Religion plays a role in the renewed conflict in Israel, but it may not be what you think

Religion plays a role in the renewed conflict in Israel, but it may not be what you think

Originally published May 12, 2021

(RNS) — Violence between Gaza and Israel intensified this week to levels not seen for years, with Hamas shooting hundreds of rockets toward the Tel Aviv metropolitan area and Israel retaliating with heavy strikes on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip.

The buildup to the current conflagration — some are already calling it a new “intifada” or “uprising” —  began several weeks ago in a Jerusalem neighborhood near the Old City, close to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites for more than 1,200 years.

While Muslims pray at Al-Aqsa year-round, the mosque attracts even more worshippers during Ramadan. Wednesday (May 12) marked the end of Ramadan and the start of Eid al-Fitr, a joyous time for millions of Muslims concluding a monthlong fast.

There’s no doubt that the most extreme Jewish nationalists would like Israel to recapture the Al-Aqsa Mosque because they say it sits on top of the ruins of the ancient Jewish Temple, the only remainder of which is the Western Wall.

But except for the setting of the conflict, faith is only tangentially related to the violence. Here’s a quick explainer on the conflict of the past few days, and what, if any, role religion plays.

Why did Israeli police raid the Al-Aqsa Mosque to begin with?

The Israeli government said the police responded after the Palestinians started throwing stones at them. Palestinians say the fighting really began when police entered the mosque compound on May 10 and started firing rubber-tipped bullets and stun grenades. More than 330 Palestinians were wounded. Israel said 21 of its officers were, too.

But the underlying tensions may have more to do with a set of clashes in the larger east Jerusalem area, which was captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and is home to about 350,000 Palestinians.

For weeks prior to the mosque violence, Palestinians had been protesting the threatened eviction of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of east Jerusalem. At night they would clash with police and far-right Jewish settlers.

Those clashes are in turn part of a long legal battle over who owns the property. Some Palestinians  were relocated to Sheikh Jarrah by the Jordanian government in the 1950s after fleeing their homes during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.

On May 10, the Israeli Supreme Court was set to decide whether to uphold the eviction of six families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in favor of Jewish settlers. The court has since postponed the ruling.

So this is a land dispute?

On a large scale, yes. In Sheikh Jarrah, in particular, the dispute originates in the 19th century, when Jews living abroad began returning to what is now Israel and buying properties from Palestinians who lived there. The Jordanians took over the land between 1948 and 1967. Israelis are now claiming it’s theirs again.

The dispute in Sheikh Jarrah takes on political overtones because the neighborhood is part of east Jerusalem, which Palestinians want name as the capital of a future Palestinian state encompassing the West Bank and Gaza. Many Israelis, regardless of their views about a Palestinian state, believe Jerusalem must remain “a Jewish capital for the Jewish people,” and under Israeli control.

What’s Hamas got to do with it?

The clashes between Israel and Palestinians in Jerusalem have united Palestinians far and wide, as have the larger disputes over their displacement and disenfranchisement by Israel. Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, located about 60 miles south of Jerusalem, sees itself as a defender of Palestinians.

Hamas is at root an Islamic organization born from members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and so it also cares deeply about the Al-Asqa Mosque, which Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary.

On May 12, Israel assassinated several Hamas commanders in retaliation for the barrage of rockets on Tel Aviv, Ashkelon and Israel’s main international airport in the city of Lod.

What role does Judaism or Islam play in this?

At heart, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a dispute over land. But religion is often the proxy for those disputes, pitting two different ethnicities and religions. Little wonder those tensions tend to flare around religious holidays, both Jewish and Muslim.

But Hamas’ main goal is not war with Judaism, but rather with Israel, which is occupying land it believes is inherently Palestinian.

As Hamas has become more emboldened over the years, so too, have Jewish nationalists. On Monday, May 10, which was Jerusalem Day, a national holiday celebrating the unification of Jerusalem, Jewish nationalists marched through the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Muslim Quarter, in a display that provoked and angered many Palestinians.

