Gilkes: Deconstructing religion; Zionism, US/European exceptionalism and the rest of us

Back in the mid-80s, when I was in Form 3 or 4 at St Benedict’s College, a film was shown about the Rapture—an event in which the ‘righteous’ would suddenly be swept up into the clouds to be with Jesus and away from the horrific tribulations that would befall everyone else.

The people who showed the film impressed on us the importance of living ‘righteous’ lives—in keeping with the narrow understandings of what is righteous and unrighteous of course.

Photo: An artistic depiction of the rapture.

Now that film shook me for quite a while. It, coupled with the notions of sin I was already indoctrinated with thanks to Sunday School in the Anglican Church, really scared me and continued to have some influence over me for quite a long while, even after I graduated.

In fact when I began to examine African-centred history, I kept well clear of examining, let alone deconstructing, religious teachings and the influence of pre-Abrahamic belief systems and sacred sciences for years—specifically the Nile Valley African pharaonic civilisations.

Evidence of African ocean voyages to the Americas before Columbus? Check. African origins of engineering, astronomy and complex medical science? No problem.

The African roots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam? No eh; forget dat! Not me, ‘hoss’.

I was taught, explicitly and implicitly, that the most unpardonable thing I could do was to investigate—no, just question—the idea of scriptural and sacerdotal authority. To do so was to be on a slippery slope to question and challenge the authority, the very existence, of ‘God’.

It was drummed into my head that people who did that were the very worst in a society. They impressed upon me to always trust and obey.

Oh well, they did try.

Nonetheless, the reality is that even in this age of instant information, that mindset still retains a powerful grip among many; and that is cause for grave concern and, frankly, some sort of intervention.

Photo: Be still and know…

Because the concept(s) of the ‘Apocalypse’, ‘End Times’ and ‘Atonement’ need to be given very serious examinations. These concepts have been misused and manipulated not only by self-serving religious and political leaders, but also by religious and political leaders who themselves honestly, piously believe these ideas are to be taken literally. They are the ones who are the most dangerous. They are the ones who prey on the despair, the vulnerability and the anger of those dispossessed by economic, social and political systems that were created to favour only a selected few.

Literal misinterpretations of ‘End Times’ is not new; that, coupled with linear notions of time has been a part of Christian thought arguably since the very early generations of the Christian Era.

It should be noted here, although space doesn’t permit details, that much of this hinges on the acceptability of linear concepts of time and a cultural idealisation of pessimism and worthlessness. End Times beliefs aren’t unique to Christianity; the more ancient faiths from which Christian thinkers drew, particularly those of Africa, developed the concept, but worked it into cyclical notions of time to describe the end of an age or time period—mostly tied in to celestial observations.

What seems to have set Christianity apart was that linear reckoning of time, coupled with the egregious notion of sin and mankind’s ‘inherent’ worthlessness that Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong brilliantly calls out.

It has also been found in certain strains of Islamic thought and this has been used, for instance, to channel the rage of criminalised youths in criminalised depressed communities in Trinidad, many of whom ended up in Syria, as former member of the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen Hasan Anyabwile pointed out.

Photo: A self-proclaimed Trinidad and Tobago jihadist and ISIS fighter.
(Copyright Caribbean360)

I have argued elsewhere that while Western mainstream media and academics bleat on about Islamic extremism, very few ever point out that much of that is only in response to political decisions influenced by very narrow evangelical Christian ideas merged with racist white nationalism deeply embedded in US and European politics.

Journalist and ordained minister Chris Hedges tells us here about how James Luther Adams, his ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, warned his class that the new Christian Fascists—he saw the old ones in Nazi Germany—would mask themselves in the language of patriotism and pages of the Bible. That is precisely what we are seeing unfolding before us in global politics; to be more precise, globalised US ideology has simply taken up where the British left off.

Christian activism and agitation revolving around the belief in the End Times as supposedly predicted in scriptural texts has been gaining traction in US politics bit by bit as I pointed out in Part I, emerging with much renewed confidence with the election of US President Donald Trump and, in particular, Vice-President Mike Pence.

