Saturday, July 02, 2005

A birthday to remember

I watched the sunset as I rode in a taxi, across the border into Syria- it was my birthday. Actually the day began in Antioch, Turkey. Antioch is the place where the followers of Christ were first called Christians and itis mentioned in the book of Acts in the Bible. We decided to venture out to find a church service to see what the church is like today- we were amazed at how our morning unfolded. We knocked on the doors of a catholic church and met Dominco, a priest originally from Rome but living and working at the catholic church. We learned that the Catholics, Jews, Orthodox and Protestants have a special sense of community- often worshiping together. Later, we discoved an Orthodox church and before we knew what was happening we had met Joseph. A 45-year old Turkish man with a kind heart who invited us in to the service. After the hour long Orthodox service Joseph took us to a Protestant service- another hour service but beautiful. We learned that the small group of people worshipping were all former Muslims who had incredible stories of coming to faith as Christians.
Joseph and his wife then invited us to their home for a wonderful meal, we ate and talked into the last afternoon and then headed to our taxi to begin our journey to Syria.
It was about a 3-4 hour ride to Aleppo, Syria. As soon as we arrived and checked into our inexpensive hotel, we ventured out to find a famous fallel stand we had read about. Fallels are some of my favorite food and I can say that I had the best fallel ever in Syria!! We also met the owner and before we knew it we were getting a tour of the fallel restaurant, sitting and chatting and being served drinks. ( we went back the next day to the fallel stand- that's another story). We ended the night with a big ice cream cone of some intersting flavors, strolling through a park and watching all the activites happening in the town square. I fell asleep that night, content and happy to be turning 35 in Syria.

Monday, June 27, 2005

John’s Apocalypse of Benefactions

Although I have visited the ruins of Ephesus twice in my previous travels to Turkey, I never noted the preponderance of inscriptions on the remains of the ancient civic buildings. Almost all of the inscriptions (with little exception I noted) are examples of dedicatory inscriptions honoring the patrons of a monument, statue or building, typically, these being Emperors, magistrates and/or wealthy individuals. Some of the donors were even buried in their buildings. One Celsus evidently bequeathed a sizable endowment for Ephesus’ library and was honored by burial on the premises (he, of course, paid for that as well). Some of these inscriptions even went to great length to describe exactly how and under what circumstances the funds were procured. Why the level of detail and obsession with donorship?

It turns out that the political, social and religious realities of the Roman Empire demanded it. A leader in Greco-Roman society was considered a “benefactor” before any other designation. In order to earn the privilege to rule, one had to dedicate a sizable portion of one’s estate for the common good. This is how cities in the Roman Empire funded civic projects, temples, institutions, festivities and games…directly from the personal coffers of such wealthy individuals. In return, the population honored its benefactors with “honors”, such as giving their ruler-patrons prominent front-row seats in the theatres and coliseums, placing their busts in public places, or singing their praises on dedicatory inscriptions, murals, and so on. Eulogies were even composed in their honor at special occasions and festivities, where they were sometimes conferred strings of honorary titles, and given wreaths or objects symbolizing their lordship over their cities and so on.

This reliance of governance on honoraria was actually the civic bedrock of Greco-Roman society, a phenomenon scholars have lately begun referring to as “evergetism” (from the Greek word for “benefaction”). Evergetism reached its zenith at the time of the Emperor Domitian, the very figure whose persecution of Christians inspired the writing of the book of Revelation. Domitian took evergetism to new heights when he declared himself a god and erected a temple to himself at the top of Ephesus’ Via Sacra, in contrast to previous Emperors, who, though knowing they would be conferred the status of deities upon their death, still considered it tactless to refer to themselves as such while they were still living. Apparently, Domitian knew himself to be the Empire’s top benefactor, and made it compulsory to be honored as such among the pantheon of the gods.

To us, it may seem extremely shallow and completely unethical to buy one's own honor (not to mention one's power). But we underestimate the impact of "Jewish sensibility" on Western culture, which gave us the impulse to credit God first in all things (since He is the ultimate source of our wealth). Archeological evidence has revealed the fact that Jewish donorship lists underplayed the role of the individual and placed the focus on the community. Jewish donors even creditied their gifts to "Providence". Christ's teachings also deeply reflect this sensibility. “I tell you the truth,” said Jesus about those who received praise from others for their acts of righteousness, “they have received their full reward.”

So it comes as some surprise that Jesus promises the obedient hearer of his admonitions with several rewards that sound suspiciously like evergetistic honors in the letters to the Seven Churches in John’s Apocalypse. The Smyrnans are promised a crown. The Pergameme faithful are promised “new names”. The lowly Thyatirans are to be given a rod of iron to rule the nations by. The Sardians are even promised to have their names proclaimed in the heavenly throne room, much like the conferral of an honorary title.

On second thought, however, Revelation's model of benefaction actually throws the patron-citizen evergetistic relationship on its head. For it is not just the ruler (Jesus) who is shown receiving the honors of benefaction, but the faithful citizens of his kingdom. As such, the letters actually represent a drastic leveling of the honorary distance kept between the ruler and the ruled in Greco-Roman society…In fact, the promises indicate that the servant-citizens of Christ's kingdom are to fully share in the act of government! The "poor" and the "powerless" are the very ones who are to sit on Christ's own throne.

Another reflection also reveals the fact that God is always the benefactor--only, He will inscribe His name on the faithful overcomers, who are to become the "pillars" of His temple. God's civic project is our lives. The honor that is due to Himself, He inscribes on us.