Saturday, April 11, 2009

The truth behind the Easter message

Critics of the Christian faith would have us believe there is nothing true or good about Good Friday, the traditional commemoration of Jesus's death by crucifixion. But you can be sure that the symbol of the cross will continue to provide solace and joy for millions the world over.

On the face of it, there is little to commend the traditional Easter story. There's blood, brutality, a body entombed, and the bizarre claim of a resurrected corpse. Then there is the, for some, repulsive idea that Jesus died "for our sins". Surely, such a macabre third-party pay-off to a vengeful deity should be denounced as barbaric. It's no wonder someone invented the Easter Bunny as a diversion.

Enter the New Atheists, so called, I think, to distinguish them from the grumpy, Bertrand Russell-style atheism of yesteryear. They have ridiculed beyond belief (literally) the Easter slogan that "Jesus died as a sacrifice for sins". Richard Dawkins, former Oxford professor and author of The God Delusion, scoffs, "It is vicious, sado-masochistic and repellent." And, in a daring piece of historical commentary, he insists that it was not even taught by Jesus himself, but was rather invented later by the apostle Paul. We should therefore "dismiss the idea as barking mad. If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them?"

Others go further, questioning even the events themselves. The French philosopher and author of The Atheist Manifesto, Michel Onfray, says: "History again bears witness at that time Jews were not crucified but stoned to death." And even if such an improbable crucifixion had taken place, "there was no question of bodies being laid to rest in tombs." Why? Because "like all other such victims, the remains were thrown into a common grave."

Bold statements indeed. If true, Christians should cancel today's Good Friday services and head to the beach instead.

But let's start with something easy: the history. The claim that crucifixion victims were never buried, as the Gospels say Jesus was, is a simple exaggeration of a partial truth. It was usual to throw the corpses of criminals into shallow graves as a final act of humiliation. What Onfray does not know, however, is that things were frequently different in Palestine. The 1st-century Jewish writer Josephus says: "The Jews are so careful about funeral rites that even malefactors who have been sentenced to crucifixion are taken down and buried before sunset."

Two undertaker contracts for funerals of crucifixion victims have also been found. Both date from the first century.

More striking is Onfray's inexplicable falsehood about Jews not being crucified in this period. They were stoned, he assures us. But all students of Roman history know that it would have been closer to the mark to say Jews were among the most crucified people in antiquity. Literally thousands of Jewish crucifixions are known to us from contemporary sources, Josephus, Philo, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and others. And archaeological remains of ancient crucifixion were discovered in 1968 in Jerusalem in a Jewish tomb. The 11-centimetre nail through the heel bone, complete with olive wood attached, indicated the method of execution, and the discovery further confirms the proper burial of some such victims.

Leaving aside the utterly improbable scenario that the Gospel writers might have invented the story about their beloved master meeting the most shameful of ancient deaths, the specific testimony of Josephus about Jesus is unavoidable. "Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross." Jesus's death by crucifixion is about as close to a certainty as an ancient historian can hope for and only an arbitrary kind of scepticism can suggest otherwise.

The fact that Onfray, a full professor of philosophy, can so obviously misrepresent things in service of his atheism tells us that unbelief can sometimes be just as dogmatic and unyielding to the facts as the Christian fundamentalism the New Atheists so despise. More than rational reflection is driving the resurgent scepticism of recent years.

But what of Dawkins's aesthetic complaints about Jesus's death for sins? First, he is wrong to say that Paul invented the idea. Sacrificial atonement was a central part of Judaism centuries before Paul and Jesus. It was only abandoned after the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD, thereby making defunct the sacrificial system. Before this catastrophe, the sacrifice of animals - usually eaten later - was a regular part of temple life. It was a bloody public reminder of the seriousness of wrongdoing and the possibility of atonement. Admittedly, this sounds like an odd custom in our modern context because, butchers and abattoir workers aside, our lives tend to be sanitised from blood and death.

The point is, the notion of sacrifice for sins was a normal part of life for Jesus's 1st-century audience. We cannot pass this awkward idea off as an invention of later Christians; Jesus the Jew is to blame. His statement at the Last Supper, widely accepted as one of the most reliably preserved statements of earliest Christianity, clearly reflects the sacrificial theme: "This is my body given for you … This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you."

Love it or hate it, the evidence that Jesus thought of his impending death as an atonement for sins is strong.

Was Jesus "barking mad" to think this way? Why indeed doesn't God simply forgive sins without atonement? The answer of Judaism before 70 AD, and of Christians ever since, is clear.

