The Seventh Day

“To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money…is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?” – Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

 

This past summer, I found myself in a lot of cathedrals. I traveled to Switzerland, France, Spain, and England, and in each place I saw tall turrets and brilliant glass windows. I quickly learned that experiencing the outside of a cathedral is not the same as experiencing the inside of a cathedral. The outside is colossal and glorious and allows you to see where the cathedral exists in space compared to all that exists around it. The inside is colossal and glorious in a different way. It is darker, holier. In it, your senses adjust to the sacredness of the space. The scents and sounds are different, the air is cooler, and there is no direct sunlight. Rather, all sunlight is filtered through stained glass windows wherein you see your Savior and His story. He is brighter than you, and you are aware of it. When you are in a cathedral, you are in a sacred space: a space built by man but dwelt in by God. This is the Christian tradition.

 

While the beauty of sacred spaces can be appreciated in itself, sacred spaces only fully affect us if the time within them is sacred as well. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Jewish rabbi and activist of thetwentieth century, speaks about the sacred thing that God built before man ever built the cathedral. In The Sabbath, Heschel points out that there was a designated sacred time before there were sacred spaces. This sacred time was the seventh day, the only thing God created in the beginning that He called “holy.” Sabbath—or Shabbat, as it’s called in the Jewish tradition—is like an incorporeal cathedral. It is a sacred architecture assembled not in space but in time.

 

During Shabbat, it is the participant who decides to make Shabbat holy. This is very different from sacred space. The sacred spaces we gather in (like cathedrals) are, in part, designed to help us adopt the right posture towards God during sacred times of worship. Yet in holy spaces, I fidget and my mind wanders if I have not learned to regard time correctly. Although sacred spaces invite you into sacred thoughts, if you have not learned to value time as sacred as well, you likely will not feel the need to actively give up your internal quarrels or evil thoughts. We can enter into sacred spaces while hiding these profanities so that they are invisible to everyone else. However, it is much more difficult to enter into sacred time while harboring profane thoughts. For Shabbat to occur, the participant must actively give up enemies, quarrels, and work. Worry is laid aside; war ceases. Shabbat is an internal commitment to keep the seventh day sacred, and it is this internal commitment to sacredness that enables us to fully experience the affect of external sacred spaces.

 

Shabbat celebrates time, not space, teaching us how to have a proper relationship with time. The result of the fall is a broken relationship between man and himself, God, and all of creation. We must learn how to correct our relationship to all aspects of existence again, including time, which is an aspect of existence that we often misuse. Driven by our desire for success, Americans often consider rest as merely a means to increase productivity throughout the week, failing to see rest as an end in itself. To Heschel, however, Shabbat “is not an interlude but the climax of living.” When we enter Shabbat, we enter into a glimpse of eternity, or as Heschel calls it, “eternity in disguise.” During Shabbat, we cannot pick up our worries and quarrels as we would on a normal day. We are commanded to enter into rest, and that rest reminds us that our earthly cares are just that—earthly. They cannot follow us into eternity, and if we enter Shabbat correctly, they cannot follow us into Shabbat, either. Shabbat is peace in action among man and everything else. For one day, we do not fight the earth, fellow man, or God. The only thing we fight during Shabbat is our own desire to do, a desire that often stems from the idea that doing is what makes us worthy or whole. Once we fight ourselves out of doing, we can realize that just by being—being God’s child, an heir to the kingdom, a new creation—we are worthy. Work is important to the Christian life, yes. But we must remember that it is God who makes us worthy and whole, not our work.

 

The cathedrals I found in Europe are merely one testament to how much we’ve done to preserve historically sacred spaces. We have done much less to preserve the ancient practice of sacred time. Imagine if the number of sacred places on earth were converted into sacred days during which we could experience the peace of the kingdom of God. Rest and peace can happen outside of a cathedral. We can fill the entire world with the sacred peace of Shabbat.

