Sunday, May 1, 2016

A Rabbi asks a priest a question... part 16



Continued from last week…

In 313, when the emperor Constantine issued his Edict of Toleration, he started the ball rolling to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The process was complete in 380, when emperor Theodosius issued Edict of Thessalonica. Christianity had been a persecuted sect that claimed to be a variation of the religion of Israel. It was founded by Jesus of Nazareth who claimed to be the Jewish Messiah. His followers said He had risen from the dead and some even claimed that He was God in the flesh. Now this rather strange little sect had managed in just over three centuries to become the official religion of the Romans.  Not only was Christianity the religion of the Romans, but a certain form of Christianity, Catholicism, was the religion of the Romans, and Catholicism came with all the baggage of a God who was three persons, yet one God, and that God had established an organization with bishops, priests and deacons in leadership with a special emphasis on the bishop of Rome, who claimed to be the spiritual and theological heir to saints Peter and Paul.

Things had come a long way since the days of squabbling Israelite sects. The first squabbling followers of Jesus had become the Official Religion of the Romans. They still managed to squabble but now the emperors of Constantinople joined the squabble. The Germanic peoples who overran the western half of the Roman Empire around 425 AD were Christians, just not Catholic Christians. They could not care less about the bishop of Rome and they thought the trinity was nonsense. They were followers of Arius, who believed Jesus was really swell, just not equal to God the Father. When the German barbarians set up their new kingdoms in Spain and France and North Africa, they had a hard time controlling things.

The contentious followers of the Humble Carpenter of Nazareth were not easy to govern. The Germans had invaded the Roman Empire, not to destroy it, but to enjoy it. They liked Roman amenities, like wine and olive oil and white bread and bathing, far better than beer, bacon fat, bugs and barley bread. If the new German aristocracy converted to Catholic Christianity it might make acceptance by the Romans easier, which is precisely what they did. And, when the king was re-baptized Catholic, you had better believe that his court, accepted the religion of the Romans.

In times past, individuals had made a decision that Jesus was the Messiah. Now the decision was made for you, if you were a Roman, or a Visigoth or a Burgundian, or a Frank. In 785 AD Charlemagne, the king of the Franks decreed that, “If any one of the race of the Saxons hereafter concealed among them shall have wished to hide himself unbaptized, and shall have scorned to come to baptism and shall have wished to remain a pagan, let him be punished by death.”

Something similar happened in Russia. Prince Vladimir of Kiev went religion shopping and chose Byzantine Christianity because the liturgy was so beautiful and, thankfully, Christianity did not prohibit the drinking of alcohol of which the Russians were, and still are, quite fond. Vladimir was baptized, married the sister of the Roman Byzantine emperor of Constantinople and upon returning to Kiev, marched the entire population down to the Dnieper River, starting with his 12 sons and the boyars (nobles). The wooden idols of the Russians were either burned or and thrown in the river as was the statue of the main Russian god, Perun. In his enthusiasm for Christianity Vladimir even baptized the gods! The Kievan Russians were now Christians, whether they liked it or not.

What a lucky break for the Romans in their shrinking empire! The Roman state, threatened in the west by the Germans and in the east by those Turks and Arabs who were not Christian (There are still many Turkic and Arabic speakers who have retained their Christianity despite a millennium of persecution) suddenly had a boatload of allies. The sect of Christians first became the Religion of the Romans. Now it was the religion of the Roman state as well the Frankish, Gothic, and eventually of the Russian states, as well as many others. Each of them came to think of themselves as uniquely chosen by God to do His will on earth by slaughtering his enemies who, coincidentally, were the enemies of the state.

To serve the interests of the state was to serve God. To refuse to serve the state was to refuse to serve God, and hence both treason and blasphemy. It was never the tradition of the church to burn heretics and blasphemers. It was most certainly the practice of the state to burn traitors. And so the horrors began. Enemies of the state were executed or expelled, and so Jews continued their wandering, first to Spain, and then, when expelled by the non-Christian Almohads around 1150, they fled to France, then from France to the Rhine valley, then to Poland and Russia, always on the edge of the society.

Oddly, the Jews of Italy were the safest Jews in Christendom until the Second World War and the Jewish community of Rome exists to this day. The popes may have said unfortunate things but usually protected the Jews of Italy, as did Pope Pius XII in the Second World War. (C.f. Rabbi David Dahlen: The Myth of Hitler’s Pope) The Jews had become the un-chosen people, a stateless nation, once chosen, now rejected.

