Entries with tag faith matters .

Bombs, Borders and Bodegas: Caring for Our Neighbor

As daily consumers of breaking news, it seems like cable television and newspapers have no trouble fulfilling our hunger for scandal, controversy and conspiracy. What has largely made this possible is our remarkable ability to communicate with others and to instantly share with them global news and events in real-time. The vast quantities of information that we digest each minute of each day has, however, reduced our attention span and have rendered us seemingly helpless when it comes to processing and retaining specific details.

To better illustrate my point consider the news cycle over the past five or six months. Five months ago the entire world was concerned about fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Vigil services were held around the world; even the Pontiff offered his prayers for the 227 passengers and 12 crewmembers that went missing. Hundreds of millions of dollars and countless man-hours were invested in the international effort to find and retrieve that all-elusive “black box” from the ocean floor. In almost a blink of an eye, the world shifted its attention from Southeast Asia to Ukraine. Following the aftermath of the Ukrainian Revolution the world worried that we were entering a period of frigid relations between Russia and the West. The papers, cable news, policy analysts, and government officials all made this story their top priority. As expected, news about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 slowly recessed and eventually stopped; people were no longer interested in the missing plane or the fate of the passengers on board.

For almost a month now I have tried to pay close attention to the news as I searched for a story that could inspire my next blog post. This has proven to be quite a challenge! Once I thought I found what I wanted to write about, BANG, some other breaking news would distract me! It was impossible for me to concentrate on just one story, as email alerts and tweets were constantly bombarding and distracting me with updates.

When I finally sat down to write I thought that I would attempt to juxtapose three issues that are proving to be humanitarian crises, namely, the crisis on U.S. borders, the recent conflict between Israel and Palestine, and the conditions of underserved communities in major US cities. I don’t pretend to be an expert in geopolitics, diplomacy, international relations, or human rights, nor do I possess greater insight into these issues than the average person. However, like everyone else, I try to form an opinion about what I read in the papers and hear on the news. From my understanding, while each issue is unique and deserves to be considered alone, when viewed next to each other, they all share a fundamental element, namely, CARE, or the lack thereof.

Bombs: The Conflict Between Israel and Palestine

Over the centuries, the dry lands of the Middle East have become soaked with human blood as a result of human conflict. The causes of the conflict are as diverse as those communities involved. Violence in the region has been sparked by a number of factors, including religious and sectarian ideologies, racial and ethnic differences; however, it is also the case that strife bewtween communities has also arisen through the efforts of people to overcome brutal rulers.

In the case of Israel and Palestine, what is clear is that the two communities have become ever-more entwined in what seems to be a never-ending conflict. Most recently, the kidnapping and murder of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah (three Israeli Jewish teenagers) and the revenge killing of Abu Khdeir (a Palestinian Muslim teen) have led to the latest showering of bombs and missiles upon Israel and Gaza. In just a few days 216 Palestinians (mostly civilians, including four young boys playing on a Gaza beach) and 1 Israeli have lost their lives, countless people have become displaced, neighborhoods and their social institutions have been destroyed, and people—Jewish, Muslim, and let us not forget, Christians—are living in constant fear. The international community, including the United States, is paying close attention to the conflict and it is hopeful that a temporary ceasefire will eventually lead to a permanent halt of the violence.

Borders: Mass Deportations

Since the founding of our great nation, countless people have attempted to make their way to the United States. For individuals longing to enter our country, America represents opportunity, hope, and freedom. While the majority of immigrants have come to America following the prescribed legal procedures, for decades, thousands of people have entered the United States illegally. Most recently, many of these individuals have attempted to emigrate from Central America.