 

Owning Our Faults

A few days ago, this post showed up in my email (I subscribe to the blog). In it, the author, Joshua, (who is a non-religious Jewish atheist) makes a strange assertion that took me a while to come to grips with: That the Christian Church has a history of antisemitism, that this antisemitism persists even today in many Christian circles, and that the Church refuses to acknowledge this past and present antisemitism. Finally, Josh asserts that because of this, and because of a continued reluctance on the part of individual Christians (and the Church as a whole) to consciously and deliberately take steps to rectify the past and current wrongs, he finds it very difficult to take the Church seriously as a moral authority. I dialogued briefly with him on his post and felt convicted to write about it. Continue reading Owning Our Faults

What if Spock Was Right: Gilad Shalit, the Many, and the One

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas announced yesterday that Gilad Shalit, the young Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas since 2006, will be released.

In exchange for Shalit’s freedom, more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, hundreds of them convicted terrorists, will also be released.

The lopsided nature of this one-for one thousand exchange has not gone unnoticed, especially since similar past exchanges have not worked out well for Israel. It’s generally agreed that Hamas is set to be the winner in this instance, and though many believe Israel ought to be commended for a renewed commitment to life and hope, it seems probable that the freeing of these hundreds of convicted terrorists will bring an end to many, many more lives in both Israel and Palestine.

Has Israel made the right decision? It’s hard to know.

Perhaps it’s trite, but I can’t help thinking here of two exchanges between Spock and Captain Kirk in the Star Trek movies.

As Spock sacrifices himself at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, he tells Kirk,

Spock:“Don’t grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh…”

Kirk: “The needs of the few.”

Spock: “Or the one.”

Later, when Kirk and Spock are reunited after Spock’s rescue, Spock is puzzled—why was he spared when so much was at stake?

Spock: My father says that you have been my friend. You came back for me.
Kirk: You would have done the same for me.
Spock: Why would you do this?
Kirk: Because the needs of the one… outweigh the needs of the many.

In the Star Trek universe, Kirk found a way to save both the many and the one. Spock sacrificed himself for his shipmates, and they in turn sacrificed themselves for him. It makes for a good story—but real world struggles rarely end so neatly. In buying Gilad Shalit’s freedom at an almost impossibly high price, Israel may end up sacrificing its own people for the sake of a compelling national narrative.

It’s bold. It’s risky. It’s what the “good guys” in the movies would do. But is it wise? Perhaps not.

This tension between the needs of the one and needs of the many is, by the way, an old problem for Israel. In John 11, when the chief priests and Pharisees are discussing what to do about the man whose actions threaten their own power, Caiaphas convinces them to simply do away with Jesus:

“…You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” (John 11:49-50)

In the past, when Israel acted out of fear and favored the “many” over the “one”, Jesus died. (Of course, Gilad Shalit is not Jesus, and both stories are complicated. This is not a perfect analogy!) This time, though it’s easy to criticize the country’s desperation, they are at least moving forward boldly, and without obvious fear.

Maybe that’s good. Maybe it’s bad. I don’t know.

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem”—and pray for Gilad Shalit. That much, at least, is clear.

 

War of the Words: Israel and the U.S.

As Israel struggles to stay afloat beneath the nearly universal condemnation of its conduct in the recent flotilla incident, I can’t help wondering: When did racism suddenly become so socially acceptable – and even fashionable – in the U.S.?

To be sure, the decades-long struggle between Israel, Palestine, and the rest of the world is far from simple, and atrocities have doubtless been committed by both sides.  War is ugly, and we are rightly repulsed by it.  We make an enormous tactical mistake, however, when we allow this to separate us form our long-time ally–because that is exactly what our mutual enemy hopes for.  The U.S. government is doing no one any favors by distancing itself from Israel’s recent actions—no one, that is, except the flotilla organizers.  They depended on just this sort of reaction to solidify Israel’s place as Most Hated Nation. By making their own enemy the enemy of the civilized world, the Islamists behind the flotilla have gained an entirely new set of friends and potential allies.

Anti-Zionism is often merely a half step away from anti-Semitism. Though the two ideologies are not precisely identical—anti-Semitism was around long before the state of Israel existed—they are very closely related—so closely related, in fact, that in stoking the flames of anti-Zionism across the globe, the organizers of the flotilla have, at least temporarily, made anti-Semitism a Western virtue.  And almost no one has noticed.

