What's the difference?
Sweden is the gift that keeps on giving – to Islam. In recent weeks, for those of you who are keeping score at home, Swedish feminists mounted a nationwide "hijab campaign" in "solidarity" with a Muslim woman whose veil may or may not have been yanked off her head in a parking garage, and the government announced its intention to grant automatic permanent residency to refugees from Syria. Now comes the news that the Church of Sweden has chosen as its new leader a woman who, judging from recent statements, does not care to recognize much of a difference between Jesus Christ and Muhammed.
But first a little background. Unlike the Church of Norway and the Church of Denmark, the Church of Sweden is no longer an official state church, having been cut loose in the year 2000 (a fate which will probably befall its sister Scandinavian churches before too long). But although its pews, like those in Norway and Denmark, are pretty empty most of the time (while most Swedes are church members, only 2% attend services regularly), the church in Sweden continues, like its Norwegian and Danish counterparts, to receive generous cash subsidies from the government, and still enjoys a high public profile. Scandinavians may not go to church, and most of them may not be devout believers in much of anything, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they don't identify, perhaps even strongly, as Christians – or, more specifically, Lutherans.
How does this work? As follows. To live under a highly statist system is to assume, as if it were the way of nature itself, that the state will take care of all kinds of things that people in other, not-so-statist countries would never think of expecting the government to do for them. In Scandinavia, at least, this habit of thought can extend even to the realm of religion. Meaning what? That under such regimes, the idea of a personal faith, to say nothing of a personal commitment to go to church, can easily fall away. One doesn't have to go to church, or give much thought to what one does or doesn't believe; what matters is knowing that the church is there, and that one's tax money is helping to keep it up and running and staffed with clergy who have given thought to questions of belief, and who are continuing to hold the right services and say the right prayers – even though there's barely enough parishioners in some churches on a Sunday morning to get a bridge game going.
It's not, after all, as if most Scandinavians never set foot in a church. They may or may not believe in God, but they believe in church baptisms, church weddings, and church funerals. Confirmation, especially, remains a major rite of passage – so much so that kids from families that are actively hostile to religion have the option of taking part in a mass "civil confirmation," a thoroughly secular ceremony that is held once a year in city halls and other non-ecclesiastical settings. In all three Scandinavian countries, moreover, certain Christian feasts are still observed in a traditional manner – notably Saint Lucy's Day on December 13, when many children and teenagers participate in processions wearing white robes, carrying candles, and singing "Santa Lucia." The Norwegian cabinet includes a Minister of Culture and Church Affairs; the Danish cabinet includes a Minister for Equality, Church, and Nordic Cooperation. In all three countries, most of the official holidays are Christian holy days; Norway's list includes no fewer than eight of them: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Ascension Day, Pentecost, Whit Monday, Christmas, and St. Stephen's Day. (The only secular days off are New Year's Day, May Day, and Constitution Day.)
So it was of more than minor significance when the Church of Swedish announced a couple of weeks ago that its new boss, who will assume the title of Archbishop of Uppsala next June upon the retirement of the current primate, Anders Wejryd, is a woman named Antje Jackelén, the present Bishop of Lund. Born in Germany in 1955, she moved to Sweden in 1978, married a Swede in 1979 (he's a priest, too), and became a member of the clergy in 1980. She will be the first female archbishop in the Church of Sweden, which has been ordaining women for more than half a century. But no, that's not the big news. Nor is it news, big or otherwise, that the bishop who ordained her back in 1980, Lars Carlzon, was at the time head of a Communist front group, the Swedish-East German “Friendship Association.” (Let's face it: given the Swedish establishment's weakness for totalitarianism, that's scarcely a footnote.)
No, the big news – or one part of it, anyway – is that Jackelén, who after her ordination worked in parishes in Stockholm and Lund and then spent several years teaching systematic theology at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, has as her episcopal motto (yes, bishops have mottoes) the simple statement “God is greater.” As Ingeborg Olsson wrote in Dispatch International: “If that sounds familiar, it may be due to the fact that an Arabic translation renders it as 'Allahu akbar.'”
Coincidence? Not bloody likely. On October 1, when Jackelén and the other three candidates for the church's top job were interviewed by church officials in front of the media, they were asked – and here comes the rest of the big news – “Does Jesus provide a truer picture of God than Muhammed?” Only one of the candidates, Ragnar Persenius, the Bishop of Uppsala, answered with a flat-out yes. (He ended up coming in second.) The other candidates “seemed uncertain,” according to Fria Tider. Jackelén's answer was as follows: “One cannot reduce the whole of religious theology, that is to say the question of how different religions relate to one another, to a yes-and-no question. It amounts to doing violence to a wealth of knowledge and experience that can be found there.”
This wishy-washiness was too much for Eva Hamberg, a prominent theologian who has been a priest in the Church of Sweden for thirty years. Back when she was ordained, said Hamberg, such a question would never even have been asked – and if it had been, the idea that any candidate for the priesthood would have so much as hesitated to say “yes” would have been absolutely unthinkable. Even before Jackelén was selected as archbishop, Hamberg publicly announced that she was quitting the Church of Sweden, saying she could no longer associate herself with a body that had become, in her view, altogether too secularized, politicized, and intolerant of dissident (i.e. traditional) voices.
