Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Hamas legalizes crucifixion

Crucifixion is such a brutal method of execution that even the Romans reserved it only for enemies of the state, and no Roman citizens could be crucified even for that offense. But it's not too brutal for Hamas:
Both Iran and its Hamas proxy in Gaza have been busy this Christmas week showing Christendom just what they think of it. But no one seems to have noticed.

On Tuesday, Hamas legislators marked the Christmas season by passing a Shari'a criminal code for the Palestinian Authority. Among other things, it legalizes crucifixion.

Hamas's endorsement of nailing enemies of Islam to crosses came at the same time it renewed its jihad. Here, too, Hamas wanted to make sure that Christians didn't feel neglected as its fighters launched missiles at Jewish day care centers and schools. So on Wednesday, Hamas lobbed a mortar shell at the Erez crossing point into Israel just as a group of Gazan Christians were standing on line waiting to travel to Bethlehem for Christmas.
Hamas specified crucifixion for "enemies of islam," which can mean anyone Hamas wants it to mean.

Et maintenant, le deluge

Vanderbilt football has just won its first bowl game since 1955 - the year of my birth. The Music City Bowl was Vandy's first bowl appearance since 1982.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Valykyrie - Tom Cruise's best role yet

The boys and I went to see Valkyrie last night, the new movie about the July 20, 1944 plot to blow Adolf Hitler to bits, neutralize the SS, assume control of the German government and bring the war to close on terms more favorable to Germany than unconditional surrender.

This movie is surprisingly good with a more powerful impact than I expected, even though I was already familiar with most of the history of the unsuccessful coup.

Normally at this point in a blog review, I would alert you about spoilers to follow, but that would be a bit like warning you that RMS Titanic would sink at the end of James Cameron's movie about it. The historical facts of the July 20 plot are well known: a group of German army officers, some of general-officer rank and some retired, plus some civilians, plotted to assassinate Hitler in the summer of 1944. Col. Claus von Stauffenberg was the hub man, with direct access to Hitler. On July 20, Claus attended a conference at Hitler's forward headquarters in Poland, called the Wolf's Lair. Claus carried into the conference room a briefcase with a powerful bomb inside with its time fuze already functioning. Then another conspirator called Claus on the phone, enabling him to leave the building without raising suspicion.

Shortly afterward, the bomb exploded, killing three officers and wounding many more. Hitler, though, happened to be shielded from the bulk of the blast by the heavy, oaken conference table and escaped with only light injuries.

Not knowing that Hitler had survived, the plotters set in motion their plan to seize control of the government in Berlin. Using an existing plan called "Valkyrie" (Walk├╝re), they succeeded only briefly. As word spread that Hitler was alive and still in command, the plot fell apart. That night, von Stauffenberg and some other key plotters were executed.

It is a particular challenge to make a movie of real history and present it both accurately and suspensefully. James Cameron didn't even try in Titanic, preferring to tell a wholly fictional love story aboard the doomed vessel while sticking to facts (or best conjecture) in representing the ship itself and its sinking. Ron Howard's Apollo 13 met the challenge extremely well, varying little from the actual history yet telling the story with suspense that was sometimes gripping.

Director Bryan Singer succeeds in Valkyrie. He's helped along by an excellent screenplay and an outstanding cast, especially (Wunder von Wundern!) Tom Cruise. Filming in Berlin helped a lot too, in fact, the firing-squad execution of von Stauffenberg and three other plotters was filmed at the actual site they died, Berlin's Bendler Block, where stands the only memorial in Berlin to any German military members of the war.

Cruise plays von Stauffenberg with (for him) severe understatement. It was refreshing to see Cruise in a movie where he was not "Tom Cruise playing Tom Cruise." The role is unlike any role I recall him playing. The film opens in North Africa, where von Stauffenberg was badly shot up by Allied P-40 Warhawks (which are excellently CGI rendered). Losing an eye, the whole of one hand and two fingers from the other leaves von Stauffenberg permanently handicapped. This is the only combat scene of the movie, which, as Cruise said on the publicity circuit, is not really a war movie at all, but an espionage-suspense thriller set in wartime Germany. Unlike Cruise's past films, where his characters usually shook off gunshot wounds and club beatings within minutes, von Stauffenberg's disabilities really do matter and affect why the bomb plot didn't kill Hitler (won't spoil that one any further).

My only complaint about Cruise as von Stauffenberg is that Cruise's past roles - most being action-hero, physical roles - are almost too much baggage for him to break free in Valkyrie, wherein Cruise's character perforce must stay firmly within what is actually, humanly possible. But it works.

