Whenever the neighbors have their friends move nearby, you know the neighborhood is changing.
In most urban (and suburban) areas, this has been a pattern for the last half century: people move in, other people move out, for various reasons. Then another group displaces the last group.
Religion has also played such a real estate game over the past few millennia.
The recent controversy over the proposed mosque near the Ground Zero site had us at the Neighborhood thinking about how religion played a role in the use of real estate. I, for one, am not convinced that the proposed mosque in that location is a good idea. There are better, less confrontational areas to erect a mosque and promote understanding (isn’t the whole project about avoiding confrontation, anyway?).
Yet this is not the first time buildings and religion has collided in controversy.
Here is a sampling of other sites around the world that have changed religious hands, sometimes multiple times. Some resorted to violence, while others simply entered a space vacated by someone else. There were many others to choose from, but these are my favorites:
The Parthenon, Athens, Greece (447-431 BCE)
Like a Times Square callgirl, this old broad has had a rough life. The Parthenon was designed as a temple to the goddess Athena, the protector of the city of Athens. It replaced an earlier Parthenon that was destroyed by the Persians, and also served as the city treasury. Later, under the Byzantines, the Parthenon became a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, while the Ottoman Turks converted it into a mosque in the early 1460s. After a Venetian bomb exploded the powder stores inside it in 1687, and Lord Elgin made off with the choice goods in 1806, the Parthenon was better used as a backdrop for every Greek diner from Astoria to Chicago.
The Temple Mount [Dome of the Rock, Al-Aqsa Mosque, Western Wall], Jerusalem, Israel (957 BCE-692 CE)
Sure, people fought over the Parthenon, but never was the fight as fierce as for the Temple Mount. According to Biblical scholarship (since archaeological digs are forbidden on the mount), the first Temple of Solomon rose at that sight around the mid 900s BCE. It was subsequently destroyed by the Babylonians, and then rebuilt by the Persians in the early 500s BCE. Herod the Great expanded the Temple Mount in 19 BCE, only to have it destroyed by the Romans after the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 CE. A temple to Jupiter arose from the site in the 130s BCE, starting another Jewish revolt and banning Jews from the city (are you getting all this?). In 325 CE a Catholic church arose on the mount, followed by more churches, and culminating in the building of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque by the Umayyad caliphs in the late 600s-early 700s. Three religions considered the place sacred, and the true ownership and usage rights are still in dispute.
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey (532-537 CE)
You got to give Kemal Ataturk credit here. The first president of the secular Republic of Turkey needed to do something with a building that charged emotions among Christians and Muslims. The building was created by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I and served as the eastern headquarters of Christendom, later the headquarters of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Following the Ottoman conquest of 1453, Mehmed II had Hagia Sophia converted to a mosque, adding minarets, a mihrab, a minbar and also covering up or removing the more Christian aspects of the place. In 1935, Ataturk decided everybody can use it—and nobody can use it, either. He had the place restored and converted to a museum, and no religious group can use it as a place of worship. Since Ataturk controlled the voting bloc that had machine guns, his edict settled the matter.
The Great Mosque of Cordoba [Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption] Cordoba, Spain (784-987)
I had the pleasure of visiting the Great Mosque, or Mezquita as its known in Spanish, and it is truly a wonder—even if the Spanish managed to shoe-horn a Renaissance chapel smack-dab in the middle of the thing. Originally a Visigothic church stood on the site where Emir Abd al-Rahman I decided to build a grand mosque. Using the original church as a template, the mosque was enlarged and decorated over the centuries. It became the cultural, political, social and economic center of Muslim Spain, known as Al-Andalus (today’s Andalusia). When the Christian kings of Castile took it back in the mid 1200’s, the Mosque became a church again. It’s amazing how much of the original Islamic structure was relatively untouched; that is, until you find the gleaming golden Catholic interior chapel. Even I find it a little garish.
Synagogues of Spain: El Transito, Toledo and Old Main Synagogue, Segovia (1300s-1492)
The Catholic Reconquest of Spain (1200s-1492) ended the thriving Muslim culture in Al-Andalus. It also shattered the other thriving minority culture in Spain: Jews. There had been Jews in Spain since the Roman period, and they had risen to high places in politics and business. Yet with the Reconquista, and the subsequent Spanish Inquisition meant to homogenize Spanish society under one church, the Jews were now a pariah and a threat. Both the Synagogue of El Transito and the Old Maine Synagogue in Segovia defied Christian laws meant to keep Jewish houses of worship small and unadorned. In fact, both were grand and highly ornate: in the style of the people that tolerated them the most, the Muslim Moors. After the Edict of Expulsion in 1492, both became churches or parts of Catholic institutions, although now El Transito is a museum documenting the history of Toledo’s Jewish community.
Babri Mosque, Ayodhya, India (1527-1992)
In 1992, a mob of 150,000 rioters, mostly Hindus, settled a centuries-old debate by destroying a mosque that was built over 400 years earlier. In 1527, Babur I, first Mughal emperor of India, built this mosque on the site of an earlier Hindu temple. According to Hindu mythology, the area around the Babri Mosque was the birthplace of the god Rama—even Babur acknowledged this in naming the mosque Masjid-i Janmasthan, or Mosque of the Birthplace. By the 1980s, a new militant Hindu nationalist movement had agitated to purge the area of Muslim influences, culminating in the 1992 riot. A commission released a report in 2009 that blames Hindu nationalists and members of the Indian government for the demolition of the mosque. It didn’t settle matters: the debate over the mosque’s history and significance, known as the Ayodhya debate, rages today.