Since Jackelén's election, her supporters and her critics have been doing battle in the op-ed columns – not only about the Jesus/Muhammed dodge, but about Jackelén's views of the Virgin Birth and the existence of Hell, among other things. As it happens, I agree with much of what she and her supporters have to say – about, for example, the fact that some parts of the Bible are plainly intended to be read metaphorically or symbolically, not literally, and that there's room for honest disagreement among Christians about various aspects of scripture and theology. But to refuse to provide a straightforward answer to the simple question of whether Jesus provides a truer picture of God than Muhammed is a whole different ball of wax. It's not about being a liberal Christian as opposed to a conservative Christian; it's about being any kind of Christian at all. For that one question sums up what everything else comes down to – it brings you face to face with the utter contrast between, on the one hand, the story of Jesus' life and ministry, which is to say the message of the gospel, and, on the other, the story of Muhammed's life, which is to say the message of the Koran. Between these two things – Jesus' message of love, and Muhammed's message of brutal conquest and control – there could hardly be a greater, starker divergence. For a Christian body to install as its superintendent someone who refuses to pronounce clearly upon that divergence is sheer absurdity.
But you ain't heard nothing yet. On October 27, Anna Ekström, who writes regularly in Expressen, reminded readers of her criticism last December of Jackelén's videotaped Christmas greeting to her diocese, which can still be viewed on You Tube. (Watch it: even if you don't understand Swedish, the visual, and the tone of voice, speak volumes.) In the video, Jackelén launched right into an oh-so-gently-voiced lament about Israel's security barrier, and by way of illustration held up a small nativity that she purchased some years ago at a shop in Bethlehem. It was a very special kind of nativity – Jesus and two of the Wise Men were separated by a wall. Get it? Get it? She purred on about this separation wall, observing that the two Wise Men who were separated from Jesus looked as if they were praying to the wall. (The implicit reference to Jews at the Wailing Wall was obvious.) And she showed her audience that, while the separation wall obstructed one's view of Jesus, there was an opening in the stable wall behind the crib, symbolizing the fact that (and here she claimed to be quoting the shopkeeper who sold her the nativity) “God always creates an opening” that lets us see Christ. “Fear builds walls,” she said in English, reading aloud the words written on the nativity wall. “Hope builds bridges.” Christmas, she stressed, is all about the elimination of walls between God and man. And with that, she removed the wall separating the stable from those two Wise Men.
Jackelén's “Christmas message” was a remarkable piece of work – a hand grenade, as it were, wrapped in several thick, soft layers of purple cotton. How smoothly and neatly she managed to suggest, without quite saying so, that Israeli Jews have separated themselves from God by denying the message of Christ, that when they pray at the Wailing Wall they are praying to a false god, and that the Israeli wall is nothing less than an offense to Christian belief. Very slick stuff.
To be sure, Jackelén did not come up with this nasty line of argument herself: every ugly, silken word of her little homily is standard-issue “Palestinian liberation theology,” as developed over the last few decades by Palestinian Christians like Naim Ateek (an Anglican priest who runs a Jerusalem-based outfit called the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center) and as obediently taken up, in recent years, by more and more fatuous leftist clergy in Europe and North America. Ateek's “theology,” which teaches that Zionists are motivated by (in his words) “a narrow and exclusive concept of a tribal God,” and which drips with smarmily sanctimonious language and overwrought symbolism of the sort Jackelen employed in her “Christmas message” (“In this season of Lent,” wrote Ateek during the run-up to Easter 2001, “it seems to many of us that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him....Palestine has become one huge golgotha”), is in fact a cleverly calculated means of manipulating naïve Christians in the Western world into thinking that their faith requires them not only to condemn Israel's security barrier, and its supposed mistreatment of Palestinians, but to reject the very legitimacy of the Jewish state itself.
Watching Jackelén's “Christmas message,” and recognizing at once the slippery rhetoric of “Palestinian liberation theology,” I wondered if she had any direct connection to Ateek and his organization – which is, after all, the Ground Zero of that “theology.” Sure enough, a quick Google search turned up an article on her diocesan website singing Ateek's praises and recounting a conversation that she and Ateek had at his office. (As a bonus, the article features a lovely picture of Jackelén celebrating mass with one Munib Younan, who, in addition to being head of the Lutheran World Federation, has been identified by Sabeel itself, with which he is associated, as a Fatah leader.)
Ekström, in her comments about Jackelén's “Christmas message,” noted that while Jackelén made good use of the opportunity to malign Israel's security defenses, she had nothing whatsoever to say about the ongoing slaughter and persecution of Christians throughout the Muslim world – a kind of violence that, as Ekström pointed out, “requires more robust protection of the kind Antje Jackelén wants to tear down.” As Ekström put it: during a holiday season “when Jews through the ages have been subjected to pogroms,” and in a time “when Christians in our time are being murdered, [Jackelén] chose to meditate about an Arabized Jesus and stir resentment toward Israeli Jews.” In short, she “used the timeless Christmas story to throw a dark shadow over the Jews in all times, in all places.” That was last Christmas – ten months ago. Has Jackelén, Ekström asked the other day, changed since then? Well, if her crafty reply to the question about Jesus and Muhammed is any indication – and nothing could be more of an indication – she hasn't changed at all.
It will be interesting to see what she has to say to her flock on You Tube this Christmas.
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