As often happens, the exclusive claims to parts of the holy city often turn deadly.

 

 

Why You Should Stop Posting Meme Photos on Facebook

Why You Should Stop Posting Meme Photos on Facebook

It used to be that you had to be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic to be exposed to sarcastic, misleading, and — fine, I’ll admit it — occasionally entertaining slogans about politics and spirituality.

No longer is this the case.

If you use Facebook with any kind of regularity, you’ve probably witnessed photo memes popping up like dandelions. And you may have liked them. You might have shared them. You might have even created a few. But I implore you — please stop. You’re making it hard for real communication to take place on Facebook, which is one of the few places where people with radically different worldviews can engage in honest dialogue.

Don’t believe me? I offer several reasons, with examples:

Reason No. 1: They’re often inaccurate or misleading.

Exhibit A in our proceedings is this gem above rebuking Christians for focusing on the wrong things. Now the fact is, the underlying truth behind this is something that I believe in strongly — Christians should be known more for how we help the disenfranchised than for what political stands we take. But the actual statement is just not true. Plenty of Christians line up at food banks and homeless shelters all the time — so much so, in fact, that these days it fails to even qualify as news. But you’d never know it from this meme photo, which relies more on stereotypes than actual data.

And this image is just the tip of the iceberg. With the next big story involving a church or a Christian leader, there’ll be plenty more.

And even the ones that aren’t snarky in tone can be disingenuous. If they include any kind of statistical graph, for instance, they’re bound to manipulate or distort the truth in some way. After all, there’s a reason why Mark Twain referred to statistics as the worst form of lying. The best of these are usually large and thorough enough that they require full-screen viewing to accommodate all the details. But even these should be taken with a grain of salt.

And don’t even get me started on the photos-with-long-stories-as-captions, which are often just the same recycled urban legends from email forwards.

Reason No. 2: They exist primarily to amuse or incite people who already think like you do.

Let’s be honest. People don’t encounter these photos and say, “Wow, perhaps I’ve been wrong all these years, and my long-held political and/or religious beliefs are actually dangerous and wrong.”

It never happens because these aren’t designed to engage people who hold different views. Rather, their purpose is the same as much of the partisan-slanted media we see today — to reinforce your views and help you feel better about yourself for believing that way.

Now, I’m all for exercising free speech — but images have power. And as we know from Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, with great power comes great responsibility. And if this were only a political issue, I might not be as concerned. But in today’s political climate, where being a Christian is still associated with being Republican, these photos are making it harder for unbelievers to see the truth of the gospel because of all the political baggage.

I believe that everyone, Christian or not, has a right to participate in the political process. But Paul told the church in Galatia to avoid letting their freedom become an excuse to indulge in their sinful nature. For many of us, sharing these photos is a way of sticking it to the people who we feel are “the problem.”

As citizens of a global community, this is wrong.

Reason No. 3: If not misleading or divisive, they’re often so generic as to be meaningless.

Because “if at first you don’t succeed” at motivating your friends, maybe there’s something missing.

And that something is context. Many of these inspirational quotes and images, if they were on my refrigerator, I might find really moving. But the thing is, they would only be there if I put them there. People self-select these things. You can’t pass out inspirational nuggets like candy and expect them to be effective. One person’s inspirational quote is another person’s cheesy platitude.

And finally…

Reason No. 4: They make it harder to enjoy actual photos taken by your actual Facebook friends.

No disrespect to George Takei, the Japanese-American Star Trek alumnus whose posts get shared like crazy by his millions of Facebook fans, but he’s not my Facebook friend.

I know that in today’s relational economy Facebook friendships are slightly more meaningful than people with whom you make eye contact in elevators … but still. With so many people in my Facebook feed, I find much more meaning and significance in the large and small details that my friends post about their lives. You know, babies, vacations, meals, costumes, graduations, etc. So by constantly sharing these photo memes, you’re cluttering your feed with stuff I’m not interested in.

