Published on Monday, December 22, 2003 by CommonDreams.org
Everybody Wants to Claim God is on their Side
by Heather Gray
It appears that everyone these days wants to claim that God is somehow involved in their war or massacre or similar plans. George Bush says God guides him… Ariel Sharon says the same… Tony Blair has similar sentiments. Hitler said God was with him when he invaded west European countries to protect and free them from the scourge of British influence. Recently U.S. Lt. Gen. William G. "Jerry" Boykin has received a slew of criticism for his comments at a religious group in Oregon, saying "radical Islamists hate the United States 'because we're a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christian. And the enemy is a guy named Satan'". Saddam Hussein says God is on his side. With all these folks claiming God must be on their side, I thought, heck, I'd like get in on the act and have my say as well. And anyway, given this is the season when the Christians in the world reflect upon the birth of Jesus, God, and the importance of religion generally, it seemed vital to review some history regarding all of this - it might even have some relevance to what the US is doing today in the Middle East.
Representatives from all three religions that claim their origins from Abraham - Judaism, Christianity, Islam - are touting God, seemingly regardless of what they do…regardless of how violent or ruthless they might be. As scholar Karen Armstrong has wisely noted in one of her recent books, there is and has been a "Battle for God" among the fundamentalists of all three religions.
In her book "Holy War: The Crusades and their Impact on Today's World" Armstrong notes that after September 11, 2001 when Bush launched his campaign against international terrorism he made reference to a "crusade" in this effort which was, of course, alarming to the Muslim world…and rightly so. She continues by saying that if you really want to understand what's happening you have to have a "triple vision" - you have to attempt to understand the origins and history of all three of these religions.
Armstrong says that the Crusaders were not a fringe group in Europe. She says that they were "central" to forging the Western identity, which remains today. It was on November 25, 1095 that Pope Urban made the devastating call for the first crusade against Islam. Armstrong notes that "Before the Crusaders arrived in Jerusalem in July 1099 and savagely butchered some 40,000 of its Jewish and Muslim inhabitants, Jews, Christians and Muslims had lived together there under Islamic rule in relative harmony for 460 years." When the Muslim Saladin reclaimed Jerusalem in 1187, the conditions had been radically altered by the European crusaders in which the suspicions between the three religious groups had become intensified and which made harmony all the more difficult to achieve. The legacy of all this is clearly problematic up to the present day.
But what I find intriguing about Christian churches is the lack of historical perspective. It is likely that church leaders don't want the masses apprised of this history as it might challenge the church's considerable influence and control in some circles. The controversy and scandals surrounding the distribution of the Dead Sea scrolls from Qumran and the Nag Hammadi scrolls from Upper Egypt, which were found in the 1940's, is a case in point. In their book the "Dead Sea Scrolls Deception" Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh describe the attempts on the part of the Catholic Church, in particular, to prevent the distribution of the Dead Sea Scrolls to scholars throughout the world. Elaine Pagels, author of "The Gnostic Gospels", describes how the suppression of the Nag Hammadi scrolls was due to scholarly jealousies and a vast array of political issues.
The recent scholarship based on the Dead Sea scrolls and the Nag Hammadi scrolls adds much to our understanding of the political, social and religious climate in Palestine 2000 years ago. Jesus was born during the Roman occupation of Palestine. As skilled occupiers, the imperial Romans attempted to control virtually every aspect of Jewish life to serve the interests of the empire and prevent dissent. The most corrupting Roman influence, of course, was the control over the Jewish faith and the Roman selection of puppet priests of the Temple in Jerusalem who would bow to Rome (today we might call them "Uncle Tom" priests). Rome also appointed Jewish puppets to head the civil society, such as Herod, and hired individuals to quell the resistance to Roman rule. Paul (or Saul, as he was known, prior to his awakening on the road to Damascus after the crucifixion of Jesus) was one of those hired by Rome to persecute individuals in the resistance movement.
In their book "The Messianic Legacy", scholars Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln describe the fierce resistance against Rome and Jesus' possible affiliation with the Zealots (or those with a "zeal" for adherence to Jewish law) whose "position was straightforward enough. No Jew should pay tribute to Rome. No Jew should acknowledge the Roman emperor as his master….The patriotic and religious duty of every Jew was to fight for the… reinstatement of a rightful ruler presiding over the Kingdom of Israel." They go on to say that "whatever Jesus' association with the Zealots….There is no question but that the Roman's perceived Jesus as a military and political figure…Crucifixion was a penalty reserved for transgressions against Roman law, and Rome would not have bothered to crucify a man preaching a purely spiritual message, or a message of peace…." Jesus was also touted as being from the House of David - Jewish royal blood - which might also have been threatening to Roman rulers.
