The first Hanukkah candle was lit Wednesday night. Tonight there will be three. Today in 1763 the first synagogue in what was to become the United States was dedicated in Newport, Rhode Island.
In many Christian churches December 3 is the feast day of St. Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Jesuits and missionary to India. Today the Eastern Church remembers the martyrs Agapius, Seleucus, and Mamas.
Next Tuesday, December 7, is New Year’s Day on the Islamic calendar. Shia Muslims will remember Ashura — the martyrdom of Ali, grandson of the Prophet –on December 15.
On December 8 many Mahayana Buddhists, especially in Japan, celebrate the Enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama. This is sometimes called Bodhi Day.
The inter-faith calendar could easily be expanded and extended. The darkness of the northern hemisphere’s winter seems to have made these next few weeks especially full of religious memorials.
The wanna-be bomber in Portland and the arson of the Islamic center in Corvallis are the latest in a series of events that highlight the religious challenges of our age. Long before the “Ground Zero Mosque” or even 9/11, Samuel Huntington described a clash of civilizations erupting along cultural boundaries largely defined by religious belief. In the current issue of Foreign Affairs we are told to be ready for even more religious turmoil in the next thirty years. (See “A Globalized God” and “The Rise of Mezzanine Rulers”.)
My identity is of a generation, a social class, and a region that was taught to use civic language — and avoid religious language — in secular space. Whatever the merits of that old discipline, it is increasingly abandoned. Today and in six weekend posts I will leave these restraints mostly behind.
Over the next three weeks I will use Saturday and Sunday to post some thoughts on six excerpts of Christian scripture I perceive to be specifically relevant to inter-faith relations and, therefore, to homeland security. I will finish the series on Christmas Eve.
The texts all relate to what Jesus said about the Samaritans. In the New Testament the inter-religious issue is framed as between Jews and Gentiles (mostly Hellenistic peoples) and between Jews and Samaritans. The relationship between first century Jew and Samaritan was especially tense, reflecting how much was shared between the two religious traditions. It seems to me there are clear analogies for contemporary Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
The Samaritans were (and are) a people centered in a region north of Jerusalem. Samaritan origins are disputed. The Samaritans themselves claim to be descendants of the twelve tribes of Israel, especially the northern tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. The Samaritans see themselves as a remnant of the Northern Kingdom that survived Assyrian exile. Jews who returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity considered the Samaritans an entirely separate people, despite a wide range of linguistic, geographic, and theological proximities.
The Samaritans consider themselves the true descendents of Moses. The Samaritan Bible is almost identical to the first five books of the Jewish Bible. But the Samaritans do not consider the other books – the prophets and readings – to be sacred. The Samaritans focus their tradition at Shechem and Mt. Gerizim. The Jews (Judeans) looked to Jerusalem and Mt. Zion.
It was roughly 500 years from the reestablishment of the second temple at Jerusalem to the life of Jesus. Over these five centuries the religious differences – rather modest to an outsider – were exacerbated by a host of political and cultural conflicts. To Jewish contemporaries of Jesus the Samaritans were entirely other and spiritually polluted.
How did Jesus engage this otherness? There are six scriptural references to Samaritans, I will examine each. I welcome your comments or critique. More tomorrow.