I’m not a Catholic, and I didn’t stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night. I am a Christian, however, and it has been my study to refrain from sniping at Pope Francis for the comments he has made that may get blown out of proportion, or be conveniently reframed for someone else’s political purposes, or with which I simply disagree.
Much of what Christians disagree on falls in the category of “disputable matters” (Romans 14:1): issues on which there is no prescription for us in scripture, but which we are to use conscience and faith to make decisions about. It may not always be honest to dispute what’s written in black and white in the Bible, but it is perfectly fair to dispute things like whether governments should have policies on moral matters, and if so, what those policies should be.
Christians can disagree, fairly and fraternally, on the question of what is properly a political issue and what isn’t. There’s not always a single, indisputable answer. That’s where I’m coming from.
I don’t plan to discuss Christian theology or doctrine in this post. (I’ll chat with you about that in the comments, if readers bring it up.) The purpose is to discuss the political aspects of an unprecedented event which the Vatican is billing as “non-political.”
The event in question is an ecumenical gathering, the first of its kind, at which Islamic prayers and readings from the Quran will be offered in the Vatican, along with Christian and Jewish prayers and texts. It’s scheduled for Sunday, 8 June.
Is this event about peace between the various believers, given the broad areas of the earth – Africa, the Middle East, South Asia – where Christians are under daily attack by Muslims? Does it have in mind the Jews of Europe, who find the streets of their countries increasingly unsafe for them because of Islamic extremists?
Is it perhaps about spiritual unity against political violence of all kinds? From Venezuela to Thailand to Syria, Ukraine, and many parts of Africa, such violence is on the upswing, affecting people of all ethnicities and faiths. Perhaps religious leaders are gathering to stand against that?
No. The first Islamic prayers in the Vatican will be offered at an event featuring the Pope, Israel’s President Shimon Peres, and Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, along with a cast of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clerics.
Al-Arabiya adds this:
Holy See officials on Friday said the evening prayers would be a “pause in politics” and had no political aim other than to rekindle the desire for Israeli-Palestinian peace at the political and popular level, according to the Associated Press.
For a pause in politics, this prayer service looks awful darn political. Here are three points to ponder.
1. It’s a big deal for the Vatican to host Islamic prayers and readings. We needn’t get into the theological weeds to stipulate that. Christianity and Judaism agree on the character, names, and plans of God, as laid out in the Tanach, or Old Testament. Islam does not. It has a different view of these things.
Praying at the Vatican is not the same thing as praying at a prayer breakfast hosted by political or business leaders. It is inherently a theological statement to host interfaith prayers at the Vatican. At the very least, it’s a statement on policies for the Christian life.
My point is not that the Pope shouldn’t be doing it; that’s a separate discussion. The point is that what he’s doing is significant and has far-reaching implications. What’s coming up on Sunday is not a meaningless feel-good moment. So it matters not just that he has chosen to do it, but why.
2. With all the other compelling reasons out there to pray for peace and reconciliation on the earth, the Vatican has organized Sunday’s event around the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Whether that’s a spiritual or a theological choice or not, it’s definitely a political one.
Many Christians will reflexively see this in the light of eschatological prophecy. But it is interesting to take a step back and realize that, in terms of what is bringing turmoil to the Middle East, the events in Syria, Egypt, and even Turkey, and the still-developing dynamics of state Islamism, are far more immediately significant than the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Why not bring imams and Orthodox priests to the Vatican to pray for Syria, where more than 100,000 people have been killed since February 2011?
Relating the political chaos to the fate of Christians raises similar questions. Christians are being attacked and slaughtered in Syria and Egypt. They experience harassment and discrimination in the Palestinian territories, but they are actually safer there today than in most parts of the Arab world; and they are safest of all in Israel (where an increasing number from the Palestinian territories have fled). It’s certainly not because of any unique peril to Christians that the Vatican might want to pray for a resolution between the Palestinian Arabs and Israel.
Syria and Egypt, moreover, represent just the first outer ring around Israel. There is plenty of strife, and considerable persecution of Christians, farther afield. Some of it is embedded in national politics (e.g., in Iran and Sudan); some of it isn’t.
The Vatican might have chosen to invite Muslim clerics from various places to pray generally for peace and reconciliation across the whole landscape of extremism and persecution. But it didn’t. Its pretext for the prayer service is a single political conflict – in fact, the one that may currently be the least unstable in the region (and certainly the least chaotic).
3. The Vatican event carries an inescapably political implication: that some form of ecumenism, like the prayer service on Sunday, is meaningful to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It is useless to protest that this gathering is a simple matter of praying for peace. If that’s all it is, there is no need – from a Christian perspective on how prayer works – to assemble the representatives of other faiths. (Judaism and Islam, for the record, have the same perspective: that praying as their faiths prescribe is efficacious in itself. It’s not necessary to enlist people of other faiths in a prayer effort in order to pray successfully.)
Orchestrated ecumenism is a policy statement, one way or another. It’s not always clear what the statement is; in this case we are being left to interpolate meaning, in a politically and religiously charged context. Christians, individually, will put their own constructions on what this may be about, but what we’re missing, given the realities of prophecy and the beliefs of the three faiths, is what construction the pope is putting on it.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think Pope Francis believes he’s immanentizing the eschaton (or believes that he needs to try to). But the question is what he thinks he’s doing, with this unprecedented interfaith gesture to encourage a political settlement for the territory chiefly featured in biblical prophecy. That’s quite an explosive combination. Of all the things he could have chosen to pray jointly with Muslim clerics over, the pope chose this one. There’s no way to make that merely about a generically benevolent aspiration for “peace.”
The Sunday prayer event will cause some head-scratching among Christians. From both the political and the theological perspective, Christians can legitimately dispute whether an ecumenical outreach by the Church is relevant to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So can Jews, for that matter, as well as Muslims.
We needn’t pounce on this prayer meeting as a fulfillment of prophecy itself, although some have done so already. That too is a matter for a separate discussion (in this case, an intramural Christian one).
But from everyone’s perspective, it matters where this is headed, and what expectations might be raised. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is on life support, in part because it has been bounded up to now within conventional political confines. We should not be too quick to hope for a shakeup of the status quo from an infusion of religious energy. There’s a troubling open-endedness to what the pope’s high-profile ecumenical gesture may add to the mix. It’s a bell that can’t be unrung.