Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Friday Night In Jerusalem---Fear and Faith, Devils and Dust

It was a warm June evening, and shabbat had just begun. I was leading some of my tour group through the Damascus Gate, down the Cardo Maximus, and to the Wailing Wall so they could see what was happening. The Cardo was packed with both Jews and Moslems and tourists milling around. The Orthodox and Hasidic Jews were mostly coming to and from the wall with their families. The Palestinians were out for a night of celebration now that their holy day had come and gone.

The Cardo gets increasingly narrower as you get further into the city and closer to the entrance to the plaza where the Wailing Wall was. It is lined with shops of all sorts, coffee shops, fruit stands, lingerie shops, you name it. At one juncture we could hear ahead of us rhythmic chanting and suddenly we were pressed up against the shop walls as a parade of young Palestinians went buy with their soccer jerseys on and their soccer balls in hand. They were simply having fun, but the young orthodox Jewish teenager squashed up against the wall next to me was afraid-- very afraid of the loud jubilant Palestinians, even though they were not bothering or antagonizing anyone. Taking off his wide-brimmed hat the young man with his long curls and all black attire put his hat over his face to hide his Jewishness, and then finally turned and faced the wall. I could almost smell the fear coming off of him.

Fear of course is a primal instinct or emotion. The fear can be rational and warranted or irrational and inexplicable. Whatever its source, it often leads to irrational behavior. Fear based practices are precisely what get major wars started. Our current Vice President is famous for enunciating the 1% doctrine. It goes like this. If there is even a 1% chance that someone could drop a major bomb on us, then we are warranted in engaging in pre-emptive strikes and taking them out. These of course are not the rules of engagement of the Geneva Convention, much less a rational policy. It represents a fear-based practice based in the 'get them before they get you' mentality. We see these sort of practices constantly played out in Israel by both the Israelis and the more radical Moslems. And it never solves anything. It just leads to more carnage, more acts of retaliation, and certainly does not fulfill any Biblical prophecies whatsoever, except the adage that we will reap whatsoever we sow.

I understand why that young man was afraid. He probably didn't know any Arabic and couldn't tell what the Palestinian lads were chanting. He probably had never had a Moslem friend in his life. Both sides are too busy anathematizing each other and protecting their children, in the form of preventing them from ever knowing children of other faiths, to make such personal knowledge or experience possible. Ignorance leads to prejudice which leads to fear which leads to violence--- over and over again. If your only images of the 'other' is casual contact or what you see on TV, you never do learn what makes them tick, what is important to them, or even why Jesus died for them as well as for us. And it is becoming harder for cross-- religious friendships to happen in Israel, especially now that the huge wall has been erected around Bethelehem.

The other day Roger Waters of Pink Floyd who was in Israel to do a concert in Tel Aviv (it was later moved to a town where both Jews and Moslems and Christians could all attend), was at the wall. You may or may not remember it was Roger who wrote the classic Pink Floyd song 'Another Brick in the Wall'. Well he signed the Bethlehem Wall with an epithet from that song. It is ironic that a secular rock musician is the only person I know of who this summer managed to bring young people of all faiths together for a concert and a fun evening. It is precisely these sorts of events where one gets to meet, and even gets to know 'the Other'. Notice it is not the religious leaders of any of these three monotheistic faiths who are sponsoring events which might lead to dialogue, understanding, and even friendship. Religion in this case is used to further polarize the situation by stigmatizing one another as 'infidels'. Whatever else one can say, this is not the use of religion Jesus intended when he commanded his followers to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. There is no exegesis of those commands that could warrant the cynical conclusion that Jesus meant we should 'love them to death at the point of a gun'.

Instead of the 1% doctrine, I would like to propose the 100% doctrine. It goes like this. If anyone would come after, follow the example of, or even be a follower of Jesus, he or she must take up their crosses and follow him to Golgotha and beyond. This if course requires many steps of faith. But it also requires a renouncing of fear based practices as well. The only sacrifice Jesus calls us to is not the sacrifice of our intellects, but of our fears and ultimately of ourselves. You will notice he does not call us to offer our enemies as a sacrifice to God. Quite the contrary.

I wanted to take a moment and speak with that young Jewish boy, but there was not time enough for he fled before I could do so, and in any case my modern Israeli Hebrew is not that good. For all I know he might have been just as afraid of me as of the Palestinians. Religion in the hands of people who are chiefly motivated by fear, is indeed a fearsome thing, and is rightly to be feared. But there is a greater thing in this world than fear. Remember the words "Greater is he who is in us, than any of these forces in the world"?

The real issue is not whether we will live or die. Unless Jesus comes soon, we will all die. The real issue for Christians is--- will Jesus find us emulating him, will he find us faithful or fearful when he returns? Maybe Jesus was right to ask at the end of his famous parable of the persistent widow--"but when the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?" I wonder. Most of the faith I see in action is either overwhelmed or overruled by fears, cultural prejudices, and sheer ignorance.