Because that’s the point of Facebook, right? To make connections and enjoy relationships. So if you want to be someone who builds relationships across the cultural divide, do us all a favor and stop posting these photos.

Why You Should Stop Posting Meme Photos on Facebook

Why You Should Stop Posting Meme Photos on Facebook

It used to be that you had to be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic to be exposed to sarcastic, misleading, and — fine, I’ll admit it — occasionally entertaining slogans about politics and spirituality.

No longer is this the case.

If you use Facebook with any kind of regularity, you’ve probably witnessed photo memes popping up like dandelions. And you may have liked them. You might have shared them. You might have even created a few. But I implore you — please stop. You’re making it hard for real communication to take place on Facebook, which is one of the few places where people with radically different worldviews can engage in honest dialogue.

Don’t believe me? I offer several reasons, with examples:

Reason No. 1: They’re often inaccurate or misleading.

Exhibit A in our proceedings is this gem above rebuking Christians for focusing on the wrong things. Now the fact is, the underlying truth behind this is something that I believe in strongly — Christians should be known more for how we help the disenfranchised than for what political stands we take. But the actual statement is just not true. Plenty of Christians line up at food banks and homeless shelters all the time — so much so, in fact, that these days it fails to even qualify as news. But you’d never know it from this meme photo, which relies more on stereotypes than actual data.

And this image is just the tip of the iceberg. With the next big story involving a church or a Christian leader, there’ll be plenty more.

And even the ones that aren’t snarky in tone can be disingenuous. If they include any kind of statistical graph, for instance, they’re bound to manipulate or distort the truth in some way. After all, there’s a reason why Mark Twain referred to statistics as the worst form of lying. The best of these are usually large and thorough enough that they require full-screen viewing to accommodate all the details. But even these should be taken with a grain of salt.

And don’t even get me started on the photos-with-long-stories-as-captions, which are often just the same recycled urban legends from email forwards.


Reason No. 2: They exist primarily to amuse or incite people who already think like you do.

Let’s be honest. People don’t encounter these photos and say, “Wow, perhaps I’ve been wrong all these years, and my long-held political and/or religious beliefs are actually dangerous and wrong.”

It never happens because these aren’t designed to engage people who hold different views. Rather, their purpose is the same as much of the partisan-slanted media we see today — to reinforce your views and help you feel better about yourself for believing that way.

Now, I’m all for exercising free speech — but images have power. And as we know from Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, with great power comes great responsibility. And if this were only a political issue, I might not be as concerned. But in today’s political climate, where being a Christian is still associated with being Republican, these photos are making it harder for unbelievers to see the truth of the gospel because of all the political baggage.

I believe that everyone, Christian or not, has a right to participate in the political process. But Paul told the church in Galatia to avoid letting their freedom become an excuse to indulge in their sinful nature. For many of us, sharing these photos is a way of sticking it to the people who we feel are “the problem.”

As citizens of a global community, this is wrong.


Reason No. 3: If not misleading or divisive, they’re often so generic as to be meaningless.

Because “if at first you don’t succeed” at motivating your friends, maybe there’s something missing.

And that something is context. Many of these inspirational quotes and images, if they were on my refrigerator, I might find really moving. But the thing is, they would only be there if I put them there. People self-select these things. You can’t pass out inspirational nuggets like candy and expect them to be effective. One person’s inspirational quote is another person’s cheesy platitude.

And finally…


Reason No. 4: They make it harder to enjoy actual photos taken by your actual Facebook friends.

No disrespect to George Takei, the Japanese-American Star Trek alumnus whose posts get shared like crazy by his millions of Facebook fans, but he’s not my Facebook friend.

