Tag Archives: Christianity

Sacks, “Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence”

In June, Mulholland Books will release “Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence” by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth). The publisher’s description follows:

Despite predictions of continuing secularization, the twenty-first century has witnessed a surge of religious extremism and violence in the name of God. In this powerful and timely book, Jonathan Sacks explores the roots of violence and its relationship to religion, focusing on the historic tensions between the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Drawing on arguments from evolutionary psychology, game theory, history, philosophy, ethics and theology, Sacks shows how a tendency to violence can subvert even the most compassionate of religions.

Whilst dismissing the claim that religion is intrinsically a cause of violence, Sacks argues that theology must become part of the solution if it is not to remain at the heart of the problem. Through a close reading of key Biblical texts at the heart of the Abrahamic faiths, Sacks challenges those who kill in the name of the God of life, wage war in the name of the God of peace, hate in the name of the God of love, and practice cruelty in the name of the God of compassion.

Marlin, “Christian Persecutions in the Middle East”

This June, St. Augustine’s Press will release “Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy” by George J. Marlin (Aid to the Church in Need-USA).  The publisher’s description follows:

Christian PersecutionsEven before ISIS launched its ultra-violent campaign targeting Iraqi Christians in the summer of 2014, Pope Francis proclaimed that the current wave of Christian persecution in the Middle East is worse than the suffering inflicted on believers in the centuries of the early Church. Since the Arab Spring and the start of the civil war in Syria in 2011, which have thrown the region into utter chaos, Muslim extremists have killed thousands of Christians every year, while destroying and desecrating countless churches. Christian communities in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt have been hardest hit.

In his new book, author and political commentator George J. Marlin, chairman of Aid to the Church in Need-USA – an agency under the guidance of the Pope that supports the persecuted and suffering Church around the world – describes the sharp rise in Christian persecution in the Middle East. After brief narratives on the rise of Christianity, Islam, and terrorism in the Middle East, Marlin documents country by country, acts of twenty-first century Christian persecution that is nearing a bloody climax that could produce the unthinkable: a Middle East without Christians and the destruction of an ancient patrimony that has been a vital link to the very birth of Christianity.

Kidd & Hankins, “Baptists in America”

This May, Oxford University Press will release “Baptists in America” by Thomas S. Kidd (Baylor University) and Barry Hankins (Baylor University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Baptists in AmericaThe Puritans called Baptists “the troublers of churches in all places” and hounded them out of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Four hundred years later, Baptists are the second-largest religious group in America, and their influence matches their numbers. They have built strong institutions, from megachurches to publishing houses to charities to mission organizations, and have firmly established themselves in the mainstream of American culture. Yet the historical legacy of outsider status lingers, and the inherently fractured nature of their faith makes Baptists ever wary of threats from within as well as without.

In Baptists in America, Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins explore the long-running tensions between church, state, and culture that Baptists have shaped and navigated. Despite the moment of unity that their early persecution provided, their history has been marked by internal battles and schisms that were microcosms of national events, from the conflict over slavery that divided North from South to the conservative revolution of the 1970s and 80s. Baptists have made an indelible impact on American religious and cultural history, from their early insistence that America should have no established church to their place in the modern-day culture wars, where they frequently advocate greater religious involvement in politics. Yet the more mainstream they have become, the more they have been pressured to conform to the mainstream, a paradox that defines–and is essential to understanding–the Baptist experience in America.

Kidd and Hankins, both practicing Baptists, weave the threads of Baptist history alongside those of American history. Baptists in America is a remarkable story of how one religious denomination was transformed from persecuted minority into a leading actor on the national stage, with profound implications for American society and culture.

Pope Francis on the Armenian Genocide

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Pope Francis Greets Armenian Apostolic Patriarch Karekin II on Sunday (NYT)

Last Sunday in Rome, Pope Francis celebrated a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, an ethnic cleansing campaign that took place at the end of the Ottoman Empire. In the course of a two-hour liturgy in the Armenian rite, and in the presence of the Armenian Catholic patriarch, patriarchs of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the president of the Republic of Armenia, and many Armenian pilgrims from around the world, Pope Francis made what should have been an entirely uncontroversial statement. The Armenian Genocide, he said, quoting his predecessor Pope St. John Paul II, “‘is generally referred to as the first genocide of the twentieth century.’”

