’t in danger,” the Washington Post reported last week. After the establishment of a self-styled ISIS caliphate, the Post went on, “one day in mid-July, Christian homes were marked.” While the Christians were being erased, “militants were hunting Shiite Turkmens, who speak a language that derives from Turkish and, according to Islamic State dogma, are apostates.” And on and on.

There’s another argument being deployed that I’m not particularly fond of. In an otherwise eloquent and forceful column, Ross Douthat writes that the case for action has three elements: “a distinctive obligation, a distinctive (and thus potentially more expansive) evil,” and “a clear strategic plan”:

But in this case, such a plan is visible. We do not need to re-invade or restabilize Iraq to deal ISIS a blow and help its victims, because Kurdistan is already relatively stable, and the line of conflict is relatively clear. And the Kurds themselves, crucially, are a known quantity with a longstanding relationship to the United States — something that wasn’t on offer in Libya or Syria.

Yes, we know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Except the same good guys–the Kurds–and the same bad guys–ISIS–are in Syria too. The borders in this conflict have become essentially meaningless. There are enclaves we’d like to protect, minorities in the line of fire, and savage terrorists all throughout the region.

What’s the message to other groups, especially Sunni or Shiite Muslims, staring into the barrel of a gun? You’re not on the edge of extinction? You’re not being killed with certain kinds of chemical weapons, only other kinds of chemical weapons that aren’t on a random list, plus conventional weapons? You look or sound too much like the other guys for us to figure out who’s who?

We should save the Yazidis. But we should do so because it’s the right call, not because they look and sound distinctive enough for us to tell the difference between them and their enemies.

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Why Grief Can Exist Alongside Hope

Throughout my life I’ve mostly been shielded from dealing with the death of people whom I love. But since the end of last year some very important people in my life have passed away, or now look to be near death.

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Throughout my life I’ve mostly been shielded from dealing with the death of people whom I love. But since the end of last year some very important people in my life have passed away, or now look to be near death.

The fact of death isn’t new to me, of course; but the subject has necessarily become less abstract.

How each person processes such a thing is highly and properly personal. But what I did want to touch on is how a person of faith–in my case the Christian faith–tries to make sense of things.

When I was still sorting through my belief system, there was something about Christianity that drew me to it. It was (among other things) that Christianity made sense of pain, loss, and sorrow in ways that nothing else quite did, at least to me, and in ways that seemed to me most true. That is, it didn’t deny suffering happens; it didn’t promise that good and faithful people wouldn’t suffer; and it didn’t pretend that suffering and the death of those whom we love won’t be searing. Jesus never told us that those things should be minimized in any way. He wept, after all.

And yet even in the midst of valleys and heartache, we believe God is present. The notion that joy and peace can transcend circumstances, that there is a reality beyond our senses and that there are blessings to be found even in mourning, were things that had resonance with me. I came to believe that the Lord can redeem and restore all things, including areas of brokenness. I was captivated, even then, by the thought that our life here on earth is intensely real–we’re not talking about shadows on the walls of caves–but also, in the full scheme of things, momentary. That it’s part of a very meaningful and authentic story, but it’s not the full story, and it’s not the end of the story.

This past weekend I was in the company of someone I’ve written about before, Steve Hayner, who earlier this year was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and whose life on this earth is now likely to be counted in weeks or months. In struggling to find a way to express some of these sentiments, I found myself recalling the movie Shadowlands.

C.S. Lewis, played by Anthony Hopkins, is shattered by the death of his wife, Joy Davidman. Near the end of the movie he’s told he must talk to Douglas, the young son (by another marriage) of Davidman. “I don’t know what to say to him,” Lewis admits.

The next scene is of Lewis and Douglas talking.

“I don’t know why she had to get sick,” a grief-stricken Douglas says.

“No, nor me,” Lewis replies. But you can’t hold on to things, he says; you have to let them go.

“Do you believe in heaven,” Douglas asks Lewis.

“Yes, I do,” Lewis replies. (By this time Lewis’s faith, which had buckled a bit in the aftermath of Joy’s death, has recovered.)

Douglas, who at that point says he doesn’t believe in heaven, tells Lewis, with tears in his eyes, “I sure would like to see her again.”

“Me, too,” Lewis replies. And he and Douglas embrace, weeping.

One can believe, as Lewis wrote in The Last Battle (the last book in his Chronicles of Narnia series), that our lives in this world are only the cover and the title page; that with death we begin “Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

Yet when cancer struck down the person Lewis most loved, he understood that future chapters are not present ones; that covers and title pages matter, too; and that grief, to paraphrase the essayist Chad Walsh, is the price of the knowledge–the knowledge of love and affection, of intimacy and friendship. Those who live in the glow of people’s love eventually live in the shadow of grief. That’s the nature of things in this broken world, and why grief can exist alongside hope.

One final thought struck me in reflecting on this past weekend. Now and again there is in my estimation some confusion within Christianity on the relationship between the eternal and the temporal. They are hardly synonymous; but neither are they inverse or antithetical, which is how they are sometimes cast. Nor is the demarcation between the two quite what we might think. This world is surely a vale of tears. But it can also pre-shadow the glories and joy that awaits us. It is also home to people like Steve and his wife Sharol who are, in the words of St. Paul, “imitators of God.” They offer intimations not of immortality but of divine grace and love.

Death is not the way things were meant to be. But it is, for now, the way things are. That doesn’t make accepting it any easier. But here’s what does: Finding individuals who, in the face of a terrible ordeal, choose to trust God and offer their fears to God; who are dignified and transparent in recounting their journey; and who, when facing the prospect of death, can still say (and mean) that “everyday has always been an opportunity for attentiveness, gratitude, and living into God’s call” and admit to having much less of a desire to “seize the day” and a greater desire to welcome it with all it’s twists and turns, surprises and disappointments, moments of delight and sorrow. To live joyfully and faithfully, come what may.

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Why No One Cares About the Christians of Mosul

No one cares about the Christians of Mosul–or perhaps we should say the Christians formerly of Mosul. The reports in recent days suggest that the last Christians have now fled that city, forced out by Islamist militants who implemented a “convert or die” policy for Iraq’s ancient Christian community. The most assistance they have received thus far is an offer of asylum from France. If they can make it there, that is, since they have faced robbery, torture, and murder as they’ve made their exodus.

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No one cares about the Christians of Mosul–or perhaps we should say the Christians formerly of Mosul. The reports in recent days suggest that the last Christians have now fled that city, forced out by Islamist militants who implemented a “convert or die” policy for Iraq’s ancient Christian community. The most assistance they have received thus far is an offer of asylum from France. If they can make it there, that is, since they have faced robbery, torture, and murder as they’ve made their exodus.

None of this has gone entirely unreported. These events have been allotted some headlines and the kind of procedural news coverage that the persecution of Christians usually elicits. But if the last remnants of Iraq’s beleaguered Christian population were hoping for any real outrage or anguish from the West, then they were setting themselves up for disappointment. Not only has it long been apparent that no one was ever going to take any action on behalf of these people, but as we have seen, Western publics weren’t even going to trouble themselves to get too worked up about these atrocities.

Given the huge demonstrations, United Nations Security Council resolutions, and endless hours of reporting on events in Gaza, one is tempted to say that Iraq’s Christians had the misfortune of not being Palestinian. However, that suggestion would be unfair. The world has also neglected the suffering of thousands of Palestinians murdered and starved by the Assad regime in Syria. It is not being Palestinian that wins the world’s attention; it is the accusation that culpability rests with Israel that really provokes some strength of feeling. If only the Christians fleeing Mosul could somehow frame the Israelis for their plight, then they might stand a chance of seeing their cause championed by a host of tweeting celebrities, UN delegates, far-left radicals, and perhaps even the West’s Muslim immigrant populations who have turned out in huge numbers to passionately demonstrate on behalf of Gaza like they never did for their coreligionists in Syria or Libya.

With reports of how the doors of Christian homes were ominously marked by Islamists so as to streamline this campaign of ethnic cleansing, with incidents of Christians having been crucified–yes, crucified–you might have thought that some of those avid humanitarian activists attending the recent anti-Israel rallies could have at least organized a sub-contingent to highlight the terrible fate of the Iraqi Christians, but no, that might have risked detracting in some way from the anti-Israel political objectives of these protests.

There is always something distasteful about playing the numbers game with such situations. It is, however, the favorite pastime of Israel’s detractors. The body count in Gaza is endlessly wheeled out to justify the preeminent importance that so many attribute to this cause. You can almost feel the most hardline anti-Israel activists willing it upwards so as to better serve their campaign. Undoubtedly that is Hamas’s calculation. Yet if the liberal college kids and left-leaning journalists who refer to these figures as justification for their obsessive focus on the subject were being remotely honest with themselves, then they would have to find some way of explaining the utter disinterest that they have shown events in Iraq and Syria, where the death toll has been surpassing that in Gaza on almost a weekly basis.

The long-suffering Christians of Mosul are perhaps considered by the anti-Israel campaigners with the same suspicion with which they viewed the victims of MH17. When news of that attack broke, the first reaction of prominent British news anchor Jon Snow was to unguardedly tweet out: “Awful danger that the shooting down of flight MH17 will provide cover for an intensification of Israel’s ground war in Gaza.” Those attending demonstrations against Israel’s actions in Gaza essentially made the same complaint, that that incident was being awarded too much media attention. The only reason that they weren’t expressing the same accusation regarding the Iraqi Christians is because those atrocities have only been allotted the most token coverage.

The contrast between the world’s non-reaction to the decimation of Mosul’s once 60,000-strong Christian community and the hysterical hate-fueled frenzy being directed against Israel over the casualties in Gaza reminds us that in the liberal imagination, all human suffering is not considered equal. The determining factor here is not the identity of the victims, but rather who can be framed for the crimes. No one has protested Hamas’s execution of Gazan “collaborators” or the reports of the many Palestinian children killed during the construction of Hamas’s terror tunnels. Every misfiring rocket that kills Gazans is attributed to Israel if at all possible. The only Palestinian casualties that anyone has claimed to be concerned with are those that can be used as ammunition in the war to delegitimize Israel and its right to self-defense.

