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I Won’t Forget What That Bethlehem Breakfast Club Taught Me About Religion

I had just finished my Master’s in Biblical Studies, and with an emphasis on Near Eastern archeology was on a summer tour working on archeological sites from Turkey to Lebanon to Egypt and from Jordan to Israel. I was so single-mindedly focused on the past then that my photos from that summer in 1969 were all about old stuff, the “digs” and their relics, not the living people around me.

I regret that I hadn’t taken a photo of five old men who gathered every morning at an outdoor table at the coffeeshop on Manger Square in Bethlehem. Yep, that Bethlehem, as in “O Little Town of…”

My week at a small guesthouse off the Square from day one included the daily pleasure of sitting with these elders who warmly accepted me into their morning ritual as “that young graduate student” who could benefit from their on-the-ground advice and mentoring.

They were right, of course. And I’ve never forgotten it, though I’ve no idea what happened to them after they bid me well for the remainder of my summer.

Those five — for who knows how long — got together the way retired old men do around the world for morning coffee and conversation, renewing their bonds daily through bickering, discussing the news, and enjoying each other’s company.

What they had in common was that they were Palestinians. It didn’t matter that two were Palestinian Muslims, two were Palestinian Jews, one was a Palestinian Christian, and the fifth proudly declared himself a “Palestinian atheist.” (“The secular PLO is our future.”)

But they were obviously close friends with a long history together who emphasized that their families had known each other for generations. They were not those they called “the newcomers.”

The five agreed on the lesson they would teach me about where everyday people are in comparison with all the “politicians” who claim to speak for them and get all the attention of the media.

They objected to the portrayal of the Near East as a place where there has always been conflict between religious people. After all, how common is it to hear people (“experts”) fall back on facile explanations of current conflicts there by saying: “What do you expect? They have always been that way toward each other. Those religions have been at war for millennia.”

The facts for these men were: “We have always gotten along. We are all Palestinians who live together and share the same customs. It’s those damn politicians who are out for their own power and pocketbooks who have caused all the religious fights.”

Not one of them had a problem living in a religiously pluralistic community. It was so assumed that they hadn’t thought twice about it.

And any religious tiffs they had were harmless fun. It was always clear that they relished the diversity of their comrades and held their Palestinian identity as their most important bond, the one that “politicians” had threatened over the ages just as they do today.

The five didn’t blame anyone’s religion for the horrific way human beings were treating each other. They fingered those who used their religions and tried to divide people by religions. “Politicians” were the culprits in the strife that would years later engulf them, their land, and their lifestyles.

That experience so stuck with me that I sought another out a dozen years later when I lived in India. My home base was Chennai (then Madras) in the south where I lived in a flat in a village-like area of the city of then four million called Nungambakkam.

There I found the neighborhood teashop and an assortment of old men that met mornings to do what those Bethlehemites did. They too represented variety in religions including a couple of Hindu sects, two Muslims, and two Christians.

Once they realized that I was there to learn as their guest in their city, not to flaunt my Ph.D. or be a Western sahib, they opened up to me about their varying takes on India, America, the world, politics, and religion. They were interested in my thoughts, but I was there for theirs.

They were all Tamils, southeast Indian people who had grown up with families who identified first and foremost with their region, its culture, and religions. (Few people realize that Christianity in South India was established by the second century and traditionally traces itself back still further to the missionary work of the “doubting” apostle, Thomas.)

The men’s Tamil identity was fully in view as they spoke of people from other regions in India through common, seldom positive, stereotypes — “You can’t trust him, he’s a [region name] man.” “Those [region name]s are always fighting.”

And here too, not divided by their religious differences but sharing customs of their particular region no matter what their religious practice, they became quite animated in criticizing attempts by “political parties” to separate them in terms of religious identities. They also wanted me to understand that Muslims, Christians, Jains, Hindus, all got along unless interfered with by “kings and princes,” or now “miscreant party bosses.”

The reality at this grassroots level, the level of the everyday human here, was not “Muslims and Hindus have never gotten along.” There might have been a Hindu raja or a Muslim ruler who attempted to divide them in the past, they wanted me to know, and there were political parties who profited off of doing that today. But that was not their experience of community.

I wonder still how often that this is true world-wide. How often is religion being used by elites for power and wealth to divide people who share so much in common because of their real roots? A right-wing Hindu fundamentalist government in India today is enforcing just that.

Religion is as easy for politicians to use as any part of a culture war that picks on an “other” as defined by the politicians, whether that “other” be the LGBTQI person or another racial identity.

I’ve found that local camaraderie, however, so common throughout my historical studies that my heart went out to everyday humans who’ve gotten caught up in the use of their religion to break these everyday bonds.

It’s a reason why I’m convinced that religion isn’t to blame. I’m also convinced that to blame religion for anything, good or bad, is actually a dangerous copout for clear thinking about the fact that religion, as other cultural factors, gets used, and that people and institutions are responsible for how they use religion or the books, institutions, and traditions that come along with any of them.

It’s why I never argue about religion, just about how people use it when they want something bigger than themselves to justify their prejudices. Eventually it was why I wrote When Religion Is an Addiction with a first chapter entitled: “Religion Never Does Anything.”

Thanks, Bethlehem breakfast gang, wherever you are. See guys — I haven’t forgotten.