Multiple Religious Belonging: Compassion, Life and Death

Click here to download the printable Word Doc>>



Joseph V. Montville

Keynote Address to the

2009 Costas Consultation on Global Mission

Sponsored by the Schools of the Boston Theological Institute

Friday, February 27 at Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge*


In 1986 I gave a plenary address to the fall meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria in NewYork. It was a truly anomalous situation.  I was a completely unknown, mid-level Foreign Service officer speaking to about 400 psychoanalysts in one of only two invited plenary addresses at the meeting, and I knew many if not most of the APA members would have killed to have such an opportunity to speak.  This event had been arranged by the late John E. Mack, MD, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School, with whom I had been working on the psychology of the U.S. Soviet relationship, and in a project sponsored by the American Psychiatric Association to reinforce the first Camp David peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, signed in 1978.

John had accepted an invitation to join the program committee for that fall American Psychoanalytic meeting–which was actually in the second week of December– on condition that the committee agree to accept an unconventional proposal from him, namely to give me one of the plenaries. I was stunned by the opportunity, but took it as a sign that some higher power was offering an unprecedented platform for me to present some of the insights and discoveries we had been making in understanding the origins and durability of religious and ethnic conflict.

The result was a talk entitled “Psychoanalytic Enlightenment and the Greening of Diplomacy” which was later published after peer review in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association (it is available in the theory section of abrahamicfamilyreunion.org, the Web site of the “Toward the Abrahamic Family Reunion” project that I direct.)

This evening, I find myself in a similarly anomalous situation of having been invited to keynote an important meeting of the Boston Theological Institute, which embraces

*Andover Newton Theological School*Boston College Department of Theology*Boston College School of Theology*Boston University School of Theology*Episcopal Divinity*Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary*Harvard Divinity School*Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology*Saint John’s Seminary

several of the most important divinity schools, seminaries, and university religious studies departments in the country.  In 1986 I was not a psychoanalyst, and in 2009 I am not a theologian.  But in the last 30 years or so my work in official Track One diplomacy focusing on the Middle East, and unofficial Track Two diplomacy[1] focusing on religious and ethnic conflicts around the world, has brought me to see the organic connection between psychology and theology, both of which ultimately center on the basic emotional and spiritual needs of human beings as individuals and as members of larger identity groups and nations.

The primary driving force of my work has been the impact of wars and revolutions in which many innocent civilians have been killed and the deaths through terrorist acts of several of my Foreign Service colleagues over the years, mostly in the Middle East, but some in Khartoum, Sudan, and Southern Africa. The Southern African killing was of a friend who was on a mission to Namibia during the civil war who was killed when a bomb was set off in a gas station. It was particularly painful because he and I had had lunch together some four weeks previously in the State Department cafeteria to talk about Track Two or citizen diplomacy strategies to support peacemaking around the world.  But all the rest were linked to the lack of basic resolution in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  In the course of my time in the State Department in Washington (1973-1988) there were interim steps in a peace process, especially after the 1973 Egyptian-Israel war and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s dramatic visit to Jerusalem in 1977.  But the progress came in limited fits and starts over the decades, and as we have seen in the most recent blood letting in Gaza, the core issues of Israeli / Palestinian community and peace are far from resolution.

This is probably not kind to say, but I used to think that the most effective operations of the Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian affairs of the State Department was in the   renting of buses to take us all to the National Cathedral for memorial services for our most recent Foreign Service victims of the Middle East paralysis.

But, you may well ask, why did the BTI planning committee for this annual Costas Consultation on Global Mission offer me this keynote opportunity-to an audience of professors and graduate students of theology and religious studies. And I hasten to say that I take some comfort that you, being who you are, would not likely kill for such a chance yourselves. The fact is that BTI executive director Rodney Petersen and Father Ray Helmick, S.J. and I have been working together intermittently on the subject of religion and peacemaking for several years, and I did a chapter for the book they co-edited for the Templeton Foundation Press called Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Religion, Public Policy, and Conflict Transformation (2001). And when I was fortunate enough to get a grant from the Fetzer Institute in 2007 to start the “Toward the Abrahamic Family Reunion,” project, I suggested that BTI consider giving a course on the subject which was happily started this January at Boston College with Rodney and Ray as co-instructors.

