9/11 Anniversary Generates Christian Outrage and Fears of Syncretism

Sep 03 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Egyptian-born Evangelical Michael Youssef, pastor of the “Church of the Apostles” in Atlanta, Georgia and founder of radio ministry Leading the Way, is worried about syncretism. Syncretism is the combining of different beliefs. As archaeologist William G. Dever writes, “The essential meaning is to incorporate various beliefs, some of which may once have been contradictory, into a fusion on the basis of other beliefs held in common.”[1]

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, you may have heard, has barred clergy from participating in the tenth anniversary of 9/11, spurring outrage, reported the Wall Street Journal. What they don’t tell you is that political speeches aren’t welcome either – the day has been set aside for families, which seems perfectly reasonable but reasonable doesn’t give cause for outrage, does it?

So if there is no cause for outrage, the conservative credo is create one. And so they have. And it should come as no surprise that the people who claim to be all about family values don’t really support them at all. Damn the families: where’s our theology!

Certainly former mayor and self-proclaimed 9/11 hero Rudy Giuliani was outraged: he wants Bloomberg to reconsider. Tea Partier Judson Philips may not know he has to pay his hotel bill but he knows when Christianity is being attacked: he is angry as hell, saying,

We are three weeks away from the 10th Anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Now, you will not believe what has happened. It is Orwellian. The good guys are the bad guys now and the bad guys are perfectly welcome.

What is going on?

NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg has decreed there will be no clergy at the 9/11 memorial.

And the Family Research Council (FRC) which should be particularly ashamed, says it has gathered more than 55,000 signatures on a petition it intends to present to Mayor Bloomberg on Thursday, September 8, demanding that he “reverse his decision” to exclude clergy.

But Youssef thanks Mayor Michael Bloomberg “for sparing the faithful Christians from seeing and watching a syncretistic fest on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy.” Here is how Youssef sees Bloomberg’s otherwise castigated decision:

However, the way I and many other faithful Christians see it is as an act of mercy — sparing us the spectacle of bundling all religions together as if they are worshipping one god or as if all these gods are equal. Indeed, Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “Prayer for America” memorial service, held 12 days after the 9/11 attacks, was extremely painful for the faithful Christians who watched. It gave the impression that all gods are equal to the one true God — the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Well gosh. We can’t – here in America where everyone is equal – actually let people think that all religions are equal! Horrors! What was it again that Thomas Jefferson said? Oh yes, “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” In point of fact, the First Amendment levels the playing field: officially, all religions are equal.

Yet Youssef brings up the “God of the Founding Fathers” as though completely unaware of Jefferson’s feelings on the subject:

Sadly, America is committing the same abomination of syncretism — mixing the God of the Founding Fathers with all those other “non-God” gods. Could judgment be around the corner? We will wait and see.

But of course, it doesn’t really matter to Youssef what Jefferson or any other Founding Father actually said or believed because he and his fellow fundamentalists are just going to re-write all that pesky history anyway.

But Youssef would do well, with all Americans, to remember that Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom – upon which the First Amendment is based – was meant, in his own words, “to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahomedan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”

Disdain for Jefferson’s idealism is apparent in Youssef lamentation that at “Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “Prayer for America” memorial service, held 12 days after the 9/11 attacks”:

Every conceivable group, from Hindus, Buddhists and other non-monotheistic groups (unknown to most Americans) to different Muslim sects, Sikhs, Jewish groups, and Christian denominations of all stripes, was given an opportunity to “pray.” Tragically, every representative of a Christian denomination, but one, judiciously avoided mentioning the unmentionable — Jesus Christ — out of political correctness. There was only one elderly Armenian Orthodox bishop who dared to utter the name of our Savior, the Son of the living God.

When it was first proposed by Jefferson and Madison in 1779 Jefferson’s Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom, the preamble began with, ‘Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free…’ This didn’t please everybody. Patrick Henry, an old enemy of Madison’s (and the only Founding Father to remotely resemble modern fundamentalists) and a few other Christians wanted to swap the ‘Almighty God’ for ‘Jesus Christ’. Their proposal was overwhelmingly defeated by the legislature.

No, the Founding Fathers were not shouting the name Jesus Christ on every street corner, as Youssef would have us believe.

And I’ve got unwelcome news for Youssef: without syncretism, he has no Christian religion. I could say that unless he becomes a Jew like Jesus he can’t escape syncretism, but even then he’s not safe, because without syncretism, there is no Jewish religion either. There is syncretism everywhere. You’d be hard pressed to find a religion free of syncretism. As Dever says, “nearly all religions are syncretistic, since none is wholly unique.”[2]

Thoughts travel, Mr. Youssef. You, who use as your byline, “your thoughts have consequences…therefore, they matter” ought to realize that, or don’t you think much about thoughts? They don’t exist in a vacuum. They, like we ourselves, have context, and context is syncretistic. Thoughts, like people…like religion – are products of their environment and no environment is hermetically sealed, not even the inward looking isolationalist kingdom of Egypt that gave birth to another guy whose name you invoke: Moses.