I know that in today’s relational economy Facebook friendships are slightly more meaningful than people with whom you make eye contact in elevators … but still. With so many people in my Facebook feed, I find much more meaning and significance in the large and small details that my friends post about their lives. You know, babies, vacations, meals, costumes, graduations, etc. So by constantly sharing these photo memes, you’re cluttering your feed with stuff I’m not interested in.

Because that’s the point of Facebook, right? To make connections and enjoy relationships. So if you want to be someone who builds relationships across the cultural divide, do us all a favor and stop posting these photos.

You Can Pray That Again

You Can Pray That Again

Video Courtesy of THE BEAT by Allen Parr


Sometimes you have to know when to shut up and pray.

I was listening to the discussion at a staff meeting recently when our consultant made this remark about me: “Paul is so quiet. He doesn’t seem to be passionate about anything, except maybe the person of Jesus.” I smiled, partly because it was funny and partly because on the inside I am like Barney Fife, the nervous deputy on the old Andy Griffith Show. My mind churns with ideas, and my mouth is eager to assist.

So why did I appear so calm that day? Because I was praying, quietly to myself, over and over again: Father, Father, Father. At other times I will pray the name of Jesus or the name Christ. Sometimes I find myself praying a short phrase, such as Come, Spirit.

This is not a mindless chant I practice in order to reach some higher spiritual plane. Just the opposite. I realize I’m on a low spiritual plane, and I am crying out for help like a little child who runs to his mother saying, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.” My heart is hunting for its true home. David captured the feel of the praying soul in Psalm 63:

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you;
My flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water (verse 1, ESV).

Why am I quietly crying out for help? My tendency to interrupt in staff meetings is a “dry and weary land.” When I feel my inner Barney Fife crying out for attention, I pray quietly, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Like Augustine, in his Confessions, my heart is restless, and I need to find my rest in God.

I’m at my worst when I’m passionate about a new idea. I can drift into selling instead of listening and can easily become dominating. My heart is a dry and weary land. But when I begin to pray, the energy of my life is directed into the life of God and not into changing people’s minds . . . and I shut up!

When someone shares an idea that was originally mine, I want to mention that I first thought of it. I feel unsettled, as if the universe is out of balance. In short, I want to boast. The only way to quiet my soul’s desire for prominence is to begin to pray: Apart from you I can do nothing.

Interrupting, selling, and boasting are just a few of the things that draw me into continuous prayer, into continual childlike dependence on my Father. Each of us has our own list. We can let it drive us into a praying life.

Poverty of Spirit, Not Discipline

I didn’t learn continuous prayer; I discovered I was already doing it. I found myself in difficult situations I could not control. All I could do was cry out to my heavenly Father. It happened often enough that it became a habit, a rut between my soul and God.

Even now I often don’t realize that I am praying. Possibly, it isn’t even me praying, but the Spirit. Paul said, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!'” (Galatians 4:6). The Holy Spirit is not assisting us to pray; he is the one who is actually praying. He is the pray-er.

More specifically, it is the Spirit of his Son praying. The Spirit is bringing the childlike heart of Jesus into my heart and crying, Abba, Father. Jesus’ longing for his Father becomes my longing. My spirit meshes with the Spirit, and I too begin to cry, Father.

When Jesus prayed, most scholars think he regularly addressed his Father as abba. It is similar to our word papa. Their logic goes like this: We know the word abba because it burned itself on the disciples’ minds. They were so stunned–no one had ever spoken to God so intimately before–that when they told the Greek Christians about Jesus, they carried over the Aramaic abba word into the Greek translations of the Bible. This so shocked Paul that he used abba in both Romans and Galatians. Translators have continued the pattern set by the early disciples, and no matter what language Scripture is in, they still use abba.

This one-word prayer, Father, is uniquely Jesus’ prayer. His first recorded sentence at age 12 is about his father: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). Abba is the first word the prodigal son uttered when he returned home. It is the first word of the Lord’s Prayer, and it is the first word Jesus prayed in Gethsemane. It was his first word on the cross–“Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34) — and one of his last — “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). Father was my first prayer as I began praying continuously, and I find that it is still my most frequent prayer.