And so I am very grateful to have this chance to engage with all of you on what I see as the intersection of theology, psychology, public policy and peacemaking. And while my current study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim sacred literature and history and activism with Abrahamic clergy and citizen organizations centered in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, New York and Boston is thus triangular, I will focus this evening on three introspective tasks specifically for Christians that I think are essential to advance the reconciliation process in the Abrahamic family. It is important to note that I offer these thoughts as an avocational political psychologist with a strong orientation toward psychoanalytic or depth psychology. What this means is that I believe in taking a history of dysfunctional or pathological behavior-behavior that hurts people, that persists and that continues to threaten to hurt people-individuals and nations. And then trying to help transform the behavior.  I should also note that I came to this approach from the real world of professional political analysis, and it crystallized when I was chief of the Near East division in the bureau on intelligence and research in the Department of State but moonlighting with psychiatrists and psychoanalysts..

The first task addresses the genesis of Christian violence and how theology has been employed historically to justify political aggression. Then we look at the impact of Anti-Judaic dogma attributed first to the Gospel of John, through the early Church fathers and onward through the heartbreaking and ultimately unspeakable tragedy of the Jewish experience in Christian Europe. The link of this heritage to death and destruction in the Israeli-Palestinian and Jewish-Muslim conflicts with the implicit and persistent threat of nuclear Holocaust in the Middle East will be clear. Finally, there will be some limited treatment of the Christian-Muslim relationship, some thought on respectful engagement and how, in the end, we might bring the Abrahamic triangle together in the broad, healing context of love of  our one shared God, and extending similar love and respect to our neighbors and the strangers we meet.

Paradise Transferred: The Birth of Christian Aggression

At the outset I acknowledge a significant debt to a new study by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker entitled Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. Parker is professor of theology and president of Starr King School for the Ministry, a component of the Graduate Theological Union—BTI’s sister consortium–in Berkeley, California. Brock is director of Faith Voices for the Common Good and a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

The work was five years in the making, an exploration in history and church literature as well as field visits to churches and museums in Europe and Turkey to try to find out why images of the crucified Christ-his body on the cross-did not appear until the 10th century. It is comprehensive, deeply researched-90 pages of endnotes-and a treasure trove of information and analysis. What the authors found in early Church art and writings were representations of paradise on earth–a tangible place of abundant fresh water, gardens and animals, a vision that ordinary mortals could aspire to in their lives.

They write in the Prologue:

To our surprise and delight, we discovered that early Christian paradise was something other than ‘heaven’ or the afterlife. Our modern views of heaven and paradise think of them as a world after death. However, in the early church, paradise-first and foremost-was this world, permeated and blessed by the Spirit of God. It was on earth. Images of it in Rome and Ravenna captured the craggy, scruffy pastoral landscape, the orchards, the clear night skies, the teeming waters of the Mediterranean world, as if they were lit by a power from within. Sparkling mosaics in vivid colors captured the world’s luminosity. The images filled the walls of spaces in which liturgies fostered aesthetic, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual experiences of life in the present, in a world created as good and delightful. (p.xv)

The authors focus on the concept of theosis. They write that they found the idea of human divinity, theosis as used by Gregory of Naziansus (326-389), to be pervasive in early Christianity. With the incarnation of Christ, God has become human and humanity has been deified. I quote at length:

The earliest Christian movements attracted slaves, peasants, women, the disaffected, and other ordinary people. They joined communities that enabled them to be ‘partakers in divinity,’ which gave them a status greater that that of those who exploited them. The church expected them to share their goods in common so that every member of the community could have a decent life….Tertullian of Carthage said Christians created an alternative social order, which he called ‘the Christian society, ‘ that embraced people of every age and status. Contrary to the imperial taxes used for wars, building projects, and luxuries for the already privileged, Christians, he said, contributed ‘to support the destitute, and to pay for their burial expenses, to supply the needs of boys and girls lacking money and power, and of old people confined to the home…we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another….’