Israel’s account of the events leading up to this week’s international outrage is fairly straightforward.  In fact, it’s the only unambiguous part of this whole PR nightmare.  Every other nation’s reaction has been so heavily contextualized with emotions and memories of past events that it’s a wonder we know what happened at all.

This is intentional.  Cold, hard facts are easy to confirm or deny; symbols are not. The flotilla, its cargo, and its passengers were selected to confuse the issues by serving as a symbol of Israeli aggression or of Palestinian hardship or of . . . whatever else it might take to turn the world against Israel.  Mostly, it was intended to spark anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic sentiments all over the globe.  It worked.

The international media’s emotional outrage is clearly about a lot more than just the deaths of the protestors on the flotilla.  It’s about the much longer struggle, stretched out over decades, between Israel and Palestine.  It’s about the resentments on both sides, and about how hard it is to wait patiently for a resolution between two competing worldviews.  And it’s about the belief, implicit in all these frustrations, that the world would be a better place without both Israel and the Jewish people.

In other words, it’s about the Islamist narrative.

Why is the leadership of our government buying into this narrative? It’s not a narrative that will ever be good for the U.S.  Neglecting our longstanding relationship with Israel will merely lead to the deterioration with our other Middle Eastern alliances.  With Iran so close to developing a nuclear weapons arsenal, we cannot afford to cause unnecessary shifts in the balance of power.  Not only can we not afford to alienate our ally, but we also can’t afford to endorse anti-Semitism in any form—not only because it is wrong, but also because where anti-Semitism thrives, anti-Americanism too often follows.

Yet we are endorsing it, as is the rest of the world, when we refuse to give Israel a fair trial.  This is not to say that Israel is incapable of error or that we should support our ally without reservation or precondition. Like all nations, Israel is a flawed state composed of imperfect people.  But in being so quick to assume that the international media narrative is correct, we are opening ourselves to exactly the sort of feelings and opinions that our enemies have been hoping for.

Islamists have ennobled their own position in the world by making Israel a global outcast.  They’ve encouraged us to turn against one of our best allies, endangering our own security in the process. They’ve also enflamed the anti-Semitic suspicion and hatred that is frequently associated with anti-American convictions.

The media frenzy surrounding the flotilla will quickly subside and most of us will forget about it within weeks. But next time Israel acts in a way that the world doesn’t approve of,  it will be easier for us to uncritically condemn them, and easier for us to learn to hate them.  If we don’t stop ourselves we will become so much like our enemies that they will defeat us without our even noticing. ‘

Declare the Word in Zion: America and the Middle East

Relations between the United States and the Middle East have always been complicated.  Given that the Middle East enjoys complicated relationships with every other region in the world as well—including itself—this should come as no surprise.

On 9/11, however, many Americans were surprised.  In the days just after the attack laymen and newscasters alike tried to explain the disaster with theories ranging from the absurd to the offensive.  Former President Bill Clinton, for example, was quick to point to the assumed cruelty of Western Crusaders when searching for an explanation—this despite the fact that, as Rodney Stark points out, Muslim ire regarding the Crusades is a relatively recent phenomenon which did not become intense until after the state of Israel was founded.

The average American pre-9/11 knew hardly anything about the Middle East, let alone the region’s Gordian relationship with our own nation.  He knows a little more now—though usually not enough to help him really understand the many difficulties we have faced in the region.  This puts him at a severe disadvantage because, troop withdrawal deadlines notwithstanding, the age-old conflicts between West and East aren’t going to become simpler anytime soon.

Ambassador Michael Oren’s Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present offers the first comprehensive historical treatment of the United States’ involvement in the Middle East.  Ambassador Oren unpacks and explains the complexity of our relations with the region in a book that is fascinating, easy to read, and vigorously well researched.  He is well qualified to do so; a graduate of Columbia and Princeton and a visiting lecturer at Harvard and Yale, the American-born Ambassador is also Israel’s highest-ranking official in the United States.

Though he lives in Jerusalem, Ambassador Oren is well acquainted with Western perceptions of the Middle East—a good thing, since his book addresses not only the factual chronology of political conflicts and alliances, but also the evolution of the West’s perceptions of the mythically exotic setting for 1001 Arabian Nights. It also addresses the 19th century exodus of protestant missionaries, zealous to convert the infidels in the holy land, be they Muslims or long-standing members of the Orthodox Church.