I discovered myself praying simple two- and three-word prayers, such as Teach me or Help me, Jesus. The psalms are filled with this type of short bullet prayers. Praying simple one-word prayers or a verse of Scripture takes the pressure off because we don’t have to sort out exactly what we need. Paul told us, “We do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). Often we are too weary to figure out what the problem is. We just know that life — including ours — doesn’t work. So we pray, Father, Father, Father.

This is the exact opposite of Eastern mysticism, which is a psychospiritual technique that disengages from relationship and escapes pain by dulling self. Eastern mystics are trying to empty their minds and become one with the nonpersonal “all.” But as Christians we realize we can’t cure ourselves, so we cry out to our Father, our primary relationship.

I was driving to work one day, thinking about all the options for a new three-year plan at work. The closer I got to the office, the more overwhelmed I became–I didn’t have the wisdom to sort through the options. The scripture “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I” (Psalm 61:2) came to mind, and I turned it into a simple prayer. I needed a rock higher than myself. That momentary poverty of spirit (I became overwhelmed . . . I didn’t have the wisdom) was the door to prayer. We don’t need self-discipline to pray continuously; we just need to be poor in spirit. Poverty of spirit makes room for his Spirit. It creates a God-shaped hole in our hearts and offers us a new way to relate to others.

A praying spirit transforms how we look at people. As we walk through the mall, our hearts can tempt us to judge, despise, or lust. We see overweight people, skinny people, teenagers with piercings and tattoos, well-dressed women, security guards, and older people shuffling along. If we are tempted to judge an overweight person, we might pray that he or she loses weight. When we see a teenage girl with a nose ring, we can pray that she would find her community in Christ. When we see a security guard, we might pray for his career. When we pass an older couple shuffling along, we can pray for grace as they age.

Paul the apostle was constantly aware of his helplessness and the helplessness of the churches he loved — and so he prayed constantly.

Paul’s Example and Teaching

“Unceasing prayer” is Paul’s most frequent description of how he prayed and of how he wanted the church to pray. This was a real experience for Paul and not a formula. In the twelve times he mentioned continuous praying, he seldom said it the same way twice (emphasis added throughout):

Without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers. (Romans 1:9-10)
• I give thanks to my God always for you. (1 Corinthians 1:4)
• I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. (Ephesians 1:16)
• Praying at all times in the Spirit. (Ephesians 6:18)
• We have not ceased to pray for you. (Colossians 1:9)
Continue steadfastly in prayer. (Colossians 4:2)
Always struggling on your behalf in his prayers. (Colossians 4:12)
Constantly mentioning you in our prayers. (1 Thessalonians 1:2)
• We also thank God constantly for this. (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
• As we pray most earnestly night and day. (1 Thessalonians 3:10)
• We always pray for you. (2 Thessalonians 1:11)
• I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. (2 Timothy 1:3)

When Paul told the young churches to pray, he encouraged them in this same pattern of “constant in prayer”:

• Be constant in prayer. (Romans 12:12)
• Pray without ceasing. (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

Given Paul’s emphasis, it is not surprising to see examples of continual prayer in the early church.

The Jesus Prayer

The Greek Orthodox Church still uses a simple fifth-century prayer sometimes called the Prayer of Jesus: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner (see the Philokalia, Vol. 4). The Orthodox tradition calls short prayers like this “breath prayers” because they can be spoken in a single breath.

The earliest version of this prayer came from a blind beggar named Bartimaeus, who cried out as Jesus was passing by, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Luke 18:38). If you add Paul’s Philippian hymn, “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:11), you’ve got the Jesus Prayer. From the beginning, this prayer was used continuously. When the crowd shushed Bartimaeus, “he cried out all the more” (Luke 18:39). He must have been shouting at the top of his lungs because three of the gospels mention his loud persistence!

