Monday, February 25, 2008

Fans and Fanatics

Egypt won! Last week the national football (soccer) team of Egypt defeated Cameron (1-0) in the finals of the all African tournament. There was much rejoicing far into the night and the television
stations have replayed many times the highlites of the game and of the celebrations that followed. All Egypt were enthusiasts, fans, in a nice moment of national pride.
To the right is a poster which catches that spirit.

In the class I am teaching in Christianity from the time of Islam's beginnings until 1900, we are investigating what it is to be a "fan", and the differences between being a "fan", devoted to one's faith and committed to its principles, and being a "fanatic", going to extremes in one's actions to demonstrate one's allegiance to these truths. Sometimes in today's world we only associate this later concept of "being a fanatic" with the violent actions and destructive terrorism perpetrated by our "enemies" upon innocent victims. There has certainly been an abundance of such acts, most notably the terrible destruction of human life on September 11, 2001, and other acts of terrorism in this century, and these are to be deplored.

However, to gain a wider historical perspective on religion and violence, we are using a book recently written by Michael Gaddis: "There is no Crime for Those Who have Christ, Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire" to examine the roots and the expressions of coercive force within Christian communities, as well as those used by their enemies against them. From the writings of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, who supported actions by the state to protect Christian truth and unity ("compel the people to come in"), to the violence actions of Christians (often monks) convinced they were acting out God's will in the destructive of property and lives of pagans and Jews, and even other Christians, we are studying the "dark" side of our own tradition and how we have treated our "enemies".

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (described earlier) was once destroyed by a "fanatical" Muslim caliph of Egypt (al-Hakim of the Fatamid dynasty) in 1009, and though it was rebuilt soon afterwards and again open to Christian pilgrims, this act became one of the major rallying cries for the Christian crusades in the Middle Ages. What is not often noted is that when the Crusader armies conquered the holy city, they put to the sword all peoples living there, Muslims, Jews, and Christians.

A Muslim leader from Egyptian, the Sultan Salad ad-Din, is still celebrated today as a local heroe led the counterattack, and finally expelled the "Franks" (as the western Christians were then called) from the region. He fought hard to expel the invaders.

What is not often mentioned is that within Egypt he pursued a policy of relative peaceful co-existence with the Coptic Christian community. The monument pictured on the right is from that period of history here in Cairo. It is characteristic of much of Islamic architecture, and suggests one of the central concept of "Islam" or "Dar al Islam - the place where God is obeyed and peace reigns". The building incorporates many different patterns and geometric designs and yet for me forms a beautiful, compeling, whole structure, with a sense of peaceful harmony among its diverse elements. I believe that this is the aim and desire of the vast majority of Muslims as well as Christians in this place, to be fans of, that is, devoted to their own faith, while respectful of and committed to living in harmony with others. This building is a nice image from the past of that desire.

There are presently many acts of violence by the few in this world, which create fear in us, and there will probably be acts of violence in the future which will try to shape our actions and policies toward others. But I want to close this section with the aims of the institute which Dr. Hans Kung heads (the Global Ethic Foundation), which are helping to shape the theme of the class I am teaching:
No peace among the nations
without peace among the religions.
No peace among the religions
without dialogue between the religions.
No dialogue between the religions
without investigations of the foundations of the religions.
Peace and justice. Roger February, 25, 2008

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Visit to the Coptic Cathedral

Greetings again. Last evening (February 13th) I attended the monthly audience given at the Coptic Cathedral by their "pope". He is pictured here (at the left) with other bishops of this Egyptian Orthodox expression of the Christian Church. (Coptic and Egyptian are both words used to describe the Christian Church in this place from ancient times. If you want to read more about its history, you can go to the web site "Christian Coptic Orthodox Church"). A visiting German pastor had met a Coptic Bishop from Germany on his trip here and we had special front row seats and an English translation to help us appreciate the evening even more.