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Don’t Abet Academia’s Crackdown on Religious Liberty

By far the most strategically canny aspect of liberal institutions’ multifront attack on religious freedom in America has been the (alas, successful) bid to divide and conquer. From within the Jewish world, for example, it’s been sad to watch Jews insist that obvious violations of religious freedom of Catholics shouldn’t concern Jews, because the Democratic White House has not yet come for them.

The latest instance of non-Christian acquiescence in state-sponsored religious bigotry is on the issue of religious groups on public college campuses. The New York Times reports on the trend of religious groups, usually evangelicals, losing their college affiliation for refusing to sign the loyalty oath masquerading as an “anti-discrimination” agreement.

The Times centers the story on Bowdoin College, but notes that the real issue is the California State University’s public system–the largest of its kind in the country–joining the campaign, which Christian students and leaders understandably see as a possible tipping point against them. Like the Constitutional clergy of revolutionary France who took the oath of allegiance to the new secular state, the Times reports that “At most universities that have begun requiring religious groups to sign nondiscrimination policies, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and mainline Protestant groups have agreed, saying they do not discriminate and do not anticipate that the new policies will cause problems.”

Yet it’s easy to understand the evangelical groups’ concern with the extent, though not the spirit, of the oath:

The evangelical groups say they, too, welcome anyone to participate in their activities, including gay men and lesbians, as well as nonbelievers, seekers and adherents of other faiths. But they insist that, in choosing leaders, who often oversee Bible study and prayer services, it is only reasonable that they be allowed to require some basic Christian faith — in most cases, an explicit agreement that Jesus was divine and rose from the dead, and often an implicit expectation that unmarried student leaders, gay or straight, will abstain from sex.

“It would compromise our ability to be who we are as Christians if we can’t hold our leaders to some sort of doctrinal standard,” said Zackary Suhr, 23, who has just graduated from Bowdoin, where he was a leader of the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship.

No kidding! Would a Jewish group be comfortable with a non-Jew leading prayer services? In charge of the group’s Torah study? The evangelical groups do not forbid non-believers from participating in their activities. They simply want their religious practice to be led by members of their religious community. And for this, they are paying the price:

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By far the most strategically canny aspect of liberal institutions’ multifront attack on religious freedom in America has been the (alas, successful) bid to divide and conquer. From within the Jewish world, for example, it’s been sad to watch Jews insist that obvious violations of religious freedom of Catholics shouldn’t concern Jews, because the Democratic White House has not yet come for them.

The latest instance of non-Christian acquiescence in state-sponsored religious bigotry is on the issue of religious groups on public college campuses. The New York Times reports on the trend of religious groups, usually evangelicals, losing their college affiliation for refusing to sign the loyalty oath masquerading as an “anti-discrimination” agreement.

The Times centers the story on Bowdoin College, but notes that the real issue is the California State University’s public system–the largest of its kind in the country–joining the campaign, which Christian students and leaders understandably see as a possible tipping point against them. Like the Constitutional clergy of revolutionary France who took the oath of allegiance to the new secular state, the Times reports that “At most universities that have begun requiring religious groups to sign nondiscrimination policies, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and mainline Protestant groups have agreed, saying they do not discriminate and do not anticipate that the new policies will cause problems.”

Yet it’s easy to understand the evangelical groups’ concern with the extent, though not the spirit, of the oath:

The evangelical groups say they, too, welcome anyone to participate in their activities, including gay men and lesbians, as well as nonbelievers, seekers and adherents of other faiths. But they insist that, in choosing leaders, who often oversee Bible study and prayer services, it is only reasonable that they be allowed to require some basic Christian faith — in most cases, an explicit agreement that Jesus was divine and rose from the dead, and often an implicit expectation that unmarried student leaders, gay or straight, will abstain from sex.

“It would compromise our ability to be who we are as Christians if we can’t hold our leaders to some sort of doctrinal standard,” said Zackary Suhr, 23, who has just graduated from Bowdoin, where he was a leader of the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship.

No kidding! Would a Jewish group be comfortable with a non-Jew leading prayer services? In charge of the group’s Torah study? The evangelical groups do not forbid non-believers from participating in their activities. They simply want their religious practice to be led by members of their religious community. And for this, they are paying the price:

The consequences for evangelical groups that refuse to agree to the nondiscrimination policies, and therefore lose their official standing, vary by campus. The students can still meet informally on campus, but in most cases their groups lose access to student activity fee money as well as first claim to low-cost or free university spaces for meetings and worship; they also lose access to standard on-campus recruiting tools, such as activities fairs and bulletin boards, and may lose the right to use the universities’ names.

“It’s absurd,” said Alec Hill, the president of InterVarsity, a national association of evangelical student groups, including the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship. “The genius of American culture is that we allow voluntary, self-identified organizations to form, and that’s what our student groups are.”

Some institutions, including the University of Florida, the University of Houston, the University of Minnesota and the University of Texas, have opted to exempt religious groups from nondiscrimination policies, according to the Christian Legal Society. But evangelical groups have lost official status at Tufts University, the State University of New York at Buffalo and Rollins College in Florida, among others, and their advocates are worried that Cal State could be a tipping point.

The Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, mainline Protestant, and other non-evangelical groups that have signed this modern-day Civil Constitution of the Clergy probably think they are simply avoiding a fight that doesn’t pertain to them. That’s plain madness, and shameful to boot.

But it’s also counterproductive. When the left-liberal establishment seeks to infringe their own rights, they will have already acceded to this conformist fanaticism and surrendered any right to expect other religious groups to come to their aid. This is particularly careless for the Jewish community, which is such a demographic minority that in such cases they have no strength but in numbers–a lesson they bewilderingly seem intent on unlearning.

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It’s About Christianity, Not the Girls

Commentators from across the political spectrum have chimed in on the horror of Boko Haram’s abduction of more than 300 school girls. And, certainly, the fact that the victims were young school girls has made a difference in the Western world’s interest in the story. But, while #BringBackOurGirls has become a trending hashtag, it may be missing the point.

Reading the speech of Boko Haram leader Abubakr Shekau, it is clear that for him, the target may have been the girls, but the motivation was not simply to prevent girls from receiving education or a desire to attack Western education more broadly, but rather to launch a much broader attack on Christianity.

He begins:

My brethren in Islam, I am greeting you in the name of Allah like he instructed we should among Muslims. Allah is great and has given us privilege and temerity above all people. If we meet infidels, if we meet those that become infidels according to Allah, there is no any talk except hitting of the neck; I hope you chosen people of Allah are hearing. This is an instruction from Allah. It is not a distorted interpretation it is from Allah himself. This is from Allah on the need for us to break down infidels, practitioners of democracy, and constitutionalism, voodoo and those that are doing western education, in which they are practicing paganism.

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Commentators from across the political spectrum have chimed in on the horror of Boko Haram’s abduction of more than 300 school girls. And, certainly, the fact that the victims were young school girls has made a difference in the Western world’s interest in the story. But, while #BringBackOurGirls has become a trending hashtag, it may be missing the point.

Reading the speech of Boko Haram leader Abubakr Shekau, it is clear that for him, the target may have been the girls, but the motivation was not simply to prevent girls from receiving education or a desire to attack Western education more broadly, but rather to launch a much broader attack on Christianity.

He begins:

My brethren in Islam, I am greeting you in the name of Allah like he instructed we should among Muslims. Allah is great and has given us privilege and temerity above all people. If we meet infidels, if we meet those that become infidels according to Allah, there is no any talk except hitting of the neck; I hope you chosen people of Allah are hearing. This is an instruction from Allah. It is not a distorted interpretation it is from Allah himself. This is from Allah on the need for us to break down infidels, practitioners of democracy, and constitutionalism, voodoo and those that are doing western education, in which they are practicing paganism.

He continues with a diatribe against tolerance and multiculturalism:

Suddenly you will hear somebody coming and be saying that there are no religious differences, where did you have that talk that there are no differences? Where did you get this talk because of Allah? Who told you there are no differences when Allah said there are differences in religion…?

Selling the girls—or better yet converting them—is but one part of the plan:

I am selling the girls like Allah said until we soak the ground of Nigeria with infidels blood and so called Muslims contradicting Islam. After we have killed, killed, killed and get fatigue and wondering on what to do with smelling of their corpses, smelling of Obama, Bush, Putin and Jonathan worried us then we will open prison and be imprisoned the rest. Infidels have no value. It is [Nigerian President Goodluck] Jonathan’s daughter that I will imprison; nothing will stop this until you convert. If you turn to Islam then you will be saved. For me anyone that embraces Islam is my brother.

Indeed, he appears obsessed with the idea that Christians are simply unclean. “In fact, you are supposed to wash and re-wash a plate Christian eats food before you eat as Muslims,” he warns, and continues:

We are anti-Christians, and those that deviated from Islam, they are forming basis with prayers but infidels. All those with turbans looking for opportunities to smear us, they are all infidels. Betrayers and cheats like them. Like Israeli people, Rome, England– they are all Christians and homosexuals. People of Germany like Margret Thatcher. Ndume are all infidels.

As he concludes his speech, he leaves no room for doubt:

To the people of the world, everybody should know his status: it is either you are with us Mujahedeen or you are with the Christians… We know what is happening in this world, it is a Jihad war against Christians and Christianity. It is a war against western education, democracy and constitution. We have not started, next time we are going inside Abuja; we are going to refinery and town of Christians. Do you know me? I have no problem with Jonathan. This is what I know in Quran. This is a war against Christians and democracy and their constitution, Allah says we should finish them when we get them.