The essential facts are well known. Armenian Christians made up a significant percentage of the population in the Ottoman Empire’s eastern provinces. For a few decades, there had been unrest. In religious and political reforms known as the Tanzimat, the Ottomans had formally granted equal status to Christians and Muslims. Equality for Christians caused a backlash among Turkish Muslims, though, and oppression of Armenians and other Christians continued, particularly in the countryside. Armenian paramilitary groups began to resist. When World War I began, the Young Turk government worried that these groups would side with Christian Russians. So it decided to solve the “Armenian Question” once and for all by deporting the entire Armenian population from Anatolia to Syria, through the Syrian desert. Deportation through a desert, without adequate protection or supplies, is obviously a recipe for mass extermination. And that is what happened. Historians estimate that 1.5 million Armenian Christians perished, under horrible conditions, in the death marches and slaughters. The enormities are well documented.

Nonetheless, the Turkish side refuses to acknowledge what happened as genocide, denying that there was any plan to eliminate Armenians from Anatolia, while also arguing, inconsistently, that the Armenians were a potentially disloyal population and that the Ottomans had a right to do what they did. Besides, they say, many Turkish Muslims also suffered and died in World War I—surely true, but a non-sequitur. Because of Turkey’s sensitivities on the subject, and because of geopolitical realities, many Western governments, including our own, dance around the issue. When running for office, President Obama promised that he would officially recognize the Genocide, a promise he immediately broke as president. So Pope Francis’s forthright statement—even if he was, in fact, only quoting a predecessor, who was in turn referring to a general consensus—was remarkable, and praiseworthy. (The words on paper don’t capture the tone of the pope’s remarks. Watch this video of the event from Rome Reports. Francis is not simply reading from a text. He obviously means every word of it).

In response, Turkey has condemned the pope’s remarks as religious hatemongering and recalled its ambassador from the Vatican. The repercussions will no doubt continue. Yesterday, Turkey’s minister for European affairs suggested the pope had been brainwashed by the Armenian community in Argentina. Today, Turkish President Recip Erdogan reacted in rather personal terms. According to the English-language Turkish Daily News, Erdogan–who actually has gone farther than many Turkish leaders in acknowledging the suffering of the Armenians in 1915–said the pope’s remarks were characteristic of a “politician” rather than a religious leader. “I want to warn the pope to not repeat this mistake and condemn him,” Erdogan said.

In his remarks, Francis correctly linked the Armenian Genocide to the persecution of Mideast Christians generally—100 years ago, and today. Religion was not the only factor in the Genocide, of course, but it had a major role. Armenians who converted to Islam were often spared; some of their descendants still live in Turkey today. Many Armenians died as Christian martyrs; indeed, the Armenian Apostolic Church will canonize these victims of the Genocide at a ceremony in Armenia this month. Moreover, as the pope told the crowd at St. Peter’s, the Genocide struck not only  the “Armenian people, the first Christian nation”—here the pope is referring to the fact that Armenia was the first state to adopt Christianity as its religion, in 301 A.D.—but also “Catholic and Orthodox Syrians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Greeks.”  In all these communions, “bishops and priests, religious, women and men, the elderly and even defenseless children and the infirm were murdered.”

In addition, as everyone knows, the persecution of Christians in the Middle East continues today. The pope referred to these new martyrs as well: “Sadly, today too we hear the muffled and forgotten cry of so many of our defenseless brothers and sisters who, on account of their faith in Christ or their ethnic origin, are publicly and ruthlessly put to death – decapitated, crucified, burned alive – or forced to leave their homeland.” Many Christian communities in Syria and Lebanon took in the refugees of 1915, saving their lives, giving them a place to raise their children and preserve their faith. Now those communities themselves are the victims of ethnic and religious cleansing. To whom shall they go?

In an insightful column, Walter Russell Mead argues that Pope Francis’s remarks show that he has decided to raise the rhetorical stakes in the crisis facing Christians in the Mideast. Up till now, the Vatican has taken a “‘softly, softly’” approach to the conflict, so as not to endanger the lives of vulnerable Christians still there. Outside intervention often makes things worse for Mideast Christians, after all. But how much worse can things get? Mideast Christians face extinction.

Today’s Turks are not responsible for what their ancestors did 100 years ago. God willing, Turks and Armenians will one day be able to reconcile in a way that honors justice. Acknowledging the truth about what happened to the Armenians is a start. Meanwhile, drawing attention to the Armenian Genocide may be a way to mobilize the world to save suffering Christians now—before it is too late.