Christians were expected to help the light of divinity radiate throughout their community, by loving each other as God had loved them and ‘doing deeds that were divine.’ Misfortune, oppression, enslavement, imprisonment, ignorance, and sickness diminished the light of God that shone from each person. Like Christ, they were anointed to preach the good news to the poor, heal the sick, and liberate the oppressed. Theosis revealed humanity to be the glory of God, holy fires of divinity, the light of the world; Irenaeus of Lyon said humanity was ‘the receptacle of all God’s wisdom and power.’ (p. 178-9)

And so we once had a vision of peace, justice and even love on earth as the essence of the message of Jesus.  What happened?

Brock and Parker begin Part II of their opus saying, “In Christianity’s second millennium

The Crucifixion expelled paradise from earth. And Jesus died again.” (p. 223) In what Bruce Lawrence, a religion professor at Duke, calls “forensic scholarship,” the authors present the results of their investigation. They found the “corpse” of Jesus in the Cathedral of Cologne. It is called the Gero Cross, carved in oak, gilded and presenting the life-size body of Christ almost naked. It is the oldest surviving crucifix, made in Saxony around 960-70. In the eleventh century there was a proliferation throughout Europe of crucifixes and images of saints bleeding, tortured and in agony. Death was in. How did this happen?

Brock and Parker, in a strong political-psychological historical analysis, zero in on Charles the Great-Charlemagne (742-814)–and the campaigns he and his successors led to beat the Saxons in north western Germany into submission to the Holy Roman Empire. Charlemagne was a Christian imperialist. The Saxons were considered crude, country, quasi-Christians who retained many of their pagan traditions and rituals and frequently confusing church ritual. Boniface, an English monk, later canonized, was shocked to find Saxon priests messing up their Latin and baptizing people “in the name of the Father and the Daughter.”  But the purpose of the Frankish aggression was much more than teaching the German peasants purity of Christian ritual. They were building an empire and conquered tribes and nations were supposed to submit. (About twelve years ago I was in Strasbourg, France in a park on  the Rhine River and read a plaque commemorating one of the last atrocities of World War II where bodies of French citizens killed by German troops were seen floating down the river. Today Strasbourg is the site of the European Court of Justice and alternate seat of the European Parliament, founded on the rock of the exemplary Franco-German reconciliation after World War II. It is remarkable to think that the tradition of large-scale Franco-German warfare started with Charlemagne beating up on the Saxons. Nations do not forget. In the modern era, Germany invaded France three times from 1870 through two World Wars.)

Charlemagne fought the Saxons on and off for thirty-three years. In the words of the authors, “his activities stand as the most brutal pages in Christian missionary efforts. For Charlemagne, and the Carolingian warrior-aristocrats, the Resurrection cross of Christ symbolized the power that protected them in warfare and led them to victory. Priests traveled with the army….. [and] carried gold, jewel encrusted crosses mounted on standards in procession through the troops-a sign of divine power and majesty and of Christ’s victory over Satan and death.” (p. 227) A theologian-Paschasius-recast the Eucharist not as the celebration of the Resurrection but as the daily reenactment of the Crucifixion, the killing of the bleeding Christ. Communicants were to focus on his suffering and dying. In political-military terms, over time the death theme came to mean that killing which had been forbidden to Christians became, in warfare, a source of thanksgiving.

