Religion should humanize people. Enable them to live together. To recognize each other’s similarities. Respect each other’s differences. Affirm each other’s rights. Religion should create unity not uniformity. It should embrace people’s diversity and connectedness, their individuality and commonality, their uniqueness and oneness. Religion should equalize not marginalize. Harmonize not imperialize. Inspire people to empathize not demonize. Lead them to empower not impose. To love their neighbor as themselves. Yet the very prophet who taught this humanizing commandment is himself entombed in heaven by many of his followers-whose primary mission is not to liberate but to propagate, not to connect but to convert, not to humanize but to evangelize.
Enter Pope Benedict XVI. In February, he authorized a new version of an old Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jews. The new prayer deletes obvious offensive references to the Jews’ “blindness” and to calls for their deliverance “from their darkness” and the removal of “the veil from their hearts.” But the denigrating of Jewish identity and integrity remains the same: “Let us pray for the Jews. May the Lord Our God enlighten their hearts so that they may acknowledge Jesus Christ, the savior of all men.” (“Pope rewrites prayer for the ‘conversion’ of the Jews,” by Ruth Gledhill,
Religion Correspondent of The Times, Times Online, Feb. 5, 2008; “Conservative Rabbis to Vote on Resolution Criticizing Pope’s Revision of Prayer,” by Nella Banerjee, The New York Times, Feb. 9, 2008.
It is really not just about “acknowledge[ing] Jesus Christ” as “the savior of all men,” but about acknowledging the Roman Catholic Church as the keeper of the keys to Jesus’ heavenly entombment. The “new” prayer also calls for the conversion of Protestant and Orthodox and other Christians and pagans. (“Pope’s Rewrite of Latin Prayer Draws Criticism From 2 Sides,” by Ian Fisher, The New York Times, Feb. 6, 2008). Thus this Good Friday, a small group of Catholic traditionalists are given license to “prey” for the conversion of all non-Catholics-that they too may be “entombed” in heaven with “the savior of all men [italics added].”
Enter, in turn, Rev. John Hagee, prominent Texas evangelical Christian televangelist. He was accused of calling the Catholic Church the “anti-Christ,” an “apostate Church,” a “false cult system,” “The Great Whore.” This accusation against Hagee was made by Bill Donohue, president of the conservative Catholic League, in reaction to Hagee’s recent endorsement of Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign. (“McCain Backer Called Catholic Church ‘Great Whore,'” Drudge Retort, Mar. 1, 2008). Donohue called on McCain to reject Hagee’s endorsement-the pastor was reported as standing beside McCain in San Antonio and calling him, “a man of principle.” (“McCain Endorsement Angers Catholic League President,” by Michael D. Shear, washingtonpost.com, Feb. 28, 2008).
Rather than rejecting Hagee’s endorsement and denouncing his recorded anti-Catholicism, Senator McCain’s first reported response was, “Well, I think it’s important to note that Pastor John Hagee who has supported and endorsed my candidacy supports what I stand for and believe in. When he endorses me,” McCain continued, “it does not mean that I embrace everything that he stands for and believes.” Mc Cain then added, “And I am very proud of the Pastor John Hagee’s spiritual leadership to thousands of people and I am proud of his commitment to the independence and the freedom of the state of Israel.” (Drudge Retort, Ibid.). The following week, holding on to Hagee’s endorsement with one hand and deflecting criticism of it with the other hand, McCain carefully said for public consumption, ” ‘I repudiate any comments that are made, including Pastor Hagee’s, if they are anti-Catholic or offensive to Catholics’ . . . adding that he had sent two of his children to Catholic school.” (“McCain Grows Testy On Question About ’04 and Kerry Partnership,” By Elizabeth Bumiller, The New York Times, Mar. 8, 2008).
Senator McCain evidently wants to be all things to all voters. “And I am very proud of the Pastor John Hagee’s spiritual leadership to thousands of people.” Rev. Hagee’s “spiritual leadership” obviously does not include gay persons. He is documented as preaching that Hurricane Katrina was an “act of God,” to punish New Orleans for allowing a promised, greatly sexualized, Gay Pride parade scheduled for that day. Rev. Hagee’s “spiritual leadership” also excludes the people of Iran and all people of Muslim beliefs. He may be projecting his own violent impulses outward and heavenward in believing that “all Muslims have a mandate to kill Christians and Jews,” that “the coming nuclear showdown with Iran is a certainty,” and that “Israel and America must confront Iran’s nuclear ability and willingness to destroy Israel with nuclear weapons.” (Drudge Retort, Ibid.)
Nor does Rev. Hagee’s “spiritual leadership” enable him to transcend his apparent racist and sexist attitudes toward black persons and women. His 16,000 member San Antonio church is reported to have held a “slave sale” to raise money for young people-billed as “Slavery in America is returning to Cornerstone [Church] . . . Make plans to come and go home with a slave.” And, according to Hagee, “the difference between a terrorist and a woman with PMS” is that “you can negotiate with a terrorist.” (Ibid.)