Penn, “When Christians First Met Muslims: A Sourcebook of the Earliest Syriac Writings on Islam”

In March, the University of California Press released “When Christians First Met Muslims: A Sourcebook of the Earliest Syriac Writings on Islam” by Michael Philip Penn (Mount Holyoke College). The publisher’s description follows:

The first Christians to meet Muslims were not Latin-speaking Christians from the western Mediterranean or Greek-speaking Christians from Constantinople but rather Christians from northern Mesopotamia who spoke the Aramaic dialect of Syriac. Living under Muslim rule from the seventh century to the present, Syriac Christians wrote the first and most extensive accounts of Islam, describing a complicated set of religious and cultural exchanges not reducible to the solely antagonistic.

Through its critical introductions and new translations of this invaluable historical material, When Christians First Met Muslims allows scholars, students, and the general public to explore the earliest interactions between what eventually became the world’s two largest religions, shedding new light on Islamic history and Christian-Muslim relations.

Classic Revisited: Dalrymple, “From the Holy Mountain”

from-the-holy-mountain-001In recent years, considerable attention has been paid to the many, multidimensional conflicts in the Middle East, with a particular focus on the influence of radical Islam. Many are inclined to see a conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations, a “clash” that divides East from West. Perhaps this is why some do not know and others have forgotten that Christianity is an eastern religion, firmly rooted in the intellectual ferment of the Middle East. This is important to remember, as the last remaining Christian communities are driven from the region by Islamist groups or misplaced by the ravages of civil war. William Dalrymple’s classic, From the Holy Mountain (1997) provides a detailed and insightful look into this dying culture. It is a timely read as Christians around the world celebrate the Easter Season.

Writing from an austere monastery cell on Mount Athos, Dalrymple tells us in the first chapters that the journey we are about to embark upon will follow in the footsteps of a wandering monk and his student, John Moschos and Sophronius the Sophist. The purpose of their journey across the entire Eastern Byzantine world in the spring of 578 A.D. was to collect the wisdom of the desert fathers, sages, and mystics of the Byzantine East “before their fragile world – already clearly in advanced decay – finally shattered and disappeared.” Fourteen hundred years later, Dalrymple replicates their journey, staying in monasteries, caves, and remote hermitages across the Eastern Mediterranean, collecting anecdotes from the remaining inhabitants of long-forgotten communities. Dalrymple’s book is not a plodding travelogue, nor is it a dry commentary on asceticism or obscure monasticism. With witty and elegant prose, he brings to life the old Byzantine world and its modern incarnation. Dalrymple reminds us, “From the age of Constantine in the early fourth century to the rise of Islam in the early seventh century – the Eastern Mediterranean world was almost entirely Christian.”

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In Antioch (now Antakya, Turkey), Dalrymple brings us to the pillars of the stylites, Christian ascetics who lived atop high, unsheltered pillars where they would preach, pray, and fast. Byzantines looked on the stylites as “intermediaries, go-betweens who could transmit their deepest fears and aspirations to the distant court of Heaven, ordinary men from ordinary backgrounds who had, by dint of their heroic asceticism, gained the ear of Christ.” Acknowledging the strangeness of the practice, Dalrymple says, “It is easy to dismiss the eccentricities of Byzantine hermits as little more than bizarre circus acts, but to do so is to miss the point that man’s deepest hopes and convictions are often quite inexplicable in narrow terms of logic or reason. At the base of a stylite’s pillar one is confronted with the awkward truth that what has most moved past generations can today sometimes be only tentatively glimpsed with the eye of faith, while remaining quite inexplicable and absurd when seen under the harsh distorting microscope of skeptical Western rationality.”

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In Edessa (now Urfa, Turkey), one of the first towns outside Palestine to accept Christianity, Dalrymple notes the absence of churches and the dwindling, almost nonexistent Christian communities that once flourished there. There has been no Christian community in the area since 1915, when the governor began deporting Armenians – that is, rounding them up and murdering them “in the discreet emptiness of the desert.” In Diyarbakir (also in Turkey), once one of the largest Armenian communities in Anatolia, only one church remains. Dalrymple emphasizes the degree to which the Armenians have been erased from the history and even physical landscape of the region.

