This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Taking a title page from Hannah Arendt’s famous reportage on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, the “prayer summit” at the Vatican yesterday should be dubbed “The Banality of Religion.” Or worse.
The comparisons move beyond the title. Arendt saw Eichmann as an innocuous bureaucrat, a kind of mindless social climber. Willingly or not, all involved in the prayer summit yesterday exhibited a kind of mindlessness as well.
Watching the ceremony yesterday, I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone attending thought of the sheer absurdity of orchestrated prayers without purpose or content. Chalk up the prayer summit as a Theater of the (Religious) Absurd. No wonder the best and brightest among us are thoroughly secular.
The New York Times captured the (lack of) spirit descriptively:
The ceremony was held in a garden behind St. Peter’s Basilica that is enclosed by a high hedge to provide a sense of intimacy (as well as a spectacular view of the cupola of the basilica). It also was chosen as a place that seemed somewhat neutral in terms of religious iconography. The service was carefully organized into three successive “moments,” in which prayers and readings were offered by Jews, then Christians and then Muslims. Then the three leaders spoke.
In the moments before the ceremony, the three men rode together in a small bus to the garden, along with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the Orthodox Christian leader. At moments, they even appeared to share a laugh.
Laughter might have been the highlight of the ceremony. Seated upfront and on both sides of Pope Francis, Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas seemed bored to death. The prayer delegations representing the Israeli and Palestinian nationalities sat formally divided across the green. They weren’t praying together. Neither side showed any desire for common prayer that led anywhere at all.
Featured were costumed religious figures who were all dressed up with nowhere to go. But the reality on the ground of Israel-Palestine is seething. It’s going downhill.
The prayer summit did little to disguise the breakdown of the peace process. Nor could it disguise the fact that the world’s attention has moved on. During the last weeks, the news cycle in the United States has revolved around the Ukraine. Currently it is feasting on the release of the American prisoner of war, Bowe Bergdahl and his bearded father. Maybe the Pope should have a prayer summit on Afghanistan, Guantanamo and United States military interventionism and leave Israel-Palestine behind.
The Times is as heavy as the lightweight summit itself when it closed its report with a message from Esteban Troncosa, 16, of Santa Fé, Argentina, a youngster in Rome for a one-month language study trip. Reflecting on the Pope’s involvement in the Middle East conflict, Troncosa says it all:
His gesture can help solve the situation. His message has always been to stop wars, and avoid any form of violence. I am sure this can make a difference. The pope can’t sign political agreements, but he is a symbol, and can make people and politicians think.
You can’t blame reporters for their failure to rise above the occasion, such as it was. I can’t imagine anyone with any political fortitude thinking more because of the Vatican event. Instead, the banality of religion exhibited at the Vatican yesterday is cause for alarm. With the situation in Israel-Palestine so dire, it’s hard not to see religious figures on both sides, whatever their private opinions might be, as enablers of injustice and censors of the public discourse.
Perhaps the silence of the religious leaders and, worse, some of their public comments before and after the summit, should encourage an exploration of the role of religious leaders in perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After viewing the Vatican prayer summit, I’ve can’t help feeling that it isn’t only war crime politicians who should have their day in the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
For when religious leaders take the global stage and offer platitudes as prayers – instead of a detailed and systematic critique of unjust power – then they, too, are responsible for the crimes committed in God’s name.