Republican Party

America Faces the Specter of Religious Apartheid

Last updated on April 26th, 2012 at 10:22 am

Religious Apartheid. A policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of religion.

We have seen this before: In Iraq, which we pretended to liberate from Saddam Hussein, who excluded all Muslims who disagreed with his form of Islam from power; In theocratic Iran; and in our close ally, Saudi Arabia; and in Syria, where a minority comprising less than one-quarter of the population controls the government. And we are seeing its beginnings in the United States, where if you are not the right sort of Christian, you are less, and treated like less.  Quite openly fundamentalist Christians have declared the United States government their proper domain and their intention to exclude all others from it, whatever the Constitution says and guarantees.

If the term theocracy means nothing to you, how about the term religious apartheid instead? It can hardly sound less appealing, mostly because it would be difficult to get less appealing. There is no essential difference between one type of apartheid and another, whether based on race (Nazi Germany/South Africa/America) or religion (the examples given above). The Constitution says we all have equal rights, that religion can’t be a factor. Fundamentalist Christians say just the opposite. And they have been putting theory into practice since 1964.

Religious apartheid, though a part of Western life from the Theodosian Code until the European Enlightenment, has ancient antecedents. When you believe your god said “I am the only one” that there will be problems for everybody who doesn’t agree. It’s even worse when you believe he said to worship nobody but him. Pluralism gets thrown under the ox-cart, as they say.  We are seeing plenty of evidence for that today.

You might say we expect too much of monotheism. We should hardly expect to be treated like fellow citizens when we are barely seen as fellow humans. Israel was born of genocide after all – the utter destruction and mass murder of all those Canaanites who refused to bow to YHWH, and monotheism was born of the utter rejection of the other, a rejection embraced and carried on by orthodox Christianity to this day.  It is because of these early attitudes that President George H.W. Bush could say in 1987 that “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.” This is how the students at Liberty University can express shock that someone they’ve been taught is not Christian – Mormon Mitt Romney – can be invited to speak at their school. This is how Newt Gingrich could say just the other day that gay and lesbian couples shouldn’t be equal to straight couples. This is why Tennessee and Missouri are intent on legislating the word “gay” right out of existence.

It is best to be clear on why all this is so. Look what the God of Abrahamic monotheism demands in the Scriptures all fundamentalists hold to be the literal word of God. It is not just external enemies who must be destroyed, but even Jewish cities, if they went against this new idea of God:

Suppose you hear in one of the towns the LORD your God is giving you that some worthless rabble among you have led their fellow citizens astray by encouraging them to worship foreign gods.  In such cases, you must examine the facts carefully.  If you find it is true and can prove that such a detestable act has occurred among you, you must attack that town and completely destroy all its inhabitants, as well as all the livestock.  Then you must pile all the plunder in the middle of the street and burn it.  Put the entire town to the torch as a burnt offering to the LORD your God.  That town must remain a ruin forever; it may never be rebuilt.  Keep none of the plunder that has been set apart for destruction.  Then the LORD will turn from his fierce anger and be merciful to you.  He will have compassion on you and make you a great nation, just as he solemnly promised your ancestors.  “The LORD your God will be merciful only if you obey him and keep all the commands I am giving you today, doing what is pleasing to him.”  (Deuteronomy 13:13-19)

And Israel’s rulers obeyed. It is the Assyrians who get the bad rap in history but the Jews did the exact same thing, if only on a smaller scale. And then, after centuries of dominance by foreign powers, once the reactionary Hasmonean dynasty got into a position of power about a century-and-a-half before the birth of Jesus, things got ugly for Gentiles again.

The Rule of the Maccabees/Hasmoneans (165-63BCE)was not exactly a return to the fabled Golden Age of Solomon and David but it marked a resurgence of sorts in the fortunes of Israel. The reigns of John Hyrcanus (reigned 134-104) and his son Alexander Jannaeus (Yannai), who reigned 103-76BCE, was a period of expansion for the Maccabean kingdom and it was in this period that both Galilee and Idumea (ancient Edom) were added to Judaea.

Their conquests, noted by Strabo (Geography 16.2.37), are seen as glorious from the Jewish perspective, but resulted in great hardship for the non-Jewish populations of these areas and many cities were abandoned or destroyed, their Pagan populations fleeing, and many others were conquered. Hyrcanus forced the Gentile populations to convert to Judaism, and claims made by some that this represents the “only forcible mass conversion in the history of Judaism” [1]  ignores the forced conversions of polytheistic Jews and Gentiles by Hezekiah and Josiah and down through the post-exilic period.

In both the second and first centuries BCEthe Hasmonean rulers “forcibly circumcised Gentile peoples after subduing them in battle.”[2] The joy of the cities of the Decapolis at their liberation by Pompey speaks volumes.