There can be very little doubt about what is motivating Shekau and his followers. What is truly amazing is the extent to which the focus on Boko Haram’s hostages has overshadowed a very clear statement about motivation. No, the problem is not simply girls going to school. It is much, much broader and the fact that Western journalists, diplomats, and the first lady of the United States are ignoring this aspect of the Boko Haram outrage really does suggest the extent to which the West simply does not understand the ideological motivations driving terrorism against it.

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Mozilla and the Prophet Isaiah

By now most readers of this site know about the controversy that erupted in the aftermath of the forced resignation of former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich. His offense? A half-dozen years ago he gave $1,000 to support Proposition 8, an effort by California citizens to prevent the redefinition of traditional marriage. (It passed with 52 percent of the vote.) The Mozilla decision has elicited a lot of commentary, much of it good and much of it coming from proponents of gay marriage – including to their credit Andrew Sullivan (here and here), Damon Linker, Conor Friedersdorf and Jonathan Rauch.

At the core of what’s driving this effort by some supporters of gay marriage is the belief that holding traditional views on marriage is akin to being an anti-Semite and a racist. That is, holding views that until 15 years ago were almost universally embraced and that have been held by every major religious faith since their founding is now deemed not only wrong but also so offensive that those who hold them must be punished. Their views are deemed so malicious – so obviously and unequivocally evil — that if held there must be a cost. 

Christian Rudder, president of OkCupid, the online dating service whose campaign to boycott Mozilla if they kept Eich helped lead to his departure, described those who oppose gay marriage as “our enemies, and we wish them nothing but failure.” Mr. Rudder admitted he “wanted to show the many would-be Eichs out there” what could happen to them if they don’t conform to liberal cultural attitudes.

This fanatical cast of mind is quite problematic for a free society, where we have to learn to live with those with whom we have deep differences. It is one thing to proclaim a person’s views to be wrong and to show why; it’s quite another to declare those views illegitimate and those who hold them to be persona non grata. We’ve seen this sort of thing take hold in the academy, the most close-minded institution in American life today. It’s now spreading through the rest of American society. And it’s not good.

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By now most readers of this site know about the controversy that erupted in the aftermath of the forced resignation of former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich. His offense? A half-dozen years ago he gave $1,000 to support Proposition 8, an effort by California citizens to prevent the redefinition of traditional marriage. (It passed with 52 percent of the vote.) The Mozilla decision has elicited a lot of commentary, much of it good and much of it coming from proponents of gay marriage – including to their credit Andrew Sullivan (here and here), Damon Linker, Conor Friedersdorf and Jonathan Rauch.

At the core of what’s driving this effort by some supporters of gay marriage is the belief that holding traditional views on marriage is akin to being an anti-Semite and a racist. That is, holding views that until 15 years ago were almost universally embraced and that have been held by every major religious faith since their founding is now deemed not only wrong but also so offensive that those who hold them must be punished. Their views are deemed so malicious – so obviously and unequivocally evil — that if held there must be a cost. 

Christian Rudder, president of OkCupid, the online dating service whose campaign to boycott Mozilla if they kept Eich helped lead to his departure, described those who oppose gay marriage as “our enemies, and we wish them nothing but failure.” Mr. Rudder admitted he “wanted to show the many would-be Eichs out there” what could happen to them if they don’t conform to liberal cultural attitudes.

This fanatical cast of mind is quite problematic for a free society, where we have to learn to live with those with whom we have deep differences. It is one thing to proclaim a person’s views to be wrong and to show why; it’s quite another to declare those views illegitimate and those who hold them to be persona non grata. We’ve seen this sort of thing take hold in the academy, the most close-minded institution in American life today. It’s now spreading through the rest of American society. And it’s not good.

The successful effort to force Eich out, then, is a significant cultural moment. It revealed an illiberalism and a level of intolerance within some quarters on the left that is chilling but not wholly surprising. And if this current of thought is not checked and challenged, it will create ruptures and divisions that will hurt everyone, those who favor gay rights no less than those who oppose it.

Let me speak from a perspective within my own faith community. Based on conversations and having written and taught classes on the subject of Christianity and homosexuality, my sense is that many evangelical Christians are working through how to approach the issues of their faith and the gay rights movement with a good deal of care and integrity. They are attempting to be faithful to Scripture in a way that is characterized by grace rather than stridency. Even as they continue to oppose same-sex marriage, they are asking whether their own attitudes have been distorted by their own cultural and political assumptions and that the focus on homosexuality is, as I’ve put it elsewhere, wildly disproportionate to what one finds in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Particularly among younger evangelicals, there’s a palpable discomfort with the approach taken by prominent figures over the last few decades – people like (but not exclusive to) Franklin Graham, James Dobson, Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell. They are not the spokesmen they want to represent them or their faith. In terms of public policy, there’s discussion about shifting focus from opposing gay marriage to protecting religious liberties.  

I’ve had discussions with faithful Christians whom I deeply admire who wonder whether their approach needs to be refined – not completely jettisoned but refined — in light of a fuller and deeper understanding of the Christian faith. A thoughtful friend of mine, a pastor, wrote to me last week, asking, “How do you live in a broken world? How do you adapt in a way that maintains faith in God’s character, in ethical standards, and yet maintains an attitude of grace and mercy in a world in which there is a lot more gray than we’d like to admit? you are certainly correct when you suggest that in focusing on this issue [homosexuality], we ignore matters (like greed; like caring for the poor, etc.) that appear to be much more important to Jesus.  And these we blithely sweep under the rug because they are too uncomfortable, and we’ve learned to live with compromises and filter them out.”

The response of those who don’t share this view is that they’re standing for truth in an increasingly depraved time. The danger comes from those who are diluting Scripture to accommodate the world. And gray is just another word for capitulation. This isn’t an easy thing to sort through, then, as anyone who has honestly faced these issues can tell you.

What’s not reasonable or realistic to assume is that millions and millions of Christians will simply toss aside what they view as the clear teachings of the Bible because those who have contempt for their views and faith tell them to do so. And what won’t work is for the gay rights movement to try to intimidate into silence those with whom they disagree. To break their will. And to force religious organizations – including parachurch institutions and eventually churches – to embrace views they believe are at odds with the teachings in Scripture. A faith whose central symbol is the cross is not going to collapse or surrender in the face of pressure by progressives and secularists. (Historically the church has often thrived under persecution.)

This all could get pretty nasty pretty quickly, and intensifying the culture wars isn’t in anyone’s interest. Civility is, as Stephen Carter has written, a precondition of democratic dialogue. There ought to be rules of etiquette, even (and perhaps especially) in public and political discourse. Asking for civility is quite different from insisting on agreement, and absence of agreement is a case for further (and better) debate, not putting an end to it.

When the dust finally settles, we still have to live together and occupy the same nation, the same airwaves, the same soccer fields and schools and workspaces. Surely treating others with a certain degree of dignity and respect shouldn’t be too much to ask of those who oppose gay marriage and those who support it. 

“Come now and let us reason together,” the prophet Isaiah said. That counsel beats a lot of alternatives, including targeting and destroying those who don’t conform to the beliefs of our new cultural commissars.  

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Speaking out Against Injustice

Last month I wrote a piece urging Christians to speak out against the rising persecution of gays overseas, including (but not limited to) harsh new laws that were recently passed in Nigeria.

I was glad, then, that Russell Moore, President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Andrew Walker, Director of Policy Studies for the ERLC, wrote an article for Canon & Culture in which, while reasserting the orthodox Christian belief that sexuality is to be expressed within the one-flesh union of the marriage of a man to a woman, they also wrote that they believe “laws criminalizing homosexual activity to be unjust and an affront to the image of God embedded in all persons.”

Governments that “single out persons for harassment and fear of their lives represent, in our view, a State that has overstepped its bounds drastically and unjustly. And in our view, repressive regimes that target homosexuals fall into this category.” Messrs. Moore and Walker go on to say that as Baptist Christians, “our own history has shown us what injustice can happen when a state applies the Old Testament Mosaic code … to the civil state.” And they insist the church “should stand faithful both to a biblical vision of sexuality and at the same time decry laws—whether in Africa or the Middle East or Russia—that would mistreat homosexual persons.”

Some Christians, I suppose, might have a viscerally negative reaction to what Moore and Walker are saying, though it’s hard to imagine how one could justify such a thing. To do so would be a disfigurement of the Christian faith. The more likely reaction is to ignore the issue, to let others worry about it, to assume that speaking out against the persecution of gays overseas is an implicit embrace of the gay rights agenda.

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Last month I wrote a piece urging Christians to speak out against the rising persecution of gays overseas, including (but not limited to) harsh new laws that were recently passed in Nigeria.

I was glad, then, that Russell Moore, President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Andrew Walker, Director of Policy Studies for the ERLC, wrote an article for Canon & Culture in which, while reasserting the orthodox Christian belief that sexuality is to be expressed within the one-flesh union of the marriage of a man to a woman, they also wrote that they believe “laws criminalizing homosexual activity to be unjust and an affront to the image of God embedded in all persons.”

Governments that “single out persons for harassment and fear of their lives represent, in our view, a State that has overstepped its bounds drastically and unjustly. And in our view, repressive regimes that target homosexuals fall into this category.” Messrs. Moore and Walker go on to say that as Baptist Christians, “our own history has shown us what injustice can happen when a state applies the Old Testament Mosaic code … to the civil state.” And they insist the church “should stand faithful both to a biblical vision of sexuality and at the same time decry laws—whether in Africa or the Middle East or Russia—that would mistreat homosexual persons.”

Some Christians, I suppose, might have a viscerally negative reaction to what Moore and Walker are saying, though it’s hard to imagine how one could justify such a thing. To do so would be a disfigurement of the Christian faith. The more likely reaction is to ignore the issue, to let others worry about it, to assume that speaking out against the persecution of gays overseas is an implicit embrace of the gay rights agenda.