Some estimates place the number of Coptic Christian in this predominately Muslim country at about 10% of the population. In Cairo, they are clustered around the cathedral (a short walking distance from the seminary where I serve). The picture to the right is of a portion of the youth choir which sang for the people assembled (I would estimate the number was about 800 present). Their "pope" is a very charismatic leader and we could see this in the way the congregation responded to him. There was a need for security guards. mostly to handle the press of those who wished to get close to him. He took time to greet each of the choir members personally and to bless the small children who were brought to him.

The first part of his audience was to answer questions that had been submitted to him. The questions ranged from the meaning of St. Valentine's day (He answered that Christians do not set aside only one day for loving others) to the possibility of a divorse (not permitted) or an abortion, which the husband wanted, ("If the man is intelligent to help produce a child, he should be responsible enough to raise the child".)

He also touched on the connection of the Coptic Church to "evangelical" practices. He took several minutes to teach why his church practices full emersion in baptism (Part of this is to symbolized the dynamic of moving from death to new life), and to counsel a couple where the wife is evangelical that the children should be raised to participate in the litutgical life and devotional life of the church, including the observance of saints' days and periods of fasting. And, I would say that all of his instruction was gentle and filled with humor and humanity.

His homily talked about the importance of discipline and dedication in this season. He particularly talked to and about the clergy and the teachers of youth taking their responsibilities seriously in how they prepare the congregations for Lent and Easter and how they should frequently visit the people in their homes to encourage and to exhort them in the Christian life. In my class on the history of Christianity since the coming of Islam, there are many examples of bishops who were less than who they were called to be, but clearly this leader lives out his calling in a humble and loving way. Peace, as you continue your Lenten journey.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Entering into Lent

As one enters the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem one's gaze is first drawn upward to the central dome and then to a stone slab on the floor and this mosaic (to the right) on the wall. It is the dramatic reminder of the central events of the crucifixion, and then the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. Islam has its focus upon the holy book, the Qur'an, conveyed to the Prophet Mohammad from God, while Christianity has its central focus upon a person.
Many, many, many years ago when I was doing my undergraduate work at Pomona College in Claremont, California, this book was part of the reading list for a religion course. "What Contemporary Theologians are Thinking." Some 'smart' collegian had changed the punctuation so that it read: "What! Contemporary Theologians are Thinking?"

We are beginning the spring term at the seminary and I am teaching a reading class on Middle Easter Christianity after the Rise of Islam. One of the book I am having the students read is a part of the new series called: "A People's History of Christianity"which focuses beyond the saints, bishops, and theologians of traditional history. There are plenty of these figures for us to study, (the religious controvesies, the polemics against one's enemies, etc.), but I believe that it is important to consider "what the common people were thinking about religion".

What is it that we "common people" think about in this season of Lent, and how does it relate to our Christian faith and life? The first three chapters of the People's History series on "Byzantine Christianity" suggest some themes.

The first is entitled: "Lay Piety in the Sermons of John Chrysostom" and focuses on the ways that the Christian message calls us all to consider how our lives are to be lived in response to God's will, and what amendment and transformation is called for. Not a bad Lenten exercise, whether it comes from the stirring of one's conscience or the preaching of God's Word. The second is entitled: "The Cult of the Martyrs and the Cappadocian Fathers" and discusses the ways in which the Church sought to regularize and shape the local piety of the faithful. People turned to the local shrines and the popular saints hoping to obtain all sorts of benefits from a gracious God, anything from the repair of hernia to the successful conclusion to a business venture. To believe that in God's love, one will receive "good things" was central and acted out in those pilgrimages and visits to "holy" places. (How is it with us?) The third chapter, entitled: "Romanos and the Night Vigil in the Sixth Century, begins with this marvellous quote by Arundhati Roy:
"The secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably....They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover's skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don't." (p. 59)
These third themes:
A time to examine our lives in relations to God's Word
A moment to anticipate the "goodness" of God in our lives - and
An opportunity again to hear and to become part of the "Greatest
can, I pray, help us on our Lenten journey. Peace, Roger