The authors write,” Moral confusions inevitably arose between conqueror and colonizers, murderer and victim, harm and holiness, crime and punishment, and death and life. The Carolingians cut the connections between great power and great responsibility, and denied divine power in humanity, forfeiting their ethical obligations to protect life on earth. Christians lost their footing in paradise and began a precipitous slide into a pit of hell of their own making.” (p. 239). And finally, “The Carolingian Eucharist ceased to deliver life in its fullness, life everlasting, or fellowship with the risen Christ. This new theology…made him a victim. His corpse’s power to judge sin alienated Christians from communion with Christ and from the love and support of the community of the saints. It isolated individuals and left them terrified….The Christian trembled in the presence of the crucified Savior, guilty and overcome, begging for mercy. The anxious imperialist gaze had become the gaze of all Christendom.” (p. 240)

The great theologian and philosopher, Anselm of Aosta, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093, is cited by Brock and Parker as one whose “theology of atonement,” helped make the Incarnation’s sole purpose to drive relentlessly to the act of dying. He wrote, “When earthly rulers exercise vengeance justifiably, the one who is really exercising it is the One who established them in authority for this purpose.” (p. 268).  The authors judge that:

Anselm’s theology and piety crystallized the religious foundation of the Crusades. “Peace by the blood of the cross” would become the path to unity among those who shared in Christ’s blood, released for human consumption through his crucifixion. Those who shared in the bread and cup incurred obligations either to convert or to kill those who did not eat and drink with them. No one who stood outside the ritual circle of Communion was safe. This consuming vision of peace permeated Christian spiritual practices of the eleventh century. Killing and being killed imitated the gift of Christ’s death, the anguish of his self-sacrifice, and the terror of his judgment. (p. 270).

Christian Violence in the Abrahamic Framework: The Beginning of Jewish and Muslim Memory

Pope Urban II called the First Crusade in November, 1095 in Clermont, France, at a Peace Council. He reportedly was trying to stop the internecine fighting and incessant competition among regional political leaders in an essentially unstable European environment. In an open field, Urban pronounced a pan-Christian truce to the assembled nobles, laymen, bishops and priests. He then urged the crowd to turn the attention to “the bastard Turks,” who had shed Christian “blood like a river that runs around Jerusalem.” Among the charges Urban made to the crowd, he said “Christians were being forcibly circumcised…and the resulting blood was spread on altars or poured into baptismal fonts; the Turks cut open the navels of those women they choose to torment with a loathsome death…tie them to a stake, drag them around and flog them; they tied some to posts and used them for archery practice; others they attacked with drawn swords to see whether they can cut off their heads with a single stroke.” [2] If these words were not enough of an incentive, Urban offered an almost irresistible holy contract. Whoever goes on the journey to free Jerusalem will win penance for all his sins. A plenary indulgence. War thus became a religious activity. And the First Crusade got underway but with the most bitter of ironic overtures.

Peter the Hermit was chief recruiter of fighters for the crusade. In the spring of 1096, Peter preached on Good Friday under the Gero Cross in the Cathedral of Cologne. As is well-known, the Good Friday Passion liturgy put special emphasis on the “perfidious Jews,” the murderers of Christ. (My colleague, Richard Rubenstein of George Mason University, has said that he was initially inspired in part to write his history, When Jesus Became God, by vivid memories of growing up in Brooklyn and as a teen being set upon by outraged Italian youths coming out of church on Good Friday looking for Jews to beat up.)

The first large-scale anti-Jewish pogrom in Europe began in May, 1096. The Christian soldiers, crosses sewn onto their tunics, worked their way down the Rhein stopping in the cities of Speyer, Trier, Metz, Regensburg, Cologne, Worms, Mainz and seven other cites. The crusaders killed some ten thousand Jews, about one-third the Jewish population in Europe. Albert of Aachen wrote of the attack on Mainz of May 25:

Breaking the bolts and doors, they killed the Jews, about 700 in number, who in vain resisted the force and attack of so many thousands. They killed the women, also, and with their swords pierced tender children of whatever age and sex….Horrible to say, mothers cut the throats of nursing children with knives and stabbed others, preferring them to perish thus by their own hands. (quoted in Brock and Parker, p. 271.)

