On display in Jerusalem: political pandering to the theologically weird

Posted on May 18, 2018

…one should reflect and then perhaps regret that political pandering to a subset of American Christianity, keeping a campaign promise, has resulted in the deaths of so many, young children among them.

by Joshua J. Whitfield

Julian the Apostate, the Roman emperor, was killed in Persia in 363; it was a demise in which all Christians rejoiced. For them, clearly it was an act of God, divine justice. Julian had made himself an enemy of the Church, you see, and so God was just following through as always, with signs and wonders just as he had done ever since Pharaoh.Julian was hated by Christians, as his sobriquet, “Apostate,” suggests. But of course, he hated them back, having been Christian once himself, before renouncing the faith for former gods. Squeezing Christians out of education, out of philanthropy, out of culture, Julian did his damnedest to stop what had already begun, the Christianization of the known world. Julian’s hope was to revive ancient pieties; it was a dream that died with him.

The reason Christians really hated Julian, however, had to do with Jerusalem, with the fact that he was trying to rebuild the Jewish temple. For Christians in the fourth century such an idea was anathema; common belief was that the temple would remain in ruins until the second coming of Christ. For most Christians at the time, if not all of them, Christ’s body was the true temple, the church. The Jewish temple’s destruction after the time of Christ was simply plain prophetic justice foretold by Jesus himself.

Vintage engraving of the Death of Julian the Apostate, Roman Emperor. In 363, Julian embarked on an ambitious campaign against the Sassanid Empire. Though initially successful, Julian was mortally wounded in battle and died shortly thereafter.(Getty Images)

Vintage engraving of the Death of Julian the Apostate, Roman Emperor. In 363, Julian embarked on an ambitious campaign against the Sassanid Empire. Though initially successful, Julian was mortally wounded in battle and died shortly thereafter. (Getty Images)

This belief Julian knew. And it’s why he was so keen to rebuild the Jewish temple, not for any love of Judaism, but because of his hatred of Christians; because he knew what an insult it would be, what sort of religious challenge it would pose. That’s why Christians thanked God for his death. “May his very memory be a curse! Amen!” they prayed. Because he had mocked and challenged God and his church, they thought. Because he had been given his due, death in remotest Persia. St. Gregory of Nazianzus called it an “avenging.”

Now I share this ancient vignette not to make any analogies or any theological point, but simply to illustrate that Christians have, throughout history, held very tightly various ideas and fantasies about Jerusalem: some, of course, beautiful and benign and reasonable; others, anti-Semitic, strange and dangerous.

Which brings us to what we witnessed in Jerusalem this month. The U.S. embassy has been relocated to Jerusalem, igniting the sort of violence one should’ve expected, likewise the back-and-forth blaming of both sides. Now on the surface, moving the embassy to Jerusalem is reasonable enough. President Donald Trump’s proclamation in December, recognizing Jerusalem the capital of Israel, reads sensibly; it’s a decision with which one may legitimately agree or disagree. For me, I have no strong opinion one way or the other.

But that’s not the problem. Rather, it’s the religious circus for which such a decision plays the sideshow, the theologically strange and historically stupid perspective some idiosyncratic elements of American Christianity espouse, born of confused apocalyptic biblicism that is as far from traditioned Christianity as anything. More a strange historiography than a religion, it’s what was truly on display at the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, political pandering to the theologically weird.

But as I suggest, it’s nothing new. All one can do, really, is see it in perspective, as something to be catalogued among other past and present fanaticisms. And perhaps also to heed the Bible’s own wearingly ancient command to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, praying thus without ideology or twisted theology. As has not hitherto been on display.

And then, however, one should reflect and then perhaps regret that political pandering to a subset of American Christianity, keeping a campaign promise, has resulted in the deaths of so many, young children among them. Deaths for which I guess some think God should be praised.

Joshua J. Whitfield is pastoral administrator for St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and a frequent contributor to The Dallas Morning News. Email: jwhitfield@stritaparish.net

 

Originally posted at https://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2018/05/18/display-jerusalem-political-pandering-theologically-weird