Religious Wars: Who’s Right, Who’s Wrong?
It was nice to take a break from news and politics. In truth, the two seemed to be conspiring to steal my holidays. So I banished them from sight in exchange for some family, food and cheer. It was wonderful, and I feel like a new man. Unfortunately, when I returned to Morning Joe today, the new news wasn’t very promising and a piece of old news just kept hanging on. To me they are, in reality, the same story dressed in different costumes.
The blaring new story was the new outbreak of war between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Of course, this hardly seems like anything new, but renewed elevation of the conflict brings a renewed urgency to it. It seems that no matter how much the rest of the world would “like” to see these two ancient enemies bury the hatchet – in the good way, that is – it remains the elusive dream of the current political era. Many argue that it is at the heart of the entire problem in the Middle East, but I’m not sure that such an overly simplistic view is correct.
While we in “The West” would like to make this solely about the Jews and Muslims, it is impossible to overlook a thousand years of historic conflict in the region between the Christian and Muslim worlds, while the Jews lived peaceful if not accepted lives within each side of the struggle. After all, it was the Christian Crusades that the Arab world points to as the proof that the US is anti-Muslim. And on the other side of the equation is the fact that the Islamic Empire took what is now Israel from the Byzantine Empire by force, thus cutting off Christians from their holy sites. While we wonder at the unwillingness of the Israelis and Palestinians to put the past aside and move forward, it would seem that the rest of us have some moving forward to do ourselves.
And we shouldn’t forget that it was a Christian nation, Great Britain, that failed to “protect” the Palestinians in its Protectorate of Palestine by giving their territory away to European Jews after World War II. The result has been 60 years of war and strife between a people who felt restored to their homeland after almost 2,000 years, and a people who felt betrayed by the Christian “protectors.” And, of course, religious extremists on all three sides of this deadly triangle have made it into a holy war on behalf of their particular view of who God is and who God loves best.
We in the “Christian” West believe ourselves to be a disinterested broker between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but for the most part we side with the Israelis because Christianity has a more recent connection to Judaism than to Islam. After all, the Christian Savior was a Jew. We also believe that the Israelis are more likely to allow us access to our holy sites than the Muslim Palestinians. So we are not really a disinterested broker at all. Admit it or not, we have our own dog in the fight. Perhaps we all need to take an open-eyed trip to Israel and see what’s really there.
I was fortunate enough to do just that in 1999. I know that’s been a while ago, although it seems like only yesterday. But while there I was stricken by several things that I don’t hear discussed by our press. Modern Israel is a land of wonder. In many trips to Europe, I have never found more comfortable, up-to-date hotels than those I found in Israel. Even in a kibbutz in Galilee, the bathrooms were just like home. And those of you who have traveled to Europe know exactly what I mean. And for those of you who haven’t, the shower curtains actually contained the spraying water to the tub or shower stall, the ceiling above the shower always accommodated my 6’ 2” height, and the water pressure was always great enough that you felt that the soap was rinsed out of your hair and off of your back.
Nowhere in my travels have I found the new juxtaposed so graciously and thoughtfully amidst the ancient. And the food was always fresh and wholesome, and tasty. The shopping was superb no matter whether it was in the ancient markets of Jerusalem or the malls of Tel Aviv. No matter what the Arab world may think about the Israelis, they have created and overseen a marvelous country for themselves. However, part of the problem is the fact that the Israelis have done just that. They have created a country for themselves.
Let me explain. As my tour bus left the marvels of Tel Aviv, where you arrive at the airport, and Jerusalem, for a trip to the eastern portion of the country, a different kind of world emerged. It was the world of the Palestinians. It was as eye-poppingly startling to me as a trip from the developed middle-class comfort of Greenville, Mississippi, out through the cotton fields to the east in the 1970s where black families lived in one-room unpainted shacks alongside the road where the electricity only reached far enough to power the refrigerator on the front porch. In the desert east of Jerusalem, far from the modern sprawl of its suburbs – in fact, a world away – were Bedouins living in tents off the modern highway. And in the towns we zoomed by on our way to the Dead Sea and Masada, were scenes of poverty that I had not seen before. My overall impression was that there was a version of apartheid going on in Israel that I was not prepared to see. Suddenly I realized that there could be a reason that the Palestinians harbor resentment against the Israelis that has nothing to do with religious matters.
But lest my observations be misinterpreted as anti-Israeli, let me tell another side to this story. On a trip to the Golan Heights I came to understand another issue that I had never quite understood before. To refresh everyone’s memory of the Golan Heights, it is a portion of Syrian territory taken by the Israelis in a war with Syria. While Syria demands its return, the Israelis so far have refused, and have even built settlements there. But the real story is the geography of the area. When the word “heights” is used in this name, it understates the facts on the ground. The Golan Heights ends at the edge of a great cliff on the eastern edge of the fertile Valley of Galilee. Until I saw the Galilee, I always had pictures of Jesus of Nazareth plodding over desert terrain and preaching from the top of a barren mountain. Not so. The Galilee is refreshingly green and serves as the bread basket of Israel.