Another witness to the massacre in Mainz recounted the words of the Christians as they sought out Jews to kill. “You are the children of those who killed our object of veneration [Jesus Christ], hanging him on a tree; and he himself had said: ‘There will yet come a day when my children will come and avenge my blood.’ We are his children and it is…therefore obligatory for us to avenge him since you are the ones who rebel and disbelieve him.[3]

One might ask what the point is in resurrecting these gory details of a millennium ago. Surely very few Ashkenazi Jews can cite this story. And no doubt far fewer Christians. The point is that we are taking a psychological history of a pathological relationship, and we need to know its traumas. Our Jewish brothers and sisters “know” the story of Mainz in the sense that it is an integral part of the collective memory of European Jews passed down from generation to generation. It has become an essential part of the inability to fully trust Christians and other gentiles. It affects Jewish communities in America and Europe. It is central to the inability of Israel today to make peace with the Palestinians on its own.

I will spare you the brutal details of the crusader battles in Turkey, Syria and finally in Jerusalem, where the Christians were the winners. Please take my word for it that tens of thousands of Muslims and Jews were slaughtered in God’s name. Of course, women, children, infants; none were spared. The crusaders did not bring food with them and had to live off the land. There were extensive reports of cannibalism by starving Christians. As for Arab and Muslim memory, Amin Maalouf writes in The Crusades Through Arab Eyes,

The memory of these atrocities [in the Battle of Mara in Syria], preserved and transmitted by local poets and oral tradition, shaped an image of Franj [European Christians] that would not easily fade. The chronicler Usamah ibn Munqidh …would one day write: ‘All those who were well-informed about the Franj saw them as beasts superior in courage and fighting ardour, but in nothing else, just as animals are superior  in strength and aggression.’ This unkind assessment accurately reflects the impression made by the Franj upon their arrival in Syria: they aroused a mixture of fear and contempt…The Turks would never forget the cannibalism. Throughout their epic literature, the Franj are invariably described as anthropophagi. (p. 39)

When today Islamist extremists, no less murderous, attack American, British and other European troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as modern crusaders, we now have a historical reference as to what they might have in mind.

The Special Mission of Christendom Today

I do not want to let this precious opportunity to speak with faculty and students of BTI schools and visitors from other Christian seminaries and religious studies departments without making a very personal appeal from my heart and soul. This sense of personal mission came to me as I prepared the talk I did for the American Psychoanalytic Association meeting at the Waldorf in 1986, and it has been reflected in many of my publications over the years. Put simply, it is the conviction that Christendom must come to terms with its profound moral debt to the Jews of Europe. As a diplomat, a political psychologist, keen student of history and a quite flawed Christian, I stagger under the burden of empirical discovery of how cruel Christian history has been for the Jewish people.

I will not walk through this history here. Most if not all of you here are aware of much of it. But in studying and dealing with the Christian-Jewish relationship really intensely for the last thirty years, I have learned that as revolutionary as it might have appeared to be in 1965, Nostra Aetate did not fix the problem of generalized ignorance among the  Christian public of how tragic this history has been. The Roman Catholic Church’s acknowledgment that the crucifixion of Christ can in no way be charged to all of the Jews at the time and since then, and the revision of the Good Friday liturgy to excise the language blaming the perfidious Jews for killing Jesus were obviously important. Even then, the decision of the Second Vatican Council to adopt Nostra Aetate came on a close vote.

Perhaps most telling for me, was seeing Oren Jacoby’s 2005 short documentary, Sister Rose’s Passion, about the nun from Wisconsin who on learning of the tradition of Jew-hatred as a young girl, could not reconcile it with her knowledge of Jesus’ love and compassion for all God’s children and especially the fact the he and his mother were Jews. Sister Rose Thering died three years ago, but she fought to the end for Jewish-Christian reconciliation and loving connectedness. She was at the 1965 Vatican II meetings and lobbied strenuously for Nostra Aetate. But Oren Jacoby’s film starts with a stunning sequence of brief interviews with Catholics standing outside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral answering one question: who killed Jesus? Without any apparent rancor and in disarmingly good humor, each person answered that the Jews killed Jesus. Some said this is what they learned in church or from the nuns in school. And so, despite Vatican II and subsequent declarations of high church councils since 1965, the word had not reached the laity. And when Mel Gibson’s notorious The Passion of the Christ, opened in 2004 on 3000 screens across the United States and went on to become one of the highest grossing films in history, Sister Rose and many of the other Christian and Jewish scholars and activists who had been working so hard to heal this tortured history feared that their efforts had been negated by just one movie.           