How does one convince ten or twenty national ethnic groupings that they are each God’s new chosen people? Easy! You have a pope! The Papacy managed to hold all these chosen nations and their anointed sovereigns together in a crazy quilt of chosen-ness by cobbling together a super-nation called Christendom. The aggression and arrogance of kings were limited by the threat of excommunication. No one could quite get the upper hand, because “all must kiss the foot of the Roman Pontiff” or so says the Dictatus Papae, published by Pope Gregory VII in 1075. The Dictatus is a list of twenty-seven statements pointing out what sovereigns owed the Pope. In addition to kissing the foot of the pope, the Dictatus said the pope may depose emperors, and that “…he may absolve subjects from their fealty to wicked men.” This meant that the pope could dissolve any government in Christendom and release the subordinate of any emperor, king or nobleman from their obligation of obedience to the local authority.

Amazingly, people took all this seriously. It meant that there was some non-violent international control over the avarice and aggression of the upper classes. The system worked, at least until the Reformation in 1525, when certain German and French theologians decided that the papacy was useless. With no pope to threaten excommunication, the monarchs of Europe were free to impose their superior chosen-ness on their neighbors. Europe dissolved into a century of war in which half the population of certain areas perished. Strangely, Europe lost its religion during the wars of religion. To be Protestant, Catholic, or none of the above was no longer a matter of choice. Your religion was a matter of a political unit that was hell bent on proving its superiority to those a little less chosen than itself.

The mayhem started in 1525 when the German theologians reinvented Christianity and dumped the papacy. The Great Peasants' War or Great Peasants' Revolt devastated Central Europe from 1524 to 1525. The peasants decided that, if the priests and aristocrats didn’t need popes and bishops, they didn’t need the aristocrats and priests. They slaughtered thousands of the German governing class. The governing class who, after all, had the money and the weapons returned the favor by slaughtering perhaps 300,000 of the peasants.

This was just a warm up. A century later, the Thirty Years War, punctuated with bouts of witch burning and cannibalism, killed about a third of the population of large parts of Europe. It started as a religious conflict when the Protestant town council of Prague threw the representatives of the Catholic emperor out a window (This is called the “Defenestration of Prague.” You’ve got to love the name, no?) 

It started out Protestant versus Catholic, but by the end Catholic France was allied with protestant Sweden against Catholic Austria. The war spilled over from Germany into France, Holland, England and the Americas.

When it was all over the nation-state was supreme, Christendom was gone and 11 million people were dead. No pope got his foot kissed by any monarch any more. The worship of God faded into the worship of the state. The state was no longer chosen by God. It was just chosen. European Christianity was completely separated from the idea of conversion and started to die.  And the Jews? They were not part of any chosen state no matter how hard they pretended.

Next week: Just when things couldn’t possibly get worse…

Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Rabbi asks a priest a question... part 15



Continued from last week…

Remember the Germanic tribes that came thundering across the frozen Rhine river (maybe) around 400 AD? They did quite well for themselves. They carved up the western Roman empire, establishing kingdoms in France, Spain, North Africa and Italy. By this time most of them were Christians. There was a problem as far as the Catholics of the western Roman Empire were concerned. 

The Germans were Arian (not to be confused with “Aryan,” the made-up race of Hitler and his friends. Our Arians were the followers of the crackpot Egyptian Christian priest Arius who, around 300AD, claimed there was no such thing as a Trinity). Christians who believed that Jesus though really, really special was not eternal, but created in time. The people over whom new German kings ruled were Trinitarian, Catholic Christians and could be troublesome. The King of the Franks converted to Catholicism, but more about him later. Enter Reccared, the Visigoth king of Spain as well as part of southern France from 586 to 601. He decided to renounce Arianism and accept Catholicism.

The Third Council of Toledo (Spain, not Ohio) met in King Reccared's name in May 589, and there his declaration accepting Catholicism was read aloud. The Catholic bishop, St. Leander preached the closing sermon, which his little brother St. Isidore called the “…triumph of the Church upon the conversion of the Goths”. Some say that King Reccared celebrated the triumph of Catholicism by forcing Jews and Arians to convert to mainline Catholicism. Others blame St. Leander and the Catholic bishops for the new anti-Jewish attitude in Spain. Jews had been guaranteed certain freedoms in the Church laws of Spain, but after the council of Toledo those freedoms were increasingly limited. Reccared’s involvement in the new anti-Semitism of the young Spain is disputed by modern historians, but what do they know anyway?