Its important to remember that anyone who has chosen to make the journey into the United States through illegal means quite literally risks everything, including his or her life. These individuals have decided to leave that which is most familiar to them in an effort to escape poverty, violence, and an uncertain future for themselves and their loved ones. They view the United States as their last chance. In the process of integrating within the community, many of them are apprehended, detained, and eventually deported. Deportation has increased to new levels during the past few years. Moreover, until their deportation, people must be kept in confinement; most recently, this has taken place in various towns of Southern California and Texas. A large number of citizens in these areas, as well as their elected officials, have protested the presence of these illegal immigrants and are calling for their immediate deportation. While protesting, people have shouted hurtful messages and carried signs with messages such as: “Illegal is a Crime,” “Return to Sender,” “Deport Illegals.” In many instances those on the receiving end of such words have been minors.

Bodegas: Underserved Neighborhoods

In major US urban centers countless people are suffering from a threat that remains largely unspoken. No, the threat has nothing to do with gang violence or drugs. People—our fellow neighbors—both young and old, have been suffering for decades because they continue to lack access to healthy and nutritious food. In many of these communities, parts of New York City, grocery stores that are common in most communities are few and far between. If you walk through the streets of these communities you will not find Whole Foods, Fairway, Food Town, or Stop & Shop. And you can forget about finding a farmer’s market; they are even harder to spot than a supermarket. You will, however, find “Brisk Bodega,” “BoHo Bodega,” “Silver Deli & Grocery,” and “Don Juan Grocery.”

If you have never entered a bodega before it is difficult to understand why this is such a big deal. After all, can’t you buy the same groceries at the local bodega as you can at Trader Joe’s? Nope! In general, one will usually find products with long shelf-lives, which means that they are full of preservatives. Also, candy, chips, soda, and cigarettes can be found throughout. Perhaps one will be lucky to find some bananas, tomatoes or a head of lettuce. Such limited options will often contribute to the rise of chronic disease in these communities, including diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

So, absent local supermarkets, most people (including the elderly and those with infants and small children) are forced to do their shopping at their local bodegas. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with bodegas per se; they have, after all, tried to serve the needs of local urban communities for years. Fortunately, according to a New York Times article, owners of these local bodegas and JETRO (a major wholesaler which provides most products stocked in bodegas) are taking things into their own hands. JETRO has begun to offer healthier food products and bodega owners are dedicating more space on their shelves for such items. 

Conclusion

One may wonder how these three stories are related. The truth is, when we view them separately, bombs, borders and bodegas have nothing to do with each other. However, a closer reading, under the prism of Christ’s calling to love our neighbor, soon uncovers for us that element common to all three crises, namely, human indifference.

In all three instances, we are dealing with members of communities that are victims of circumstances outside their control, largely, the origin of their birth. One can never choose his parents and he can never choose where he is born. And if this alone wasn't difficult enough to handle, local and global indifference exacerbates their suffering. Yes, we can and should accept that indifference is as bad, if not worse, than actively causing harm.

Many of us think that the government is solely responsible for coming up with a solution to the problems. While elected officials are specifically tasked with caring for their citizens, this does not mean that the rest of us are allowed to sit back and become mere spectators. Grassroots efforts are as important, if not more important, than government-sponsored initiatives. The message sent to the world is far stronger when there is solidarity on the ground. We see this happening, already. Jews, Christians and Muslims throughout the world have come together and have refused to accept violence as an acceptable path toward peace and reconciliation; responsible local business owners have decided to become more concerned about the overall wellness of their patrons and have begun stocking shelves with healthier food choices; and countless U.S. citizens have demanded that local and federal governments take steps to preserve the human dignity of undocumented immigrants and to find ways to assist people in their effort to enter our country. 

What can we do? How can we make a difference? We should first take time and learn what is going on around us. When we have a firm grasp on the facts, we should then speak the truth in love; we should become advocates, sharing the story of those in need with others. We should also pray for the helpless. Prayer for those in need is embedded in everything we do as Orthodox Christians precisely because we are all in need of God’s mercy. If prayer is too difficult for some, then we should at least remember those in need. If we are willing to remember our neighbors then maybe the next time we set our alarms at night we will think about our brothers and sisters who are startled in the middle of the night by bomb sirens; the next time we cross a bridge we will think of those who risk everything in life to help pave a brighter future for their families; and the next time we enjoy our third meal of the day we will think about of the child who goes hungry all day or has little else to eat than a candy bar and a soda. Perhaps if we can remember our neighbors we will begin to care for them.