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The Suriani, too, were driven out. Once surviving in the barren hills of Tur Abdin (in southeast Turkey), where hundreds of Syrian Orthodox monasteries maintained the ancient Antiochene liturgies in the original Aramaic, a community of only nine hundred still lived there when Dalrymple visited in the 1990’s. Speaking with Christians who have remained, Dalrymple highlights the striking lack of Western support for these communities: “The Christians of the West have never done anything for us. . . the Turks help other Muslims if they are in trouble in Azerbaijan or in Bosnia, but the Christians of Europe have never shown any feelings for their brothers in the Tur Abdin.” As we well know, support is still lacking.

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Upon entering Syria, Dalrymple attempted to interview a group of Nestorian Christians in a refugee camp. He was told that it was impossible for outsiders to get in, and that even trying would attract the attention of Assad’s secret police. The Syrian local who gave this information also suggested, dryly, that Dalrymple simply interview the Nestorians of England when he returned home, in Ealing. “Such are the humiliations of the travel writer in the late twentieth century,” wrote Dalrymple, “Go to the ends of the earth to search for the most exotic heretics in the world, and you find they have cornered the kebab business at the end of your street in London.” This story reminded me of my own plan to travel to Assad’s war-torn Syria to hear a liturgy sung in Aramaic. A professor suggested, instead, that I simply drive 20 minutes to St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Cathedral in Teaneck, New Jersey to achieve the same goal–which I did.

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Before the civil war intensified, it was widely held that Christians were better off in Syria than anywhere else in the Middle East (with the possible exception of Lebanon). Syria was considered a sanctuary for Christians, due in part to the way Assad built his regime: “Assad kept himself in power by forming what was in effect a coalition of Syria’s many religious minorities – Shias, Druze, Yezidis, Christians, and Alawites – through which he was able to counterbalance the weight of the Sunni majority.” Considering the current situation in Syria, one wonders if there are any safe havens left.

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Dalrymple takes the reader on a memorable historical journey through cities and regions now more readily associated with strife and militant Islamism than with Christianity. Through his stories and observations, Dalrymple also gently suggests that a way forward through present conflict may lie in acknowledging the similarities between the cultures and communities of the region. He writes, “In an age when Islam and Christianity are again said to be ‘clashing civilizations,’ supposedly ‘irreconcilable and necessarily hostile,’ it is important to remember Islam’s very considerable debt to the early Christian world, and the degree to which it has faithfully preserved elements of our own early Christian heritage long forgotten by ourselves.” One should read From the Holy Mountain to learn about or remember the history of Christianity – it is, as one reviewer put it, an evensong for a dying civilization. But one should also read this book to put into perspective contemporary cultural and religious conflicts in the Middle East and the role Christian communities have played, and could still.

Photos by Jessica Wright: 1. The Altar of the Crucifixion, Church of the Holy Sepulcher; 2. Icons, Istanbul; 3. Chapel of St. Helena, Church of the Holy Sepulcher; 4. Armenian Shrine, Church of the Holy Sepulcher; 5. The Aedicule, Church of the Holy Sepulcher; 6. The Stone of the Anointing, Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Hayes, “What’s Divine about Divine Law?”

This June, Princeton University Press will release “What’s Divine about Divine Law? Early Perspectives” by Christine Hayes (Yale University).  The publisher’s description follows:

What's Divine About Divine LawIn the thousand years before the rise of Islam, two radically diverse conceptions of what it means to say that a law is divine confronted one another with a force that reverberates to the present. What’s Divine about Divine Law? untangles the classical and biblical roots of the Western idea of divine law and shows how early adherents to biblical tradition—Hellenistic Jewish writers such as Philo, the community at Qumran, Paul, and the talmudic rabbis—struggled to make sense of this conflicting legacy.

Christine Hayes shows that for the ancient Greeks, divine law was divine by virtue of its inherent qualities of intrinsic rationality, truth, universality, and immutability, while for the biblical authors, divine law was divine because it was grounded in revelation with no presumption of rationality, conformity to truth, universality, or immutability. Hayes describes the collision of these opposing conceptions in the Hellenistic period, and details competing attempts to resolve the resulting cognitive dissonance. She shows how Second Temple and Hellenistic Jewish writers, from the author of 1 Enoch to Philo of Alexandria, were engaged in a common project of bridging the gulf between classical and biblical notions of divine law, while Paul, in his letters to the early Christian church, sought to widen it. Hayes then delves into the literature of classical rabbinic Judaism to reveal how the talmudic rabbis took a third and scandalous path, insisting on a construction of divine law intentionally at odds with the Greco-Roman and Pauline conceptions that would come to dominate the Christianized West.

