When presidents Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas showed up the other day at the Vatican to pray, it was more than just a gesture. Much more.
Hosted by Pope Francis in a garden of breathtaking beauty, the event begged association with another garden, the first sanctuary where humanity’s original couple met and walked with God. Thankfully, in this case, everyone wore clothes. No one wanted to think about, let alone see the aging flesh, the flaws, that suits and robes so wonderfully covered.
In the same way and for the same reason, most observers loathed any critique that dared undress what was said and prayed, to see and judge unpleasant differences just beneath the shimmer of somber pomp and circumstance. Perhaps Peres, the first to talk, knew this. Speaking for Israel and Judaism, he further adorned the affair with glistening verbal pearls, articulating the essential Hebrew longing for peace. This peace, he said, is a “peace between equals.” An illustration of those equals, he explained to the pope, were those right there “in the Vatican garden, in the presence of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Druse leaders.”
Peace between equals? The implied claim that all religions are equal is breathtaking. And seductive. At its heart, this 21st century sensibility drapes the distressing nakedness of religious differences with the shimmering garb – or if you will, the meta-creed – of sincerity and peace. According to this creed, so long as all religions are sincere about peace, not only are they equal, they are essentially the same. This sensibility renders all discussion of differences into unseemly intercourse, something that should be done behind closed doors, but never in the public square.
THAT’S WHY Peres and his delegation were able to invoke the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob while Abbas and company appealed to Allah, and Pope Francis prayed to the Virgin Mary, all without upsetting anyone in the program. Meanwhile, for their part, people watching round the world nodded in approval. Presented in the provocative gown of sincerity and peace, these differences are deemed to be a somewhat titillating but strictly private matter.
How did this happen? Throughout history, both insiders and observers of religious systems knew that each was different, profoundly different, and anything but equal.
How is it that today they are thought to be the same? Back to the garden. Not the Vatican’s, at least not yet. First we must go farther back, back to the original garden, back to the one in Genesis. The essence of what happened there is that men and God were put at odds, ruining their mutual relationship. First and foremost, there was a loss of peace, specifically and emphatically, peace with God. And yes, as a result, people fell into discord with themselves and their neighbors.
But humanity’s greatest need was repair of the primary tear. If this was fixed, everything else, every other kind of peace, would follow. Religions knew and know this. Without exception, all of them have one overriding objective. Polytheistic religions seek appeasement of the gods. So called nontheistic religions pursue reconciliation with the Transcendent. For its part, when it appeared, organized monotheism introduced a remarkable twist: peace with God at His initiative.
This was Judaism’s gift to humanity: revelation of a personal, knowable, singular Deity and His attending proposal for peace. Judaism not only revealed God, but God as the initiator of reconciliation: God showing the way, God making the way, for peace with men, repairing the primary tear.
IT IS important to pause and note two things. First, no religion has ever been about peace between equals. Emphatically not. Until today, anyway. Second, until recently, no religion ever presumed it could bring about global peace between people. Just the opposite, in fact. Judaism taught that God’s enemies were the enemies of His people. Jesus agreed, saying that his way would bring a sword. And Mohammed took up the sword. More than ever, the reality of today’s world proves these expectations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam: there will be enmity, even bloodshed, between those who accept God’s peace plan – or Allah’s – and those who do not.
As a result of this glaring reality, a growing cacophony of voices blame religion for all the world’s woes, especially for its growing, raging river of violent bloodshed. Religions, especially monotheistic varieties, have lost global credibility.
What to do? And so we come back to the garden in Rome. Every leader there understood the distinctiveness and ramifications of their faith. But what they knew is not what they offered. Draped in the silky, sultry weave of sincerity, they covered up their distinctiveness with a universal offer of peace between equals. Instead of peace with God (or Allah), they sold peace with people. Instead of reconciliation between unequal parties, they offered resolution between equal parties, replacing God with humanity, deifying mankind, deifying themselves. It was, it is, the only way to offer peace between equals. And it worked. Loving what it saw and heard, the world watched and said amen.
Brian Schrauger is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post and its Christian Edition. Follow him on Twitter @BrianSchrauger