What prompted Hedges was when he noticed televangelist Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell speaking openly about using the United States to create a global Christian empire. To use the words of another notorious evangelist, Dr Richard Land, US Exceptionalism is understood as ‘God’ having a special claim on ‘America’. (Don’t you just love how the United States has arrogated unto itself the name of an entire continent?)

Land, in the spirit of President Woodrow Wilson, stated that: “American Exceptionalism is a doctrine of obligation, responsibility, sacrifice and service in the cause of freedom. Not a doctrine of pride, privilege and prejudice. [We] believe we have an obligation and responsibility not to try to impose freedom, but to share it.”

Photo: Late former US President Woodrow Wilson.

By the time Hedges took notice, the process of taking over and controlling key institutions—starting at town, county, city and state level—had already been very quietly underway for quite some time. What Hedges outlines in his lecture and his book American Fascists was examined in chilling detail by historian Nancy MacLean in her book Democracy in Chains.

What she and Jane Mayer, author of Dark Money, found are a small but extremely wealthy, very powerful group of arch-conservative billionaire donors and financiers who were greatly displeased with the liberal direction the United States was moving in since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. As such they began creating and/or funding right-wing think tanks in universities, far-right White nationalist groups, neoliberal institutions and conservative lawyers and judges.

Over time, they made more and more inroads into US politics through the back door via the evangelical Christian community thanks to such figures as Paul Weyrich.

We in ‘post-colonial’ societies, if we’re serious at all about decolonising, need to do our own examinations of these developments and see in what ways organisations such as the Christian Zionist movement manifest itself in our own spaces. Christian Zionism emerged out of a type of evangelical theology known as Dispensationalism, which posits that you can read the future by looking at Old Testament stories and prophecies.

One of the main figures behind this is Pastor John Hagee who runs a mega church in San Antonio, Texas. (Yes, that same Pastor Hagee who Flow cable TV allow to provide noise pollution in my father’s room).

Christian Zionists believe in the Rapture, a literal interpretation of the Bible and are passionate about the state of Israel. They believe that ‘god’ gave the land of Palestine—all of it—to the Jews. As such, they are stoutly opposed to any two-state solution, and most definitely any one-state solution in which the Palestinians, as citizens with the rights of Israelis, can vote in elections; since, because of their numerical majority, they can vote clean out the conservatives in a one-person-one-vote election system.

Photo: A Palestinian woman shows dissent to an Israeli soldier.

Christianised activism, through such movements, now outstrip the Jewish lobby in the US; and that says a lot. Interestingly, although Zionism—a nationalist movement that supports the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland in what is now Israel—is often attributed to Rabbi Theodor Herzl, it actually predates him. It emerged among British evangelicals, particularly Lord Shaftesbury who followed a particularly rigid Puritanical form of Protestantism that including a strict observance of the Sabbath.

Shaftesbury was president of the London Jews Society until his death in 1885. He argued fervently and helped to break the ground for the return of Jews to what he and others believed was their ancestral homeland which he believed was ‘god’s’ will.

A few minor complications here.

The standard narrative we are fed on is that the current state of Israel is the ancestral homeland for the Jewish people who were exiled following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple during an uprising in 70CE. Following the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the struggle for liberation in 1947, they regained their homeland but are struggling to survive given that they are surrounded by hostile Arab Muslims—their mortal enemies.

Piecing together the works of Dr Schlomo Sand, professor of history at Tel Aviv University, historian Ilan Pappe and even the book Egypt Revisited edited by Dr Ivan van Sertima, a more complex picture emerges. Sand, having examined the archaeological, linguistic and historical evidence (and lack of same), argues in The Invention of the Jewish People that there is no evidence of any exile en masse from Palestine in 70CE. Van Sertima shows there was no evidence of any exodus from Egypt either or that they were ever slaves of the Egyptians.

Additionally, as Sand points out, given that Canaan was a colony of Egypt at the time, if the exodus did occur, Moses simply moved the Jews from Egypt back to Egypt. He also tells us, as do other scholars, that the kingdoms of David and Solomon were myths and the very names were personalised generic royal/priestly titles.

Photo: Moses shares the word of the God in the 1956 movie “The Ten Commandments.”

