Historical Contexts and Christian ‘Belief’- Part 2

Historical Contexts and Christian ‘Belief’- Part 2

By Rev. Don Prange, Director, Ministries in Economic Justice, St. James United Church of Christ

Historical Contexts and Christian ‘Belief’ – Part 1

One cannot begin to understand ‘Jerusalem NOW’ without re-thinking ‘Jerusalem THEN’ and recalling last week’s observation of John Dominic Crossan that “Christianity began as a sect within Judaism” before becoming “a distinct religion,” with contentious debates erupting, something clearly exemplified in ‘The Gospel of John.’ But isolated from any historical context, its narratives lead to notions that it was ‘the Jews’ who were the ‘Christ killers,’ an assumption leading to a scapegoating of Jews throughout the history of a Christendom beginning in the 4th Century under Constantine. [cf James Carroll’s “Constantine’s Sword; (The Church and the Jews)” Houghton-Miflin, 2001]

So what’s the historical context for a better understanding of The Gospel of John? Whether it’s ‘history remembered’ or ‘memories historicized,’ the legendary stories of the Jewish people are rooted in two basic narratives: Exodus and Exile. The first is still remembered in Passover Seders. [cf Exodus 1-14] The second remembers a Babylonian exile described in 2 Kings 23 & 24; but it’s the story of a return from exile [cf Ezra & Nehemiah] and the restoration of a temple in Jerusalem marked by a spirituality of patriotic religious devotion [of Zionist proportions] that is the primary context for understanding the debates in The Gospel of John. Replace ‘the Jews’ with ‘the Zionists’ in its narratives and you’ll discover more authentic historical (and spiritual) dimensions.

What’s ‘historical’ about this is that not everyone in Babylon felt that a return to Jerusalem and rebuilding a temple was essential to the practice of Judaism. On the one hand, what might be the first elements of a ‘Zionist’ spirituality are expressed in sentiments like these: “How could we sing ‘hymns of Zion’ in a pagan country?” [ cf Psalm 137:1-5] Countering this is a word of God from Jeremiah: “Build houses, settle down, plant gardens and marry and have children…. (and) work for the good of the country to which you are exiled (and) pray on its behalf.” [cf Jeremiah 29:4-7]

A ‘contentious debate’ still rages over a ‘political Zionism’ realized in the formation of the State of Israel in 1947, an event stirring conflict in the Mid East ever since. And of great significance in that debate are the words of a contemporary Jewish prophet named Martin Buber who, while recognizing the importance of a ‘homeland’ for Jews that would lead to the cultivation of Jewish community around a way of life and its traditions, said that it must be carried out without threatening the rights of other communities. So he emphatically stated: “Jewish settlement must oust no Arab peasant; Jewish immigration must not cause the political status of the present inhabitants to deteriorate, and must continue to ameliorate their economic condition… (and that) such cooperation is an indispensable condition for the lasting success of this great work….” [Martin Buber, “The Meaning of Zionism” New York: Oxford Univ Press, 1983, cf p. 183]

If only Christian ‘beliefs’ would echo those Jewish ‘beliefs!’ However, the peace and security of a ‘Jerusalem NOW’ is threatened and compromised today not only by a ‘political Zionism’ manifested in the State of Israel, but by a ‘Christian Zionism’ promoted by the likes of The Rev. John Hagee [Cornerstone Church, San Antonio, Texas] who calls for a contemporary restoration of a temple in Jerusalem, as well as the expansion of the State of Israel far beyond its present boundaries, all linked to a ‘Christian fundamentalism’ that ‘believes’ these conditions are essential for a ‘return of Christ’ to judge the nations of the earth. [cf James Carroll’s “Jerusalem, Jerusalem” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011]

If there is to be an authentic ‘Christian’ response to turmoil in the Mid East that too often focuses on wars against misguided terrorists who in no way reflect the true nature of Islam, then it must begin with a ‘truth and reconciliation’ process that starts with recognizing the ‘terrors’ associated with the Crusades as well as a ‘Christian’ colonialism of a not too distant past that have contributed to much of the unrest in the world today. And such a process, with a penitential and confessional spirit, will continue to challenge policies that support a ‘political Zionism’ in the State of Israel that runs counter to both transcending Jewish and Christian ‘beliefs.’

Originally published in the Purcellville Gazette March 25, 2015

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