No Room for Lukewarm as Mideast Christians Die: Doing No Harm, Doing Nothing, and Doing Something

Last week, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) held its annual Religion and Foreign Policy Summer Workshop.  Headquartered at the corner of Park Avenue and 68th Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the CFR, publisher of the venerable Foreign Affairs, is part of a small, rarified group of organizations whose weighty effects on international relations are widely recognized by global policy cognoscente.  Eight years ago, the CFR launched an initiative to bring together foreign-policy practitioners and “religious and congregational leaders and thinkers” whose ideas, experiences, and interactions can give purchase into understanding the role of religion in world affairs and as a variable for U.S. foreign policy.

At this year’s event, I bumped into many friends and met a raft of new people—preachers, academics, diplomats, think-tankers, journalists—from every point on the political spectrum and from a kaleidoscope of religious traditions.  In between the discussions about the efficaciousness and evolution of RTP (“Responsibility to Protect) in international relations—there remain serious deficits in systematic application of a consistent standard which can require collective action, whether economic, diplomatic, or sometimes, military, by the international community in order to protect populations from crimes that their states are unwilling or unable to stop—and the analysis of challenges posed by social media as a tool for religious radicalization, mobilization, and action—religious extremist groups are using Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook with unprecedented scope and sophistication, as echo chambers to amplify hate and provoke violence—I couldn’t help but wonder: Why has the international community demonstrated no sense of responsibility to protect the Christian communities of the Middle East, given the mounting evidence that very existence is becoming ever-more tenuous because of the crimes perpetrated by jihadi extremists who are uploading 72-hours-per-minute of real-time horrors from the killing zones of Syria and Iraq?

Yes, this is an issue about which I’ve posted repeatedly on this blog site, so let me drill down into some specific issues, questions, and suggestions.  I'd like to have a conversation with Orthodox Christians and the Church (my shorthand for all Orthodox Churches, of every jurisdiction, in the United States), about how to respond to the calamitous conditions faced by Christians in the places where Christianity was born. 

Preempting the critics, I should clarify that my focus on Christians and my chat with Orthodox Christians is not a function of sectarian navel-gazing, religious parochialism, or lack of concern with other pressing matters in our world (after all, climate change, natural resource deprivation, and new forms of slavery are but a few of the tribulations that deserve our attention, since they endanger humankind and the planet).  Rather, I return to the issue of suffering Christians in the Middle East for two reasons. 

First, there are the facts on the ground.  Most recently, the declaration of a new Islamic Caliphate whose initial footprint is the swath of territory captured by the extremist-jihadi group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), now renamed, simply, The Islamic State, is a gruesome climax to the decade-plus ordeal that has confronted Christians in those states with a dilemma: for some Christians, the perilous flight from their ancestral lands to the uncertainties and degradation of refugee status in Jordan and Lebanon; and, for those Christians unwilling or unable to flee, the daily privations of being kidnapped, facing slow-death starvation, or struggling to pay the jizya, the protection tax imposed on Christians as dhimmi.  There was an ominous symbolism in the fact that the ISIS's terror tactics had emptied Mosul of its ancient Christian population, so that there was not a single liturgical celebration in Mosul's churches on June 29th, the Feastday of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, the same day that ISIS chief Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the new caliphate.  The Christian drama is a harbinger of things to come, for Christians, other non-Muslim minorities, and for Muslims uninterested in living under a militant caliphate (their penalty for failing to pledge fealty to the caliphate concept is displayed in the gruesome photos of public crucifixions of Muslims in Syria by ISIS forces).