Sand points out that the only people exiled in 70CE were the educated elites, not the ordinary people. He also in his book quotes no less than David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister and its principal architect, who in 1918 wrote this in his book Eretz Israel in the Past and in the Present:

“To argue that after the conquest of Jerusalem by Titus and the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt, Jews altogether ceased to cultivate the land of Eretz Israel is to demonstrate complete ignorance in the history and the contemporary literature of Israel… The Jewish farmer, like any other farmer, was not easily torn from his soil, which had been watered with his sweat and the sweat of his forebears… Despite the repression and suffering, the rural population remain unchanged.”

This would help make sense of the historical fact that, as this video footage from 1896 shows, there was a Jewish minority living side-by-side with Muslims and Arab Christians in Palestine for hundreds of years before the disruptions caused by the infamous Balfour Declaration. It may also make sense of the history that tells us that when the Jews were being persecuted in Europe and fled, it was Muslims who gave them sanctuary.

Sand also argues that the very idea of a physical Jewish homeland in the nationalist sense would have been heretical among the ancient Jews. Even in the 19th century many European Jews regarded the idea of Judaism as a nationalist or secular movement—which is what Pappe argues Zionism is—and an absolute heresy.

Sand traced the idea of a physical homeland back to Ancient Greece and Rome before it became a republic. It was known as patri or “Fatherland” but was not a concept of the ancient Jews for whom the idea of a homeland was metaphysical, not necessarily geographic.

We also learn that many Jews in Europe—whose ancestors have little ties to ancient Palestine but converted to Judaism in the 10th century CE for political reasons—had no interest at all to migrate to Palestine. Even with the marginalisations and persecutions, many were content to remain European and, later on, Euro-Americans.

Photo: The persecution of Jews in Europe during the Holocaust.

Which brings us to the other aspect of Christian evangelical End Times thought, the racist aspect. One of the core ideologies linking Shaftesbury and Arthur Balfour to Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Richard Land and Hagee is a religiously (and racially) bigoted idea that the Jews must be converted to Christianity after their repatriation to Palestine.

What motivated people like Shaftesbury, Balfour, Prime Minister Lloyd George and others from that period was to get rid of the Jews in their own countries, ship them off to Palestine (or anywhere else for that matter, they nearly were placed in Kenya or Uganda as I recall correctly). Through literal readings and mistranslations of select biblical texts, they sought to return the Jews to Palestine, convert them to Christianity and usher in the Second Coming of Jesus after of course a period of tribulation that is the source of this piece of madness.

This is a continuation of a very old racist Eurocentric idea that the Jews are contaminants and ‘Christ’-killers. The long history of this is explored at length in James Carroll’s book Constantine’s Sword. The current union between Jews and evangelical Christians is a VERY curious one. (As curious as the cozying up of evangelicals to Saudi Arabians.)

Given that that conversion eh going to happen—the reality is that many of the stoutly pious Jews in Palestine are as far-Right and as racist as their evangelical counterparts in the Midwest USA—there will be some interesting times ahead if and when the Christian Zionists eventually turn on the Jews as Martin Luther did in the 16th century.

Which puts the rest of us in a very delicate position; as it always has. The land of Palestine had a slight issue of people already living on it, mostly Arabs. Not a problem really, Palestine just fell into a category articulated thus: “A land without people for a people without land.”

Photo: Protesters in Palestine.

This is the ‘empty land’ fabrication that has been used time and again to justify settler-colonial atrocities in North America, Azania/South Africa, Australia and Palestine. Black and brown people were routinely dehumanised and invisibilised to justify their removal and/or extermination.

In Palestine, Pappe tells us that, in 1948, Jewish settlers destroyed over 500 Arab villages and imported hundreds of trees from Europe which they planted over the ruins of these villages, partly to re-create the Europe they left behind and wanted to transform Palestine into. But another reason was to cover over the fact that they had destroyed 500 villages that had people living in them.

So the irony here is that they who were pushed out of a Europe that was racist towards them for centuries, did and are still doing the exact same thing to the Palestinians already living there.