My wife, Jill, has her own version of the Jesus Prayer. When we walk the dogs together on Sunday morning, we pass by an incredibly neat house with a well-manicured lawn. It is especially entertaining in the fall, when both the husband and the wife run around with a shoulder-pack leaf blower, chasing individual leaves. With her German heritage, Jill feels the pressure to obsess over neatness. As we walk by this immaculate house, she’ll start praying repeatedly, God, save me from myself. God, save me from myself.

When our kids were teenagers, Jill asked me, “Do you know what our family needs most?” Lots of things came to mind, including a newer car. Her one-word answer took me completely by surprise: “mercy.” We didn’t need to get more organized. We didn’t need more money. We needed mercy. That mindset creates a praying heart.

A praying life isn’t simply a morning prayer time. It’s about slipping into prayer at odd hours of the day — and not because we are disciplined. We are in touch with our own poverty of spirit, realizing that we can’t even walk through a mall or our neighborhood without the help of the Spirit of Jesus.

Django: Black Jesus Unchained

Django: Black Jesus Unchained

Jamie Foxx as Django and Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz. (Photo credit: Columbia Pictures/Newscom)

Critique and controversy surround Quentin Tarantino’s movie Django Unchained, a phenomena that may increase due to Tarantino’s Oscar win last night. In particular, many lament the depiction of violence in the film. While cinematic violence is a worthy debate topic, it’s ironic that this critique is  levied on this movie when innumerable films in the cinematic landscape merit such criticism. Of particular note, however, I have been mulling over the relationship between violence and religion in the film.

The portrayal of white men in American action films speaks to cultural religious beliefs within American culture. White males in the role of the “action hero” embody a messianic persona – one that is roughly consistent with conservative evangelical beliefs in a raptured white Jesus, returning to save believers while exacting vengeful punishment on fallen sinners.

Django challenges this imagery more by locating its protagonist, portrayed by Jamie Foxx, in the role of messianic deliverer. Django functions as a black Messiah in the most explosive period in American history, exacting punishment on a white supremacist culture that has neither come to terms with its sins or acknowledged them but instead misappropriated them on the very people and person (in the form of Django) who has come back to punish them. In this way, Django recalls the theologian Karl Barth’s notion of Jesus as the Judge who was judged in our place.

This inversion of conventional character development is unheard of in American cinematic history. It can also be interpreted as a response to the mythology and utter fabrication of D.W. Griffith’sBirth Of A Nation”, which casts the “Christian” Klansmen as the heroic protagonists saving “innocent whites” from the dark evil of the American Negro. Arguably, every narrative since the screening of that movie in the White House in 1915 has been a sort of archetype for American cinematic hero narratives.

As a black Messiah, Django challenges long held socio-religious notions of good and evil that are reinforced by the pervasive imagery of avenging white heroes in American cinema. He challenges the very existence of a white Jesus used to justify slavery by inverting the “avenging white Jesus narrative” onto the very culture that has always externalised that evil in the face of the black or brown alien “Other“.

White supremacist culture is confronted with itself and with the idea that their deliverer may not look like them; that the one they have reviled is in fact their ultimate judge, jury and executioner. In the context of the movie, Django functions as a black Messiah in the vein of Ezekiel 25:17: “I will carry out great vengeance on them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I take vengeance on them”.

The “white savior” narrative – so central to American culture – was used to establish, reinforce, and maintain American chattel slavery. Tarantino’s film counters that narrative by creating cognitive dissonance: it unearths the racist dynamics of a society that simultaneously cheers for and yet remains uncomfortable with Django’s violence.  Race-neutral critiques concerning Django’s violence abound, but few social commentaries explore what it means to see a black messianic figure in the antebellum era. We avoid the latter task at our own peril – to grapple with the artistic portrayal of  Django as a black messiah is to understand something of the social and religious vision that motivated Nat Turner to ignite a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831.