That strikes me as wrong on many levels. And while I am very wary of saying precisely what Jesus would do and say in the 21st century, we do know what he did say and do in the first century. Jesus was drawn to those in the shadows of society – the outcast, the despised, those who were powerless, wounded, reviled, and the object of scorn. And Jesus himself was a dispenser of grace, the healer of broken lives, an agent of reconciliation.

I understand that is not all Jesus was. Nor do I have any interest in pitting moral rectitude against love and welcome or turning faith into a crude instrument to advance a political agenda. And there are countless things that can lay claim on our moral attention – from aiding homeless shelters and crisis pregnancy centers to those rescuing orphans and restoring them to families and communities, from preventing religious persecution overseas to aiding those suffering from AIDS and malaria in Africa. There are worthy organizations like Best Friends, a school based character education program for girls that begins in the sixth grade and continues until high school; and the International Justice Mission (IJM), a human rights agency that brings rescue to victims of slavery, sexual exploitation and other forms of violent oppression. And there are of course countless acts of decency and kindness that occur every day that are unpublicized and help those who are suffering and need encouragement.

Few of us do this as much as we should; our energies and interests are directed elsewhere, inward rather than outward, most often toward increasing our own comfort and wealth and station in life. My point is that if we were able to free ourselves from preconceptions that sometimes distort our vision; if we were to see things not through the prism of ideology but rather through the prism of mercy and compassion; if we would begin to love as we have been loved, we would find ourselves moved to act against all sorts of suffering and injustices we now overlook. When I’ve come across such individuals in my own life — they tend to be rare — they have shown me what lives touched by grace can be like.   

We shouldn’t kid ourselves; taking concrete steps to redress injustice is far better than simply speaking out about it. But speaking out about it is better than not, which is why what Messrs. Moore and Walker have done is commendable.

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Richard John Neuhaus, U.S. Jews, and the American Babylon

Today is the fifth anniversary of the death of Richard John Neuhaus, the influential Christian theologian who once edited the journal First Things. What most people remember about his writing–at least the intellectual/political side–is his classic The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. But what has always stuck with me is his last book, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile.

My preference among Neuhaus’s works for American Babylon is because it grapples with the subject of living in religious exile and what it means to be a good citizen to a secular state in such exile. This is a question that obviously means much to the American Jewish community as well, and so it’s valuable to see how a non-Jew, especially one as erudite as Neuhaus, approaches the question. Additionally, I think American Babylon’s relevance has unfortunately only increased since he wrote it–since that means the state’s encroachment on private religious practice has continued unabated.

But there’s also another reason I think the book is so beneficial to Jewish readers. Because of the troubled history between Christians and Jews, and because Christian politics have become so identified with the American right while Jews have been identified with the American left, there is still too much mutual suspicion. The clearest current example of this, of course, is the Jewish left’s rejection of pro-Israel Christian groups out of mistrust toward their intentions. American Babylon is in part a meditation on the Jewish-Christian relationship in exile–which is key. Neuhaus devotes a chapter to this called “Salvation Is from the Jews” (a reference the Christian scripture), in which he offers a good example. He writes:

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Today is the fifth anniversary of the death of Richard John Neuhaus, the influential Christian theologian who once edited the journal First Things. What most people remember about his writing–at least the intellectual/political side–is his classic The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. But what has always stuck with me is his last book, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile.

My preference among Neuhaus’s works for American Babylon is because it grapples with the subject of living in religious exile and what it means to be a good citizen to a secular state in such exile. This is a question that obviously means much to the American Jewish community as well, and so it’s valuable to see how a non-Jew, especially one as erudite as Neuhaus, approaches the question. Additionally, I think American Babylon’s relevance has unfortunately only increased since he wrote it–since that means the state’s encroachment on private religious practice has continued unabated.

But there’s also another reason I think the book is so beneficial to Jewish readers. Because of the troubled history between Christians and Jews, and because Christian politics have become so identified with the American right while Jews have been identified with the American left, there is still too much mutual suspicion. The clearest current example of this, of course, is the Jewish left’s rejection of pro-Israel Christian groups out of mistrust toward their intentions. American Babylon is in part a meditation on the Jewish-Christian relationship in exile–which is key. Neuhaus devotes a chapter to this called “Salvation Is from the Jews” (a reference the Christian scripture), in which he offers a good example. He writes:

It is significant that, after the Second Vatican Council, when the Catholic Church was formalizing its conversations with non-Christians, the Jewish interlocutors insisted that Jewish relations not be grouped under the Vatican office that deals with other religions, but instead included under the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. That arrangement has much deeper implications than were perhaps realized at the time.

Now, this seems to me a pristine example of the kind of Christian theological activity that can be seen one of two ways. Promoting Christian unity with Jews quite obviously does not mean the Vatican has decided that all Catholics should convert to Judaism. So the conversion issue primarily cuts the other way. And it’s a sore subject for very good reasons. But it is also worth pointing out that this is a clear rejection of supersessionism. If the Jews are mere historical relics, after all, Christianity can be whole without them. Neuhaus was vehemently opposed to such a view.

Moreover, Neuhaus makes a very smart observation about this in the context of interfaith relations. He writes:

Christianity does indeed seek to engage culture, provide a guide for living, and propose the way to human flourishing, but, reduced to any of these undoubtedly good ends, it is not Christianity.

Liberal Protestant theology, taking its cue from the Enlightenment, was much preoccupied with the question of “the essence of Christianity,” and, not incidentally, was contemptuous of Jews and Judaism.

That is, liberal Christians, who center their lives more on the secular culture around them, can more easily discard the Jewish contribution to their own heritage precisely because their history is not what defines them. Instead, their own identity can be established by drawing on the here and now. It matters that Jesus was Jewish, ethically and theologically. But not to politicized liberal denominations of Christianity, who have no need for Jewish recognition.

That’s why, Neuhaus writes, “When we Christians do not walk together with Jews, we are in danger of regressing to the paganism from which we emerged.” But before we lock arms and sing Kumbaya, we need to take a closer look at what exactly it means for Christians to “walk together with Jews.” Got an itinerary, Fr. Neuhaus? He does:

With respect to Judaism, Christians today are exhorted to reject every form of supersessionism, and so we should. To supersede means to nullify, to void, to make obsolete, to displace.

But:

The end of supersessionism, however, cannot and must not mean the end of the argument between Christians and Jews. We cannot settle into the comfortable interreligious politeness of mutual respect for contradictory positions deemed to be equally true. Christ and his Church do not supersede Judaism, but they do continue and fulfill the story of which we are both part. Or so Christians must contend.

However intertwined, the two belief systems are not one. So Neuhaus is up front: his distaste for political correctness extends to his opposition to the idea that Christians must be quietly apologetic for their belief that Jews should believe as they, Christians, believe. But he says something important about how that argument is less vocal and literal than an appreciation for living these different lives and pursuing these truths. He writes:

We can and must say that the ultimate duty of each person is to form his conscience in truth and act upon that discernment; we can and must say, too, that there are great goods to be sought in dialogue apart from conversion, and that we reject proselytizing, which is best defined as evangelizing by demeaning the other. Friendship between Jew and Christian can be secured in our shared love for the God of Israel; the historical forms we call Judaism and Christianity will be transcended, but not superseded, by the fulfillment of eschatological promise. But along the way to that final fulfillment, there is no avoiding the fact that we are locked in argument. It is an argument by which–for both Jew and Christian–conscience is formed, witness is honed, and friendship deepened. This is our destiny, and this is our duty, as members of the one people of God–a people of God for which there is no plural.

What he’s saying is, essentially: we can share the same bench at the bus stop even while we disagree over whose bus will arrive. Yes, it’s cheesy on some level–let’s wait together! But a Judaism confident that our bus is the one that will show up shouldn’t mind the company.

A final thought: this was arguably more important coming from a Catholic theologian like Neuhaus than from our no-less-appreciated neighbors in the Protestant-inflected evangelical Christian Zionist community, both because of the fraught history of Jewish-Catholic relations and because it is not tethered to a cause–Israel–that is essential but also relatively modern, and therefore comparably new.

Neuhaus, correctly, notes the crucial role that America plays in all this:

The percentage of Christians involved in any form of Jewish-Christian dialogue is minuscule. Minuscule, too, is the percentage of Jews involved. Moreover, serious dialogue is, for the most part, a North American phenomenon. It is one of the many things to which the familiar phrase applies, “Only in America.” In Europe, for tragically obvious reasons, there are not enough Jews; in Israel, for reasons of growing tragedy in the decline of ancient communities, there are not enough Christians. Only in America are there enough Jews and Christians in a relationship of mutual security and respect to make possible a dialogue that is unprecedented in our 2,000 years of history together.

Neuhaus’s work was a strong rejoinder to the temptation to assume ulterior motives on the part of Christians seeking conversation with Jews. Neuhaus was right, as well, that America has given us the security to have that conversation.

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Why Do Christians Tolerate Palestinian Historical Revisionism?

Christmas this year brought the usual spate of Palestinian historical revisionism, including the by-now routine claim that Jesus was a Palestinian. This, as Jonathan Tobin noted, tells us a lot about the Palestinian mindset and prospects for peace. But to me, the most striking aspect of this story is that objections to such historical revision come almost exclusively from Jews, whereas many Christian churches and organizations seem to have no problem with it. After all, it’s not only Jewish history and the Jewish religion Palestinians thereby erase; they are also erasing Christian history and the Christian religion.

What, for instance, becomes of the famous scene of Jesus evicting money-changers from the Temple if, as Palestinian officials claim, the Temple never existed? (They refer to it strictly as “the alleged Temple”; for examples, see here and here.) Or what becomes of Mary’s husband Joseph, who was “of the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:4), if, as Palestinians claim, the Davidic kingdom never existed?