No doubt well aware of the above appeal (and the divine mandate at Deut 7.1-6), Mattathias, leader of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids, is said to have gone “around destroying the illicit altars and forcibly circumcising all the uncircumcised babies they found within the boundaries of Israel” (1 Macc 2.46). The Hasmonean rulers followed this injunction in their conquests, practicing forcible conversion in both Galilee (Ant. 13.318) and Idumea (Ant. 13.257-258) as Josephus tells us and burning cities, for example Pella (Ant. 13.397) that refused to convert, and there is no reason to suppose that if the rebels of 66 would have gotten the upper hand against the Romans that they would not have done likewise, as their record and their rhetoric indicates. Our literary sources bear this out: 1 Maccabees is implacably hostile to Gentiles, putting them on a par with the ancient Canaanites. 2 Maccabees amends this view to one which, to paraphrase General Sherman, would amount to “The only good Gentiles I’ve seen are converted.”

This was all part of a process that has been called by one scholar, “Judaization,”[3] and by another “internal colonization”[4] which are both happy terms for what was, in essence, a holy war, or to use a modern term, ethnic cleansing, as the capture of Akra by Simon in 141 BCE demonstrates. The account of the city’s capture in 1 Maccabees 14:49-52, and that of Gezer (14:43-48) leaves us in no doubt as to the motivation of the Hasmonean Reconquista.[5] The religious purity demanded by God requires not just rejection but ejection.

That this was not a happy situation for Pagans living either within Israel’s borders or in neighboring areas scarce needs be said.  The best the Pagan population could hope for was expulsion (such as at Acre, Gezer, Joppa, and other cities whose entire Pagan populations were expelled); at the worst, death or forced conversion.[6] Indeed, the Greek version of Esther 8.17 in the Septuagint admits that “many of the pagans were circumcised and became Jews out of fear of the Jews.” 1 Macc 13.47 celebrates an event in which Simon (d. 135) expelled the inhabitants of Gezer and repopulated it with “men who observed the Law.” This was apparently part of Simon’s general policy of removing idolaters from Israel (1 Macc 14.36) and archaeology seems to confirm it.[7]

Those who were not expelled sometimes fled: Tel Anafa, some 10-12 km north of Lake Huleh, was abandoned by 75 BCE“perhaps due to the flight of its pagan population after the incorporation of the area into the Hasmonean kingdom.”[8] Richard Horsley makes much of the Roman destruction of Carthage in 146 BCE and the fate of Corinth in the same year, as actions that “bore ominously on the fate of other peoples that they were to conquer in the future”[9] but takes no notice of Hasmonean Jewish imperialism and what can only be called ethnic cleansing of Pagan population centers.

French scholar Maurice Sartre suggests that the abandonment of “Gezer, Bethzur, Shechem, Bethshan, Lachish, possibly Bethel, Dothan, Shiloh, Tell Zakariyeh, and less important sites…not to mention cities whose destruction is well known, such as Samaria, Marisa, Adora, and Beersheba” was due to “imperialist Hasmonaean policy.”[10] The campaigns of Antiochus VII Sidetes in the 130s, culminating in a negotiated settlement in 132 BCE, temporarily put an end to Hasmonean ethnic cleansing (Ant. 13:245-248), but the death of the Seleucid king in 129 while on campaign against the Parthians saw its resumption under John Hyrcanus.

The beacon of a Greater Israel ever beckoned, and with it, the conversion of the “Nations” – the Pagan world.[11] It is the United States now, in the eyes of Christian fundamentalist, who are the Greater Israel.

The Jewish historian Josephus alludes to the forced circumcision of Gentiles during the Jewish revolt of 66 while he was in charge of Galilee’s defenses (Life, 113) and it is possible that Bar Kokhba in the revolt of 132 may also have practiced forced circumcision.[12] The Jews of theSecondTemple period were quite capable then of following the injunctions of these various biblical texts, which John J. Collins characterizes as “programmatic ideological statements”:

We can no longer accept them as simply presenting what happened. Whether we see these texts as reflecting expansionistic policies of King Josiah or as mere fantasies of powerless Judeans after the exile, they project a model of the ways in which Israelshould relate to its neighbors. In this perspective, ownership of the landof Israelis conferred by divine grant, not by ancestral occupancy or by negotiation, and violence against rival claimants of that land is not only legitimate but mandatory, especially if these people worship gods other than YHWH, the God of Israel.[13]

This was also the Israel that the Fourth Philosophy and the Essenes hearkened back to, an Israel ruled by God and unpolluted by Gentiles (Pagans), back to the days of the Maccabees and beyond, just as the Maccabees had hearkened back to the zeal of Phinehas (Num 25.10-15): Mattathias “burned with zeal for the law, just as Phinehas did against Zimri, the son of Salu” (1 Macc 1.26). Horsley can argue that all the violence and all the terror was done by the Romans to the Jews, but as John J. Collins and others have shown, these biblical texts have served to “legitimize violent action.” It was also ancient texts which legitimized the expulsion of Gentiles from Judeaand their forced circumcision.[14] As Oliver Wendel Holmes observed of his experiences in the Civil War, “certitude leads to violence.”[15]

Bede’s use of “daemonicis cultibus” (demonic cult) to refer to Heathens as being “outside a Christian state” and “condemnable” is evidence that this old Jewish attitude never died, and was merely translated into the new religion for the new “chosen people.” We are still hearing about demons, about the demonic presence of a Pagan landscape in America, the wholesale rejection of the constructed other.