It is for the same reason that we would be outraged if a judge let a convicted criminal off the hook simply because it turned out he was his friend. Love and justice both matter in the Christian vision of God. And lest we think of this as some kind of cosmic child abuse - a father punishing a son for someone else's wrongs - we should remember that from the beginning Christians insisted that Jesus was not a third party forced into an atoning death; he was God.

We may not like this idea either, but if we're going to dismiss the Christian idea of atonement, we have to do so on its own terms, as an entire package. The first Christians said that God, the wronged party, entered the world and bore the punishment wrong-doers deserve. It was as if the judge paid the fine that was another's due. There is nothing "sadomasochistic" about this. The idea belongs to the noble tradition of self-sacrifice for the good of others.

At the ANU a couple of years ago, as I was preparing a lecture on Jesus's death, I read a story in The Canberra Times . A Melbourne woman, Kimberley Dear, was set to fulfil a life ambition by taking skydiving lessons while on holidays in Missouri. The plane she was in lost power, and started careering towards the ground. Her instructor, 22-year-old Robert Cook, responded instantly.

He took hold of her and calmly talked her through what would happen next. "As the plane is about to hit the ground, make sure you're on top of me so that I'll take the force of the impact," he said. They crashed. Several died, including Cook. Kimberley survived.

From hospital, she reported that in the final seconds she felt Cook swivel his body into position as he pushed her head against his shoulder to cushion the blow. Kimberley's sister, Tracey, voiced her gratitude and astonishment at his sacrificial act. "He met Kimberley … that day. I would do that for her but I can't believe that a stranger who just met her would knowingly give up his life for her."

I have never been a fan of attempts - my own included - to illustrate the meaning of Jesus's death by way of modern stories. There is a danger of trivialising one or the other. But when I read of Robert Cook's actions, I could not help but think of the noble tradition of self-sacrifice and of Jesus's words at his Last Supper: "My body given for you."

Understood this way, it is no wonder that the cross, once an instrument of Roman brutality, became a symbol of love for millions throughout the world.


God Still Isn't Dead, not in America anyway

The decline of religion in America has been predicted again and again

America was famously founded by companies and churches. The woes of American capitalism are well known: Wall Street is a synonym for excess and greed around the world, and Detroit is tottering on the edge of bankruptcy. But just as its temples to Mammon are under fire, so suddenly are its churches to God.

With Easter week upon us, Newsweek's April 13 cover proclaims "The Decline and Fall of Christian America." The new American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) shows that the proportion of Americans who claim to have no religion has increased to 15% today from 8.2% in 1990. The Christian right has lost yet another battle, this time in the heartland state of Iowa, with its Supreme Court voting unanimously to legalize gay marriage. The proportion of Americans who think that religion "can answer all or most of today's problems" is now at a historic low of 48%.

America has long stood out among developed countries for its religiosity. This has less to do with innate godliness than with the free market created by the First Amendment. Pre-Revolutionary America was not that religious, because the original Puritans were swamped by less wholesome adventurers -- in Salem, Mass., the setting for "The Crucible," 83% of taxpayers by 1683 confessed to no religious identification.

America became religious after the Constitution separated church from state, thus ensuring that religious denominations could only survive if they got souls into pews. While state-sponsored religion withered in Europe, American faith has been a hive of activity: from the Methodists, who converted close to an eighth of the country in the half century after the Revolution, to the modern megachurches.

Has this model really run out of steam? Betting against American religion has always proved to be a fool's game. In 1880, Robert Ingersoll, the leading atheist of his day, claimed that "the churches are dying out all over the land." In its Easter issue in 1966, Time asked "Is God Dead?" on its cover. East Coast intellectuals have repeatedly assumed that the European model of progress, where modernity equals secularization, would come to the U.S. They have always been wrong.

Look closer and the new poll numbers are not quite as simple as headlines suggest. For one thing, they show that America remains remarkably religious by the standards of other advanced countries -- with three-quarters of the country still firmly Christian. And a significant number of Americans are becoming more godly, not less so: The increase in the number of atheists is going hand in hand with ever more conservative Christians and Pentecostals.

Religion, like everything else, is polarizing, with the faithful more willing to call themselves "born again" and doubters more willing to call themselves unbelievers or atheists. George W. Bush may have been a factor: Many of the unbelievers are less worried about religion per se as about the fusion of religion and political power in the form of the new right. A fifth of the "atheists" in a recent Pew Survey said that they believed in God, a semantic confusion rich in meaning.

