Friday, September 28, 2012

Roots of Christianity and Islam & Middle Eastern Tensions

Roots of Christianity and Islam & Middle Eastern Tensions:
God and individual believer
Father Abraham: Ishmael and Isaac


One CD among the many that Lighthouse Catholic Media features consist of a talk by Dr. Scott Hahn entitled, “Abba or Allah.” The post below includes many of the biblical points he raised during his talk. But as a complement to what he had to say, I added a few considerations of my own on why the relationship between God and the individual has a profound effect on politics.


The current international tensions between the West and the Middle East can be better understood if we consider the differences between Islam and Christianity. After all, the unrest in several Muslim countries, the show of protests at American embassies and the threats against the nation of Israel and America by terrorist organizations are inspired, in part, by religious and theological principles. Hence, to view these events through secular lenses- without due consideration to the backgrounds Christianity and Islam -is to be handicapped by partial perspectives.

Religion does not explain everything but it does explain a lot. It explains much of what lies underneath the political tensions between the West and Middle Eastern countries like Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Iran.

The key to political wisdom is to know what lies at the root of politics. You may have heard the saying, “Politics is local.” Issues that are closest to home are not only the most meaningful to voters; they are highly influential on the national and international level in the long term. More often than not, political activity is shaped by institutions such as the family and religion. Although these two institutions often go unmentioned in the newsroom and the classroom, they are critical factors nevertheless. In the end, it all comes down to relationships of the most elementary kind.

Section I: The Relationship: God and the individual believer

To begin with, the difference between Christianity and Islam can be likened to the difference between the Old and the New Testament. Just prior to the flood- and even just as critical as the flood itself –is when God withdrew his Spirit from mankind (cf. Gen. 6:3) To make a long story short, from the time of the flood until Pentecost the human race was left to its own devices. It was under a kind of probation. Sure, the Spirit descended on the people of Israel from time to time in the Old Testament; but this was the exception, not the rule. As such, the post-flood world was governed by, not the Golden Rule, but the survival of the fittest. It was “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Slavery, human sacrifices, blood sports, polygamy, infanticide, brutal warfare and all sorts of human vices flourished.

“I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts. I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees.” (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

And during his public ministry, Jesus gave voice to a new moral law in anticipation of the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost. He contrasts what was demanded of them under the old law and what will be demanded of them under the new law. Notice that he does not lessen the demands, but increases them. For instance, he said,

“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.' But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, 'Raqa,' will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, 'You fool,' will be liable to fiery Gehenna… You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Before the Holy Spirit would usher in the moral strength to help believers fulfill the demands of the Christ’s law, the relationship between God and man was more like a Master-slave relationship. Since the Spirit was not present in the soul to bear witness that the believer was a child of God, and since the Spirit could not cry out, “Abba, Father,” the Father-son relationship could not be fostered (cf. Romans 8:14-16). The bottom line, therefore, is that without the infusion of the Holy Spirit into the soul, the believer can only be seen as a subject, creature or property in relation to God; not as a son or a daughter.

This partly explains why Jews believed it to be a sacrilege to mention God’s name and why Muslims consider it blasphemous to refer to God as Father. They know not the love of our heavenly Father as it is communicated to the soul by the Holy Spirit.

Section II: The Relationship: Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael

This contrast between a Master-slave relationship of Islam and the Father-son relationship of Christianity could not be better traced out than in the story of Abraham, the Old Testament patriarch, and his two sons: Ishmael and Isaac (read: Genesis 16-22). As Dr. Scott maintained in his talk, Abba or Allah, no one contests that Arabs are, by race, descendants of Ishmael, the elder half-brother of Isaac. There is a general consensus on that finding. And as for Christians, who, according to St. Paul, inherited the blessing from the people of God in the Old Testament, are the spiritual descendents of Isaac. But just as Arabs are, by race, descendants of Ishmael, Muslims are believed to be his spiritual descendants.

It might be helpful to know that Abraham was married to Sarah. But Sarah was barren. As such, Sarah lent Abraham her servant (or slave), Hagar, who had been given to her in Egypt. As a kind of surrogate mother, Hagar conceived from Abraham’s seed on Sarah’s behalf. Their new born son was later called Ishmael who was circumcised at age 13. After having been overcome with jealousy, Sarah dismissed Hagar and sent her into exile. When Hagar was wandering through the desert, an angel appeared to her and said, "You are now pregnant and shall bear a son; you shall name him Ishmael, For the LORD has heard you, God has answered you. He shall be a wild ass of a man, his hand against everyone, and everyone's hand against him; In opposition to all his kin shall he encamp." (Genesis 16:11-12) Hagar was then instructed by the angel to return to Abraham and Sarah.