What I liked --

The actors didn't use phony German accents. Cruise talked like, well, Cruise. None of this, "Vee must neffer be caught. Iss ze bomb shtrong enuff?" stuff. It may be that Cruise can't do accents, so director Singer skipped doing them. Still, it works overall. OTOH, the cast is international, so Englishman Tim Wilkinson, playing General Friedrich Fromm, sounds like Lord Cornwallis, whom he played in Mel Gibson's The Patriot. And German actor Thomas Kretschmann, playing Major Otto Ernst Remer, speaks English perfectly well, but he does have, well, a German accent.

The musical score lets you know from the beginning that the movie is about heroic men and women whose will not prevail. This is not a triumphalist movie and the music reflects that. It is low key, mostly strings and thankfully bereft of the martial drumrolls that seem always to accompany movie characters in Nazi uniforms.

The supporting cast is excellent. Terence Stamp is utterly believable as retired General Ludwig Beck. David Bamber plays Adolf Hitler with physical precision, though the part is not as large as one might think for a movie about a plot to kill him. Bill Nighy as General Friedrich Olbrich portrays a weak reed of a soul who clutches at a key moment. Wilkinson's portrayal of Fromm captures perfectly that reprehensible soul who mugwumped his way through the plot, then summarily ordered the execution of the von Stauffenberg and some others to cover his own tracks.

The accuracy of the time is well done, from uniforms to aircraft to sidearms.

Overall, I give Valkyrie eight of of 10 stars.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Notes on the Gaza bombings

Two days ago, the Israeli Air Force began a large, sustained bombing campaign against Hamas sites inside the Gaza Strip, a small patch of land between Egypt and Israel, and bordering both countries. This post is a summary of the background of this conflict, which has been going on for decades, and the events that led Israel to attack Hamas this week.

What is Hamas?

Hamas is an Islamist faction that was founded in Gaza about 20 years ago. It is violently anti-Israel. Hamas is a direct outgrowth of the original Islamist group of the Middle East, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, founded in the early 1920s to counter Western influences in Egypt and, later, elsewhere in Arab lands.

Hamas was elected to office in Gaza by Gazans in 2006, mainly because of the corruption and inefficiency of the then-ruling Palestinian Authority (PA) under Mahmud Abbas. After its election, Hamas set about murdering PA officials and members of Fatah, the PA's armed political wing. By mid-2007, the PA had been driven out of Gaza except for a few liaison offices. Today, the PA governs only the West Bank, between Jordan and Israel.

Hamas has always openly proclaimed that its purpose is the destruction of Israel as a political entity and the ejection of all Jews from the land of Israel. Hamas' charter states bluntly, "There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad," as well as calling for an end to the state of Israel.

Wikipedia has a reasonably balanced and complete history of Hamas, including this insight:

According to Steven Erlanger of the New York Times, Hamas excludes the possibility of long term reconciliation with Israel. "Since the Prophet Muhammad made a temporary hudna, or truce, with the Jews about 1,400 years ago, Hamas allows the idea. But no one in Hamas says he would make a peace treaty with Israel or permanently give up any part of Palestine." Mkhaimer Abusada, a political scientist at Al Azhar University explains that “They (Hamas) talk of hudna, not of peace or reconciliation with Israel."
Hudna is an Arab word with a uniquely Muslim context meaning temporary truce in order to gain strength or advantage enough to resume open warfare. Another history of Hamas can be read on MidEastWeb.org. Hamas is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, the European Union and other countries and is banned by Jordan.

What does "Islamist" mean?

The religion founded by Muhammad is Islam; its adherents are Muslims. Their beliefs and way of life are called Islamic. "Islamist" is not a Muslim term. It was coined by French scholar Gilles Kepel, head of the post-graduate program on the Arab and Muslim worlds at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris, to describe a particular strain of politically active Islam that promotes a strict, unyielding view of Islam. Islamism was originally oriented toward changing Arab countries to practice in government and social life that strict view. (See his article, “The Trail of Political Islam,” http://www.opendemocracy.net/debates/article-5-57-421.jsp.)

The best-known Islamist today is al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. In many interviews and written documents he has promulgated since the early 1990s, bin Laden has stated his objectives plainly:

  1. The ejection of, first, Americans and second, all other non-Muslims from the whole of Saudi Arabia, which bin Laden refers to as the "Land of the Two Holy Places" (Mecca and Medina, the latter being Muhammed's birthplace).
  2. The institution of strict sharia, or Islamic, law in Saudi Arabia, followed by the same in all the other countries bordering the Persian Gulf.
  3. The reclaiming for Islam all the historic lands of the ancient Islamic caliphate at their widest extent. For example, bin Laden refers to Spain not as Spain, or even its older name of Andalusia, but as al-Andalus, the Arabic name given to those parts of the Iberian Peninsula governed by Muslims at various times in the period between 711 and 1492.
  4. The expansion of Islam across the entire globe.