No matter whose fault it was, things got a lot tougher for Jews in Spain. The important reason as far as this disquisition goes, is the why of the new anti-Semitism. The why is quite simple: replacement theology, at least that’s the theory of the brilliant David Goldman in his 2011 book How Civilizations Die.  The theory goes like this. In order to sweet talk King Reccared into becoming the new protector of the Church, it was aired about that the Visigoths, at least the Catholic ones, were the new “chosen people” of God. You can’t have two chosen peoples. God must have dumped one and taken up with the other. This arrangement had already been hinted at in the Christianization of the Roman Empire, but since the empire was just that, an empire, you didn’t really have a people so much as a collection of peoples. The emperors however already saw themselves as the chosen vessels of God.

Emperor Constantine who began the Christian-ization of the Roman Empire in the early fourth century had himself buried in the church of the Holy Apostles, the idea being that he was also an apostle of God chosen to do God’s work on earth.  The plan was to gather relics of all of the Apostles in the church so that Constantine could spend eternity in the company of his fellow apostles. They only managed to get Saint Andrew, Saint Luke and Saint Timothy, only one of whom is actually an apostle, but the point had been made. In the Orthodox Church, Constantine is still called isapostolos” or in English “the equal of the Apostles.”

In the western kingdoms it was possible to go the whole route. Baptize a king, and you baptize a whole nation. The chosen people was us! It didn’t matter if I believed it. The king believed it. We believed it. Depending on whose bread was to be buttered, the Franks, the Burgundians the Lombards, the Vandals the Visigoths as well the Ostrogoths, and any other Goth who managed to conquer a country and wear a crown could be the chosen people, and it anointed sovereign, a New Israel and a new Solomon or David.

Since then nations have regularly decided that they are the new chosen people. The Spanish, the English, the Irish, the list is rather long. The Germans and the Russians were late to assume the mantle of chosen-ness. They decided they were chosen nations sometime in the nineteenth century and they did so with a vengeance. The problem with being a chosen nation was that there were always those pesky Jews, who used to be chosen. Best to be rid of them, no? It is interesting to me that one cannot find the phrase “New Israel” in the New Testament. There is new covenant and new Jerusalem, but no new Israel.

In its beginning, the Church grew by individual conversion claiming that one could be adopted into the people of Israel by baptism. All one needed now was water, buckets and a tribe of barbarians whose king told them to go along with the whole thing. Up until that point one joined Israel by personal conversion. The Gentile, the non-Jew, could join himself to Israel of God by baptism. In effect he joined a people. He became member of the tribe of Christians as Josephus the Jewish historian of the first century called us. However, when you move from God’s choice of persons as members of his chosen people the whole thing changes.

There was no more tribe of Christians there were the Christian tribes of the Vandals or the Visigoths or the Franks, who happened to be the first to take the plunge into the Catholic, Roman, non-Arian baptismal pool. The Franks had great names like Kings Chlodiwg, Sigebert, Chilperic, Queen Brunhilda and Queen Fredegunda, who couldn’t stand each other. I mention them just because these are really cool names. King Chlodwig, however, is important for our story.

He was the first of the Arian German kings to convert to Catholicism, admittedly under pressure from his Catholic wife Queen Clothilda. He realized that it could be a win-win situation. The pope in Rome was being browbeaten by the emperor in Constantinople, and Chlodwig or as you may know him, Clovis was being browbeaten by his Romano-Gallic nobility in what is now France. When he became a Catholic, the pope got a protector and Clovis got legitimacy in France. It was smiles all around. The dynasty of Clovis eventually gave way to the dynasty that included Charlemagne, God’s chosen monarch par excellence! The Franks slowly became the French who talked about the deeds of God through the French (Gesta Dei per Francos). They never quite got over the idea, at least not until recently when they, along with the rest of Europe stopped believing in God.

Where did this leave the un-chosen Jews? Pretty much moving from country to country until the czars of Russia invited them to live in the Slavic lands of the east. By the way, King Clovis, the king of the Franks and protector of the Roman Church was buried in; you guessed it... a church in France called the Church of the Holy Apostles, just like Constantine.

Next week:  How the west lost its Christian faith 400 years ago and nobody noticed until just now.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Rabbi asks a priest a question... part 14



Continued from last week…

There were three major centers of Christianity by the year 150 AD, Antioch in Asia, Alexandria in Africa, and Rome in Europe. These were called the patriarchates, or “father churches.” Jerusalem had been levelled and replaced by the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina and Constantinople didn’t yet exist. These three father churches were thought to be of special distinction because of their founding by St. Peter, whom Jesus chose as leader of the early Church. Peter had founded the church in Antioch, Syria and through his delegate St. Mark was considered the founder of the church in Alexandria, Egypt, but above all, the church founded by St. Peter and also by St. Paul was Rome.

