Commentary Magazine

Catacombs & Khazars

Blessed Is the Man

Cyprus is in the news and His Beatitude Makarios III is in the news pictures, with his archiepiscopal vestments and beard, and yet the one thing that people do not seem to talk about when they talk about him is that he is an archbishop. It is not clear why that should be so. Perhaps it is because he is not only Archbishop but also Ethnarch of Cyprus, the leader of his people in their national character, as the chief ecclesiastics of the Greek, Armenian, and other national churches have long been in that formerly Ottoman part of the world. Possibly we now refrain from asking what an archbishop is doing in an uneven war against the Turkish Muslim minority for the same reason we once refrained from asking what he was doing in a war of ambush against the British: it hardly occurs to us that ethnarchs should be squeamish about means that may be useful for national liberation or domination. Who is to say that the knife or bullet in the back is worse than the dynamite between the rails? As for the Sermon on the Mount, that is a text. It is not expected actually to govern behavior, but only to prove that Christianity's words are better than other religions' deeds. A bishop of William the Conqueror's rode into battle with a mace instead of a sword, thus honoring the prohibition of bloodshed by priests; and Makarios does not even carry arms.

The prelate-ethnarch's doubleness or ambiguity of role is not confined to the Orthodox Levant. In Catholic Ireland, Quebec, and Poland, the Church has comforted and protected communities distressed in their nationality as much as it has administered the sacraments and taught the faithful. That is probably why the Church commands greater loyalty there than anywhere else.

We Jews look on with admiration and envy as advanced Protestant and Catholic thinkers here and in Western Europe denounce culture Christianity and call a defeat what the Christian generations before them called a great victory and the sign of God's favor—the Emperor Constantine's establishment of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire. “Back to the Catacombs” is the new slogan. For the anti-Constantinians, Christianity was never so healthy as when it was poor and oppressed, and its success in the world was the beginning of a prolonged illness. They say that culture Christianity has to be infected with tribal idolatries, cannot prophetically condemn a sinful state or community, and loses its soul by trying to make the worship which in fact is offered to Moloch or Baal look like worship offered to the Lord. Therefore, they tell us, it is not enough merely to sever the last ties between church and state. For its own good, Christianity must go farther, and exile itself from the community's culture. A friend of mine heard a well-known Catholic priest disagree with the usual exhortations to put Christ back in Christmas. What he favored was to take Christ out of Christmas altogether.

So many Christian clergymen and seminary professors speaking and writing so impressively, and so few rabbis and professors in our seminaries! If our religious thinkers and spokesmen object at all to Judaism's involvement in culture, it is to involvement in Gentile culture. The comparison seems to be all in favor of the Christians.

Our admiration and envy may be a little excessive, because Makarios is a far more typical Christian leader than the late H. Richard Niebuhr. That is certainly true of the lands of hardship. American Christians do not know, nor do most West Europeans, what it is to be under siege in the decisive respect of religion and nationality (which is to say, religion and culture). They have not the harsh and still living traditions of Catholic Poles crushed between Protestant Prussians and Orthodox, now Communist, Russians; of Catholic Irish under the Protestant ascendancy, or of Orthodox Greeks hating the Sultan in his turban only a little less than the Pope in his tiara. But even in America and Western Europe the churchman is an ethnarch more often than he thinks, or we recognize.


In short, the anti-Constantinian thinkers in Christianity are neither numerous nor influential. When Charlemagne convinced the pagan Saxons of the truth of Christianity by having 4,500 of them beheaded in one day, he was acting in a Constantinian manner, and students in Catholic schools are still taught that he did well. Western Christians who speak against the involvement of religion in culture are a little like the rich man who tells us that to be poor is better than to be rich. He says it because he is rich, and the Catacombs thinkers say what they do because they are Western. Their Christianity is so deeply rooted in the culture and so well nourished by it that they can afford to make light of the culture. They can ask that Christ be taken out of Christmas because Christ is in Christmas—or half in, anyway. (Jews could tell them that.) If Christ were out of Christmas altogether, there would be no Christmas. No Christmas, and Christianity in the West would really be so close to the Catacombs again that the Catacombs would lose their charm. It is because the anti-Constantinians know there will always be a Christmas that they can afford to speak against it.