The main point of this nonsensical rant is that literal readings of the Bible is what Bishop John Shelby Spong calls ‘gentile heresy’ that must be curtailed with more urgency than all the previous ‘heresies’ combined. Why? Well me eh know bout allyuh, but I really eh care for people who believe in apocalyptic ending of the world; who have set convictions about denying the humanity and cultures of people who look like me and who have deep-seated anxieties about their own plummeting birth rate having access to weapons of mass destruction.

Barbara G Walker in The Women’s Encyclopedia Of Myths and Secrets tells us about the ancient Christians in Rome and how they used to set fires in order to create chaos in the hope of bringing on the end of times. Imagine if they had access to nukes?

I’m already extremely uncomfortable that we had a general from the elite army Delta Force who was quite open and proud of his evangelical ideology and now we have Erik Prince from the Navy side (SEALs) who runs one of the most infamous mercenary organisations chomping at the bit to get into Venezuela. Add to that the Christian worldview of Mike Pompeo and even more so Mike Pence.

Photo: US President Donald Trump claims the Holy Bible is his favourite book.

Catherine Ochs makes a sobering point in Behind the Sex of God when she writes:

“The idea of God as father is really a manifestation of the concept of God as artist. In both cases, the role played by God is that off spiritual progenitor and external judge. This contrasts with the idea of God as mother, whose role is that of physical progenitor and source of succor, protection, and uncritical acceptance.

“Noah’s flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah are incompatible with a mother God; they are the result of God the father judging that his creation he gone awry. This is, of course, one of the difficulties arising from the model of God as artist. The artist may destroy his work because it does not live up to his concept of what the work should be.”

Isn’t that what we’ve been seeing these last 500 years? The colonising of Africa, Asia but more so the Americas was motivated by capitalistic greed in its various stages. However, it also represents an attempt by Europeans imbued with a racist, religiously bigoted ideology to destroy and create newer, ‘perfect’ societies free from the ‘impure’, ‘polluting’ elements.

Pankaj Mishra, author of From the Ruins of Empire called it the great experiment. Worked out well, didn’t it?

Deconstructing and dispensing with many toxic religious ideas are not going to be easy or pleasant; for many their faith is all they have left to get them through the tribulations that a harsh, impersonal and marginalising society forces them to endure. But much of the mystique, mistakes and mistranslations in religious teachings, passages and traditions—that frankly, they’ll be better off without—need to be stripped away and exposed for what they truly are.

I see no other way for real progress until we begin to untangle the many chords that are preventing societies from more cohesive actions that will prevent a self-chosen few from carrying all of humanity down a destructive road.

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  1. Why is Saudi Arabia cozying up to evangelical Christians at this point curious? The author did say:
    “I have argued elsewhere that while Western mainstream media and academics bleat on about Islamic extremism, very few ever point out that much of that is only in response to political decisions influenced by very narrow evangelical Christian ideas merged with racist white nationalism deeply embedded in US and European politics.”
    That has deep religious historical meaning and directed agendas. Islamic extremism is politically useful. It’s too bad that so many repressed/marginalized minds that are easily swayed buy into the dogma. It’s just a nice big orchestrated version of that apocalyptic vision that is meant to have as much common ground amongst the major religions. People buy into the version of a religion that is given to them. Much of it is based on preplanned agendas surrounding shifts to fulfill the ‘truth’ of what they were told. There are many apocalyptic visions in Islam as well. To understand this aspect of a ‘merger’ of common interests of sorts…then you will need to understand the interpretation of religion that you aren’t taught and you need to accept that the people feeding it to you actually need you to buy into it to fulfill their own politico-religious fantasies.

  2. Well researched. Unfortunately, it all comes down to one simple concept: belief. Ppl believe some absurd concepts, religion being a major one. To separate one from his/her belief is one of the biggest challenges the human species will face. To ask ppl to “review” their early teachings, especialy as it relates to the concept of god, is taboo to, i daresay, most.

  3. Well written article. There’s a growing number of these churches in Trinidad. They all have ties to these mega churches I’m the US . It would be interesting to know the names of those US affiliates. I’m wondering if the people attending these churches in Trinidad know about the US political connections to Trump?

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