Second, the Christian drama (Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, Emil Shimoun Nona, has reported to international media that every last Christian has been cleansed from Iraq’s second-largest city since its capture by ISIS forces) is a potent reminder of the universal ambit of human suffering endured by individuals because of their belief and faith.  The examples of religious freedom violations, shocking for their global range and frequency, have been catalogued in recent reports by the Pew Research Center, the Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, amongst other sources.  Emblematic cases include the unrelenting persecution of Rohingya Muslims by the Myanmar government; the repression of Tibetan Buddhists by the Chinese state; the disturbing spike in anti-Semitic incidents in France and Belgium; and the brutal assaults on non-conforming Muslims and Christians alike by al-Shabaab and Boko Haram across east-central Africa.  The international community's shocking indifference to the plight of Christians in Iraq and Syria makes a mockery of the RTP, and sends a message to state and non-state violators of human rights that they are free to act with impunity within and across national borders.  Alternatively, a good-faith effort at collective action to protect the remaining Christians in Syria and Iraq--not a military action, but a combined humanitarian action (foods, medicines, shelter for refugees now living in unsustainable and precarious conditions in neighboring host-countries) and diplomatic initiative (decisive, innovative, and collaborative policies for pulling the plug on support to extremists of The Islamic State and al-Qaeda ilk)--will signal that the international community recognizes that peace is a chimera, absent the uncompromising protection of human rights.  

The approaching July 4th freedom commemoration of the American Revolution provides a moment for Orthodox Christians, living freely and securely in the United States, to contemplate how to make even a modest contribution to improving the conditions of Christians struggling to survive in places like Homs, Aleppo, Damascus, Mosul, Kirkuk, and the Nineveh Plain. 

The necessary first-step in constructive contemplation involves avoiding the trap of reducing the principle of "do no harm" to the default position of "do nothing."  One of the foundational ethics guiding United Nations humanitarian work and international human rights and religious freedom activities, the "do no harm" principle is a kind of normative-material value-added calculus.  In other words, efforts to bring aid and comfort to vulnerable and at-risk populations (in this case, the Christians of Syria and Iraq) must occur only if there is reasonable certainty that action (in this case, both acknowledging the problem and implementing relief policies) will neither worsen the immediate conditions or provoke new threats (e.g. reprisals, retribution) against the already-victimized population.

Justifiably, the do-no-harm principle has been a frequent fallback for Orthodox Christians in America who express reservations about public calls for action to come to the aid of Mideast Christians.  However, I sense a very concerning tendency, away from the ethical gold-standard and practical imperative of doing no harm, towards the absolutist position of doing nothing.  My nagging concerns on this point derive from the face-value acceptance by a not insignificant cadre of prominent Orthodox (and Roman Catholic and Protestant) Christians in America of the Washington-manufactured twaddle that justifies lack of assistance to Mideast Christians with such political conceits as "they don't even know what they want, they're not united," culminating in the big-lie statement of "Christians in Iraq and Syria do not feel abandoned." 

The explicit statements of multiple Mideast Christian leaders of various denominations that their communities, in fact, do feel abandoned (see comments by Rev. Dr. Andrew White of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, Chaldean Archbishop of Baghdad Louis Sakko, Bishop Elias Toume of Pyrgou in Syria’s Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch) and that they are seeking humanitarian assistance, should be enough to ensure that the legitimate priority of doing no harm does not degenerate unintentionally and unnecessarily, into doing nothing.  Furthermore, While entreating the international community to act swiftly to provide humanitarian relief to endangered Christians, these same clerics demonstrate their clear understanding of the do no harm principle--in their insistence that aid come to all those who are suffering, in their identification of sectarianism as fatal for sustainable peace, and in their unambiguous rejection of Western military engagement as solution for the ailments of Syria and Iraq.

How can doing no harm comport with doing something?  What can Orthodox Christians do to bring aid and comfort to Mideast Christians?  Over the upcoming July 4th solstice,  here are some thoughts to ponder, some very basic, imminently feasible, options for doing something, options for doing no harm while doing some good. 

