Tuesday, November 21, 2023

No, Virginia, These Are Not the End Times

Dear Editor, I am eight years old. Some of my little friends say that we are living in the End Times because of what is happening in Gaza and Israel. The preacher says that if I hear it from the pulpit, it’s so. I’m scared. Please tell me the truth. Is it the End Times?

No, Virginia, your little friends are wrong. So is the preacher. They have been affected by the religious fanaticism of a fanatical age. It pains me to say so, but many Christians today are more influenced by fads, politics and religious tradition than they are by God or Christ.

Preachers say it is “the Last Days” in order to scare you and your friends. They know that if they scare your mommy and daddy, then your family will come to church more and put more money in the offering plate. That way they can make a name for themselves, hoping to one day buy mansions and private jets and be on the president’s Evangelical Advisory Board.

Over a hundred years ago another little girl, also named Virginia, wrote to a newspaper asking if there really was a Santa Claus. The editor wrote back to her and talked about people like your pastor. He wrote: “They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible to their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.”

No, Virginia, these are not the End Times. Do not let anyone scare you or your little friends or your mommy and daddy. Use your own mind and think for yourself. Trust your own reasoning. The fact that you are asking questions is a very good sign. You are a very brave young lady. There are a lot of adults who are not brave enough to question what they are being taught. Never stop asking questions.

Explore what others think about this topic. Read for yourself what the Bible really says. Ask your parents to read it with you. You will find that there is no mention of Gaza or Russia or a “pre-tribulation rapture.” That is a big, scary idea that a group of people made up a couple of hundred years ago, and a lot of Christians believed them. There is no reason to think it is true.

Trust Jesus more than preachers, Virginia. Trust what he says. When Jesus spoke of the “end of the age” he was talking about his day, not ours. Jesus said that he would be with us always, so you need not be afraid. He taught us that the Kingdom of Heaven does not come with visible signs but is within us.

He told us to love our neighbors, including people who look different from us and who have a religion different from ours. He instructed us to welcome strangers, which was his name for immigrants. Jesus told us to love God and all people.

If you love and not hate, then you will see clearly. Hate and fear confuse the mind. No, Virginia, these are not the end times. There is no need to be afraid. As that editor said long ago, “Thank God! A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, God will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”

(If you would like to read the original letter to Virginia, published in the New York newspaper The Sun on September 21, 1897, you can access the clipping here.)

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Canceling Christmas

Christmas is being canceled in the Holy land. It is the latest casualty of the Gaza War – in addition to the thousands of human victims. Leaders of major Christian denominations in Jerusalem have called on churches to tone down Christmas celebrations in the Holy Land. Instead of joyous public celebrations, they are calling for quiet prayerful observances.

Bethlehem, Nazareth, Haifa, and Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter usually celebrate Christmas with parades, bazaars, street concerts and light decorations. But the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem recently issued a statement asking these Christian communities to cancel the large public celebrations. They said that this is a time of “sadness and pain,” and they are calling on Christians to pray for and aid the victims of war. 

I doubt that this is going to put a damper on American celebrations of Christmas. American Christians seem to have forgotten our Christian brothers and sisters in the Holy Land. They do not stand in solidarity with them. Tens of thousands of people came to the March for Israel rally in Washington recently, but you will not see anything like that in support of Christians in the Holy Land. American Christians try to outdo each other in defense of Israel, but they never think of their fellow Christians in harm’s way. They have effectively been canceled.

Christianity in Gaza dates to the fourth century, and Gaza is home to some of the oldest churches in the world. There are one thousand Christian believers living in Gaza today, a tiny fraction of the two million population. On October 19 the third oldest church in the world, Saint Porphyrios Church in Gaza, was damaged by Israeli missiles, killing 18 and injuring 30 Christians. They had taken refuge in the church, thinking it would be safe from attack. There was hardly a peep heard from Christians in America in response.

If the third oldest Jewish synagogue in the world had been bombed with Jews seeking protection inside, there would have been outrage from Jews and Christians. If this had been the third oldest mosque in the world (the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem), there would have been an uproar from the Muslim community. But the third oldest church? Ho, hum, who cares! Such is the fate of Christians in the Holy Land. They are the forgotten victims of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Christians in the Holy Land have been living between a rock and a hard place (the rock of Israelis and the hard place of Muslims) ever since the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948. Bethlehem and Nazareth used to be majority Christian towns. Christians were the majority when we were there. No longer. Due to systematic prejudice and discrimination, Christians have been forced to emigrate. Now Palestinian Christians are a tiny minority of 180,000 in the land of Jesus’ birth.