These are ambitious objectives, as you can see.

Muslim law Professor Khaled Abou El Fad explains Islamism as "supremacist puritanism" in his article. "Islam and the Theology of Power."

What is the source of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians?

There is no casual answer to this question. For the long answer, I recommend Sister Ruth Lautt's comprehensive article, The Church’s Witness on Issues in the Arab/Israeli Conflict. Here is a shorter answer.

"Palestine" was never an independent nation since before the time of Christ, having since then been ruled by the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines and Arabians, briefly by Europeans during the Crusades (and not all of Palestine then). Until the establishment of modern Israel in 1948, the people living in historic Palestine had never been self governing since the land belonged to ancient Israel/Judah.

In late modern times, most of the Middle East was under the sway of the Ottoman Empire, headquartered in Turkey. The Ottomans made the unfortunate decision to ally with Germany during World War I. The end of the war meant the end of the Ottoman Empire, and Palestine came under control of the British as a prize of war. (British forces under George Allenby took Jerusalem in 1917.)

The land that became modern Israel was sparsely populated at that time. One-third of the people living there were Jews, more than had lived there since Roman times. The League of Nations, formed in 1919, passed resolutions directing the British to create a Jewish homeland. This directive became known as the British Mandate and ultimately came to include approximately the lands that became Israel in 1948, plus the Transjordan (known today as the West Bank) and Gaza.

In 1947, the United Nations resolved that the lands of the British Mandate, not including Jordan, be partitioned into two states, one Jewish, one Arab. The Jews accepted this resolution while the Arab nations violently opposed it. The result was the war for Israeli independence, beginning in May 1948 and culminating in a ceasefire in February 1949. During the war hundreds of thousands of people, both Jews and Arabs, were dispossessed of their homes and forced to leave or chose to leave because of the violence of war. Refugees were Arabs and Jews in approximately equal numbers. Sister Ruth summarizes,

The Arabs that stayed in what became the borders of Israel became Israeli citizens. The Arabs that fled or were forced out became refugees. For the most part they were never resettled and the United Nations maintained and continues to maintain them as refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and in what we now call the Palestinian territories under a special agency created only for Palestinian refugees -- United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA).
Today, these refugees and their descendants live mainly in the West Bank and Gaza. Neighboring Arab countries have been very inhospitable in accepting them. For example, after the Gulf War of 1991, Kuwait expelled all Palestinians living and working in the country, about 200,000 overall.

Since 1948, the Arab nations have not accepted the legitimacy of Israel as a state and have rejected the concept of a "two-state solution," the basis of the original British Mandate that would have created both a Jewish nation and a Palestinian nation. The two-state solution still forms the basis of the West's attempts to mediate a peace. This is exactly the solution that Hamas rejects. Even Yasir Arafat, when proclaiming his acceptance of the state of Israel to the West, made it clear in his domestic statements that Israel could not continue as a Jewish state, but would have to become a majority-Muslim country.

Except Egypt, no Arab nation has formally signalled acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state, although Jordan does so in practice if not in declaration. Most of the rest of the Arab countries deal with Jewish Israel as a fait accompli, though they look forward to the day when it will transition to Muslim majority.

This history is the root of the conflict between Hamas and Israel (and, for that matter, between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon).

Why is Israel bombing Hamas in Gaza?

Hamas has for years been carrying out terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens. A large number of suicide bombers attacking Israelis in the last dozen years or so have come from Gaza, sponsored by Hamas or Fatah. Under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel sealed the border with Gaza a few years ago and withdrew all forces from Gaza. Sharon also ordered the dismantling of Jewish settlements in Gaza. However, peace did not break out once the last Israeli left Gaza. If anything, violence against Israel intensified.

For several years, Hamas has launched explosive rockets from Gaza into southern Israel. A number of Israelis, including women and children, have been killed. These rocket attacks are indiscriminate since Hamas long ago declared that any Israeli of any age, occupation or either sex is a legitimate target. In retaliation (and contrast), Israel has carried out carefully controlled, precision attacks against key Hamas figures, especially those commanding or conducting the rocket attacks. The Israeli attacks have almost without exception been conducted using precision-guided missiles fired from Israeli helicopters with few other Gazans killed or injured.