Even if you want to claim, in defiance of all the evidence, that Jesus himself wasn’t a Jew, his entire story as related in the Gospels takes place in a Jewish state with a largely autonomous Jewish political and religious leadership, albeit subject to some control from the Roman Empire. According to the Gospels, it is this Jewish leadership that arrests and tries Jesus, though the Romans ultimately crucify him. If no Jewish state with the power to arrest and try ever existed (as Palestinians, again, routinely claim; see here or here, for instance), how did this most foundational of all Christian stories ever occur?

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Christmas this year brought the usual spate of Palestinian historical revisionism, including the by-now routine claim that Jesus was a Palestinian. This, as Jonathan Tobin noted, tells us a lot about the Palestinian mindset and prospects for peace. But to me, the most striking aspect of this story is that objections to such historical revision come almost exclusively from Jews, whereas many Christian churches and organizations seem to have no problem with it. After all, it’s not only Jewish history and the Jewish religion Palestinians thereby erase; they are also erasing Christian history and the Christian religion.

What, for instance, becomes of the famous scene of Jesus evicting money-changers from the Temple if, as Palestinian officials claim, the Temple never existed? (They refer to it strictly as “the alleged Temple”; for examples, see here and here.) Or what becomes of Mary’s husband Joseph, who was “of the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:4), if, as Palestinians claim, the Davidic kingdom never existed?

Even if you want to claim, in defiance of all the evidence, that Jesus himself wasn’t a Jew, his entire story as related in the Gospels takes place in a Jewish state with a largely autonomous Jewish political and religious leadership, albeit subject to some control from the Roman Empire. According to the Gospels, it is this Jewish leadership that arrests and tries Jesus, though the Romans ultimately crucify him. If no Jewish state with the power to arrest and try ever existed (as Palestinians, again, routinely claim; see here or here, for instance), how did this most foundational of all Christian stories ever occur?

Granted, the Christians most sympathetic to this Palestinian revisionism generally represent liberal churches that aren’t wedded to a literal reading of the Bible. Nevertheless, belief in Jesus is ostensibly fundamental even for liberal Christians–and absent the historic Jewish kingdom of the Gospels, there quite literally is no Jesus.

This ties in with a related issue: Many of these same liberal Christian groups have also turned a blind eye to the ongoing slaughter of Christians in Syria and Iraq, the worsening persecution of Christians in Egypt and various other anti-Christian atrocities worldwide, preferring to focus all their energies on vilifying the one Middle Eastern country where, to quote Israeli Arab priest Father Gabriel Nadaf, “We feel secure” as Christians. As I’ve noted before, this contrast between the terrible plight of other Middle Eastern Christians and the safety they enjoy in Israel is increasingly leading Israel’s Arab Christians to rethink their former identification with the state’s opponents; one result is that the number of Arab Christians volunteering for service in the IDF shot up more than 60 percent this year (though given the minuscule starting point, the absolute numbers remain small). But no such rethinking has occurred among anti-Israel Christians in the West.

In short, the leadership of groups like the Church of Scotland or the Presbyterian Church seem prepared to sacrifice both historical Christianity and real live Christians on the altar of their single-minded obsession with undermining the Jewish state. The million-dollar question is how long their rank-and-file memberships will continue tolerating this travesty.

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Preserving Burma’s Last Synagogue

Voice of America picked up a fascinating story about efforts to preserve Burma’s (Myanmar’s) last synagogue:

The Mesmuah Yeshua synagogue is in a neighborhood typical of colonial Rangoon. Mosques, Hindu temples, churches, and Buddhist pagodas dot busy streets of markets, hawkers, and hardware shops. The protected heritage building dates back to 1896, and has been under the care of a member of the Samuels family for generations… Author and historian Thant Myint-U heads the Yangon Heritage Trust, an organization dedicated to saving Rangoon’s heritage buildings. He says the synagogue’s preservation effort is about more than just the building: it’s about recovering Burma’s past, to help people understand the city’s rich multiethnic history.

The whole story is worth reading, especially against the backdrop of the destruction of Java’s last synagogue earlier this summer, the razing of the Jewish quarters in both Sulaymani and Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, the end of the Jewish community in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and the start of what might well become a Jewish exodus from an increasingly intolerant Turkey. Sixteen years ago, I watched the Jewish community in Tajikistan build a guest house near the Jewish cemetery to prepare for the end of what they assumed would be that country’s permanent Jewish community.

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Voice of America picked up a fascinating story about efforts to preserve Burma’s (Myanmar’s) last synagogue:

The Mesmuah Yeshua synagogue is in a neighborhood typical of colonial Rangoon. Mosques, Hindu temples, churches, and Buddhist pagodas dot busy streets of markets, hawkers, and hardware shops. The protected heritage building dates back to 1896, and has been under the care of a member of the Samuels family for generations… Author and historian Thant Myint-U heads the Yangon Heritage Trust, an organization dedicated to saving Rangoon’s heritage buildings. He says the synagogue’s preservation effort is about more than just the building: it’s about recovering Burma’s past, to help people understand the city’s rich multiethnic history.

The whole story is worth reading, especially against the backdrop of the destruction of Java’s last synagogue earlier this summer, the razing of the Jewish quarters in both Sulaymani and Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, the end of the Jewish community in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and the start of what might well become a Jewish exodus from an increasingly intolerant Turkey. Sixteen years ago, I watched the Jewish community in Tajikistan build a guest house near the Jewish cemetery to prepare for the end of what they assumed would be that country’s permanent Jewish community.

Religious intolerance is spreading across the Middle East and many places in Asia as populist and radicalized clergy urge their followers to make life intolerable for Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist minorities. Traveling over the years in Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, and Iran, I have heard older generations describe the cosmopolitan atmosphere of their youth, playing with friends of different religions. One former associate remembers how he was taught the Lord’s Prayer in Peshawar, Pakistan, by a Muslim babysitter because she figured since he was Catholic and it was bedtime, he should learn to pray as Catholics do. That she would know Catholic prayer was simply the result of growing up in a multicultural, multi-ethnic environment that is now a faded memory.

The story out of Rangoon seems a good idea not only for Burma but for other countries as well. To allow the tolerance and diversity of past generations to be forgotten simply confirms the victory of radicals, populists, and forces of intolerance. Three cheers for Thant Myint-U and the Yangon Heritage Trust, which provide a model that should be replicated.

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Israel and Evangelical Christians

Robert W. Nicholson has written a fascinating essay for Mosaic magazine titled “Evangelicals and Israel: What American Jews Don’t Want to Know (but Need to).” That essay, in turn, has generated commentaries by Wilfred McClay, Elliott Abrams, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and James Nuechterlein. Each of them has a somewhat different take on what Nicholson wrote; all are worth reading.

The Nicholson essay explores the explanation for Christian Zionism, locating it in eschatology for some Christians while in God’s eternal covenant with Israel for others. Mr. Nicholson argues that many evangelicals feel not only a strong sense of protectiveness toward the State of Israel but a deep cultural affinity with the Jewish people. But he also highlights the growing strength among evangelicals of what he calls a “new anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian movement.” 

The latter is something I can testify to first-hand. Several years ago my wife and I left a Washington D.C. church we were members of over what I came to discover was a deep, though previously hidden-from-view, hostility to Israel. The more I probed the matter, the more disturbing it was, to the point that I didn’t feel we could continue to worship there in good conscience. So we left, despite two of our children having been baptized there and despite having developed strong attachments to the church and many of its congregants over the years.

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Robert W. Nicholson has written a fascinating essay for Mosaic magazine titled “Evangelicals and Israel: What American Jews Don’t Want to Know (but Need to).” That essay, in turn, has generated commentaries by Wilfred McClay, Elliott Abrams, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and James Nuechterlein. Each of them has a somewhat different take on what Nicholson wrote; all are worth reading.

The Nicholson essay explores the explanation for Christian Zionism, locating it in eschatology for some Christians while in God’s eternal covenant with Israel for others. Mr. Nicholson argues that many evangelicals feel not only a strong sense of protectiveness toward the State of Israel but a deep cultural affinity with the Jewish people. But he also highlights the growing strength among evangelicals of what he calls a “new anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian movement.” 

The latter is something I can testify to first-hand. Several years ago my wife and I left a Washington D.C. church we were members of over what I came to discover was a deep, though previously hidden-from-view, hostility to Israel. The more I probed the matter, the more disturbing it was, to the point that I didn’t feel we could continue to worship there in good conscience. So we left, despite two of our children having been baptized there and despite having developed strong attachments to the church and many of its congregants over the years.

Mr. Nicholson does an excellent job explaining the rise of pro-Palestinian sentiment among some segments of American evangelicalism. The basis for this movement rests in part on the belief that Israel is a nation whose very founding in 1947 was illegitimate and immoral; since then, it is said, Israel has become an enemy of justice and peace. Authentic Christianity therefore requires one to embrace the pro-Palestinian narrative, or so this line of argument goes. “The bottom line is simply this,” writes Nicholson. “More and more evangelicals are being educated to accept the pro-Palestinian narrative – on the basis of their Christian faith.”

As for my own attitudes toward the Jewish state, I find myself closely aligned to the view of Nuechterlein. “In the present instance,” he writes, “one need not depend on biblical prophecy or covenantal theology to find reasons to support the state of Israel.”

Israel has the only truly democratic political culture in the Middle East. It is a friend of the West in politics and political economy, and, more important, a consistent and unswerving ally of the United States. It is a regional bulwark against the radical Islamists who are its and America’s sworn enemies. The more I see of the populist Arab spring, the stronger is my commitment to Israel. I support Israel not because I am a Christian—though nothing in my Christian beliefs would preclude that support—but because that support coincides with the requirements of justice and the defense of the American national interest. 

That strikes me as quite right. In a region filled with despots and massive violations of human rights, Israel is the great, shining exception. Indeed, based on the evidence all around us, it is clear that Israel, more than any nation on earth, is held not simply to a double standard but to an impossible standard. Its own sacrifices for peace, which exceed those of any other country, are constantly overlooked even as the brutal acts of its enemies are excused. (I offer a very brief historical account of things here.)