I recently was listening to Bruce Springsteen's fine album 'Devils and Dust' Here is one of the verses and chorus from the title cut.

"I got my finger on the trigger
But I don't know who to trust
When I look into your eyes
There's just devils and dust.
We're a long long way from home Bobbie
Home's a long long way from us
I feel a dirty wind blowing
Devils and dust.

I got God on my side
And I'm just trying to survive
What if what I do to survive
Kills the things You love?
Fear's a powerful thing
It can turn your heart black you can trust
It'll take your God-filled soul
And fill it with devils and dust."

AMEN to that.


Todd M said...

Wow. What memories this brings up. I walked that same path through the Damascus Gate to the wall back in March.

Fears given to us by our parents, by society, by friends, by the media ... they all hold us back from living all-out with the faith that a life transformed in Christ is called to and capable of having. I pray that I am less fearful and more "all-out" for Jesus each year, month, and day.

As I look at my seven year old son and his friends, I pray that they will have a leg up on things and that my generation will not burden his generation with fears that pull them from the life we're called to.

Your posts and writing are great. Thank you.

Bill Barnwell said...

Ben, great post! Check out this article in Christianity Today, from an Arab Christian professor on the current situation in the Middle East. I'm shocked, but glad they published this:

Scott said...

Thanks for reframing the issue from a black and white: "the-bible-says-that-Israel-is-good-and-so-we-should-support-them-no-matter-what--and-hey-isn't-this-about-the-end-times" to an more winsome (and full of wisdom) commentary on the power of (bad) religion to divide and the power of (good) religion to heal.

Shalom to Jerusalem.

Benson said...

This is one of the best! Fear, whether legitimate or a powerful thing. Thanks Ben.

Adam Sparks said...

Dear Prof Witherington

I hope you receive this communication - I've had difficulty in tracking down an email for you.

I am a PhD student in the UK, and have a question for you relating to the "times of ignorance" (Acts 17). I would be very grateful if you could email me:, so that I may send the question to you.

Many thanks

Kind regards
Adam Sparks

Sandalstraps said...

Excellent post. A great meditation on the nature of fear and prejudice, especially as it relates to religion.

Your comments on both Roger Waters and Bruce Springsteen remind me that good music, whether or not it is motivated by or concerned with religion, is by nature sacred.

Peter Kirk said...

This is a good post. But remember that Israel has not been facing a 1% chance of a bomb being dropped on them but the actual fact that bombs have been dropped, hundreds of them, almost daily for three weeks. I don't say that that justifies their actions, only that their fear is not irrational and hypothetical but very real and rational. It is paranoid and irrational to be afraid of mice, but rational to be afraid of wolves. There is a pack of wolves on Israel's borders who want to devour the whole country (their stated policy!) Maybe the current reaction is over the top, but it is hard to see, from Israel's perspective, what policy would in fact be more rational than trying to neutralise the wolves.

Ben Witherington said...

If its wolves you are after, then you don't bomb the living daylights out of innocent civilians including children. This criticism applies to both sides of the aisle. I do not see the Israeli response as either rational or proportional, nor is it mainly attacking those who have attacked them. It needs to be remembered that the indescriminant bombing in Lebanon preceded, not followed the current rocket attacks by Hezbollah. A plague on both the combatant's houses. And while we are at it, it is perfectly clear who has the airstrike and superior arms in this struggle. It is not Hezbollah.

PamBG said...

Thank you so much for this post.

Lynne said...

Thank you so much for this, and for highlighting, both winsomely and convincingly, the difference between "religion" and faith. As a non-American (and therefore coming from a different theological background and carrying a different set of baggage) I am constantly bewildered by the knee-jerk reaction of "Christendom" in defiance of the facts of the case, and the frequent "enabling" of the situation by the more powerful. Maybe I'm a radical, but I think that when anyone, on either side of this conflict (or any other) willfully attacks non-combatants it should be regarded by the international community as a warcrime, irrespective of taking sides. The ends do not justify the means, and God still desires that men should do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with Him.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Lynne: I quite agree with you. Unfortunately the great impediment to holding Israel responsible for its behavior is my own government. There is an interesting book out now by David Holmes called the Faiths of our Founding Fathers. Its Epilogue states rather clearly the difference between the way George Bush senior and his son have related to Israel. The former was tough on Israel and held them accountable for misbehavior, since he had experience in foreign policy, having been an ambassador to other countries.

Blessings to all my friends in Sydney,

Ben W.

paris parfait said...

Fabulous post! As someone who lived and reported from the Middle East for a long time, I appreciate all the different nuanced skills of diplomacy required to live in an area so fraught with religion and politics, where absolutely everything is infused with these twin powers. Devils and Dust is one of my favourite Springsteen albums. Bonne chance et bonne courage!

world religions man said...

I think this would be a good one for my pupils to read. Thanks.