Peter and Paul had both died there and their relics remained there. The early Christians considered the Roman church the first of the churches as evidenced by St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Irenaeus of Lyon. Around 650 AD, the armies of a new prophet swept out of the Arabian Peninsula and in short order captured two of the original patriarchates, Alexandria and Antioch and thus began the slow but steady erosion of Christianity in the lands of its beginning. Rome, too, had been conquered by the Germanic tribes of the west, but something else happened there. The conquerors were converted by the conquered and soon there were mass baptisms of Germanic tribes into the Roman Church. They may have become Christians, but the mass conversions meant that they were not the most literate nor best educated of believers. Among these new Christians, the Jews continued in their uneasy but useful position, living their lives largely without threat to life and limb. (Note: I use the world “largely.” There were certainly some incidents of major persecution during the era, but nothing like what was to come.)

Christianity in the East held on under the new rulers and their new religion. In fact, the invaders didn’t try to convert them. The Christians paid a special tax and their governmental and technical expertise was useful to the new masters. That started to change in around 900 AD.  300 years after the first Arab invasion of Roman Christian territory, the great Christian centers, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia started to become Arabized. Christians found themselves under increasing pressure to convert to the new religion. There had been an increase during the previous century in the persecution of those Christians still remaining in the Holy Land and pilgrimage to the Christian shrines had been forbidden. In addition to the increasing Arabic pressure, a central Asian people, the Turks accepted the new religion and its prophet, and did so with the devotion of new converts.

An ambassador from Constantinople arrived in Rome in 1095 from the Byzantine/Roman emperor Alexius asking for help against these new invaders, the Turks who were invading what was left of the old Roman Christian empire. The pope called a council in Clermont in France and urged the nobility of Europe to come to the aid of their Christian brothers in the east in addition to the depredation of the Turkish invaders.

Around this same time, the Fatimid Caliph of Cairo al-Hakim, (or Hakim the crazy to those who knew him well) under whose jurisdiction the Holy Land fell, decreed that the Christians would no longer be allowed to observe the feasts of Epiphany or Easter. Wine was outlawed not just for Muslims but for Christians, which made the celebration of Mass impossible, and wasn’t much appreciated by Jews either who use wine in their religious rituals. In 1005, he ordered Jews and Christians to wear distinctive item of clothing. In1009, al- Hakim ordered the destruction of the Holy Sepulcher in order to end the Holy Fire ceremony that he was sure was a fraud. Eventually all Christian religious buildings in the Holy Land were confiscated or destroyed. The situation in the Holy Land, and the Turkish juggernaut into the remaining Christian territory, (which was only stopped in 1683 at the gates of Vienna,) finally woke up a sleeping Christendom. The nobility of Europe “took the cross,” that is, they pledged themselves to make pilgrimage to the holy sites. Access to the Christian shrines could only be had by means of war with the rulers of the east.  The nobility of Europe prepared for war. The peasants of Europe were not to be outdone by the nobility and felt no need to prepare. God would help them! A holy (and probably looney) hermit named Peter decided to act on the pope’s call to liberate the formerly Christian lands of the east. He gathered 20,000 peasants together in Easter 1096 and declared a people’s crusade. They promptly started the march to Jerusalem though they weren’t quite sure where Jerusalem was. This did not strike them as a problem.

 At one point they seem to have been led by a goose. I quote Albert of Aachen, a contemporary source:

There was also another abominable wickedness in this gathering of people on foot, who were stupid and insanely irresponsible…They claimed that a certain goose was inspired by the Holy Ghost, and a she-goat filled with no less than the same, and they had made these their leaders for this holy journey to Jerusalem; they even worshipped them excessively, and as the beasts directed their courses for them in their animal way, many of the troops believed they were confirming it to be true according to the entire purpose of the spirit.”

Things soon went from stupid to evil when the goose died and was replaced by politicians. Peter the Hermit was joined by Count Emicho of Flonheim who knew a good thing when he saw it. The peoples crusade arrived in Germany in spring 1096, and promptly started slaughtering Jews, the reasoning being, “We don’t have to wait until Jerusalem to kill the enemies of Christ, we’ve got plenty of Jews right here in the Rhine valley.” In Speyer, Worms, Mainz and Cologne, Jews died by the thousands despite the efforts by Catholic bishops to protect them. Things changed for "We’re right. You’re wrong.” to “We’re right. You’re dead.” When they finally got the Roman/Byzantine Empire, they were ambushed by the Turks and what goes around comes around. Of the 20,000 only 3,000 survived. The delicate balance ended. Jews became even useful to the moneyed interests of the west. Now there was a way to cancel debts to Jewish moneylenders. Preach a crusade and kill the Jews. How efficient! 

Next week: How odd of God to choose the Jews.