I remember fondly my time getting to know the Christian community in the Holy Land while studying for a semester at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Theological Research, located on a hill overlooking Bethlehem. My whole family came with me, and we occupied a flat with a balcony overlooking Bethlehem. One of my instructors was a Palestinian pastor named Naim Ateek, who traces his ancestry to the first century followers of Jesus. My daughter’s best friend was a little girl named Maria, who was descended from a Crusader.

We met Christians of Arabic, Jewish, and European heritage. We worshipped at Narkis Street Congregation (at that time it was called Narkis Street Baptist Church) in Jerusalem, a Messianic congregation, where we sang praise to Christ in Hebrew. We worshipped at the Jerusalem Baptist Church where we sang hymns in Arabic. We worshipped at Christ Church in Jerusalem, an Anglican congregation with a menorah on the altar and the Jewish context of the gospel is celebrated. Our daughter took her first communion there, the Sunday after she was baptized in the Jordan River.

Every year we decorate our tree with ornaments from our time in Bethlehem. We erect a crèche purchased at an olive wood workshop on Milk Grotto Street in Bethlehem. Before Israel built the wall around Bethlehem, my family used to regularly walk unhindered from our flat into Bethlehem. There was not even a military checkpoint at that time over thirty years ago. (I have hosted tours of Israel for shorter periods of time since then.) I can still picture the little market near the border where we bought vegetables and bread.

Every Christmas I can smell the scent of incense from within the Church of the Nativity, which we visited often. I remember drinking tea outside the basilica in Manger square. I remember worshipping in Church of Saint Catherine in Bethlehem and visiting the Bethlehem Bible College. We shopped for Christmas gifts at a Christian women’s craft show in Bethlehem. We still use those gifts.

This Christmas I will remember the Christians of the Holy Land, including the Christians in Gaza. While American Christians give each other unneeded gifts, I will donate to relieve the suffering of innocent civilians – Christians, Jews and Muslims – in the Holy Land. I will remember those who observe the holiday “in sadness and pain” in the Holy Land this year. I will speak and pray for peace.

While calloused politicians justify the killing of thousands of civilians as necessary collateral damage in a war against terrorism, I will remember innocent Christians huddling in a church in Gaza, wondering if anybody cares. I will not cancel Christmas, but neither will I forget my brothers and sisters of all faiths in the land where the Prince of Peace was born. As Jesus said, “As you have done it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me.”

(If you are moved to donate, I consider the most trustworthy organization to be the Red Cross, which is doing heroic work in the war zone of Gaza.)

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

The Arc of the Universe

In a sermon entitled “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution,” given at the National Cathedral on March 31, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Dr. King used this quote many times in his ministry, including during the march from Selma in 1965. Barak Obama liked it so much that he had part of the quote woven into the carpet in the Oval Office.

King was paraphrasing an earlier abolitionist preacher. The original words were spoken by Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister from Lexington, Massachusetts. Parker was an influential transcendentalist who studied at Harvard Divinity School. In an 1853 sermon Parker said: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”

I prefer Parker’s words over King’s and Obama’s abbreviated versions. It is more nuanced. Like Parker I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. My eyes see even less than Parker’s. These days it is difficult to see justice advancing on earth. The arc of American history seems to be bending in the opposite direction. Democracy is waning. Justice is threatened. Truth is discarded for worldly power. American Christianity is devolving into power politics.

For those reasons I do not see the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice in our time. If it is, the curvature of the arc is far longer than I can see. Sometimes I wonder if the universe has a moral bent at all. Perhaps the Yin-Yang symbol of Chinese culture is a better metaphor than the arc. Good and evil, moral and immoral, justice and injustice, fighting with each other - or perhaps dancing with each other - in never-ending cosmic balance.

Yet my Christian tradition teaches that the One who created and guides the universe is just. The Hebrew prophets proclaimed it fiercely: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Jesus proclaimed it. Yet Hebrew and Christian peoples have not often lived justice. The same with our Abrahamic cousins, the Muslims. Modern prophets who live and proclaim it - like Martin Luther King – are voices crying in the wilderness.

Still I have hope, even though “seeing through a glass darkly,” as the apostle put it. As Parker said, “I can divine it by conscience,” not by sight. Though God’s people are unjust, God will remain just. Though they be unfaithful, God remains faithful. Though religious people “kill the prophets and stone those sent to them,” as Jesus observed, God still longs to “gather them together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”

Perhaps the Yin-Yang symbol is best interpreted as God and humans fighting with each other for as long as time will last. Yet all religious traditions say that time will not last forever. There is an end to time. For those with eyes to see, that time is now. 

Time is an illusion when seen from Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven is here now according to Jesus.  If there is no time, there is no arc of time to bend one way or the other. Eternity is now, and Eternity is Love. God is Love. True Love is true justice.  May the arc of God’s people bend toward divine justice.