The polling numbers actually underline the strength of the nation's pluralism. More than one in four Americans have swapped religions. Americans harbor a powerful distaste for religious establishments, seeing faith as something that they should choose rather than inherit. More than ever, they mix and match spiritual traditions. In other words, the forces that made America such a uniquely religious country, competition and choice, are working as powerfully as ever. In the American model, modernity goes with pluralism.

Most of the evidence from the ground indicates that the American religious marketplace remains vibrant. The biggest megachurches attract tens of thousands of people. There is plenty of data to show that the turmoil of modernity stimulates demand for religion. The churches act both as a storm shelter for people who feel overwhelmed by social change and a community for people who feel atomized. Above all, there is the search for spiritual meaning that has haunted man through the ages. The forces that drove the young Barack Obama to find purpose in a Chicago church will keep on occurring.

Meanwhile, the supply seems as plentiful as ever. Religion, no less than software or politics, is a competitive business, where organization and entrepreneurship count. Religious America is led by a series of highly inventive "pastorpreneurs" -- men like Bill Hybels of Willow Creek or Rick Warren of Saddleback. These are far more sober, thoughtful characters than the schlock-and-scandal televangelists of the 1970s, but they are not afraid to use modern business methods to get God's message across.

Mr. Hybels's immaculately organized church employs several hundred staff, and the church has both its own mission statement and its own consulting arm. Mr. Warren's book "The Purpose Driven Life" has sold almost 30 million copies, with the author comparing his purpose driven formula to an Intel operating chip that other churches can use.

The real strength of religious America lies in its diversity. There are more than 200 religious traditions in America, with 20 different sorts of Baptists alone. Religious America is remarkably good at segmenting its customer base: There are services for bikers, gays and dropouts (the Scum of the Earth Church in Denver); Bibles for cowboys, brides, soldiers and rap artists ("Even though I walk through/The hood of death/I don't back down/for You have my back"); and even theme parks for every faith. This Holy Week you can visit the Golgotha Fun Park in Cave City, Ky., or the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, Ala., which includes a mini-version of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Looked at from a celestial perspective, the American model of religion, far from retreating, is going global. Pastorpreneurs are taking their message around the world. In Latin America, Pentecostalism has disrupted the Catholic Church's monopoly. Already five of the world's 10 biggest churches are in South Korea: Yoido Full Gospel Church, which has 800,000 members, is a rival in terms of organization for anything Messrs. Warren and Hybels can offer. China is the latest great convert. There are probably close to 100 million Christians in China, most of them following a very individualistic American-style faith. Already more people attend church each Sunday than are members of the Communist Party. China will soon be the world's biggest Christian country and also possibly its biggest Muslim one.

The Christian right has certainly stirred up an angry reaction to its attempt to marry religion to political power. But it would be a mistake to regard this reaction as evidence that America is losing its religion.


Defamations galore

What sort of reputation does your religion have? It's Easter, so it's an appropriate moment to ask - assuming you've got a religion.

The issue is scheduled for a good airing in Geneva in a week's time at a conference known as Durban II, a follow-up to an international chin-wag held in South Africa in 2001 with the disciplined title of World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

"Defamation of religion" is the hot topic for this get-together. The body responsible for preparing the conference and for the "outcome document" is the UN Human Rights Council, which is chaired by Libya. Last month the council adopted a resolution proposed by Pakistan. The preamble said that "defamation of religions … could lead to social disharmony and violations of human rights".

Further, it expressed concern that "Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism". The resolution went on to emphasise that the right to free expression carried with it "special duties and responsibilities" when it comes to speaking one's mind about religion.

None of this is surprising. The Human Rights Council is just playing along with another outfit, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, an association of 57 states, which has a "built-in" majority on the UN's human rights body.

Behind the diplomatic scenes, there has been a lot of arm-twisting to coax Western nations back into the talkfest. The latest version of the "rolling text", made public by the Russian conference co-ordinator Yuri Boychenko, omits reference to "defamation of religion". Instead it talks of "negative stereotyping of religions … Islamophobia … anti-Semitism … Christianophobia … and Anti-Arabism".

The Organisation of the Islamic Conference is having none of this lily-livered stuff and wants "defamation of religion" firmly on the Durban II agenda. It's sure to be a fun five days in Geneva.

Which gets us to the point of whether religions have "feelings" that can be hurt, the usual underpinning requirement of being defamed.

Other conference delegates have wondered whether a defence of truth could be applied to religious defamation. This is fraught because it would require the "interpretation and … ranking of religious texts and of religions in order to determine the truthfulness of a purportedly defamatory statement or view".