Brick Lane Mosque, London, England, UK (1743)
All those other stories were so morbid, so let’s end on a good note. In London, particularly in the working-class East End, communities have come and gone over centuries, and 59 Brick Lane in the Spitalfields neighborhood of east London has seen them all. It began as a Protestant chapel for French Huguenots, and it serviced this French exile community for over 60 years. In 1809, it became a Wesleyan chapel for a group ministering to London’s Jewish community. This didn’t last long, as it became a regular Methodist church in 1819. Russian and Eastern European Jews, funny enough, did take over the building in the late 19th century, becoming the “”Machzike Adass” or “Spitalfields Great Synagogue.” As these Jews migrated to north London, the building was eventually abandoned in the mid 20th century. In the 1970s, an influx of immigrants from Bangladesh settled in Spitalfields to find work in factories or textile mills. The now-empty 59 Brick Lane then became the Brick Lane Mosque in 1976, which stills serves the Bangladeshi community of east London today.
Eggs, Bunnies and a Dude on a Cross: The Problem with Easter
The Easter story is the central tenet of Christianity. It also reads like a nightmarish B-grade horror film.
A poor, disheveled mystic–who claims to be descended from the divine–attracts a following with feats of power and thoughtful wisdom. He runs into problems with local authorities that fear his ministry will “rock the boat” with both the local priests and the powers that actually run the joint.
After a meal where he makes his followers consume his “flesh” and “blood”, he is arrested and beaten within an inch of his life. The mystic then carries a wooden beam through town, amongst jeering crowds and impatient soldiers to a hill where his is stripped and nailed to this hunk of wood. Hanging in horrific agony, he calls on everyone but the kitchen sink before he finally tunes out—only to “rise again” like a beatific zombie a few days later.
If the movies are to be believed, his hair is perfect.
In a nice addendum, the same dude rises to heaven, promising to come back and go medieval on all the fools who wronged him: a divine Charles Bronson, if you will.
Of course, this is a crude, even blasphemic retelling of what is considered the “Passion” of Jesus Christ, the story of his torture, death and resurrection as told through the Gospels of the New Testament. It is impossible to understand Christianity without this story—gory and fantastic as it may be.
Yet the Easter story can be very troublesome in a classroom, particularly in the elementary setting. That said, it’s probably best to avoid it altogether.
“Not so fast!”, you say, “What about Christmas? That’s a religious holiday that’s at least given lip service in most American classrooms!”
If you think Easter has been made tame by bunnies, chocolate and hard-boiled eggs with paint on them…you better look again, because Big J’s horror story will always reel its thorn-laden head.
Here are a few reasons to bypass the Easter story in your class:
1. The Religion is still Center Stage. – the bunny just won’t cut it. There’s no Santa Claus, Frosty or tits at Mardi Gras to drown out the Bible here. Jesus really IS the reason for this season, and the minute you talk about him is the moment the First Amendment and the ACLU come to whip you in the ass with an organically-grown hickory switch.
2. There’s too little secular material to tie in. – You can even date when Christmas was stripped of its Christianity: 1843. This was the year Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published. It became a best-seller, and completely remade Christmas as a secular family gift-giving holiday. To date, no such transformation has occurred with the opposite end of Jesus’ life.
3. The story is gruesome. – There’s no way to candy coat torture and crucifixion. It was a painful, agonizing death that was suffered by thousands during Roman rule. In fact, Jesus had it easy: his loincloth was kept on for modesty, and only his limbs were nailed down. Scholars have discovered remains of naked victims nailed in some bizarre areas: the armpits, the neck, even the genitals. Makes you feel sorry for the Roman legionary who drew the short straw for nail-in-the-junk duty.
4. Competition from another important religious holiday. – As much as it galls the religious right, Jesus’ Last Supper was a Passover seder, as he was an observant Jew. Passover and Easter are forever tied together, both by Scripture and history. Passover, the celebration of the beginning of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, is not the most important Jewish holiday religiously, yet the most influential historically. The Passover story reverberates throughout Jewish history, as the dispersal of God’s Chosen People harkens back to those first movements from Egypt. Furthermore, in places with large Jewish populations, like New York City, a long spring recess has more to do with Jewish than Christian religious tradition. Easter can’t exist without Passover, and both stories need a lot of context to be explained.
5. No good secular entertainment. – Rankin-Bass and Charlie Brown aren’t exactly kosher on Easter (no pun intended). All the movies associated with the season have to do with the season literally. There are plenty of Jesus movies—and Moses movies, for that matter—to fill an afternoon, but they come dangerously close to evangelizing. Even Monty Python’s Life of Brian won’t cut it, although I would love to meet the high school teacher with the balls to show it in class.
6. The whole story is such a downer. – When Christians celebrate Easter, they rejoice in the very end of the story. Most of the narrative of Jesus’ last days on Earth is tragic, violent, gruesome, blood-curdling and altogether depressing. It only gets good at the very end (the “zombie” phase). Hence the pastel suits and chiffon dresses: wearing that on Good Friday is akin to showing up at the funeral in a red dress.
I’ve seen decent, God-fearing teachers make a point to sneak in Easter activities like egg-dying, Easter bunny-coloring and the like. It’s cute, I know, but the minute one kid asks why they are doing this, the teacher plays with fire.
That fire—from constitutional law and the courtroom—is far more painful than any conjectured netherworld. You can avoid Hell. You can’t get out of a subpoena.
In high school classes, this shouldn’t be an issue. Jesus is a historical figure, and his death should be treated as such—you can even go nuts on the crucifixion thing. The scripture complicates things, but teenagers should figure out what is history and what isn’t.
With little kids, however, the scripture is the history. It’s the only narrative that a kid will understand at that level, and in a public school that’s construed as religious instruction. Avoid Easter, avoid Jesus, heck avoid the bunnies and eggs (they bring about too many questions).
Leave that for a later time when the gruesomeness of the Passion has a slightly cool quality. You gotta love teenagers.
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