Turning history into hope | James Carroll

Enter Christianity

The ghosts in the room during the Mideast peace process have a long history in another religion

By James Carroll
August 9, 2010

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JUDAISM AND Islam developed with only marginal reference to Christianity, but Christianity’s evolution has been entangled with the two other monotheisms — as essential foils. That has nowhere been more evident than in the Middle East. European Christendom came into existence in tension with an imagined “Holy Land’’ to which both Jews and Muslims had competing claims. That competition continues — sometimes dangerously, as on the Israeli-Lebanese border last week. If the current Obama push toward a revitalized peace process succeeds, with Palestinian and Israeli negotiators re-convening, ghosts in the room will have Christian origins. The way to render those ghosts harmless is to identify them.

Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity began as rivals, but they were comparably despised minorities in the pagan Roman Empire. Then, with the conversion of the emperor Constantine (310), the empire became Christian, and the church began to reinforce its claims with the power of the state. Heresy became a capital crime, and those who rejected, say, the doctrine of Christ’s divinity were put to death. Jews came under harsher scrutiny, too. How ludicrous, the thought went, that Christians were killed for dissenting from theological technicalities, while Jews, who disdained the whole of Christian belief, were allowed to live. By the end of the 4th century, prelates like Ambrose of Milan advocated violence against Jews, effectively offering them the choice of conversion or death. This was immediately opposed by the only figure with stature sufficient to challenge Ambrose — St. Augustine, who cited a psalm in defense of Jews, “Do not slay them!’’

Instead, Augustine argued that Jews should be allowed to survive within Christendom as Jews. (But for Augustine’s “lovely brainwave,’’ as the 18th-century Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn put it, “we would have been exterminated long ago.’’) But this was a defense with a catch. Jews were to survive, but never to thrive. Permanently in exile from their homeland, they would, in Augustine’s formula, be a wandering “witness people’’ whose homeless misery would demonstrate the truth of the very Christian claims they rejected. When Christians were in control of Jerusalem, they almost never allowed Jews to reside there — not merely out of bigotry, but because, after Augustine, Jewish exile was a matter of theological proof.

In 1904, the founder of Zionism, Theodore Herzl, met with Pope Pius X to ask for Vatican support for the Jewish return to Palestine. The pope was dismissive. “The Jews who should have been the first to acknowledge Jesus Christ have not done so to this day,’’ he said. “And so if you come to Palestine and settle your people there, we will be ready with churches and priests to baptize all of you.’’ The Jewish people, as a Jesuit theological journal explained at the time “must always live dispersed and vagrant among the other nations so that they may render witness to Christ. . . by their very existence.’’

When the Vatican refused to recognize the state of Israel in 1948, it was less a matter of tilting toward Arabs, than of this theology. (Under the reconciling Pope John Paul II, Vatican recognition of the Jewish state came in 1994, but by then even the PLO had recognized Israel.) As the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has continued, international sympathy for the besieged Palestinian population has intensified, but something else than genuine feeling for the downtrodden is at work. An ongoing and unconscious Western unease about Jews in Palestine, especially Jerusalem, is part of this concern. The legitimacy of the state of Israel is still at issue.

If the official Christian mantra about Jews was “Do not slay them’’ (more than 20 popes would issue bulls condemning the violence of Christian mobs against Jews), there was no such even theoretical restraint when it came to Muslims. But still the Holy Land was key. When a Christian fighting force under Charles Martel turned invading Islamic armies back near Poitiers in France in 732, a hodge-podge of Germanic tribes began to coalesce in reaction to the perceived threat from the “infidel.’’ Beginning with Martel’s grandson, Charlemagne, what we call “Europe’’ came into existence by defining itself positively against a negative Islam. Where Christendom drew a theological line against officially sanctioned anti-Jewish violence (even as Christians endlessly launched pogroms), attacks against Muslims were not only permitted, but deemed holy. Warrior-popes placed themselves at the head of armies. Yet it is telling that papal calls-to-arms against Islam, issued in defense both of Iberia (1073) and of Constantinople (1091), fell on deaf ears. But when Europe was summoned to anti-Islamic war for Jerusalem (1095), hundreds of thousands of people from all classes responded passionately. Instead of “Do not slay them,’’ Pope Urban II described a fiction of violence inflicted on the Holy Land by “the bastard Turks,’’ and demanded of Christians, “Upon whom does the task fall to avenge this . . . if not you?’’ Slay them indeed!

The Jewish offense was rejection of Jesus. Islam’s offense boiled down to its character as “irrational and violent’’ in the standard Western charge. Jews were a victim people, but Muslims were a world power. The success of their movement, in fact, was due to its humane and spiritually resonant message, a proclamation of the radical inviolability of each person’s autonomous interior life, which the believer could experience five times daily in prayer. These intense encounters with Allah generated a new kind of personal dignity, and people responded by the millions. Yet Europeans saw only “jihad’’ and forced conversions. Christendom was simply ignorant. The Koran, originating in the 8th century, was not translated into Latin until the mid-12th century, yet medieval Europeans routinely denounced it as a handbook of bloody conquest. The denigration became theological — with “irrational and violent’’ the watchwords. As a Byzantine emperor said in 1391, Muhammad brought “only things evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.’’

That perception was wrong. Not only does the Koran say explicitly, “There is to be no coercion in religion,’’ but Europe’s own embrace of rationality after the Dark Ages — science, arithmetic, Greek classics — depended on an explicitly Islamic preparation. Think only of Ibn Sina (Avicenna), whose 11th century Canon of Medicine was Europe’s foundational medical text, or Ibn Rushid (Averroes) whose 12th century synthesis of Aristotle was key to European renaissance. That the theological denigration of Islam as “irrational and violent’’ continues as a Western prejudice to this day was made plain when that same Byzantine insult was famously repeated by Pope Benedict XVI at Regensburg, Germany, in 2006. The pope spoke at a 9/11 anniversary observance, and the same malicious subtext defines last week’s dispute over the mosque near Ground Zero in New York. “Islamofascism’’ is a theological slander.

The contemporary argument between Israel and Palestine repeats these Christian-generated themes. On one side, Jews are taken to be ontological interlopers in what is actually the age-old Jewish homeland. Zionism, in that sense, is a rebellion against the fate for Jews that Christianity decreed as set by God. On the other side, Palestinian impulses are routinely dismissed as “irrational and violent,’’ a dominant characterization that is rooted in historic attitudes toward Islam, even if the Palestinian community itself significantly includes Christians. That age-old irrationality charge can be detected, for example, in the cliché that Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, as if what regularly appear to Palestinian negotiators as insurmountable obstacles have no substance. It is not irrational to insist, for example, that “facts on the ground’’ not be allowed to predetermine a final agreement.

If the Obama administration’s pressures succeed, and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations resume, the ghosts in the room will include the wandering Jew and the mad Saracen. Against those figments, both Israelis and Palestinians have mounted stout resistance. At stake in their dealings now, beyond all that they hold against one another, is nothing less than an ultimate and long overdue exorcism of demons set loose when Christians so got it wrong.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe. This is the third of six special columns, which will appear every other week. His new book, coming early in 2011, is “Jerusalem, Jerusalem: The Ancient City that Ignited the Modern World.’’

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