About the time when the State of Israel came into being, W. H. Auden was asked whether he thought the new state would be a good or a bad thing and whether Jewish nationalism was good or bad. His answer was something like this:—I am against states and nationalisms, but that may be because I am of British birth and American citizenship, and a poet writing in English. After all, England and America have been independent for a long time and have spread their language and literature all over the world. If I had been born to a people dominated politically and culturally by others, I should probably value political and cultural independence.—

However it may have been in antiquity, in modern times a Catacombs existence has in fact not been advantageous to the life of the spirit. Consider the Protestants who stayed in France between the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the French Revolution. By 1789, as Herbert Luethy has written, a century of persecution had deprived them of a learned ministry and of religious education, so they retained little more of the content of Protestantism than hatred of the Catholic Church. (Naturally, they were all for the Revolution.) To the powerful, powerlessness may seem an aid to grace, but the powerless know better. That is something else that we Jews could testify to.

Usually the anti-Constantinians also say that we are living in a post-Christian culture. From some points of view it is post-Christian, but not so much as they think it is, or as non-Christians and ex-Christians would like to believe it is. Anti-Constantinian Christian thought is popular with these because it feeds an illusion they need—that Christianity, or sometimes religion generally, is about to disappear as a massive fact. That is a hardy illusion, at least two hundred years old now.


The orthodox churches belong to the World Council of Churches, and in the United States to the National Council of Churches of Christ. While Protestant liberals blamed the Catholic Church for persecuting Buddhism in Vietnam, which may or may not have been true, they are not blaming their allies for overpowering the Cypriote Muslims. And while they raised their voices against the persecution of Protestants in Catholic Colombia, the Protestants were rather less clamorous about the persecution of (Protestant) Jehovah's Witnesses in Orthodox Greece.

Constantine and Charlemagne, therefore, are still the representative Christian figures. All that the anti-Constantinian talk has done is to give Christianity a spiritual gloss adapted to the modern sensibility, but without effect on the actual business of Christendom. Makarios remains archbishop.

He assumed the name when he became Makariotatos (“His Beatitude”), as a Roman Catholic cardinal assumes a regnal name upon elevation to the papacy. In fact, the Archbishop's literal style and name are Most Blessed Blessed, because makariotatos is the superlative of makarios, and makarios is how the Septuagint and the New Testament render Hebrew ashre, “blessed, happy, fortunate.” Thus the first word of the first verse of the First Psalm is: “Blessed [Sept., makarios] is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked. . . .” In its plural form, the word recurs in the Beatitudes (Makarismoi) of the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed [makarioi] are the meek . . . the merciful . . . the peacemakers. . . .”


“And many peoples Shall Come . . .”

Not long ago, in the Israeli journal Molad, Professor E. E. Urbach of the Hebrew University wrote: “In our contact with the new nations of Asia and Africa, we do not appear as the people which gave the world the belief in one God, nor as the adherents of a religion [with a vision of] one world united by faith in one God, but as a people of efficient technicians and energetic businessmen. What do our many guests hear about our religion and Torah? . . . I am not urging a missionary effort, but we must find ways of bringing Jewish religion and Torah to the world.” If I correctly understand Vittorio Lanternari, the Italian scholar whose Religions of the Oppressed1 was recently published here, Professor Urbach need not be so hesitant. There are many who would respond to a Jewish mission. For a hundred years or so, Judaizing sects have been arising spontaneously among peoples rebelling against the rule of oppressive strangers.

Judaizing is only one form of religious rebellion for them, other forms being Islamizing and Chrisstian-pagan syncretism. What has been happening in Africa and Polynesia is more or less what has been happening with, say, the Black Muslims of the United States. On the one hand, the culture of the alien ruler is powerful and attractive; on the other, it is hated as the instrument and symbol of oppression. The solution is to take over many of the new values, but to organize them in such a way as to turn them against the oppressor and his culture. In the United States the Black Muslims, while rejecting the world of the white slave-holder and his religion, Christianity, are completely devoted to the so-called Protestant ethic (which, by the time the popular magazines started writing about it, possibly had become more historically than actually Protestant): sobriety, industry, frugality, responsibility, and the like. The Islam of the Black Muslims is Christian sectarianism. The Father Divine movement was in some ways much the same kind of thing, and we are told that that is how we must view the Judaism of some Negro congregations in New York.