In her book on the crusades Armstrong writes, " It is not clear what Jesus intended to do about the Romans, but eventually he was arrested by the authorities and the governor Pontius Pilate sentenced him to die by the Roman punishment of crucifixion, which might indicate that he was worried about Jesus' political activities."
In "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln describe how it was highly likely Jesus was married. Speculation from both the New Testament Gospels and recent scroll analysis is that the most likely person to have married Jesus would have been Mary Magdalene. What is most fascinating, however, is the speculation that Jesus and Mary had a child. This issue has received national attention lately with Dan Brown's recent and popular fiction "The Da Vinci Code". Brown refers to the speculation of Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene and the historical European response to this.
After the crucifixion of Jesus, the family of Jesus was also probably vulnerable to Roman persecution and was forced to leave Palestine. Baigent et al say that it is likely that Mary sailed across the Mediterranean into southern Europe and ultimately the family (or their descendants) settled in southern France and that a secret society evolved around the family for its protection - the best known being the Prieure de Sion. The alleged grand masters of the Prieure de Sion have been documented since 1188 and include renowned individuals such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo and Claude Debussy. Scholars indicate that the society is still in existence today. "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" refers to the possibility that the "holy grail" was never a cup from the Last Supper, for example, or any other jewels from the time of Jesus, but rather the "holy grail" referred to the "holy blood" from the family of Jesus.
For hundreds of years, given the dictatorial and prosecutorial reach of the Roman Catholic Church, anyone challenging church doctrine was vulnerable. Exceptional secrecy, therefore, was paramount to protect members of the society. Interestingly, in spite of the secrecy, Leonard Da Vinci's painting of the "Last Supper" depicts a strikingly female looking figure to Jesus' right. Many indicate that this is Da Vinci's rendition of Mary Magdalene.
Did Jesus intend to start a new religion? This is highly unlikely. It appears that he was primarily concerned about the corrupting influence of Rome on his fellow Jews. Armstrong notes that Jesus "began his mission in Galilee…and attracted a large following. He seems to have devoted himself particularly to converting the poor and the "sinners" of Israel, who either collaborated with the Romans or did not observe the 'Torah'". Baigent et al acknowledge that Jesus was, of course, a devout Jew and to suggest that another religion be created to rival Judaism would be blasphemous. Jesus, however, while clearly seeking reforms within Judaism, was anxious to see his religion purified and devoid of the alien and demeaning influence of Rome. Witness his anger at the moneychangers in the Temple. Armstrong infers that Jesus probably occupied the Temple for one week prior to his arrest by the Romans. Clearly, the Romans did not appreciate his defiant action. Nor was Jesus' leadership likely appreciated by the Jewish leaders who were cooperating with Rome, as they probably also felt threatened by his actions - threats that could upset or diminish their collaborative relationship with Roman officials.
It is well known that today's Christianity was largely the creation of Paul who never knew Jesus. Paul did this even in spite of the harsh criticism of this effort by the followers of Jesus. James, who some refer to as Jesus' brother, likely led the movement in Palestine after Jesus death. He was one of the primary critics of Paul's activities and, in fact, had recalled Paul to Jerusalem after receiving letters from him about his work in Tarsus (now in Turkey).
The above is but a brief summary of the important scholarship around the life and challenges faced by Jesus and others 2000 years ago and some of the subsequent consequences of religious conflicts. As with those who resisted Roman rule at the time of Jesus, the fact remains that throughout human history whenever people are treaty unjustly, invariably they react and resist the efforts to control and abuse them. Some recent examples are the South African movement against the apartheid system; the civil rights movement in the United States against white supremacy; the movement in the Philippines to resist US interference in Philippine sovereignty; the Palestinian movement to end the occupation and abuse by Israel; the growing resistance on the part of Iraqi's to end the US occupation. The list goes on and on.
With reference to Bush, Blair, Sharon, Hitler, Boykin, Hussein above, most of the imperialists throughout history have had some kind of religious justification for their oppressive behavior with rhetoric such as "we'll save them, we'll free them, we'll bring them civilization, we'll bring them religion". Clearly, oppressors have not bothered to ask those they are oppressing whether they have a desire to be the recipients of this arrogant mission. Invariably, the religious justification is a disguise of the real motivation for oppression, which is usually economic gain and/or access to resources. On the other side of the coin, the oppressed also usually have a religious justification for their resistance to persecution.
Interestingly, Jews, Christians and Muslims, whether they are the oppressors or the oppressed, all worship the same God. To say this is a convoluted situation is an understatement. Regarding Jesus, however, the question remains, would he have been on the side of the apartheid state, the white supremacists in America, the U.S. abusers in the Philippines, Israeli occupiers and abusers of Palestinians, and the US imperialists and occupiers now in Iraq? What do you think?
Heather Gray is the producer of "Just Peace" on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She lives in Atlanta and can be reached at email@example.com.