First, pray and remember.  Every Orthodox church in the United States should be praying for the safety of Mideast Christians--supplications for peace in the world run throughout the Sunday Liturgy, so there is no reason that special prayers for peace, memorial prayers for those lost, and vigils cannot become part of the daily reality of Orthodox Christians here in America.  Second, teach and learn.  Catechetical education at every level of parish life can incorporate teaching about the plight of today's Christians, in Syria and Iraq and, more broadly, in the Greater Middle East.  Orthodox Christians in America can learn about the realities of life for Christians in the lands where Christ and the Apostles spread the Word, the connections between Christians there and Christians here.  Third, act.  Mobilization, organization, and action to raise humanitarian relief (whether clothing, emergency kits, monies) for Syrian and Iraqi Christians without food, shelter, medical care, or jobs, should be a given in every Orthodox parish in America. The Greek War Relief Association's effort (for more on this, see the pathbreaking research of Dr. A. K. Kyrou, also a blogger on this site) during World War Two is a brilliant example of the capacity of Orthodox Christians in America to mount a staggeringly successful, grassroots, international humanitarian effort.  Orthodox Christian parishes in America can easily become a platform for relief support to  the Christians of Iraq and Syria, via cooperation with respected international actors like International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), the International Red Cross, World Vision, and others.  Fourth, discuss and dialogue.  Orthodox Christians in America have a responsibility and an opportunity to share the story of endangered Christians in the historic lands of Christianity's origins, and wherever possible, to participate in ecumenical and interfaith efforts to bring peace to the world.  For guidance and inspiration, think about the recent Holy Land Pilgrimage of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis.  Finally, go and see.  Speaking of pilgrimages, it's time for Orthodox Christians in the United States to visit and to connect with the Christians who continue to live and witness through peace and war, in the lands of the early Church. Security constraints do not rule out pilgrimages to places like Constantinople (Istanbul), Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and if peace breaks out, to other places in the region.

In the final book of the New Testament—“Revelation,” also known as “The Apocalypse”—Christ, tells the Church at Laodicea, in central-west Anatolia, “So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of my mouth.”  Refracted through the lens of "The Apocalypse," the slippery slope from respect for doing no harm to the error of doing nothing could become part of the treacherous slide into lukewarm. The choices are obvious.

Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou is Visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University's Center for European Studies, where she will be Co-Chairing the new Study Group on the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe.

Putin's Unorthodox Orthodoxy

Pundits from both America and Europe have recently ascribed religious motivations to the actions of Vladimir Putin. Is Orthodox Christianity to blame for his militant incursions, reactionary policies, or anti-Western rhetoric?

Absolutely not.

The notion that the Ukrainian crisis has religious causes is both factually wrong and religiously offensive. What’s worse, it is politically foolish, playing directly into Putin’s preferred narrative of a culture war.

Nonetheless, the idea is gaining a foothold among powerful Western politicians. Carl Bildt, the Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs, recently asserted that Putin’s efforts to destabilize the Ukraine and his “anti-Western and anti-decadent line” have been “building on deeply conservative orthodox ideas.” The irony is that both Mr. Bildt and Mr. Putin, who have opposing political goals, are employing a strikingly similar misrepresentation of Orthodox Christianity—that it is incompatible with the modern West.

Mr. Bildt is not the only global leader to presume the incompatibility of Orthodoxy and modernity. Since the early 1990s, US and European foreign policy has been profoundly shaped by a political thesis first advocated by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington. Huntington argued that both the Slavic-Orthodox and the Islamic “civilizations” were incapable of embracing Western-styled democracy. Their religious and cultural traditions were supposedly too primitive to accept the Enlightenment principles championed in the West. Foreign policy consultants Molly A. McKew and Gregory A. Maniatis have sounded similar notes, recently linking Mr. Putin’s “revitalization” of “orthodox morality” to his “expansionist vision” and repressive domestic policies.

Only the most superficial of analyses can claim that Mr. Putin’s actions are motivated by Orthodox Christian faith. He is, in fact, doing little more than masking his own political objectives behind the veil of a moralizing principle. Mr. Putin’s efforts to criminalize homosexuality or public swearing are a function of his political calculus, not the inevitable legislative outcome of Orthodox Christian faith.

