December 24, 2015

Christmas Back Where I Had Never Been.

From earliest memory, many of us have carried a picture of Christmas Past, each brushstroke detailed and framed by a lifetime of reading, listening, and longing. Today, with bags full of expectations, I am coming close to realizing that dream.

Many years ago the late John McNulty wrote a travel sketch for "The New Yorker" with the beguiling title, "Back Where I had Never Been." This Christmas, in London, I will travel back where I have never been.

October 15, 2015

Let Them Eat . . .

It is rather well known that the origins of many English phrases are completely unknown. Nevertheless, many people would claim, and with some conviction, that the quote “let them eat cake” is attributed to none other than the high priestess of opulence, Marie-Antoinette (1755-93), the Queen consort of Louis XVI. She is supposed to have said this when she was told that the French populace had no bread to eat.

The original French is ‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche’, i.e. ‘Let them eat brioche’.  The usual interpretation of the phrase is that Marie-Antoinette understood little about the plight of the poor and cared even less.
There are two problems with that interpretation:
1. There’s no evidence of any kind that Marie-Antoinette ever uttered those word or anything like them and
2. The phrase, in as much as it can be shown to be associated with the French nobility, can be interpreted in other ways, for example, it could have either ironic or even a genuine attempt to offer cake to the poor as an alternative to the bread that they couldn’t afford.

As to the origin of the expression, two notable contemporaries of Marie-Antoinette – Louis XVIII and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, attribute the phrase to source other than her. In Louis XVIII’s memoir Relation d’un voyage a Bruxelles et d Coblentz, 1791, he states that the phrase ‘Que ne mangent-ils de la croûte de pâté?’ was used by Marie-Thérèse (1638-83), the wife of Louis XIV. That account was published almost a century after Marie-Thérèse’s death though, so it must be treated with some caution.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 12-volume autobiographical work Confessions, was written in 1770. In Book 6, which was written around 1767, he recalls:
At length I recollected the thoughtless saying of a great princess, who, on being informed that the country people had no bread, replied, “Then let them eat pastry!”
Marie-Antoinette arrived at Versailles from her native Austria in 1770, two or three years after Rousseau had written the above passage. Whoever the ‘great princess’ was – possibly Marie-Thérèse, it wasn’t Marie-Antoinette.

Her reputation as an indulgent socialite is difficult to shake, but it appears to be unwarranted and is a reminder that history is written by the victors. She was known to have said “It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness”.

In honor of Elizabeth II a scrumptious Victoria Sponge.  Let us eat cake!

September 12, 2015

The Invisibility of Holy Land Christians.

As a child growing up, I would occasionally hear about the ultimate in Christian travel—the Holy Land tour.  And the tour would be followed up by a slide show showing where its members had gone. The slides featured ancient stone buildings, panoramic views of Jerusalem, and sunglass-wearing tourists standing atop of the Mount of Olives with the golden Dome of the Rock in the background. But I don’t remember anyone ever talking about the Christians living there. There were pictures of churches, sure, but did anyone actually go to church there?

This empty space in the Christian imagination opened up for me again when recently I read about the controversial comments made by Senator Ted Cruz at the In Defense of Christians (IDC) conference in Washington, D.C., which was organized to raise awareness of the ongoing genocide of Christians that has been unleashed by radical Muslim groups such as ISIS or more properly DAIISH.  “If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews, then I will not stand with you,” Cruz said. But the conference wasn’t about Israel. It was about the ongoing slaughter of Middle Eastern Christians. When Cruz announced that he would not stand with them because they did not stand with Israel, he essentially consigned these people and their families and flocks to slaughter because they did not share his politics on the most controversial state in their region.

I was similarly struck when the Arabic letter nun (“N”) for Nasrani (“Nazarenes”) began to take over the profile pictures of many friends on social media. The West had learned that Iraqi Christians were being targeted by ISIS and that this letter was being painted on their homes to mark them out for extermination.

And yet while I wondered at people waking up to the fact that there are Christians in Iraq (or, increasingly, were), I wondered why my fellow Christians here don’t seem to realize that the whole Middle East is home to Christians.  At roughly 18 million strong, Christians constitute 5 percent of the total Middle Eastern population (though no one is sure of the real number), a little less than the population of Florida. Ten percent of Syrians and Egyptians are Christian. Forty-one percent of Lebanese are Christian. Americans are used to thinking of the Middle East as Muslims surrounding an island of Jews that it rarely occurs to them that there might be Christians in the birthplace of Christianity.

I had a good friend of Lebanese ancestry. People sometimes asked me if that meant he was Muslim. He was not. He was an Orthodox Christian. His father was an Orthodox Christian and his father was an Orthodox Christian. And so on. They were actually not really sure how far back their Christianity went, but the family originally came from Antioch (which is now in Turkey and was a major Syrian capital in the Roman Empire). I once asked when the family became Christian. The answer: “When Jesus rose from the dead.” There’s a good chance that that’s correct.

When the Apostles made their missionary journeys to the uttermost parts of the earth, history doesn’t say that they skipped the rest of the Middle East and headed straight for Europe. No, they immediately began founding Christian Communities right in their own neighborhood. Two major Syrian cities—Antioch and Damascus—figure quite large in early Christian history. They are mentioned in the New Testament and are still home to Christians.

Granted, when many American Christians think of “the Holy Land,” they don’t usually think beyond the borders of Israel. But Jesus went beyond those borders (e.g., to Tyre and Sidon, both Lebanese cities, as well as to Egypt in his youth), and the Apostles certainly did. And who can forget the Hebrew heritage in Egypt? Or that Abraham was from what is today Iraq? The Middle East is the very cradle of Christianity and its Jewish inheritance.

But even if we have a hard time wrapping our heads around the presence of Christians in the Middle East, we can look for them right here in America. The most numerous ethnic group of Middle Eastern people—those identifying as “Arabs”— number 1.7 million.  Of those, 63 percent are Christians. (Muslims account for only 24 percent of Arab Americans.) The average Arab in America is a Christian.

So why is the Middle Eastern Christian voice so unheard and so unknown in America?  It may be that their local spokesmen are not very well-organized. It may be, as some say, that they are “too Christian for the Left and too foreign for the Right.” And it may also be because of moments like Senator Cruz gave us at the IDC conference, where he effectively announced that he did not care that they were being slaughtered because they didn’t share his position on Israel—“speaking truth to the powerless,” one commentator put it.

But their voice needs to be heard, and it needs to be heard now. American Christians’ inability to see Middle Eastern Christians for who they are—not just fellow Christians, but human beings who are suffering and dying—contributes to the marginalization of some of the most persecuted people in the world, hastening their erasure from history.

Will we notice before the last Christian liturgy is held in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, that comes miraculously every Easter, is no longer greeted by “Christ is risen”?  Or will this generation witness the end of Christianity in the place where it began?