So this is the situation faced by Americans today who are not among the “chosen” – Americans who are seeing by fundamentalist Christians as polluting the new Israel – you cannot negotiate with those whom God has dismissed and violence is not only legitimate but mandatory. This attitude has a history extending back to the origins of Abrahamic monotheism, antecedents as old as the religion itself and it should come as no surprise that reactionary Christian fundamentalism has raised this old theocratic specter for a new generation of Canaanites. If we do indeed live in the “end times” they are the end times of religious liberty.

[1] For example, in Stephen M. Wylen, The Jews in the Time of Jesus (NY: Paulist Press, 1996), 64.

[2] Steven Weitzman, “Forced Circumcision and the Shifting Role of Gentiles in Hasmonean Ideology,” HTR 92 (1999), 37.

[3] A. Kasher, Jews and Hellenistic Cities in Eretz-Israel. Texte und Studien zum Antiken Judentum 21. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 105.

[4] Shimon Applebaum,  Judaea in Hellenistic and Roman Times: Historical and Archaeological Essays (Leiden: Brill, 1989), 44.

[5] We are informed by 1 Maccabees that Simon “cleansed the houses in which idols were” and “cast out of it all uncleanness” before settling it with those who observed the Law.

[6] While ethnic cleansing may at times constitute genocide, it can also be distinct from genocide. The United Nations defines ethnic cleansing as activities designed to render an area “ethnically homogeneous”. It cannot be denied that this was the intent of the Hasmonean policies in question. See Final report of the United Nations Commission of Experts established pursuant to security council resolution 780 (1992), Annex IV The policy of ethnic cleansing.28 December 1994.

[7] Steven Weitzman, “Forced Circumcision and the Shifting Role of Gentiles in Hasmonean Ideology,” HTR 92 (1999), 43.

[8] Mark Alan Chancey; Adam Lowry Porter, “The Archaeology of Roman Palestine,” Near Eastern Archaeology 64 (2001), 82. See also Andrea M. Berlin, “Archaeological Sources for the History of Palestine: Between Large Forces:Palestine in the Hellenistic Period,” The Biblical Archaeologist 60 (1997), 2-51.

[9] Richard Horsley, Jesus and Empire, 17-18.

[10] Maurice Sartre, The Middle East Under Rome, 16.

[11] But the victories of these Jewish kings did not restore the glory of David and Solomon, immersed as they were in Hellenistic culture and what emerged was itself a Hellenistic state in the mold of those that had come before. Ironically then, the Hasmonean revolution, as Elias Bickerman observed, “eradicated one kind of Hellenism only to facilitate the growth of another kind.” See Elias Bickerman, From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees. Foundations of Post-Biblical Judaism (New York: Schocken Books, 1962), 178.

[12] Weitzman, “Forced Circumcision,” 43 and n 25. Weitzman suggests the possibility that Roman laws against circumcision might be a sequela of forced circumcisions by Bar Kochba.

[13] John J. Collins, “The Zeal of Phinehas: The Bible and the Legitimation of Violence,” JBL 122 (2003), 11.

[14] Steven Weitzman, “Forced Circumcision,” 43-44 and n 24. Both Genesis 34 and 2 Sam 18.25-7 are examples of anti-Gentile violence the Maccabees, and later, the Hasmoneans, may have hearkened back to, and 2 Bar 66.5 celebrates Josiah as a king who “left no one uncircumcised.”

[15] Collins, “The Zeal of Phinehas,” 12. As Collins demonstrates, it affected the Puritans in New England and it still has an effect today. See Moshe Greenburg, “On the Political Use of the Bible in Modern Israel: An Engaged Critique,” in Pomegranates and Golden Bells: Studies in Biblical, Jewish, and Near Eastern Ritual, Law, and Literature in Honor of Jacob Milgrom (ed. David P. Wright, David Noel Freedman, and Avi Hurvitz (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1995), 461-471. In this country, such language inspires right wing Christian “reconstructionists” who look forward to a day when all are converted (forcibly) to their brand of Christianity or are dead.

Hrafnkell Haraldsson

Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen's Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.

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