Israel is far from perfect—but it is, in the totality of its acts, among the most estimable and impressive nations in human history. Its achievements and moral accomplishments are staggering—which is why, in my judgment, evangelical Christians should keep faith with the Jewish state. Set aside for now one’s view about the end times and God’s covenantal relationship with Israel. Israel warrants support based on the here and now; on what it stands for and what it stands against and what its enemies stand for and against; and for reasons of simple justice. What is required to counteract the anti-Israel narrative and propaganda campaign is a large-scale effort at education, not simply with dry facts but in a manner that tells a remarkable and moving story. That captures the moral imagination of evangelicals, most especially young evangelicals.

I’m sure some evangelical Christians would appreciate it if more American Jews showed more gratitude toward them for their support of Israel over the years. But frankly that matters very little to me, and here’s why: What ought to decide where one falls in this debate on Israel are not the shadows but the sunlight. On seeing history for what it is rather than committing a gross disfigurement of it. And on aligning one’s views, as best as one can, with truth and facts, starting with this one: The problem isn’t with Israel’s unwillingness to negotiate or even any dispute over territory (Israel has repeatedly proved it is willing to part with land for real peace); it is with the Palestinians’ unwillingness to make their own inner peace with the existence of a Jewish state.

The suffering the Palestinian people (including Palestinian Christians) are enduring is real and ought to move one’s heart. Many Palestinians suffer from circumstances they didn’t create. And so sympathy for their plight is natural. But these circumstances they suffer under are fundamentally a creation not of Israel but of failed Palestinian leadership, which has so often been characterized by corruption and malevolence. Checkpoints and walls exist for a reason, as a response to Palestinian aggressions. Nor has anyone yet emerged among the Palestinian leadership who is either willing or able to alter a civic culture that foments an abhorrence of Jews and longs for the eradication of Israel. That is the sine qua non for progress. 

To my coreligionists I would simply point out an unpleasant truth: hatred for Israel is a burning fire throughout the world. Those of the Christian faith ought to be working to douse the flames rather than to intensify them.

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Haneen Zoabi’s Threat to Nazareth’s Christian Heritage

At first glance, Haneen Zoabi might seem a strange candidate for Israeli efforts to burnish its democratic reputation abroad. Zoabi spends much of her time and energy trying to tear down Israel’s public image, and would have you believe Israel is no democracy at all, but rather an apartheid, fascist state. But that very same behavior is, to many, sufficient to disprove Zoabi’s claims.

That’s because Zoabi makes those claims from her perch as an Arab Muslim member of Israel’s Knesset. She keeps that lofty place in the parliament while doing far more than agitating against Zionism: her actions speak louder than–though still in concert with–her words. In 2010, Zoabi and another Arab legislator were passengers on the infamous Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ship of armed activists attempting to break Israel’s military blockade of Gaza and to help the Hamas government of the Gaza Strip.

Now Zoabi is attempting to make a related career move, though this one would concern Israel’s Christian minority more than its Jewish majority. The New York Times notes that Zoabi’s entry into the Nazareth mayoral election threatens to unseat its mayor of 20 years as well as stir up local tensions:

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At first glance, Haneen Zoabi might seem a strange candidate for Israeli efforts to burnish its democratic reputation abroad. Zoabi spends much of her time and energy trying to tear down Israel’s public image, and would have you believe Israel is no democracy at all, but rather an apartheid, fascist state. But that very same behavior is, to many, sufficient to disprove Zoabi’s claims.

That’s because Zoabi makes those claims from her perch as an Arab Muslim member of Israel’s Knesset. She keeps that lofty place in the parliament while doing far more than agitating against Zionism: her actions speak louder than–though still in concert with–her words. In 2010, Zoabi and another Arab legislator were passengers on the infamous Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ship of armed activists attempting to break Israel’s military blockade of Gaza and to help the Hamas government of the Gaza Strip.

Now Zoabi is attempting to make a related career move, though this one would concern Israel’s Christian minority more than its Jewish majority. The New York Times notes that Zoabi’s entry into the Nazareth mayoral election threatens to unseat its mayor of 20 years as well as stir up local tensions:

There is a lot to be said for tradition and continuity in a city revered by Christians as the childhood home of Jesus. Though the city’s population of 80,000 is now about 70 percent Muslim, much of the economy of Nazareth, considered the capital of Israel’s Arab minority, depends on the tourism generated by its Christian past.

“This is one of the most well-known cities in the world, the place where Christianity started,” said Mr. Jaraisi, a Christian, whose hair and mustache have turned white on the job.

But others in Nazareth say it is time for change. Mr. Jaraisi has been elected mayor four times, with the votes of both Muslims and Christians, he is quick to point out. Now, in the municipal elections scheduled for Israel’s local authorities on Tuesday, he is facing a serious challenge.

Even if the city weren’t majority-Muslim there would be nothing inherently upsetting, one would hope, about the prospect of a Muslim candidate defeating a Christian candidate for the mayoralty. Nazareth is symbolic of Israel’s Christian minority; that they happen to be a minority in Nazareth isn’t exactly shocking.

But the Times projects an air of nervousness in the city about Jaraisi’s possible defeat at Zoabi’s hands, and this has much to do with how Zoabi personifies two trends in the Arab world that have not been too kind to Christians. The first, and most obvious trend, is referred to outright in the Times piece:

One of the challenges that Mr. Jaraisi is facing is what Wadie Abu Nassar, an Arab Israeli political analyst, calls “the Arab Spring argument — that it is time to change.” Another is an accusation of mismanagement, Mr. Abu Nassar said.

As just the latest brutal attack on Egyptian Copts attests, the Arab Spring does not conjure images of freedom for the Christians of the Arab world. It has instead been open season on this persecuted minority, and any suggestion that the tide of the Arab Spring would come to Nazareth would be a frightening prospect, to say the least.

And Zoabi has long been at the forefront of the other trend, though the Times’s subtle presentation of it shows its mainstream appeal:

Nazareth, Ms. Zoabi said, should be a cultural center for the 1.6 million Palestinian citizens of Israel. “Nazareth is not just a city,” she said. “It is a symbol of the homeland that we lost.”

Notice that first part is not in quotes. The reporter, Isabel Kershner, simply writes that Israel’s Arabs are all Palestinians. The identification of Israeli Arabs as Palestinians is not automatic or universal. Israeli Arabs who consider themselves Palestinians tend to either claim roots in Mandatory Palestine before 1948 or consider the entire State of Israel occupied territory and an illegitimate state. (Or both.)

Zoabi embraces this merging of the Palestinian identity with the Israeli-Arab identity–which, in many cases, simply replaces Arab identity with Zoabi’s ideology of armed resistance against the state in whose parliament she serves. It erases, for example, the identity of Israel’s Arab Christians who don’t identify with the Palestinian cause.

In July, a group of Greek Orthodox Christians in Israel formed a political party to support Arab participation in the Israel Defense Forces. The group was led by a Christian Arab from Nazareth and had the support of Father Gabriel Naddaf, a Greek Orthodox priest against whom Zoabi reportedly led a vicious campaign and who was banned from entering Nazareth’s famed Church of the Annunciation for his show of patriotism and loyalty to Israel.

These Arab Christians from Nazareth (and elsewhere) proudly identify as Israelis. Zoabi and the New York Times plainly ignore that and label them Palestinian. The only way, in fact, that the categorization of all Israel’s Arabs as Palestinians could make any sense (to use that term loosely) is to someone who believes that the entire land is rightfully and legally Palestine. That Zoabi seems to buy into this bodes ill for Nazareth’s Christians. That the Times plays along suggests the media’s attitude toward the plight of Christians under the Arab Spring, which often borders on indifference, will only continue.

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Why We Separate Church and State

The struggle to explain the motivations of statecraft through history often gets mired in the difficulty of differentiating between economic self-interest and cultural prime movers. As with the kerfuffle over Mitt Romney’s comments about Palestinian culture last year, the debate can easily devolve into a chicken-or-egg spiral: even if you believe institutions matter more than culture, isn’t culture a determining factor in when and where those institutions get built in the first place?

Because journalists and academics so often dismiss religion–a dominant feature of cultural identity–as superstitious nonsense, their efforts to endow religion with a rationality they can relate to often comes across as well meaning but ultimately condescending. That is the case with a working paper from two economists at the University of Connecticut, which Slate’s Joshua Keating called attention to yesterday. The Connecticut economists set out to demonstrate why theocracies emerge, and have settled on a theory:

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The struggle to explain the motivations of statecraft through history often gets mired in the difficulty of differentiating between economic self-interest and cultural prime movers. As with the kerfuffle over Mitt Romney’s comments about Palestinian culture last year, the debate can easily devolve into a chicken-or-egg spiral: even if you believe institutions matter more than culture, isn’t culture a determining factor in when and where those institutions get built in the first place?

Because journalists and academics so often dismiss religion–a dominant feature of cultural identity–as superstitious nonsense, their efforts to endow religion with a rationality they can relate to often comes across as well meaning but ultimately condescending. That is the case with a working paper from two economists at the University of Connecticut, which Slate’s Joshua Keating called attention to yesterday. The Connecticut economists set out to demonstrate why theocracies emerge, and have settled on a theory:

Specifically, we have conjectured that theocracy is more likely to emerge, all else equal, as the religion market becomes more monopolized, as religion becomes more monotheistic, and as the ruler becomes weaker.

This is a logical thesis, but the authors are motivated by a desire to use hypotheses that are statistically verifiable, so they get stuck in a correlation-versus-causation sand trap. For example, one of the major propositions of the paper is that “A monopolistic religion market is more conducive to theocracy than is a competitive religion market.” This makes logical sense, but the authors are interested in economic factors, so in testing the proposition, they write the following (q represents a “religious good”):

We now turn to the case of theocracy, which we define to mean a merged church and state. As noted, we do not distinguish here between a state that takes over the church and a church that takes over the state, focusing instead on the behavior of the merged entity once it is under the control of a single decision-maker, whom we shall refer to as a “theocrat.” We will argue that there are two possible benefits from such a merger. The first, implied by the preceding discussion of the pacifying function of religion, is that the theocrat can now choose the level of q to serve its own ends. Specifically, it can choose q to maximize net taxes rather than church profits or consumer welfare. Second, we assume that the religious leaders, now allied with the state, can possibly confer legitimacy on the theocrat and thereby lower the cost of collecting taxes.