I tell all this to explain what the argument over the Golan Heights is all about. It seems that Syrians were standing atop their eastern cliffs and taking pot shots down on the Israeli settlers as they farmed their land. Of course, it is in dispute as to whose land it really is, but that aside, there was no security for the
farmers with the Syrians occupying such a strategic position above them. So presented with this simple fact, I realized that it would be suicide for the Israelis to return the Golan Heights to their avowed enemy, Syria, unless they could be assured that they would be safe in doing so. In the years since my visit, I have seen nothing coming from the Syrians that would lead me to believe that would be the case.
Add to this the inexplicable move by the Palestinian people to elect members of Hamas to be their government – a move that rivals that of the Germans electing the Nazis – and the picture is complete. Here is a group that callously enlists young people and children to become suicide bombers in their mad scheme to drive the Jews out. What the majority of Palestinian people were thinking is beyond my comprehension. This all adds up to make one thing clear: The Israelis have much to fear from people that they occupy such a small space with.
The problem in all of this, however, is just as inexplicable. The real players in this sad drama aren’t talking to each other. The Israelis won’t talk to Hamas until they disband themselves. That is totally illogical, and it seems the Israelis from all I saw on my visit are intelligent enough to know that. Of course, we’re just at the end of an Administration here that dealt with our enemies in the same way. But it all appears to the outsider that nobody really wants to fix the obvious problems and seek a peaceful solution.
That brings me to the “old news” that I saw this morning. It seems that the fire is still simmering and threatening to boil over about President-elect Obama’s selection of Rick Warren to give the invocation at the Inauguration. Many of my fellow liberals seem to be up at arms over the temerity of their chosen leader, Barack Obama, allowing such a person to take the podium and pray on January 20th. The gay community is particularly upset by this move — and rightfully so.
Now, I wouldn’t cross the street to hear one of Rick Warren’s sermons because I know that we don’t agree about what God wants for the world. I strongly disagree with him on the right of a woman to make her own decisions in regards to her own body and then take it up with God personally when she gets there. I think that’s how Jesus presented the choice to his followers. “Come, follow me,” he said. I’m paraphrasing here, but what He never said was, “Here, put these shackles on and get in line behind me while I drag you to where I want you to go.” It’s just not in The Book. The same thing applies to homosexuality, as far as I’m concerned. If people feel they are gay, then that is their right to live their lives accordingly. If Rick Warren feels that God will punish them for it, well, he’ll just have to do what the rest of us do — wait and see. Hopefully his wait will be a long one. But in the meantime, I feel strongly that the Government of the United States of America was set up with the notion that nobody was allowed to force their religious beliefs on anybody else. And I, for one, stand strongly against Preacher Warren’s attempts to use MY government to advance his PERSONAL religious beliefs.
Now, on the other hand, it seems to me that the gay rights movement is handling this whole thing in the wrong way. There are great leaders in our past that lay out a perfect blueprint for action in the face of unfair prejudicial treatment. The foremost one in my mind is a man of my own time: Martin Luther King, Jr. He knew that a minority that amounted to no more that 10% of the total population could never achieve equality through the ballot box. He knew that he had to build his case in the court of public opinion and then in the courts of the United States of America. How did he do it? PEACEFULLY. No threats, no attacks on those who opposed him and his cause. Instead he amassed his people over and over again in city after city until he had built an organization capable of making a HUGE impact on the citizens of this nation by assembling on OUR Nation’s Mall before the Lincoln Memorial to hear one of the greatest speeches ever given in America. Only then did the tide start to turn for the blacks of our nation. Only then were a majority of the people of the United States willing to ask, “Why not?”
The same holds true for the gay population of the US. Demonstrate, yes. But do it peacefully. And remember who you need to really make your case to. Stop yelling at the Rick Warrens of the world. They will never be on your side. Take your case to the common-sense population of the country who live in the middle of the political spectrum. Get them to accept your cause, and then they will stand with you when your rights are correctly affirmed by the courts of our nation. And as for your “enemies,” let Barack Obama invite them to the table where you may sit down with them and talk. Don’t expect them to change their beliefs, but do expect them to give you the space to live your lives out in the open and equally with them and all others. But if you refuse to talk with your enemies, they will always be your enemies, just like we see in the Middle East today. Extend the olive branch of peace to those who oppose you and challenge them to do the same. It will give you the high ground in your argument. But don’t play “king of the mountain” once there. Invite them to stand in equality with you atop the Mountain of Peace.
Will this work? Maybe. Maybe not. But what could it hurt? Wars and hurling insults have gotten mankind nowhere in 5,000 years. It’s time to talk. And for your own sake, LET THE MAN PRAY! This nation, and in fact the whole world, can use all the prayers it can get. Peace, brothers and sisters.
KEEP FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT!