I am mentioning this in the beginning of these reflections to emphasize how close we are to each other. I do so because I know that in our time such an emphasis is even more necessary than ever before. It is a sad fact known to us all that after the collapse of the Soviet empire, referred to by President Reagan as the evil empire, the role of the evil one has ever since 9/11 been assigned to Islam. We have heard it and we have read it. Islam is cruel and fanatical. The caricature of Islam as the enemy has captured the imagination of the masses and supplied material for television and cinema and thus contributed to become the way whereby ordinary people in the West learn about Islam. This imagery reinforces stereotypes. It is our hope that the recent address in Cairo by President Obama, where he seeks “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world” can counter these stereotypes.
It is on the other side also a sad fact of our time that many Muslims view the West as inherently hostile to the traditions of Islam. There are Muslims, and not only those who come to the West, who are convinced that the West wants to destroy Islam, the Muslim family, defile women and children and humiliate the men. Needless to say that the theory of the “Clash of civilizations” insisting that Islam and the West must always be in conflict has not done anything to do away with these stereotypes.
When it seems that we have become each other’s stereotypes risking making estrangement unending, it is important to delve into how much related the words and concepts of the religious traditions of Jews, Christians and Muslims are to each other. They are not all the same but there are here possibilities for us to discover genuine closeness and proximity to and with each other. And this is not only in the universal parameters of the bodies we call Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is not only in general statements about ethics and morality that we see similarities. It is not only in theological statements about the Abrahamic traditions or monotheistic religions that we see affinities. In the words about paving the ground for the appearance of the Saviour, we have a whole world revealing deep longings and yearnings. We are at the very heart of what it means being a human being realizing that we cannot be satisfied with how things are. And it is not only anything we see far away in the horizon. It is also in our own lives that we experience gross injustice. We experience the hardships of life and look for something to calm the wounds and afflictions. The waiting for the appearance is therefore a sign of the cries of the heart that there will be change for the better, for healing of wounds and for redressing unfair conditions, where the just are suffering and the poor are made even poorer. It is hunger for justice that drives our longing for a saviour to come. This is deep in our hearts and minds as human beings and our religious traditions allow us to express these longings and yearnings. Everything is not fine. We cannot close our eyes. In spite of all we have received, there is nevertheless this longing for the ills of the world to be corrected. We are waiting for a saviour because the world suffers, because we see injustice triumph. It makes us angry and almost filled with despair. When is it to end? When will there be justice? The prophet Jeremiah voices our own experiences when we ask ourselves the questions about ‘why’ we have to live and witness how the poor are being trampled upon in the midst of unjust structures and evil machinations. “Why does the way of the guilty prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?” (Jeremiah 12, 1).
Our religious traditions have left us with the conviction that we are still to experience more and more of divine revelation, that we have not yet reached our destination. There is more to be said about that which we have received and to borrow from the lyrics of the African-American singer Al Jolson, “we ain’t seen nothing yet”.
If reality itself, lack of justice, the bane of poverty, wickedness, wars, prompts our longing for someone to redress the wrongs, our religious traditions, although close to each other, have different narratives and put their emphasis differently.
Judaism has given us the title Messiah, who is the ideal king of the Messianic age. In the Old Testament the earliest use of the word is with YHWH as a title of the ruling sovereign Meshiah YHWH, "God's anointed one". In post-exilic times, the high priest, who filled the place formerly occupied by the king, is spoken of as "ha-Kohen ha-Mashiah" (the anointed priest). But the Messiah is also referred to as "Mashiah Nagid" (an anointed one, a ruler) or only "Mashiah" (an anointed one). In all he is consecrated to God's service and has immediate access to God, chosen by God to represent God’s rule in Israel and to bear witness to God’s glory before the nations.
But the face and the role of the Messiah has changed over the centuries. The first Zoroastrian Persian Shāhanshāh (Emperor) and the founder of the Persian Empire Cyrus the Great is by prophet Isaiah called "God's anointed one", because God has called him and given him victory after victory for the distinct purpose of putting an end to the Babylonian kingdom and the worship of idols, of setting free exiled Israel, and thus introducing the new era of God's universal reign.
We are, as Christians and Jews, very much inspired by the vision of the Messiah as described by the prophet Isaiah. It is this image that has given rise to the peace movement with its symbol of swords turned into plough bills. The Messiah, to whom Isaiah looks forward, will be filled with the spirit of God as a spirit of wisdom, valor, and religion, and will rule in the fear of God, his loins girt with righteousness and faithfulness. He will not engage in war or in the conquest of nations; the paraphernalia of war will be destroyed; his sole concern will be to establish justice among his people. The fruit of his righteous government will be peace and order. The lamb will not fear the wolf, nor will the leopard harm the kid. Tyranny and violence will no longer be practiced on God's holy mountain, for the land will be full of the knowledge of God as the water covers the sea. The people will not aspire to political greatness, but will lead a pastoral life.
This is a Messiah, who will rise from the ranks of the pious and oppressed, who will ride into Jerusalem not in military splendor, but on a donkey; one can easily compare with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey or Ibn Kutaibah's account of Salman, the governor of Medina at the time of the dissensions of the caliphs, who rode on a donkey in order to show his advocacy of peace.
There are yet other images. In later times the Jews of the Exile dreamed of the coming of a second David, who would re-establish them as a glorious nation. The future Israel is to be a united nation as it was under David of old. This is longing for days gone by and the dream of a restored kingdom with power.
And then there is the image, not of a personal Messiah, but a collective, a servant of God, the people of Israel itself. God has called Israel for the realization of His purpose toward humankind. This servant of God will spread the true religion among all peoples, convert all into willing servants of God, and lead all tongues to confess God. It is not the actual Israel of the present; it is the ideal Israel of the future. This servant of God has been prepared and equipped through suffering to fulfill God’s mission. Here Jerusalem is the religious center of the world. From here salvation will radiate to all.
Wandering through the centuries of Jewish perceptions of the Messiah will make us meet different Messiahs besides the Prince of Peace, Messiah Ben David and the people Israel. There is also the strange Messiah Ben Joseph, who will appear prior to the coming of Messiah Ben David; he will gather the children of Israel around him, march to Jerusalem, and there, after overcoming the hostile powers, re-establish Temple-worship and establish his own authority. He will be killed by Gog and Magog. His body will be hidden by angels with the bodies of the Patriarchs, until Messiah Ben David comes and resurrects him.
Throughout the centuries the saying of the medieval sage Maimonides reflects one tradition in Jewish belief and tradition: "I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he may delay, nevertheless I anticipate every day that he will come". But his belief came during centuries to be more and more forgotten.
False pretenders to the title shook messianic expectations. Among those, one needs to mention Sabbatai Zevi, who made the Jews in Europe sell all they had and go to meet him in Smyrna in 1665. Here he made his messianic declaration in the synagogue, with the blowing of horns, and the multitude greeting him with: "Long live our King, our Messiah!" But when the sultan of Constantinople had him arrested, it was told that Sabbatai Zevi chose to convert to Islam to save his life. His apostasy sent shock-waves throughout the Jewish world and the belief in a personal Messiah began to crumble even more.
Eventually the belief in a personal Messiah succumbed to other forms of Messianism, which emphasized the image of the collective or the messianic principle. I think we cannot here but mention that Zionism to a certain extent came to replace the waiting for a personal Messiah. The Zionist movement advocated the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel and the establishment of a Jewish State. The state of Israel has in many respects today come to replace the Messiah. It sounds like a messianic vision to have a scattered people coming back to the land of their ancestors, relearning a language that had been reduced to the language of synagogue worship alone, become a nation that left the ghetto of denigration and humiliation and enter a land, where Jews were their own masters.
All the time forgotten was that this vision clashed with the reality of the Palestinian people. Few gave many thoughts to the people already living in the land. The messianic myth created narratives that wanted Jews and others to believe that this was a land without a people that was now given to a people without a land, the Jews. The Six-Day War and the spectacular victories over the Arab armies enhanced messianic fantasies about Greater Israel, which led to the continuing denigration and humiliation of the Palestinian people.
When we ask ourselves about the main responsibility for those who await messianic events, we must warn against any appearance that becomes a tool of oppression of the other. It is important to bring into awareness hidden and unconscious implications of our worldviews and identities that affect our relationships with others. My waiting for the appearance must not lead to the denigration or occupation of the other. Let us bear in mind that those we call “the others” are often our own projections and constructions. These constructions may be different from the way in which others represent themselves. It is important to respect the right of others to self-definition.
To conclude this part with a positive learning from the Jewish tradition, one could retain the understanding that the coming of the Messiah in Judaism is not independent of the doings of the people. It is not enough to pray and hope for the coming of the Messiah. The coming of the Messiah is conditioned: "The Messiah will come when the whole Jewish people keep and remembers the Sabbath twice in a row” (Tractate Shabbat 118 b). Working towards the coming of the Messiah is thus meritorious. It is possible to hasten the coming of the Messiah.
Be that as it may, there is in spite of it all a tragic ring in waiting for the appearance of the Saviour. In the Jewish tradition the waiting for the Messiah is as we have seen it tainted with disillusionment. Jews waited and thought they recognized the Messiah. But it wasn’t the Messiah. Whether the Messiah will come, whether the Messiah is a person or a principle, whether the people or the land has a connection to the Messiah, remains part of the theological discourse but is maybe today not among the most burning issues in the Jewish tradition.
Also the Christian waiting for the appearance of the Saviour has a tragic ring to it. Christian theology speaks about the Parousia, which is Greek for ‘presence’ or ’arrival’. The Parousia signifies the future return of Christ in glory to judge the living and the dead. Belief in the Parousia was widespread in the earliest church but theology had to be reinterpreted because the imminent return of Christ did not appear as the early Christians had understood it. The New Testament itself bears witness to the conviction that Christ would come back immediately following his resurrection. Jesus says to his disciples: “... you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes" (Matt.10, 23). If he was referring to himself and he believed the end of time would take place in his day, and that the apostles would not get their mission accomplished before he came, then he was wrong in his prediction. One can well understand how such verses caused and continue to cause confusion and controversy among Christians in their interpretation of the appearance of the Saviour or the Parousia. There are similar verses, equally difficult to interpret. Jesus said to his disciples: "‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom’" (Matt.16, 27-28). He would be back in the life span of his disciples. It didn’t happen and already in the New Testament there is a tone of apologetic s trying to come to terms with the non-materialization of the returning Christ. The one who wrote Second Peter tries to comfort himself and other Christians. He tries to build up the defense against those who question the waiting. He calls them “scoffers” who indulge “their own lusts ... saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!’” And he tries to find an answer that will silence those who are questioning the veracity of the imminent return, saying “do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed” (2 Peter 3, 3-10). But could it make the early Christians appreciate this to be the correct understanding of Christ’s words about imminent return or did they have to do with it as the second best, i.e. he didn’t come but he meant it in a different way?
Prevailing Christian tradition has not entertained speculations about the appearance of the Saviour. There are those who give up waiting all together and see the Parousia more as a symbolic reminder that the future is not in our hands and that the only thing we hold in our hands is the hope that one day will correct injustice and iniquity. But for some the waiting mode led to a reading of the Bible, which entered into an exegesis calculating and speculating on which day the return of Christ would take place. There have been individuals, movements and sects telling the world that the last day will be on such and such date and everyone should make sure that they were prepared for an unparalleled climax and last turning point in history. But when the day came and went without any visible apocalyptic end, the humiliation was difficult but significant.
Some Christian waiting for the “appearance of the Saviour” is not an innocent pastime or theology. It can have dire political consequences. I am thinking of Christian Zionists as they are called or they call themselves. Christian Zionists see the return of the Jews to the Holy Land, and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Some Christian Zionists believe that the "ingathering" of Jews to the Holy Land is a prerequisite for the Second Coming of Jesus. It is thus very much connected to waiting for the appearance of the Saviour. Their theology insists upon hastening the return of Christ and Christian Zionists believe that this can be achieved by encouraging the return of the Jews to Israel, making Israel prosper, encouraging even more Jews to immigrate, and in all this maintaining a vision of a Grand Israel, where its borders are defined not by agreements between nations but by a literal interpretation of biblical verses. Their main concern is the second coming of Christ and the Jews play the role of a pawn in this apocalyptical waiting for the Saviour. Such Christian support of the Jewish return to the Land of Israel as well as the ongoing support of Israeli politics in its most maximalist version is a political feature in the US, the so called Christian Right. It had its heydays during the eight years of the Bush presidency, when Christian Zionists did little to be peacemakers promoting the peace process.
The Jews, although a major player in the worldview of the Christian right are a playing piece in an eschatological game and of little interest in their own right. There is no interest for Judaism in its own right. The Jews are there for one purpose alone, to prepare for the return of Christ. They are there only for the second coming of Christ. When Christ returns the Jews are expected to convert and become Christians.
Any paving of the ground for “the appearance of the Saviour” that neglects concern for the oppressed and fails in respect of the other or disregards morality and ethics is the very opposite of what we associate with the Saviour, whether the Messiah, Christ or the Imam Mahdi. People cannot be made into means for the benefit of one’s own theology.
The Imam Mahdi
There are many hopes invested in the Imam Mahdi and they are narrated in the light of different Muslim traditions and schools. Al-Mahdi is an eschatological figure, who like the Messiah and the Christ will come to herald in the end of all things. There are many stories, all of them illustrating the pains we live through as human beings and the hopes we all are trying to hold on to in order to travel through life in commitment, in respect and humility. When the eleventh Shi'a Imam Hasan al-Askari died, al-Mahdi's uncle, Jafar ibn Ali approached to lead the funeral prayers. However, al-Mahdi approached and said, "Move aside, uncle; only an Imam can lead the funeral prayer of an Imam." Jafar moved aside, and the five-year-old child led the funeral prayer for his father. It is reported that it was at this very moment that al-Mahdi disappeared and went into ghaybat, or occultation. There would be no further imam. The Mahdi would be hidden until God gave him permission to manifest himself. The Mahdi will fill the earth with justice and equity where before it was filled with tyranny and injustice.