Now, it’s certainly true that corruption of the religious authority is one danger of the merger of church and state. But that doesn’t mean that financial success should be equated with true organizational and political power. The great innovation of the American project was that religion would be advanced, not weakened, by decentralizing its power. As Alan Ryan writes in On Politics:

The Americans had contrived a surprising device for making religion a powerful social force. They had written the complete separation of church and state into the Constitution. Unlike ancien regime France, America had no alliance of wealthy and useless clergy with wealthy and useless aristocrats. Whatever reasons Americans might have for disliking their government could not turn into anti-clericalism; conversely, if they were disaffected from whatever church they belonged to, they could move to another or set one up from scratch. The pre-Revolutionary French union of church and state implicated each in the unpopularity of the other.

What protected and nurtured the power of the church was that it was not aligned with the state. It’s true that the competitive market meant there were also various options within (and beyond) Christianity in America, but as we see from the thoughts of the founders, more important than variety was independence.

This causation/correlation issue surfaces elsewhere in the paper. Another main proposition of the authors is that “When the church is independent of the state, the ruler prefers a competitive rather than a monopolistic religion market.” Again the authors pitch this as based on “net tax revenue,” asserting that the state benefits financially from the church’s existence even if the two are independent. A competitive religion market, therefore, produces more revenue for the state.

But surely there is a more relevant explanation for this proposition. A ruler might suppose that a competitive religion market produces no religious leader that speaks for the majority of citizens. He might therefore want competition among the churches so he faces less competition from the churches. Indeed, the modern secular project seeks the steady expansion of the reach of the federal government into the lives of the citizenry. At a certain point, the government becomes far too intrusive for some groups, but only risks political defeat if those groups are large enough to exert electoral pressure on the party in power.

The Obama administration’s birth control mandate was a perfect example. The left believes it is the government’s place to force the public to pay for everyone else’s contraception. This violates Catholic doctrine, and Catholics protested. The president, however, could not possibly have cared less that Catholics were having their religious liberty infringed upon by his signature legislative achievement, and ignored their concerns. There are about 75 million Catholics in America, and they made up about a quarter of the 2012 electorate. Could the president have dismissed their rights so easily if they had a religious monopoly and they made up 100 percent of the 2012 electorate?

Thus does it become clear that a “ruler” (that is the term the Connecticut economists use, though it feels a bit heavyhanded in the context of an American president or other democratic head of state or government) desires to either coopt religious authority or see it frayed by internal divisions not because of tax revenue but because of governing power. For what happens when religious leaders unite against the “ruler?” That is a question that was answered in large part by this nation’s very founding. As Andrew Preston writes in Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith:

Unlike any other cohort or profession in society–certainly not the bulk of the Patriot leadership–the clergy could command a vast, captive audience on a weekly basis (and sometimes more often). While the Patriot leaders drew on support from the cities and the aristocratic rural gentry, the clergy’s audience cut across almost all forms of identity: the backcountry as well as the coast, villages and farms as well as cities, poor as well as rich. Even though some churches remained silent–most notably the Lutherans of backcountry Pennsylvania–in general, support for the Patriots drew on nearly all Protestant denominations, too, including among Anglicans.

The separation of church and state, and certainly the lack of an actual theocracy, is an indispensable component of modern political liberty. (After all, when many of the colonists protested against the crown’s arbitrary power they had in mind the Church of England.) This is done primarily through monotheistic faiths and to weaken the “ruler”–two of the conditions suitable for the establishment of a theocracy according to the Connecticut economists, but which instead now act to prevent such a concentration of political power.

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Are Christians Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

Anti-gay violence is despicable and those who encourage it are to be deplored. The murder of an openly gay candidate for mayor in a Mississippi town has provoked some discussion about the source of such violence. That is a topic that deserves serious discussion. But there is a difference between sober soul-searching about instances of violence in our society and jumping to conclusions whose only possible purpose is to provoke a different sort of prejudice.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Rabbi Brad Hirschfield has done in the latest edition of his On Faith blog for the Washington Post. Hirschfeld, whose day job is serving as president of the non-denominational Jewish group CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, leads an on-line discussion that he begins by admitting he doesn’t know why Marco McMillian was killed or who or what could have incited the brutal crime or if, indeed, anyone one or any group had any role in doing so. But that doesn’t deter him from beginning his piece with the provocative title “What role does Christianity play in the murder of the openly gay mayoral candidate in Mississippi?” According to Hirschfeld, Christians are clearly guilty until proven innocent.

One doesn’t have to condone the awful crime of anti-gay violence or even oppose gay marriage to understand that the assumption that an entire faith—or any faith that does not approve of homosexuality—is somehow responsible for what happened to McMillian is itself prejudicial. Of course, Hirschfeld doesn’t come right out and say that himself. But by posing that question and steering the discussion in a way that puts Christianity on trial in this manner, what he has done is to incite bias against traditional beliefs that are in no way connected to violence against gays.

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Anti-gay violence is despicable and those who encourage it are to be deplored. The murder of an openly gay candidate for mayor in a Mississippi town has provoked some discussion about the source of such violence. That is a topic that deserves serious discussion. But there is a difference between sober soul-searching about instances of violence in our society and jumping to conclusions whose only possible purpose is to provoke a different sort of prejudice.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Rabbi Brad Hirschfield has done in the latest edition of his On Faith blog for the Washington Post. Hirschfeld, whose day job is serving as president of the non-denominational Jewish group CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, leads an on-line discussion that he begins by admitting he doesn’t know why Marco McMillian was killed or who or what could have incited the brutal crime or if, indeed, anyone one or any group had any role in doing so. But that doesn’t deter him from beginning his piece with the provocative title “What role does Christianity play in the murder of the openly gay mayoral candidate in Mississippi?” According to Hirschfeld, Christians are clearly guilty until proven innocent.

One doesn’t have to condone the awful crime of anti-gay violence or even oppose gay marriage to understand that the assumption that an entire faith—or any faith that does not approve of homosexuality—is somehow responsible for what happened to McMillian is itself prejudicial. Of course, Hirschfeld doesn’t come right out and say that himself. But by posing that question and steering the discussion in a way that puts Christianity on trial in this manner, what he has done is to incite bias against traditional beliefs that are in no way connected to violence against gays.

Hirschfield does try and have it both ways in his blog by claiming that he is not so much pushing the case for blaming Christians as just trying to sort out “the biggest and ugliest public issues.” But these are mere weasel words to evade his personal responsibility by skewing the discussion to put those who are not in favor of gay marriage on the defensive.

But he isn’t shy about saying that he has no problem with saying that he considers the concept of collective guilt “a VERY valuable way to think about things” since it forces groups to ponder their own role in crimes that are committed by members of their group or faith.

There are instances when groups, faiths or even whole peoples have good reason to ponder collective guilt. When their faith or national leadership preaches hate in the name of the entire group then those who are implicated in this matter have a duty to speak out or act against those who have made such pronouncements or committed such crimes. Examples of this sort of behavior aren’t hard to think of. Under Nazi leadership, Germans killed Jews in the name of the German people. Iran’s religious leaders and many others in positions of influence throughout the Arab and Muslim world preach hatred of Jews in the name of all Muslims. Not all Germans killed Jews and not all Muslims believe their faith should be interpreted to condone violence. But all have an obligation to disassociate themselves and their nationality and faith from hate. The same rule would apply to Jews if most rabbis promoted hate in that same manner.

But except in the case of small outlier extremist sects, there is no plausible case to be made that any mainstream branch of Christianity does preach hatred of gays, let alone violence against them. There is, after all, a big difference between not approving of something and endorsing violence against anyone who is associated with it. While in response to one reader’s damning of “the church” Hirschfeld calls into question collective guilt against all Christians or churches, what he has done here is to set up an argument in which the premise of the discussion is one in which normative Biblically-based faiths are put on trial for the act of someone who may know little or nothing of their doctrines or practices.

The gradual demise of anti-gay prejudices in American society is a positive trend that should be applauded. But equality for gays or even approval of gay marriage ought not to come at the price of encouraging prejudice against faiths—Christian and non-Christian alike—that do not approve of homosexuality. And that is the direction that Hirschfield seems to be encouraging here.

What is so offensive about the column is not just his role in legitimizing bashing Christianity. The sheer dishonesty of his pose of objectivity and openness to all views is equally repulsive.

Hirschfeld can’t have it both ways. He can’t structure a public discussion about Christian guilt for a crime and endorse collective guilt while also claiming that he is nonjudgmental about faiths that won’t endorse gay marriage.

In other periods of history various branches of Christianity condoned and practiced discrimination and even violence against those who differed from their beliefs. But in popular American culture it seems that Christians are the one group that can be denigrated or labeled prejudicially with complete impunity. It is nothing less than a disgrace that the head of a group that has tried to speak in the name of Jewish unity and interfaith comity should play a role in this disgusting trend.

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Religious Persecution and Safe Havens

In recent months, a new consensus has emerged: For the first time in millennia, Judaism has lost its title as the world’s most persecuted religion; today, that dubious honor goes to Christianity. “Christians are targeted more than any other body of believers,” wrote Rupert Shortt in a 54-page report for the London-based Civitas institute in December, which meticulously documented their persecution on a country-by-country basis. Even politicians have begun grasping this fact: German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly deemed Christianity “the most persecuted religion in the world” in November. In short, as one commentator put it last week, Christians have become the new Jews.