Earlier this year, Hamas agreed to a ceasefire with Israel. However, Hamas continued to launch rockets against Israel not long after agreeing to the ceasefire. They fired dozens of rockets per day, sometimes as many as 60, causing deaths and injuries among Israeli citizens. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis were compelled to hide in shelters for many hours per day. (Some of Hamas's rockets can range 40 kilometers, about 25 miles.) The economy and social life of southern Israel was pretty much shut down.

I spent some time in the frequently-targeted Israeli town of Sederot in October 2007. Six rockets hit near the town the day I was there, although not during the time I was there. I posted a photo-essay here.

These attacks were the proximate cause of Israel's bombing of Hamas' facilities this week. While working through backchannels to get Hamas to honor the ceasefire, Israel began planning this campaign perhaps as long as six months ago, according to the UK's Guardian newspaper, which continued,
[Israeli Defense Minister Ehud] Barak said yesterday (Dec. 28) the timing of the operation was dictated by Israel's patience simply "having running out" in the face of renewed rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza into Israel when the shaky six-month ceasefire expired 10 days ago. "Any other sovereign nation would do the same," is the official Israeli refrain. Amid the storm of international criticism of Israel's hugely disproportionate response, it is easy to overlook the domestic pressure faced by the Israeli government over its handling of "Hamastan".

Homemade Qassam rockets and mortars rarely kill but they do terrify and have undermined Israel's deterrent power as well as keeping 250,000 residents of the south of the country in permanent danger.
It is, of course, the Guardian that says israel's campaign is "disproportionate," an unsurprising charge for the paper to make since it has a long anti-Israel editorial history. (British newspapers are openly partisan and don't claim to be impartial in reporting.) See my own assessment here. Actually, rumors of action against Gaza have been flying for much longer than six months.

Israel's attacks are intended to do four main things:
  1. Kill as many high-level Hamas figures as possible.
  2. Reduce the ranks of Hamas rank and file by causing casualties among them.
  3. Provide disincentives for Gazans' support of Hamas' control of their political future and hence,
  4. Delegitimize Hamas' authority.

As video from Gaza makes clear, Israel's attacks have been conducted with as great precision as possible. The vast majority of killed and injured have been unambiguously members of Hamas. Gazan civilians have suffered, yes, but there is no way to claim with integrity that the Israelis have failed to follow the Just War tenet of discrimination, just as it is undeniable that Hamas has deliberately attempted with success to kill Israeli civilians.

How will this all end?

Unfortunately, the question assumes that there will be an end. Hamas, funded by Saudi Arabia and equipped by Iran through Egypt, considers itself locked in a death match with Israel. Israel cannot permit hundreds of thousands of its people to live under constant threat of death by Hamas' rockets.

Israeli prime Minister Olmert has been on politically shaky ground for several months, accused of graft and corruption going back years. The end of his ministry looms. Even so, he has indicated that he will order a land invasion of Gaza if Hamas fails to follow the terms of the ceasefire it agreed to follow. Israeli tank units have already assembled near Gaza.

In my opinion, the war cannot end on terms favorable to Hamas because Hamas simply is too weak to enforce its will against Israel. Terrorism is all it can do, and while the destruction it has wreaked using terrorism has been great in the past, it can never be so great that Israel will submit.

Israel, on the other hand, has the military capability to crush utterly Hamas, but the cost in lives to both Israel and Gaza's civilians would be more than Israel is prepared to accept. An air campaign alone cannot compel Hamas to surrender its fight. Unless Israel is prepared to accept a long-term deployment of its armed forces inside Gaza, these strikes will bring only temporary respite from Hamas' attacks. However, Olmert proved in 2006, during Israel's campaign against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, that he has no stomach for the slog of ground warfare.

On the other hand, Israel can "win" if it can knock out Hamas' claim to be the legitimate representative of the Gazan people. Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, whom I met and talked with for an afternoon in October 2007, writes that the attacks have already caused Hamas to lose much legitimacy.

Hamas appears to have lost some of its credibility due to the fact the Islamist movement was unprepared for the surprise offensive - a fact that contributed to the deaths of dozens of policemen who were attending a graduation ceremony in Gaza City on Saturday.

Hamas's relatively moderate response to the operation (only a few dozen rockets and mortars that have killed one Israeli citizen so far) has also harmed the movement's reputation.

Prior to the attack, Hamas operatives had threatened to fire thousands of rockets at Israel, including Beersheba and Ashdod.