Throughout history in both East and West, political activists have routinely attempted to solidify their bases by demonizing a religious other. Mr. Putin seeks to present himself as a valiant defender of traditional Russian values against a vacuous and immoral West precisely because he believes that linking himself to the cause of a self-made Christianity will authorize him to enact his stated desire to reintegrate the ancestral Eurasian lands of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

This is not Orthodox Christianity, but classic political showmanship. And it’s far from unique to Mr. Putin. Dressing up political ambition in the clothes of traditional values goes back as far as Caesar Augustus—and for good reason. This rhetorical move is often, unfortunately, effective.

Mr. Bildt should know better, and perhaps he does. But a more sophisticated parsing of the religious rhetoric is not useful to him and his neo-conservative American supporters. It would undermine their desire to paint the Ukrainian crisis as an exaggerated clash between East and West, wherein the West is modern and good and the East is dangerously religious and totalitarian.

The “clash of civilizations” viewpoint also relies on flawed assumptions about Orthodox Christian history and doctrine. Over the past decade, scholarship has conclusively demonstrated that the supposed cultural divide between Christian East and Christian West was largely a political invention that reaches back centuries.

From opposing sides, then, both Mr. Bildt and Mr. Putin exaggerate the incompatibility of Orthodoxy and the modern West because it allows them to paint the political unrest in Ukraine as something other than it actually is—a political crisis brought on by the interconnection and fierce competition within the global debt and commodity markets.

The significance of these issues stretch beyond the current crisis in Russia/Ukraine because Orthodoxy is the dominant expression of Christianity in many other global hotspots, including the Balkans and the Middle East. If the economic and political interests of the West in these regions are going to be well served, then we must resist the facile characterizations of the Orthodox world and Orthodox/Western difference. They originate from an outdated and dangerous colonial vision that assumes the rest of the world should be measured according to an imaginary Western European standard. Ironically, though, the foundations of democracy, international trade, and Christianity originate from the very locations that are presented by Mr. Bildt and Mr. Putin as incompatible with the Western world.

Our world—both West and East—offers enough real examples in which religious convictions misguide public policy and foreign affairs. We need not create a new one by believing the rhetoric of Mr. Putin.

Co-authored by Fordham Professors:  Aristotle Papanikolaou, Archbishop Demetrios Chair of Orthodox Theology and Culture, and George E. Demacopoulos, Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center

Pilgrimage or Visit, Aramaic or Hebrew, Francis or Bibi? Jesus, the Languages of His Times, and the Politics of the Media

It was disappointing and dispiriting to see that the American media largely chose to ignore the participation of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in the Apostolic Pilgrimage of Brothers that took place in the Holy Land in May.  The meetings between Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis, during the May 23-27 pilgrimage—marking the fiftieth anniversary of the first meeting between Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem, the historic audience that initiated the modern dialogue between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, formally separated since the schism of 1054—represented one of the most important ecclesiastical summits to have taken place in the Christian world in the last half century.  Yet, the Orthodox Church was largely written out of the popular media’s narrative, as was the actual purpose, of the joint Papal-Patriarchal pilgrimage—an official reaffirmation and renewal of the ecumenical dialogue between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. 

The media widely packaged the pilgrimage as “the Pope’s Trip to the Middle East” or “the Pope’s Visit to the Holy Land,” a unilateral junket rather than a bilateral ecclesiastical summit, and a decidedly political, more than a religious, journey.  Indeed, the mainstream media’s approach left the public with the impression that Pope Francis’ counterpart and partner during the pilgrimage was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi) rather than Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.  Most of the American reportage from Jerusalem overlooked entirely the ecclesiastical dimensions of the pilgrimage, to focus on Francis’ show of support for the Palestinian cause, his calls for resolution of the Middle East’s multiple conflicts through peace, and Netanyahu’s irritation with the Pope’s pronouncements and actions.