There are two reasons why Christianity has displaced Judaism as the world’s most persecuted religion. One, obviously, is increased persecution of Christians, which stems largely from the rise of radical Islam: Though non-Islamic countries like China also repress Christians, only radical Islamists kill them wholesale. The other is that today, Jews face less persecution than ever before in history. And that is entirely due to the existence of the State of Israel.

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In recent months, a new consensus has emerged: For the first time in millennia, Judaism has lost its title as the world’s most persecuted religion; today, that dubious honor goes to Christianity. “Christians are targeted more than any other body of believers,” wrote Rupert Shortt in a 54-page report for the London-based Civitas institute in December, which meticulously documented their persecution on a country-by-country basis. Even politicians have begun grasping this fact: German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly deemed Christianity “the most persecuted religion in the world” in November. In short, as one commentator put it last week, Christians have become the new Jews.

There are two reasons why Christianity has displaced Judaism as the world’s most persecuted religion. One, obviously, is increased persecution of Christians, which stems largely from the rise of radical Islam: Though non-Islamic countries like China also repress Christians, only radical Islamists kill them wholesale. The other is that today, Jews face less persecution than ever before in history. And that is entirely due to the existence of the State of Israel.

Were hundreds of thousands of Jews still scattered throughout the Islamic world, as was true a century ago, they would assuredly face persecution no less severe than Christians do. But they aren’t, because most have relocated to Israel. In fact, for the last 64 years, any Jew anywhere who felt sufficiently threatened to want to leave his country has been able to find sanctuary in Israel, and Israel has repeatedly gone to great lengths to try to rescue those who want to leave but can’t.

Many Christians, too, might like to leave places like Egypt or Iraq. But unlike the Jews, they have nowhere to go: No country on earth will automatically open its doors for them–with no questions asked and no numerical limitations–the way Israel does for Jews. And still less would any country do so for Jews if Israel didn’t exist.

A decade ago, at the height of the intifada, a fellow Israeli complained to me that Israel had failed in its mission to be a safe haven for Jews. On the contrary, she charged, Israel today is the most dangerous place on earth for Jews to live.

Technically, she’s correct: A Jew in Israel is far more likely to be killed just because he is Jewish than a Jew in Europe or North America. What she failed to grasp is that this is precisely the measure of Israel’s success: Israel today is the most dangerous place to be a Jew because any Jew living someplace more dangerous can relocate to Israel instead–and almost all of them have. In short, the fact that almost no Jews today live someplace more dangerous than Israel is proof positive of Israel’s success as a haven.

Though there are many reasons why Israel, for all its flaws, deserves support from all decent people, and especially all Jews, this is the most basic of all: If Israel didn’t exist, Judaism would still top the list of the world’s most persecuted religions, and Jews would be slaughtered throughout the Islamic world just as their Christian brethren are today. And nobody who cares about the Jewish people–or about saving human lives in general–could truly think that alternative is preferable.

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The Palestinians’ Christmas Lies

Christmas in Bethlehem and video of the annual parade in the Palestinian city south of Jerusalem is standard holiday fare on television news. Since the days of Yasir Arafat the Palestinian Authority has made a big deal out of the Christmas celebration, and the media’s need for footage suitable for a day on which little news is made has always been a bonanza for Fatah. The result is that along with quaint pictures of Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity Western viewers are given the impression that Christianity is both protected and cherished by the PA. PA leaders also use the occasion to try and make the argument that the Palestinians, rather than the Israelis, are the true descendants of the Jewish nation that produced Jesus of Nazareth two thousand years ago.

Both assertions are equally false. Modern day Christians face harassment and exclusion throughout a region where the Arab Spring has brought Islamists to power, and nowhere is that more true than in the West Bank and Gaza. Moreover, the assertion that Jesus was a Palestinian, first aired by Arafat and often repeated by his successor Mahmoud Abbas as well as moderate Salam Fayyad, is nothing less than an attempt to delegitimize the Jewish people and to steal its history. Western news organizations should know better than to fall prey to these propaganda points.

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Christmas in Bethlehem and video of the annual parade in the Palestinian city south of Jerusalem is standard holiday fare on television news. Since the days of Yasir Arafat the Palestinian Authority has made a big deal out of the Christmas celebration, and the media’s need for footage suitable for a day on which little news is made has always been a bonanza for Fatah. The result is that along with quaint pictures of Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity Western viewers are given the impression that Christianity is both protected and cherished by the PA. PA leaders also use the occasion to try and make the argument that the Palestinians, rather than the Israelis, are the true descendants of the Jewish nation that produced Jesus of Nazareth two thousand years ago.

Both assertions are equally false. Modern day Christians face harassment and exclusion throughout a region where the Arab Spring has brought Islamists to power, and nowhere is that more true than in the West Bank and Gaza. Moreover, the assertion that Jesus was a Palestinian, first aired by Arafat and often repeated by his successor Mahmoud Abbas as well as moderate Salam Fayyad, is nothing less than an attempt to delegitimize the Jewish people and to steal its history. Western news organizations should know better than to fall prey to these propaganda points.

As Britain’s Telegraph reports in a timely feature, Christianity is “close to extinction” in the Middle East. While the plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt who face the prospect of life under the Muslim Brotherhood has garnered some attention in the past few months, Palestinian Christians have already been subjected to this sort of situation under the Palestinian Authority and Hamas and the result is the decimation of their community.

Bethlehem is a case study, since the once predominantly Christian town has become a Muslim stronghold ever since Israel ceded control of the area to the PA under the Oslo Accords. Christian villages in the area like Beit Jala also have suffered since the PA let terrorists use it as a launching point for shooting attacks on the adjacent Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem during the second intifada. Should the PA launch a third such offensive against Israel this year, you can bet that Palestinian Christians, who have fled their old homes in large numbers in the last 20 years, will pay a disproportionate price.

Of course, it should be admitted that Palestinian Christians are often the most virulent critics of Israel, since they have seen secular nationalism to be a way of fitting into an Arab world where Muslim faith is the principle source of identity. Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarch demonstrated that factor again this year when he told the world that this Christmas would be a celebration of “the birth of Palestine” as well as of that of the Christian savior. But no one should be fooled into thinking Christians are equal partners with the Muslim majority that treats them as nothing more than dhimmi–a protected but unequal minority. For all of the tension between Jews and Arabs, it is only in democratic Israel that Christians have complete religious freedom in the region.

As for the “Jesus is a Palestinian” meme, it is a risible misuse of history that few people take seriously, but it ought not to be ignored. Denying the historical ties between the Jewish people and the land of Israel has always been integral to anti-Zionist propaganda. The point is to depict Israelis as foreign thieves who have stolen Palestinian land rather than as Jews who have returned to their ancestral homeland. The use of this lie is a reminder that the ultimate goal of Palestinian moderates as well as the Islamists of Hamas (who have made the lives of Christians in Gaza untenable–a warning to the Coptics who will have to live under the thumb of their Muslim Brotherhood allies) is to destroy Israel, not to live in peace alongside it.

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Obama’s Evolution on Same-Sex Marriage

The evolution, it appears, is now complete. Barack Obama – who once supported same-sex marriages (when he ran for state senator in Illinois in 1996), then opposed them (when he ran for Senate in 2004 against Alan Keyes), and then was unsure what he thought (as president) – told ABC’s Robin Roberts, “I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” The president added that this is a personal position and he still supports the concept of states deciding the issue on their own.

I have several thoughts on this development, beginning with the wisdom of the timing. The president announced his position one day after voters in North Carolina voted to support adding an amendment on marriage to its constitution, banning same-sex marriage. As a friend pointed out to me, the president was shrewd to wait until after yesterday’s vote, which allows him to look like he is willing to buck public opinion rather than looking like his endorsement carried no weight in the vote.

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The evolution, it appears, is now complete. Barack Obama – who once supported same-sex marriages (when he ran for state senator in Illinois in 1996), then opposed them (when he ran for Senate in 2004 against Alan Keyes), and then was unsure what he thought (as president) – told ABC’s Robin Roberts, “I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” The president added that this is a personal position and he still supports the concept of states deciding the issue on their own.

I have several thoughts on this development, beginning with the wisdom of the timing. The president announced his position one day after voters in North Carolina voted to support adding an amendment on marriage to its constitution, banning same-sex marriage. As a friend pointed out to me, the president was shrewd to wait until after yesterday’s vote, which allows him to look like he is willing to buck public opinion rather than looking like his endorsement carried no weight in the vote.

Then there is Obama’s explanation for his decision, which was both intelligent and familiar to those who have followed this debate. But there was also, as there almost always is with Obama, an element of moral preening.

“This is something that, you know, we have talked about over the years and [Michelle], you know, she feels the same way, she feels the same way that I do,” Obama said.

And that is that, in the end the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is how we treat other people and, you know, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others but, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I’ll be as a as a dad and a husband and hopefully the better I’ll be as president.

Set aside for the moment the theological dimensions of this issue, which are far more complicated than Obama portrays. What the president has done is not simply shift his position; it’s that he justifies his shift as something Jesus would support. The argument being deployed goes something like this: Michelle and I are practicing Christians. What we care most deeply about is how we treat other people. We believe in the Golden Rule. And if you do, you’ll support same-sex marriage. If you don’t, you’ll oppose it.

Is it uncouth to point out that in 2004, when it was politically convenient for him, Obama argued that his religious faith dictated that marriage should be between a man and a woman? Now his faith dictates the opposite. What has changed during the last eight years isn’t the Golden Rule or the words and teachings of Jesus, the New Testament, or the Hebrew Bible; it is what is most politically expedient for a certain politician from Chicago.

Barack Obama wouldn’t be the first politician to shape his views based on the prevailing political winds and the needs of the moment. There are certainly serious arguments to be made on behalf of same-sex marriage, just as there are serious arguments to be made against it. But what I hope we’ll be spared from is Obama, having gone back and forth and back again on gay marriage, lecturing us about how his latest stance is the only principled and morally justifiable one.

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