From the very beginning in Sinai, our heavenly Father warned Moses before entering the Promised Land that His people must not fall into syncretism by bundling and muddling their worship with the Canaanites, who worshiped all sorts of gods that were not gods at all. Yet God’s people just couldn’t help themselves and kept on mixing Yahweh with all of the “non-God” gods. Year after year, the prophets continuously warned them against that travesty, until finally, when they did not heed the warning, judgment came in the form of the Babylonian exile.

Glad you brought it up, Pastor Youssef. Let’s talk Moses and syncretism. Here we have a man who is quite likely an Egyptian himself,[3] an a priest no less, traveling to Sinai, outside of Egypt into Midianite lands and adopting – or being adopted by – a Midianite god of Sinai, YHWH. This northwest Arabian origin is even suggested even by the Old Testament itself; Judges 5.5 and Psalms 68.8, as Lane Fox points out, “refer to him in words which probably mean the ‘One of Sinai’.[4]

You, in your religion’s mythology, then have him carry that god to Canaan, where the people have their own gods and traditions.[5] In Canaan, Moses’ Midianite god picks up the attributes – and wife! – of El, the native Canaanite creator god, including his appearance and other trappings of supreme godhood[6] (and by the way, YHWH did acknowledge that these other gods were gods by the simple expedient of saying, “thou shalt have no other gods before me” – you might want to flip open the Bible once in a while).

The syncretism only continued from there. When you get Jesus, this guy you’re upset about not being mentioned often enough, you immediately latch onto Pagan resurrection myths, Paul’s Jesus vies with the Emperor Augustus’ pre-existing messiah status, Pagan triumph over death myths, Pagan love-feasts merge with the Jewish seder. By the time of Ignatius of Antioch, the Eucharist was very much a Pagan cult meal and not the seder, or Passover Supper of Jesus and the disciples.[7] Christianity, you could say, if it had an independent existence at all, did not survive contact with the wider Pagan world.

Though some scholars like to take a conservative position with regard to Christianity’s Pagan influences, for example Bruce Metzger’s call for a “high degree of caution in evaluating the relation between the Mysteries and early Christianity,”[8] Helmut Koester asserts that the story of the Eucharist is “technically a cult narrative.” [9]

And most tellingly, no caution or warning changes the fact that Justin Martyr, who did not have the scholar’s advantage of hindsight, felt compelled in his First Apology, to defend the liturgy of the Church from the charge that it was an imitation of the Mithraic rites.[10] It is of course entirely possible that Justin was unaware of the origin of such early influences, dating as they did from Paul, whose hometown Tarsus was in fact a major Mithraic center.

And Metzger’s caution aside, though Paul may have been a Pharisee as he claimed, that he was ignorant of Paganism seems less likely, given his conception of baptism and the Eucharist. These represented a radical departure from the practices and beliefs of Judaism and from the ideas of Jesus himself. Hymns played an important role in Pagan worship, and they were to do so in Paul’s congregations as well. We find mention of “spiritual songs” in both Paul and Deutero-Paul: Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; 2 Tim. 2:11-13 and Jas. 5:13.

Youssef is far too late to save Christianity from syncretism, or to thank Michael Bloomberg for doing so. The syncretism was already in the mix from the very beginning and the damage, if damage it can be called, is done. Youssef may not like it; he may pretend it doesn’t exist, but it does. And the idea that the government should prop up Christianity above all other religions is so obscenely far off base from the Founding Fathers’ intentions that Youssef should be ashamed and hand in his doctorate immediately.


[1] William G. Dever,  Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel (Eerdmans 2005). 269.

[2] Dever (2005), 269.

[3] Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Harvard University Press, 1997).

[4] Robin Lane Fox (1991), 53. And as Fox points out, “We do not know where Mount Sinai was.” Though many sites have been suggested, the popular assignment is the Jebel Musa (“mountains of Moses”) but this is only a guess and the evidence in its favor dates from the early fourth century, during the life of Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine, when two monks saw the burning bush itself, thus identifying the missing mountain. But even the Jebel Musa makes YHWH a foreign – Arabian – god. And of course, the name Sinai may well have come from Sin, a lunar deity. In his recent special The Exodus Decoded, James Cameron suggests Hashem el-Tarif but this is an Egyptian military site and forbidden to archaeologists.

[5] Or arrive via Midianite merchants: see J. David Schloen, “W.F. Albright and the Origins of Israel”, Near Eastern Archaeology 65 (2002), 59. See also Franklin M. Cross, “Reuben: The Firstborn of Jacob: Social Traditions and Early Israelite History” in Epic to Canon: History and Literature from Ancient Israel (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1998), 53-70.

[6] Frank M. Cross (1962), 258. See also André Caquot, “At the Origins of the Bible,” Near Eastern Archaeology 63 (2000), 224-227. For Asherah as God’s wife see William G. Dever, Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel (Eerdmans 2005).

[7] Paul describes the Eucharist feast at 1 Cor. 11:23-26; (cf. Matt. 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-26; Luke 22:14-19).

[8] Bruce M. Metzger, “Considerations of Methodology in the Study of the Mystery Religions and Early Christianity,” HTR 48, (1955), 20

[9] Helmut Koester, “Written Gospels or Oral Tradition?” Journal of Biblical Literature 113 (1994), 293.

[10] Justin Martyr, First Apology, 66.






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