Rev. Hagee’s “spiritual leadership” is evidently inspired by his belief in a safe, diversity-cleansed heavenly entombed Jesus. He preaches “If you live your life and don’t confess your sins to God Almighty through the authority of Christ and His blood, I’m going to say this very plainly, you’re going straight to hell with a nonstop ticket.” (‘John Hagee,” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.)
“And I am proud of his commitment to the independence and the freedom of the state of Israel.” Enter Israel to complete this dehumanizing circle of power and entitlement. One people’s independence and freedom should not be at the expense of another people’s independence and freedom. Sadly, the Jewish people’s occupation of Palestinian land and brutal oppression of the Palestinian people are very similar to the oppression their ancestors suffered when the Roman Empire occupied their land in Jesus’ time-and when succeeding generations of Jews endured Christian domination and persecution.
In a recent article in the Arab News, Steve Hutcheson presents the “disturbing parallels” between the Nazis’ oppression of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto and the Jews’ oppression of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. “The Nazis round[ing] up the Jews of Poland and quarter[ing] them in a small area of Warsaw.” Similarly, “the Israelis through conflict and force push[ing] many of the Arab inhabitants out of Israel into a [dense] enclave.” Like the Nazis and their Jewish ghetto captives, “the Israeli government stopped the flow of goods to 1.4 million inhabitants of Gaza by limiting the convoys of supplies to a mere trickle,” restricts the use of water and electricity and access to adequate medical supplies and health care. The “disturbing parallels” also include the random destruction of Gaza’s buildings and infrastructure and indiscriminate killing of Palestinian children, young people, women and men. These “disturbing parallels” lead Hutcheson to conclude, “There is a basic conflict of inhumanity occurring to the Palestinian people of Gaza that the world is deliberately ignoring. An inhumanity that was inflicted by the Nazis on the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto is now more than ever closely paralleling that which they are inflicting on the people of Gaza.” (Mar. 2, 2008)
It is believed that much of the American world is ignoring the “inhumanity occurring to the Palestinian people of Gaza” because of the way America’s mainstream media usually frame the Palestinian-Israeli struggle. It is most often defined as “Palestinian terrorism and Israeli retaliation” and rarely as “Israeli terrorism and Palestinian retaliation.” The blurring of cause and effect.
This Good Friday, as America observes the 5th anniversary of the Bush administration’s criminal pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, one group of Christians is authorized to pray for the conversion of the Jews,” that they may acknowledge Jesus Christ, the savior of all men.” And in February, another group of Christians officially decided to house at Southern Methodist University the library of a great enemy of humanity, President George W. Bush. Who recently received “a standing ovation” from Christian broadcasters when he once again justified his crimes against humanity in Iraq and Afghanistan: “repeatedly invoking his desire to spread freedom and democracy,” and saying once again “that freedom was a God-given right and ‘every human being bears the image of our maker.'” Words of a pious president whose “faith is well known [italics added]; he credits his acceptance of Jesus with turning his life around. . . .” (“Citing Faith, Bush Defends War Actions,” by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “The New York Times, Mar. 12, 2008).
Here is seen the prostitution of religion and politics for purposes of power and entitlement. Ironically, the historical Jesus was a Jewish prophet not a Christian savior. Like other Jewish insurgents of his day, he was crucified for seeking to liberate the Jewish people from the Roman Empire’s brutal occupation of their country. He did not die on a Roman cross for “the sins of the world” but to rid the Jewish world of the imperialistic sins of the Roman Empire. (See Alberts, “Jesus, The Theological Prisoner of Christianity,” Counterpunch, Aug. 25/26, 2007).
Contrary to the New Testament record, no resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples shortly after his crucifixion and told them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28: 16-20). This traditional Christian belief in The Trinity was a theological doctrine that actually took the early Christian Church centuries after Jesus’ crucifixion to formulate. It is not really about Jesus but about hierarchical and bibliarchical imperialistic-minded Christians claiming “all authority in heaven and on earth” for themselves “in his name.” It is about gaining power over people not empowering them. It is about controlling not enabling people.
If it were really about Jesus, his cross would be the oppression from which any individual or group is seeking to liberate himself or herself or itself. His steeple would be the aspirations of all people. His altar the common ground on which everyone walks.
Beyond our theologies, our ideologies, our philosophies, our politics is the human need to love and be loved. Here is seen the common ground of our humanness. Surely the validity of any religion or government is to be judged by the extent to which it leads people to love themselves and to value and love other persons for themselves. Time to resurrect the historical Jesus from the tomb of hierarchical and bibliarchical authority and entitlement. “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D. is a hospital chaplain, and a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy. Both a Unitarian Universalist and a United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics and religion. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.