The strain between Francis and Netanyahu came out into the open during a tense public exchange between the Israeli prime minister and the Pope over the language spoken by Jesus.  Despite efforts to reframe the incident as good natured, the very undiplomatic verbal sparring was immediately seized upon by the media as the most provocative moment of the pilgrimage, even perhaps eclipsing Francis’ apparent impromptu stop to pray at the controversial Israeli-built wall that isolates and cuts into the occupied West Bank. 

During a seated discussion between Francis and Netanyahu in Jerusalem on May 26, the Pope listened through a translator to Israel’s Prime Minister as he began speaking on the relationship between Christianity and Judaism.  Francis listened intently until the point when Netanyahu said, “Jesus was here, in this land.  He spoke Hebrew.”  Francis looked displeased, interrupted Netanyahu, and corrected the Prime Minister with a curt response: “He spoke Aramaic.”  Flustered, but with a firm retort, Netanyahu insisted, “He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew.”

On its surface, the edgy disagreement over what language Jesus spoke may have seemed pedantic, the stuff of endless debate and speculative interest for historians and linguists.  In reality, for Francis and Netanyahu, their passionate responses to this question were not the product of some sort of arcane academic squabble.  Instead, both men reacted as they did because they understand this issue is a gravely serious and consequential matter loaded with political import. 

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s assertions about Jesus’ language were driven by a political agenda.  Specifically, Netanyahu made his comment to emphasize the point that the historic Jesus was a Jew who lived in the land of Israel centuries before the appearance of modern Arab Palestinians.  Netanyahu’s statement was meant to implicitly promote his view that Palestinians—Christian and Muslim alike—are interlopers in all of the lands west of the Jordan River, with no compelling historical link or right to such territory.  Francis reacted strongly to Netanyahu’s claims about Jesus’ spoken language, not merely because Netanyahu was factually incorrect.  Francis abruptly interrupted Netanyahu’s soliloquy because he discerned, and was upset by, Netanyahu’s effort to distort and exploit the historical Jesus and his language for political purposes.  In short, the Pope’s reaction was not simply a nit-picking correction of an historical mistake.  It was an act of political defiance, with Francis breaking polite diplomatic convention in order to communicate clearly to Netanyahu that he would not tolerate such manipulation of Christ in history.    

As to the question of Jesus’ language, the historical evidence and the scholarly consensus are clear.  Centuries before the time of Christ, Aramaic—a Semitic language closely related to both Arabic and Hebrew, surviving today as Syriac, a dialect of the ancient language spoken by many Eastern Christians in the Levant—had flourished, becoming the most common language in the Near East, outside Egypt.  That Jesus spoke Aramaic as his native language is virtually indisputable.  That Jesus may have had more than a superficial knowledge of Hebrew is possible, but uncertain. 

Although some Jews continued to speak Hebrew as their vernacular language during the time of Christ, most probably in parts of Judea, the language had dramatically receded to a largely liturgical role in Jewish society by the first century AD.  Indeed, by the first century, more Jews, especially in Jesus’ native Galilee, spoke Greek than Hebrew.  This fact did not find its way into the disagreement between Pope Francis and Prime Minister Netanyahu, neither, not surprisingly, was it something recalled by the media.  This blog’s next posting will focus on the Greek spoken by Jesus.   

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

Middle East Tragedy: Channeling Basketball Commentator Johnny Most

In a recent article published online withThe Huffington Post, Dr. Elizabeth Prodromou suggests that basketball experts could teach us a thing or two about the endgame of the jihadi group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), whose forces have been closing in on Baghdad for some time now.  In the words of the late Celtics announcer, Johnny Most, ISIS has been patiently waging a deadly war, fiddling and diddling between Damascus, the historical seat of the Ummayad caliphate, and now, Baghdad, where the Abbasid Dynasty ruled over a caliphate for half a millennium. The future for Christians, other small religious communities, and Muslims who refuse to live in a sharia state, looks bleak. For the full article, A Basketball Guide to Middle East News, go to http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-elizabeth-h-prodromou/a-basketball-guide-to-mid_b_5507894.html

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