I strongly believe that a meticulous walking through the history of the Jewish-Christian relationship-which can also be called our shared tragedy-should be a moral imperative of Christian education especially in seminaries of all denominations and divinity schools but also religious studies departments. This knowledge should be a basic part of what it means to be a Christian-warts and all-at all social and economic levels of society. This work must extend to Christians all over the world. But I think there is a distinct leadership responsibility for schools and seminaries in the United States and Canada. There is a very special relationship between America’s Jews and gentile fellow citizens. I have often felt that there is a spiritual Zion in the United States and that a good part of America’s soul is Jewish. And this was well before study of shared ethical and social values in the Abrahamic faiths in recent years made it clear to me that there is one great, shared Abrahamic soul.

There is a wonderful text by Mary Boys, a nun and professor of practical theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York, entitled Has God Only One Blessing?: Judaism as a Source of Christian Self-Understanding. She is one of my heroes. Most of you know her or at least know of her. I believe her book is perfect for the task I have urged here. It was designed for seminarians and other students of religion to teach the teachers, pastors and preachers in training. It is gentle but firm in laying out the dimensions of the Jewish-Christian tragedy and thorough in its prescriptive action for correcting dogma and ritual in the church.

I must confess that one of the reasons I am so happy to be working with the BTI and Rodney and Ray Helmick is that BTI launched its new course, Toward an Abrahamic Family Reunion: Issues of Religion and Identity, at Boston College this January and Has God Only One Blessing? by Mary Boys is a required text.  This puts BTI in the lead role nationally in making the cause of Jewish-Christian reconciliation central to its educational mission. And since the course also teaches Islam and Judaism with Muslim and Jewish instructors, the approach to advancing the moral, intellectual and spiritual goal of making the Abrahamic family reunion happen is underway now in Greater Boston.

I have not paid sufficient attention to the issue of Christian-Muslim reconciliation, but I like the model of the BTI Abrahamic course. The ideal to me is for Muslim teachers, Imams and scholars to play a witnessing role to serious attempts by Christians to heal our history with the Jewish people who lived and live in majority Christian countries. Some Muslim scholars know a bit of this history, but the battles with Christian imperialism in modern times has been a distraction for Muslims. If and when Arabs and Muslims can become well-acquainted with the history of Jews in Europe, it will make it easier for them to understand the genesis of modern Zionism and the drive of Diaspora Jews to establish a homeland in Palestine. This will not erase the debts Israel has incurred with the Palestinian peoples but it will help them, other Arabs and Muslims develop a measure of empathy toward Israel-as hard as that seems now–as all parties wrestle with the onerous task of Arab-Israeli peacemaking. One thing I would recommend to BTI schools is to experiment with Hevruta-where Jews, Christians and Muslims read and study their sacred texts together. There is so much for the Abrahamic people to study together-starting with the shared ethical and pro-social values of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

May I humbly suggest that there already exists a starter course in this subject to be found on abrahamicfamilyreunion.org, the Web site of the Toward the Abrahamic Family Reunion project. It is a forty-seven page, singled spaced comparative study with extensive textual references by Lynn Kunkle.

I end where I started. My passion for the subject of Christian-Jewish reconciliation and Abrahamic family peace and love is based on a drive to save lives-finally–in this tortured relationship. It can be done. We can do it. And I really see the Boston Theological Institute as a major American leader in this effort.

Thank you for your patience and indulgence.

[1] See “The Arrow and the Olive Branch: The Case for Track Two Diplomacy,” also in the Web site theory section for a broader explanation.

[2] Brian Moynahan, The Faith: A History of Christianity, (p. 222)

[3] Quoted in James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword, p. 261.