Perhaps, at the risk of offending 57 Islamic nations, it is best to recognise that defamation of religion is a concept devoid of meaningful content, a bit like religion itself.

If we're seeking categories for this mishmashed concept, it seems to fit more comfortably into the realm of blasphemous libel, a species of criminal defamation, which protects not only personal reputation but the machinery of the state and the state's religion. So how is blasphemous libel going? It has to be said that it's not a busy jurisdiction, and those who hoped for a flourishing practice doing these sorts of cases are probably starving.

The Brits got rid of it by statute in 2008, but it sort of lives on in Australia.

The last time it came up for some air was in the 1997 Piss Christ case in Victoria. That was the occasion in which the then Roman Catholic archbishop of Melbourne, George Pell, sought to restrain the National Gallery of Victoria from exhibiting a picture of a crucifix that the artist Andres Serrano said had been immersed in his own urine.

In one of the moral guardian cases run by Mary Whitehouse in Britain, the crime was defined as publishing "contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter relating to God, Jesus Christ or the Bible or the formalities of the Church of England".

The court in Victoria didn't give Pell any relief. Usually an inherent component of blasphemous libel is the creation of widespread "social unrest". Justice David Harper could not discover any unrest and even mused that the offence might have "lapsed through desuetude".

In 1979 Lord Scarman in Britain raised the exciting possibility that blasphemous libel be extended "to protect the religious beliefs and feelings of non-Christians". He thought that as it stood it was "shackled by the chains of history". None of which is to suggest that pleas for special reputational protection made by all sorts of interest groups, communities, tribes and individuals is a receding development.

Far from it. The Jewish Anti-Defamation League, originally founded in the US in 1913, is flourishing in many places around the world. Its mission is "to stop the defamation of the Jewish people".

Jewish defamation is not defined, but one early manifestation of what the league may be fighting is something called "blood libel". This term arose as recently as the Middle Ages and described the abduction and killing of the children of Christians and not only drinking their blood but using it for making matzoh.

Then there is the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, or GLAAD, another US non-profit organisation with a wide and fuzzy brief. Not to be outdone, there is also a Christian Anti-Defamation League, and hence the concept of Christian defamation.

Understandably, others want to clamber on the bandwagon. The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies published an article in February that questioned why there isn't something called "defamation of science" where there could be more concentrated efforts to press for the banning of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In the process, the claims of the intelligent design people could also be criminalised.

My very own favourite development came the other day in London. The Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev, who recently bought the newspaper The Evening Standard, says he plans to sue Forbes magazine for understating his wealth in its Rich List. Lebedev said, "I will demand compensation of material and moral damage".

Moral defamation, a whole new game. It just goes to show that there are libels lurking everywhere.


Australia: Dad who used strap on son, 9, 'crossed the line'

Another attempt by judges to thwart the decisions of the elected government

A SUNSHINE Coast magistrate's court has ruled that a father who took a strap to the legs of his nine-year-old son crossed the line. Maroochydore magistrate John Hodgins, sentencing the 32-year-old father to 12 months' probation, said such discipline had no place in the modern world. Mr Hodgins told the farmer, who had beaten the legs of his son who refused to attend swimming lessons or wear a seatbelt on the school bus, that it was no longer acceptable to "rely on role models from previous generations".

But Mr Hodgins agreed community opinion on physical discipline for children was still divided and sympathised with the father over the difficulties of parenting.

The assault, which left the child bruised, drew fire from the Australian Childhood Foundation, which said physical attacks on children must be treated as seriously as any other assault in the community. "In fact, the child should be afforded greater protection because of their greater developmental vulnerability," foundation CEO Joe Tucci said. Dr Tucci has urged the State Government to outlaw all physical punishment on children, a course which Premier Anna Bligh has ruled out despite an affirmative vote on the issue at the ALP's state conference last year.

The father of four, who had been disciplined with a strap as a child, had taken numerous other steps to discipline his boy short of physical punishment, the court was told. The father spoke to the boy every morning before school and "took away treasured items in an effort to make him behave". But when the boy continued to refuse to wear a seatbelt and failed to go to a swimming lesson, the father strapped him across the legs up to five times.

"The child had ignored him on the afternoon of the offence," said Senior Sergeant Tony Hurley, prosecuting. "He (the father) wanted him to listen for once."

The boy's teachers saw the welts and contacted authorities, who have temporarily removed the boy from his parents' care. The father, who did not have a history of violence, readily acknowledged he had "gone too far".

Mr Hodgins said probation would allow the man to receive assistance.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.


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