Bahai News -- Daily Nation - Not everyone is a Christian! Comment
Monday, September 1, 2003

Not everyone is a Christian!


Donít you believe in the Holy Scriptures!" shouts one reader in amazement, when I urge tolerance towards homosexuals. Every day there is a letter in the Nation telling us that God said this or that. Whose God? In this multi-cultural society, many leading figures still fail to notice that not everyone is a Christian. You donít have to go to the Coast to realize that almost 30 percent of the population is Muslim. In addition, there are thriving communities of Jews, Bahai, Hindus.

No matter how many times you point this out, it simply isnít heard because the Bible that the missionaries brought with them in the 19th century is understood to be the one and only. Similarly, gospel truth means the single received wisdom even though literally it refers only to the books of the four apostles of Jesus.

Jesus himself started out life as a Jew and eventually gathered a following which parted company from the original faith. This piece of information regularly causes much surprise and confusion; perhaps it would make more sense to refer to him as an Israelite. Contemporary Jews acknowledge that he was indeed a character in history, but they do not recognize the New Testament whereas most Christians believe in both Old and New Testaments.

However, Judas is immediately identified as a Jew not just because of his name, but because he was the one who is said to have "betrayed" Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, a sin for which Jews have paid heavily over the centuries.

The three monotheistic religions which are most widely practised Ė Christianity, Islam, and Judaism Ė all put male gods at the top and consider the control of sexuality to be paramount: it is to be about procreation not pleasure. The role of woman is harnessed to house and family. Yes, of course the Virgin Mary is sacred especially to Catholics, but she is not directly worshipped in the same way.

While the Anglicans reluctantly accepted female priests 30 years ago, I canít foresee the Catholics doing so in my lifetime. The thousands of portraits of Mary with baby Jesus on her knee hanging in galleries all over the world tend to show her as rather ethereal and remote: woman idealized.

She also takes on the features of her European painter so that she looks Italian or Dutch rather than Semitic. She did not have ordinary intercourse to produce her child like mortal women, but was chosen by God to be the vessel which would house the Holy Ghost. She is the pure Madonna, whilst Mary Magdalene is the other side of the coin, the reformed prostitute who bathed Jesusí feet with her hair. This is why the portrayal of women in Christianity is so problematic, caught as it is between these two extremes.

Each of the three faiths claims to be the one and only, creating competition and suspicion. The god of the Old Testament is an angry father figure, forever berating the Israelites because of their tendency to venerate idols. But each of the three religions was established precisely to wipe out paganism which was deeply rooted in most cultures, not least those of Africa, and which includes female deities.

Look at the number of sculptures of fertility figures in African art - nude females with protruding bellies, or the fetishes which form such a vital part of the shamanís medicine. The Christians brought with them a shame about the body and a notion of original sin based on the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. "Cover yourselves up!" they told the natives.

But these pagan beliefs go back much further in time than any of the monotheistic religions. Archaeologists have found ancient shrines of "heathen" gods beneath many churches, and the key events in the calendar of Judeo-Christianity echo much older ceremonies which were related to the fertility of humans and to the seasons.

Take, for instance, the story of Aaron and the golden calf. Moses goes off to do his duty and collect the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai, and what do his people do behind his back? Like naughty children, they return to worshipping idols. But a brief study of ancient Egypt will reveal that this holy cow - an animal which is also sacrosanct to Hindus - is the magnificent Hathor, goddess of love and pleasure. Fortunately god forbade the Egyptians from creating graven images. The peoples of that region have long been closely connected.

It is no co-incidence that they all share the same birthplace in the Middle East, now so hotly contested. Mosques, synagogues and churches rub shoulders in the few square kilometres that are Jerusalem which remains the thorniest and most contentious of cities, regularly troubled by suicide bombers and terrorist attacks despite the most stringent security. Just last week another bus carrying a militant Islamist killed 20 and injured scores more, escalating the sickening round of revenge killings. It is hard to imagine a time when they will live peacefully side by side.

However, it isnít only monotheism which breeds intolerance: Hindu nationalism and Islamic fundmentalism have in turn given rise to crime and hatred, and have seen the Asian sub-continent divided over and over again. Now India and Pakistan, both poor and over-populated, confront one another over Kashmir, each poised with its own nuclear warheads, wasting precious resources they can ill afford. Part of the difference between them lies in the fact that Hinduism, unlike Islam, is polytheistic, and includes many female goddesses among whom are some which take care of the darker side of human nature like Kali, whose name, interestingly enough, translates into "bad" in Kiswahili.

For me, Buddhism comes out best in this contest Ė a religion which has fostered tolerance and understanding for thousands of years. Its appeal is growing for young people especially in the west, where temples and retreats are mushrooming. Although the Buddha is a male figure, there is nothing aggressive or macho about him. Which wars have been fought in his name? Which crusades? Priests, male and female, give up the worldly life for the spiritual one, renouncing sex in favour of a simple celibate existence, yet you do not hear embarrassing stories about sexual abuse. Is it just that they donít reach the press?

There have been times when religions have lived comfortably side by side, notably in the Golden Age of Spain which also produced great art and literature. That was before the crusades and the expulsion of the Jews. War takes a lot of energy and time and is an integral of each of these three religions. We have yet to see the end of this dangerous wrestling match.

Ms Caplan is a freelance journalist living in Nairobi.
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