“He shall be a wild ass of a man,” echoed the words of the angel. Ishmael’s descendents, in other words, would consist of contentious, warring tribes. But as God would later tell Abraham, they were destined to be a great nation. Earlier, God had promised Abraham that He would make a great nation out of his posterity. The Lord said him, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” Being that his wife, Sarah, was barren, it seemed as though that Ishmael would inherit the blessing. But no, the Lord appeared to Abraham and said, "I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah will then have a son." His name shall be Isaac.

Worried about what would happen to Ishmael if Isaac would inherit the blessing, Abraham said to God, "Let but Ishmael live on by your favor!" God responded, "Nevertheless, your wife Sarah is to bear you a son, and you shall call him Isaac. I will maintain my covenant with him as an everlasting pact, to be his God and the God of his descendants after him. As for Ishmael, I am heeding you: I hereby bless him. I will make him fertile and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall become the father of twelve chieftains, and I will make of him a great nation. But my covenant I will maintain with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you by this time next year.” (Genesis 17:18-21)

As time went on, Sarah grew insecure about Ishmael’s influence over Isaac. Again, Sarah, in one of her mood swings, sent Hagar and Ishmael packing; but this time, for good. Ishmael, therefore, would not remain in Abraham’s house and inherit the blessing.

Keep in mind that his relationship with Abraham, being the maternal son of Hagar, a slave from Egypt, fell within the pattern of a Master-slave relationship. The relationship between Abraham and Ishmael would give shape to the kind of relationship that Allah would have with Muslims.

What happened to Isaac after Ishmael left? He was circumcised on the eighth day (Jewish boys are circumcised on the eighth day); in contrast to Ishmael, who was circumcised in the thirteenth year (Muslim boys to this day are circumcised when they are 13 years of age).

When Isaac came of age, the Lord put Abraham to the test. He told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on Mt. Moriah, where the Jewish Temple would eventually be built and where Christ would, two thousand years later, be crucified. Mind you, child-sacrifice had been practiced for centuries in this part of the world. The Israelites, after having journeyed through the desert for 40 years, would encounter this gruesome ritual as they settled in the land of Canaan. But as the story goes, the Lord spared Abraham from having to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. A ram was provided and sacrificed in Isaac’s stead.

The early Church Fathers interpreted the test of Abraham as an anticipation of God giving his only begotten Son to the world. Isaac voluntarily carrying the wood up Mt. Moriah for the burnt holocaust prefigured Christ carrying the Cross up Calvary hill. It just so happened that Isaac was old enough- and strong enough -to escape the ordeal if he so wished. After all, Abraham was about hundred years of age at the time. Therefore, it is not only true that God blessed Abraham for his faith during this time of trial; God also blessed Isaac for willingly offering himself as a sacrifice upon his command.

In any event, Isaac, as a free son of Abraham and Sarah, would inherit the blessing of his father. Indeed, it was Isaac, not Ishmael, and his relationship with Abraham that traced out the kind of relationship Christians would have with God as Father.

During the final weeks of every Lent, the Catholic Church proclaims the Gospel according to John (chapters 6-12). As this series of Gospel readings unfold, the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees intensifies. Inevitably, such conflict leads to his condemnation and crucifixion. Dr. Scott Hahn points out that Jesus Christ, in his public debates with the Pharisees, uses Ishmael and Isaac as an analogy when he speaks about slavery and freedom. Under the New Covenant, however, slavery to sin is the real slavery that our Lord came to free us from. And it is only the Son of the Father’s House, not the slave who has not been freed or forgiven, that has the power to break the chains. The Lord said to them, "Amen, amen, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin. A slave does not remain in a household forever, but a son always remains. So if a son frees you, then you will truly be free. I know that you are descendants of Abraham. But you are trying to kill me, because my word has no room among you. (John 8:31-37)

This passage, evidently, is an allusion to Ishmael and Isaac. It was Isaac who was the freeman. But as a son and a freeman, Isaac was called to give more. It was he who was called to surrender his life as a holocaust for his father, Abraham. Jesus was the new Isaac in the spiritual order.

Later, at the Last Supper, the night before his sacrifice on Calvary, Jesus told the Apostles that his Eucharistic sacrifice- and subsequently his sacrifice on the Cross -would change their relationship with God. There is an unspoken assumption on Jesus’ part that they- as with the people in the Old Testament -were slaves under God; not sons or friends. He said to them, “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.”

Upon the decent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, friends of God would be made into the children of God. With the infusion of the Spirit into souls- where stony hearts would be remade into natural hearts –the believer could do what Jews once believed to be impossible and what Muslims consider to be blasphemous; and that is to call God Father. Indeed, without the Third Person of the Holy Trinity being sent to the world, monotheism takes on the likeness of Islam; a master-slave relationship very similar to what we find in the Old Testament.

The next post, Roots of Christianity and Islam & Middle Eastern Tensions: Dictatorship or Democracy, will conclude with a discussion on how our relationship with God and the parent-child relationship has a profound impact the State-citizenrelationship. Why does Christianity inspire democracies whereas Islam tends to breed totalitarian states.