A stunning achievement in intellectual history, What’s Divine about Divine Law? sheds critical light on an ancient debate that would shape foundational Western thought, and that continues to inform contemporary views about the nature and purpose of law and the nature and authority of Scripture.

Destivelle, “The Moscow Council (1917–1918): The Creation of the Conciliar Institutions of the Russian Orthodox Church”

In May, the University of Notre Dame Press will release “The Moscow Council (1917–1918): The Creation of the Conciliar Institutions of the Russian Orthodox Church” by Hyacinthe Destivelle, O.P. (Oriental Section of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity at the Vatican). The publisher’s description follows:

By the early twentieth century, a genuine renaissance of religious thought and a desire for ecclesial reform were emerging in the Russian Orthodox Church. With the end of tsarist rule and widespread dissatisfaction with government control of all aspects of church life, conditions were ripe for the Moscow Council of 1917-1918 to come into being.

The council was a major event in the history of the Orthodox Church. After years of struggle for reform against political and ecclesiastical resistance, the bishops, clergy, monastics, and laity who formed the Moscow Council were able to listen to one other and make sweeping decisions intended to renew the Russian Orthodox Church. Council members sought change in every imaginable area—from seminaries and monasteries, to parishes and schools, to the place of women in church life and governance. Like Vatican II, the Moscow Council emphasized the mission of the church in and to the world.

Destivelle’s study not only discusses the council and its resolutions but also provides the historical, political, social, and cultural context that preceded the council. In the only comprehensive and probing account of the council, he discusses its procedures and achievements, augmented by substantial appendices of translated conciliar documents.

Tragically, due to the Revolution, the council’s decisions could not be implemented to the extent its members hoped. Despite current trends in the Russian church away from the Moscow Council’s vision, the council’s accomplishments remain as models for renewal in the Eastern churches.

 

Crabtree, “Holy Nation”

This May, University of Chicago Press will release “Holy Nation: The Transatlantic Quaker Ministry in an Age of Revolution” by Sarah Crabtree (San Francisco State University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Early American Quakers have long been perceived as retiring separatists, but in Holy Nation Sarah Crabtree transforms our historical understanding of the sect by drawing on the sermons, diaries, and correspondence of Quakers themselves. Situating Quakerism within the larger intellectual and religious undercurrents of the Atlantic World, Crabtree shows how Quakers forged a paradoxical sense of their place in the world as militant warriors fighting for peace. She argues that during the turbulent Age of Revolution and Reaction, the Religious Society of Friends forged a “holy nation,” a transnational community of like-minded believers committed first and foremost to divine law and to one another. Declaring themselves citizens of their own nation served to underscore the decidedly unholy nature of the nation-state, worldly governments, and profane laws. As a result, campaigns of persecution against the Friends escalated as those in power moved to declare Quakers aliens and traitors to their home countries.

Holy Nation convincingly shows that ideals and actions were inseparable for the Society of Friends, yielding an account of Quakerism that is simultaneously a history of the faith and its adherents and a history of its confrontations with the wider world. Ultimately, Crabtree argues, the conflicts experienced between obligations of church and state that Quakers faced can illuminate similar contemporary struggles.

“Judaism, Christianity, and Islam” (Gilman, ed.)

This past February, Columbia University Press released “Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: Collaboration and Conflict in the Age of Diaspora” edited by Sander L. Gilman (Emory University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Judaism, Christianity, and IslamIslam, Christianity, and Judaism share several common features, including their historical origins in the prophet Abraham, their belief in a single divine being, and their modern global expanse. Yet it is the seeming closeness of these “Abrahamic” religions that draws attention to the real or imagined differences between them. This volume examines Abrahamic cultures as minority groups in societies which may be majority Muslim, Christian or Jewish, or self-consciously secular. The focus is on the relationships between these religious identities in global Diaspora, where all of them are confronted with claims about national and individual difference. The case studies range from colonial Hong Kong and Victorian London to today’s San Francisco and rural India. Each study shows how complex such relationships can be and how important it is to situate them in the cultural, ethnic, and historical context of their world. The chapters explore ritual practice, conversion, colonization, immigration, and cultural representations of the differences between the Abrahamic religions. An important theme is how the complex patterns of interaction among these religions embrace collaboration as well as conflict–even in the modern Middle East. This work by authors from several academic disciplines on a topic of crucial importance will be of interest to scholars of history, theology, sociology, and cultural studies, as well as to the general reader interested in how minority groups have interacted and coexisted.