WHY RELIGIONS FIGHT OVER SMALL STUFF?
Acts 10 – 11 and 15: 1 – 25
Late Hugh MacCullum, a former editor of the United Church Observer, told me once that a large number of protest subscription cancellation happened each time after the publication of articles about women and sexual ethics, not so often about international and political issues. The first serious fight in the early Christian Church was not about faith in Christ. It was about food and circumcision. Were they that important? Granted, any question, no matter how trivial, can represent an important question worth fighting for. However, a sad fact is: more often than not, so many unimportant matters cause divisions.
After a bitter fight about food and circumcision during the first Century in the early Christian Church, a compromise was reached by dividing the church into two language groups; into the Greek speaking people and the Hebrew speakers. Greeks lived mainly outside of Palestine and Hebrew Christians around Jerusalem. This arrangement allowed different life-styles to co-exist by separating them geographically. Accordingly, Greek speakers whose number increased exponentially were allowed to eat whatever they used to eat and were spared from knives of circumcision. The Hebrew speakers continued to observe the traditional Jewish laws like Kosher food and circumcision.
The fight must have been fierce judging by the angry tone of the Letter of Paul to Galatians. Paul wrote the letter around 54-56 A.D. Consequently the big council meeting of all church leaders was called in Jerusalem to resolve it. (Acts 15:1-35) However, when the Acts of Apostles was written about 30 years later, compromise measures had been in practice for some time, hence the gentler tone of the book.
It is interesting that the Apostles and the leading charter members of the church in Jerusalem could not simply prevail over new non-Jewish members. The new comers were converts to the Jesus movement and mostly lived outside of Palestine. They spoke Greek and their customs and moral conduct offended the observant Jews, who still thought the Jesus Way was a reformed Jewish religion. The leaders of the church in Jerusalem lost the power over the new members because the number of those “gentile Christians” was large. (Acts 10 & 11) Also, the church in Jerusalem began to be heavily dependent on the financial support of those converts. (1 Corintians 16:1-4)
Why were food and circumcision such serious subjects? My guess is: often superficial differences touch people’s nerves more than invisible spiritual matters. How many people today criticize Muslims from their knowledge of Koran? Their objections are about ‘head-cover’ (nuns used to wear those) and because some of them are terrorists. Have people count the number of Christian criminals? Some Jews still blame Christians for holocaust. Vladimir Putin is a devout Orthodox Christian. But we don’t term Christianity a criminal organization because some of the criminals are Christians.
A concern for health was not so much about science, but very much a part of religious life. Bodily cleanliness and spiritual purity were the same thing. Practice of circumcision for example came from a sanitary concern, and was not invented by the Jews. Many regions in Africa and Middle East have a long history of this custom because of hot climate and scarcity of water.
When I went to Africa to live in 1968, I found that circumcision had been an entrenched tradition until European missionaries prohibited it as a heathen custom. It was never completely eradicated. The practice has continued clandestinely. Recently, ironically it has become a widely accepted knowledge that circumcision reduces HIV transmission, and is now encouraged.
As for food taboo: fear of anything that crawls and creeps on the dirt or ocean floor, slimy and weird looking things such as pigs, oysters, snakes, snails, shrimps, and worms, etc., were all suspect because of their disgusting appearances. Also men feared blood while women didn’t. For men blood represented death and violence while for women menstruation meant readiness for new life. Males dominated religious life, thus mixing blood was prohibited in foods. Blood was offered only to God as a symbol of sacrificial death.
In antiquity a concern for physical and spiritual health was one and same. Bacteria and virus as causes of ill-health were not known. Sickness was considered to be the punishment from angry gods. They were also the acts of evil spirit. This is why when Peter was faced with God’s command to eat with a captain of the Roman army, it was compared with the eating unclean foods. Italians are seafood eaters after all. Because cleanliness was spiritual matter, water and washing are not only acts of cleaning but also important part of worship in many religions.
However, were the issues that bothered the followers of Jesus still so important when Paul started to travel among non-Jews? Should the community based on love and mercy kick out some people because they eat different food? Peter was forced to change his mind and ate with the Roman. Paul and those who spoke Greek didn’t think food was an essential part of the faith in Jesus Christ.
It is interesting to note that even the minimum conditions the Jerusalem Council imposed on non-Jewish Christians were soon abandoned and ignored. Times change rapidly. How many European Christians stopped killing chickens by strangulation or stop making blood sausage? There is a fundamental problem with detailed rules of conduct and treat them as the core faith practice. Laws were introduced as a way to be obedient to God. But they immediately created problems. As Paul said, Law brought to us curse because we now know what is the right thing to do which we do not want to do. We know what not to do, so we do it. (Romans 7: 19 & 20) This is the perennial dilemma of human conditions. Rules are often temporary.
The same problem still rages today in many religions. The society is divided over abortion, assisted death, head-covers, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Violence and even wars are fought over those cultural and life-style questions. Often words of the Holy Scriptures are used to justify the positions that are not really core values. This is why it is important to learn from the experience of the early church; how they separated the core faith matters from the customs and traditions which were mere temporary expression of faith. They are often time specific. What then is the core value of Christian faith? That is the most important question.