America’s fascination with the Middle East, argues Oren, began not with 9/11, not with the discovery of oil in the region, not with 19th century protestant missionary endeavors, and not even with the Barbary Wars:

“Come, let us declare in zion the word of God,” proclaimed William Bradford, the future governor of the Plymouth Colony, as he stepped off the Mayflower in 1620.  Bradford was quoting Jeremiah, but “Zion,” for him, was not the old Promised Land of Canaan but its new incarnation, America.  Its inhabitants were not the ancient Israelites but the 101 passengers who had arrived with Bradford, his fellow Puritans.” (p. 83)

The Puritans, explains Oren, fiercely identified with and embraced the Israelites’ mythic escape from Egyptian oppression and search for a Promised Land.  These colonists, familiar as they were with Old Testament descriptions of the Holy Land, “superimposed the map of the old Canaan over the new one they now settled.” (p. 84)

America and Israel, in other words, were joined together mythically, spiritually, and, in a sense, even geographically, in innumerable ways long before they had any political dealings with each other.  As much as the public might like to ignore the problems in the Middle East post-9/11, we are inescapably married to them—and we always have been.  We can withdraw our troops from the region, but we can’t erase the results of centuries of complex American victories and defeats in the Middle East—nor should we.  Fortunately, Ambassador Oren and his writings will continue to avail those who wish to understand the background to the  innumerable challenges that always have and probably always will challenge our relationship with the Middle East. ‘

Israel, Hamas, and the looter mentality

On January 10, 2009, a rally swept along Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Though billed as a “pro-Palestine” rally, in reality, it was far more anti-Israel and anti-America than anything else. I went with a group of fellow bloggers from the Heading Right station on www.BlogTalkRadio.com. When we got within a block or two, we could see (and hear!) the rally.
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An older man of Native American ancestry walked up and down the line of Israel supporters, shouting in our faces. He was mostly challenging the men, saying that they were stupid white men, and that “the women understand, listen to them!” Funny, when he made the comment about women, he was standing with two young Jewish girls on his left, and me on his right. He didn’t attempt to explain how women like us could agree with the “stupid white men.” The cognitive dissonance, it burns!
(for an audio clip of this confrontation, listen to Douglas V. Gibbs show.)

Continue reading Israel, Hamas, and the looter mentality

The Gospel of Anti-Semitism?

As an evangelical Christian I have a deep-rooted affection for Judaism. Though my theological differences with the religion are profound, they cannot reduce the love I have for the children of Abraham and Moses. The story of the Hebrew people is, after all, my story too. So it saddens and frustrates me to see that my own belief denigrated by the very people I would give my life to defend.
The website of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, a group dedicated to strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship by emphasizing our nations shared values, presents some outrageous claims in an editorial on anti-Semitism:

The trouble with Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion” is not the film itself, but the gospel story on which it’s based. The gospel story, which has generated more anti-Semitism than the sum of all the other anti-Semitic writings ever written, created the climate in Christian Europe that led to the Holocaust. Long before the rise of Adolf Hitler, the gospel story about the life and death of Jesus had poisoned the bloodstream of European civilization.

The article then goes on to spout the usual nonsense about the ‘historical Jesus” and pins the blame of anti-Semitic sentiment on Paul and the early Church. Finding this anti-Christian rant on the website of a respectable organization like the AICE is disturbing. Though they are not responsible for the sites content, I doubt the many members of the ‘honorary committee” of the advisory board, which is composed of such esteemed members of Congress as Sen. Rick Santorum and Sen. Charles Shumer, would agree with the views of the editorial.
While Christian anti-Semitism has been a genuine threat throughout history, many Christians — from Vatican II-era Catholics to American evangelicals — have worked to prevent such attitudes from ever taking root again. To claim that our most sacred scriptures are the cause of this evil is not only counter-productive and disrespectful, but is itself an anti-Semitic claim. The Gospels, after all, are about the Christian God. A God who also happens to be a Jew.