Monday, October 27, 2014

Yu b'long Israel?

So now that I'm back at blogging, I thought I'd throw in a little reflection. Today in town I was asked if I was an Israelite or Jewish by two different strangers at different times. This is not the first time this has happened. I am currently sporting a beard, and for some reason many people have developed the idea that all Jewish men have big beards. Not too many white guys with big beards wander around Madang searching the corners of used clothes stores for books, so if you do see one, hey, maybe he's Jewish. I find several things about this experience fascinating.

When people ask this question, they are often excited. I once had a man literally sprint after me to ask me whether I was from Israel or not. The disappointment can sometimes be palpable when I admit I'm an American Christian. I'm not entirely sure why exactly the thought of meeting a Jewish person creates such excitement...but maybe I understand a little bit.

Is there an appeal to relating to the "God of the Old Testament"? I recently read some reflections from a German priest who had worked in the highlands of PNG during the 60's and 70's, back when most people in his area were not yet baptized (remember first contact with highlanders only began in the 1930's). He said that for his new Catholics their God was a "God of the Old Testament". Of course I feel uncomfortable whenever we speak this way. As many Church historians will point out to us, to speak of a God of the Old Testament and a God of the New Testament as if there are two Gods and not one, leads us towards Marcionism. Marcion lived in the second century, and he really did believe that the "God of the Old Testament" was different and somehow evil.

This is distinct, though. While it may be a problem to speak of a different God in each Testament, we are not dealing with a rejection of the Old Testament. Antisemitism rooted in Christian symbols has been a real and common problem in our history. It is of course comforting to realize that this does not seem to be an issue here. Is it also a "problem" to have a sort of unbalanced Israelophilism? If it is unbalanced, could it more easily flip into antagonism?  Of course many Papua New Guineans may make no distinction between being Jewish, being "from Israel" and living a life like that described in the Bible. I would expect that many are not aware that the Temple has not actually been functioning for near 2,000 years. Here in PNG, some people who write letters to the newspaper are very excited about signing some sort of "covenant" that PNG could or has signed with the modern state of Israel.

Could this be seen as  a replacement for the covenant sealed in Christ's blood? As a Christian, the concern comes in if people are attracted to the idea of there being a chosen people who God gave laws to, but are only tangentially interested in Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel's hopes. Then something is being believed that is neither quite Christianity nor Judaism.

Another memory from several months ago came back to me today. Again I was in town and I saw a more advanced preaching operation set up in an open space. A microphone and loudspeaker were set up. The preacher had his obligatory black slacks, white shirt, and tie, together with Bible in hand. But behind him people had set up a large hand-painted poster of some sort that showed Levites with the Ark of the Covenant. It was the sort of illustration I associate with my experience of Sunday School as a first grader or so. The preacher was mainly talking about birds of paradise, though. He was speaking passionately, but his usage of Scripture was incredibly loose. He mentioned some "blue throne" in Scripture(I believe referring to a sapphire throne in Ezekiel 10), and then went on to talk about a blue bird of paradise, which somehow represented a specific region of Papua New Guinea. Specific characteristics of this bird correlated to God's plan for this particular region.

His message was receiving more applause than I had ever heard other street preachers receive. Why? At the time I remember thinking that perhaps there is a desire to be Jewish, because we all desperately want to have our own place mentioned in the Bible. How nice it would be to have the place names of our own villages and lakes mentioned in the inspired Scriptures? Americans are certainly guilty of this. Whether we think America is the light shining on the hill, the whore of Babylon, or the promised land many people are convinced that America must somehow have a clear place in the book.

I don't have a clear thesis for this post. Those are just some thoughts that have been rolling around in my head today.

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