Also Shi'a Islam knows of those from history who claimed that they were the true Imam Mahdi but who were impostors. Some proved to be the very opposite of the Mahdi, tyrants who spread corruption and fear. It seems a common feature for us, whether we are Jews, Christians or Muslims that we not always can read the signs of the time and so easily get lost. Waiting for the appearance of the Saviour does not take place in a vacuum but on the contrary in a world and in a time where there is great confutation, intense disputes and violent deaths. We use the same language in both the Christian tradition and in Islam to illustrate the conditions of life and the waiting for the appearance of the Saviour. It is at a time when people are afflicted by strife and fear for the future. Calamities will fall upon people, so much so that a man shall not find a shelter to shelter himself from oppression, as it is said in the Muslim tradition. In the Christian tradition, the same situation is painted in the New Testament with similar sweeps. There are rumors of wars and insurrections, nations rising up against nations, kingdom against kingdom, Jerusalem surrounded by armies, people in Judea fleeing to the mountains and those inside the city forced to leave it and those out in the country advised not to enter. And I read in Muslim thinking that people will be troubled to such an extent that they even will long for death. It is then that the Imam Mahdi will be sent. It is in these circumstances that the longings for the “appearance of a Saviour” emerge.
The Shi’a tradition witnesses to an insight into what it means to be human. The Shi’a community is built on the insight of the preponderance of suffering in the world. There is a correspondence between the struggles of Ali and al-Husain and the Shi’a community’s situation. I now allow myself to see the Shi’a community also as a symbol for humanity. The Shi’a community tells me of insights into the predicament of what it means to be human. Suffering is a heavy toll on us and in so many ways it constitutes what it means to be a human being. It is in this way that we can see the appearance of the Saviour not exclusively as an issue for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Already in the waiting of Jews, Christians and Muslims there are vast differences revealing diverse ways in interpreting revelation and self-understanding. And yet, we are held together through common waiting. And in this we are not alone. We need to address the question of eschatology in its intrinsic connection to the role of hope in human existence and consider it with the utmost seriousness. See for example the waiting and the hope or lack of hope in Samuel Beckett's two act play, "Waiting for Godot". Here Estragon and Vladimir, two tramps and life-long companions, wait by a tree for Mr. Godot, who never comes, who will come tomorrow, but doesn't. It tells us something about the longing for something to appear, although most of us don’t know what we are waiting for. In our societies today, the words of our religious traditions mean less and less. Sometimes they have lost meaning altogether. And yet we wait like in the play “Waiting for Godot”. The two men divert themselves while they wait expectantly and unsuccessfully for someone named Godot to arrive. They claim him as an acquaintance but in fact they hardly know him, admitting that they would not recognize him were they to see him. To occupy themselves, they eat, sleep, converse, argue, sing, play games, exercise, swap hats, and contemplate suicide - anything "to hold the terrible silence at bay".
What is the main responsibility for those who await him?
We have now entered the second part of the title of the paper: “what is the main responsibility for those who await him?” I will be brief. Divine disclosures through angels, dreams, visions were the instruments available for apocalyptic discourse in biblical times. They revealed the secrets of the cosmos; they talked to the present history and foresaw the end. They revealed the immense cataclysms that would be the precursors to the end. But today, when we all are waiting, most of us are like Vladimir and Estragon and the angels are few, even if the dreams are many.
I hope I have throughout my wanderings in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions in their different expectations of a Messiah, a Christ and Imam Mahdi indicated the main responsibility for those waiting. I will say it again: waiting for the appearance of the Saviour must be related to ethics, to morality, to the dignity of all people. No one must be reduced to inferiority, to stereotyping, to an object, which can be used to fit my eschatological claims and beliefs.
I have mentioned the two protagonists Vladimir and Estragon in “Waiting for Godot”. They are almost pathetic and yet they represent humanity in its sometimes disorientated and confused waiting for change, hoping for hope, longing for justice. What does this tell us? It tells us that in our waiting for the Messiah, the return of the Christ, the coming of the Mahdi, we must not become prisoners of our own traditions, looking upon our waiting in a way that it becomes a retreat that it becomes escapism from reality itself. The waiting of Vladimir and Estragon, albeit inchoate, should hold us back from looking upon ourselves as if we possessed all truth and were entitled to look down upon the other. On the contrary, Vladimir and Estragon should make us realist that all around the world, there is a fellowship among humans in their hope for something better. Irrespective of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations - to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our God. All people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These things we share. This is the hope of all humanity. The challenges we face are shared, and our failure to meet them will hurt us all.
The main responsibility for those who await the one who is coming is therefore to take seriously the old dictum ora et labora, pray and work, which in this context means, wait as if you couldn’t work and work as if he is not coming. The justice we are longing for will not come from heaven unless we prepare it in all humility.