And so in the white man's colonies. The education received in missionary schools makes the old-time, unproblematic pagan religion impossible. Theological enlightenment aside, the people who have been to those schools see in the old paganism a backwardness they can no longer accept. It is a religion for people who cultivate by scratching the earth with a stick, not for men who want tractors. But the new religion goes with the hateful foreign domination. So one combines parts of the old with parts of the new in a Christian-pagan syncretism, which is in itself rebellious; or, having been influenced by contact with this high religion, Christianity, one declares for a related high religion, Islam or Judaism. According to Professor Lanternari, the rapid spread of Muslim influence in Africa, which Christian missionaries have been lamenting for some years now, is perhaps more anti-white than it is authentically Muslim.

Judaizing is even more directly related than Islam to what the rebels have learned in the missionary school. Quite simply, to them what a Christian calls the Old Testament means more than the New Testament. One Christian explanation, of a transparently sour-grapes character, is that this is because they are too primitive for the spirituality of the New Testament. Especially for Protestants, that is a grotesque thing to say.


Earlier this year Encounter published an article by Luethy reviewing the old debate over Max Weber on Protestantism and capitalism. Luethy calls the Protestant Reformation, approvingly, “the first occasion in the history of Western Christendom that the spirit and the speech of the Old Testament prophets was heard again,” and he goes on to speak of the Protestants' self-identification with the people of Israel and their prophets, “who rose against unjust princes and false prophets and who believed that the children of God should be concerned not only with holiness but also with justice and sanctification here on earth.” In the Roman Church, he says, “that tradition had lain completely buried for more than a millennium beneath the Roman imperial and gentile heritage.” (The idea is old, but evidently not obsolete.) Lanternari, for his part, shows that the Jewish Bible speaks as directly to the colonial oppressed as it once spoke to the Protestant Reformers of Europe, and additionally that the history of the Jews—persecuted but triumphantly surviving their persecutors—is a history that Africans and Polynesians want for themselves.

Uncle Tom was nobler than his modern detractors believe, but he was also submissive, in the New Testament fashion. Hence the use of his name as a supreme insult in the Negro community. For their songs of freedom and redemption his people used the language of the Jewish Bible—Moses, Egypt, “Let my people go.” That is why Judaism can be attractive, even in the absence of Jewish missionaries—as it was, for that matter, to the peasants of San Nicandro, in Italy.

The motives of the modern Judaizers should be no less acceptable to official Judaism than the motives of the Khazars, whose conversion to Judaism in the Middle Ages has traditionally been a proud consolation for us. Not all the Khazars were converted, only the royal house and the aristocracy; and whether these became Jews or whether they were Judaizers is still unclear. What is clear, or what the modern historians agree on, is that the Khazars probably chose Judaism out of need and expediency as much as for its own sake. Contact with the high religions of Christian Byzantium and the Muslim Caliphate had made the old paganism untenable, but they wanted to preserve independence and neutrality between Constantinople and Baghdad.


The remarkable thing about Lanternari's work is that we owe it to an Italian from Bari, when there are so many Jews in anthropology and so many Israelis in Africa. It must have been hard for the Jewish anthropologists and the Israelis to avoid becoming aware of what Lanternari is now telling us—especially the Israelis. The African nations are important for them. Nasser, in part to counter Israeli influence, has set up a Muslim missionary organization for sub-Saharan Africa as a branch of his (or the Arab League's) foreign operation. If only to counter Nasser, we might suppose that the Israelis would at least think about the Jewish religion in the new nations of Africa. But, as Urbach says, even when the Africans are in Israel the Israelis show them everything and talk to them about everything except Judaism.

That is not a failing of Israelis, it is a failing of modern Jews. Diffident about our religion and tradition among ourselves, we can scarcely be expected to commend them to others. And yet we must surely have some regard for our religion and tradition—enough, at any rate, to prefer them to Christianity. In the United States we could probably welcome a fair number of Negroes into our midst, if we wanted to. That would be good for them—so a Jew ought to assume—and especially good for us. By putting our rhetoric to the test, it would make us try to turn moralizing into morality. We would not succeed brilliantly, but at least we would be doing something serious. Evading the test while saying fine things, as we do now, is not serious.


* Knopf, 343 pp., $6.95.

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