Re-Creating Easter Part I: The Background

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 17 September 2015 0 Comments
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I would like to have you give us your perspective and ideas regarding all the violence in the Middle East, ISIS, the anti-Semitism in France, the emergence of neo-Nazism, the various belief systems within the Muslim faith and the ludicrous statements by politicians on the right, Speaker John Boehner especially, how can he even think like that? (He went to Xavier University – a Jesuit University – which surprises me greatly)

Thank you…I am grateful for your vision and wisdom. I have read most of your books and have been reading your column since at least 2006 (if my memory serves me well) and have greatly appreciated them and found them helpful for me in my journey of faith.


Dear Tom,

I wish I had the ability to understand and the wisdom to distill to my readers all of the issues that lie beneath the multiple conflicts that today plague the Middle East and to be able to do so in the format of the single question and answer part in my column. It is far too complex for that. I also will refrain from commenting on Speaker Boehner’s education in a Jesuit school. I am pleased that he has invited Pope Francis to address Congress, though if the rumors turn out to be correct, the Pope’s subject of global warming is not likely to be pleasing to John Boehner’s Republican hard liners.

I think it is possible to identify some of the elements in the background of today’s conflict in the Middle East. So let me list them.

1. The Crusades of the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries sowed the seeds of hatred toward the West that most of us do not seem either to understand or to appreciate. The Crusades were organized by the Vatican to kill infidels, which was what the Christians at that time called the Muslims.

2. The breakup of the Ottoman Empire following World War I in which most of the nations that now exist in the Middle East were once a part. The lines that separate and distinguish many of these nation now were drawn at that time to serve Western political and economic interests, with little regard for the religious diversity and tribal identities of the people who lived there.

3. The establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948 by Western powers with little consultation with those then living in the Middle East. In the minds of the Palestinian and Arab population that was one more insensitive Western act toward Islam.

4. The insatiable thirst for oil in the West has meant that Western politics has determined and dominated Western policy toward the Middle East with little regard for the needs of the people living there. Remember that American armed might installed and protected the Shah in Iran until Moslem fundamentalists swept him out of power in a surge of nationalistic revolution some years ago.

5. Western money has poured into Israel since its establishment in 1948 turning it into a very modern, powerful state, but in the process, revealing the poverty, lack of modernity and opportunity present among so many of the Palestinian and Arab people. The comparison is sometimes odious.

6. Finally, the Western wars initiated in our time against Iraq and Afghanistan disrupted life and the economy of the entire region. Iraq was left with a destroyed economy and a political vacuum. That is never a reality that leads to stabilization.

The Middle East from time in memoriam has been the place where civilizations clashed. That began with the two earliest civilizations – one in the Nile River Valley and the other in the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. Those two ancient civilizations fought over that territory constantly. That part of the world is also where Asia, Africa and Europe come together. It is the place where Islam, Judaism and Christianity collide. In an energy driven world very nation on this planet has a stake in the Middle East. That is not a formula for peace.

Diplomacy might still work, but it is a long, slow and tedious process. Success is not guaranteed. Feelings are so deep, hostile and untrusting. The proposed Iran nuclear treaty, so laboriously worked out by the United States, Iran and the great powers of the world, may actually fail even to win a majority on either side of the aisle in the United States Senate. That would be a tragedy, but the rhetoric is already so distorted that the average person cannot discern what the realities are. Those who were not part of the negotiations are the only ones who are sure that they could have gotten “a better deal,” presumably if they had been doing the negotiating themselves. If this treaty fails, it will empower and embolden Iran’s hard political right who opposed the negotiations from the beginning. They want a nuclear-armed and militarily prepared Iran. It will also embolden our own hard political right, who seems to think that war is the ultimate solution to all major differences. That proposed treaty does, however, give us the first hint that rationality may finally be getting a hearing in that region of the world, but the fact that we in America must vote on this treaty during a presidential primary season gives me little confidence that politicians can put the good of the world above their own ambitions. I hope I will be surprised. Thanks for your concern.

John Shelby Spong




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