Hamas's top leaders in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh, Mahmoud Zahar and Said Siam, have all gone underground out of fear of being targeted by Israel. Just a few days ago the three had proudly announced that they were not afraid of death and would be "honored" to join the bandwagon of Palestinian "martyrs." The general feeling on the streets of the Gaza Strip on Sunday night was that the countdown to the collapse of the Hamas regime had begun. As one local journalist put it, "We don't know who's in control of the Gaza Strip. The feeling is that the Hamas regime is crumbling."

The question is, though: who or what is ready to replace Hamas if it loses political power in Gaza? PA President Abbas has publicly been unsupportive of Hamas, even going so far as to blame Hamas for the Israel's attacks it broke its ceasefire with Israel. As Mr. Toameh notes, Abbas would like nothing more than for the PA to return to power in Gaza.

As well, there is good reason to believe that some important Arab states are not much sorry to see Israel take Hamas down a peg or three, much as they publicly denounced but privately approved Israel's abortive attempt to shatter Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006. The reason? The Sunni states near Israel - Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt - are very concerned about Iran's rising influence in the Mediterranean Middle East. Iran sponsors both Hamas and Hezbollah (Hezbollah, or "Party of God," was a political entity in Iran originally; the Lebanese faction is a sort of franchise). Zvi Barel writes,

Thus far, Hamas has not succeeded in generating an Arab diplomatic initiative that would lead to a renewed cease-fire on its terms. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which view Hamas as an Iranian ally whose goal is to increase Tehran's regional influence at their expense, prefer to wait a bit in the hopes that Israel's military operation will strip Hamas of its ability to dictate terms. And without those two states, the Arab League will have trouble even convening an emergency summit.

Granted, such a summit has limited practical value. But its absence indicates that Arab solidarity with the Palestinians is crumbling under Hamas' leadership.

Middle East politics often seem opaque. There is much that goes on "behind the curtain" that we do not see. So expect to be surprised again in days to come.

Also recommended:

"The Sederot Gambit"

"1948, Israel and the Palestinians: The True Story" in the Wall Street Journal, May 2008.

"The neighborhood bully strikes again," by Gideon Levy, who denounces the campaign, based (apparently) not on a lack of justification but because Gideon believes the Olmert government to be incompetent in security matters (and for good reasons, I would add, as I explained here).

"A hard look at Hamas' capabilities," which are not to be scoffed at.

Is Israel's bombing of Hamas a disproportionate response?

French President Nikolas Sarkozy has already called Israel's air raids of Hamas' terrorist facilities, "disproportionate."

Israel is bombing intensely a large number of Hamas facilities in Gaza because of Hamas' has been firing dozens of rockets per day into southern Israel. A few Israelis have died or been injured. But about 250,000 Israelis are within the range of Hamas' rockets and most of them have been forced to stay in bomb shelters for extended periods every day for several weeks. News reports from Gaza say that this week israel has killed more than 300 people, the great majority of them members of Hamas, but many civilians have also been killed or injured.

Israel's bombing can be seen as disproportionate only if the Just War Theory principle of proportionality is (wrongly) understood as meaning a tit for tat response. That is, if Hamas kills three Israelis, Israel may retaliate, but not more violently than Hamas was. This is a severe misunderstanding of what proportionality means in Just War theory.

Just War theory recognizes that a nation has the right to defend itself from aggression. Proportionality does not mean that Israel cannot fight back with more violence than Hamas is using against it. It means that its response must be proportionate to the good Israel is defending. In this case, the good Israel is defending is the right of its citizens to live and work free of the threat of sudden death from Hamas' rockets. A proportionate response for Israel is to take all measures to eliminate this threat, but not to use more violence than necessary to achieve that end. A related principle, discrimination, means that Israel must discriminate between legitimate targets and non-legitimate targets, attacking the former but not the latter.

Israel's primary obligation is to its own citizens, and it is not to limit its retaliation to the level of violence that Hamas has been using against Israel, but to use the full amount of force necessary either to remove Hamas' capability or will to do so any more.

See also Richard Cohen's 2006 column, "A Proportionate Response is Madness."

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Why Christmas?

I want to take a post to answer, "Why Christmas?" I don’t mean why do we have a Christmas holiday, but what is the significance of Christmas in Christian theology, and what are the roots of this theology.

Of course, the central claim of Christian faith is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, which is commemorated on Easter. Christianity could never have been formed without the resurrection, although it could have been (and in fact was) formed without much attention to the birth stories of Jesus, which are absent from all the books of the New Testament except two, the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Yet I begin my inquiry into why Christmas with neither of those gospels, but with the Gospel of John. The Fourth Evangelist begins his Gospel this way:
John 1:1-4, 12-14: 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Christians call the birth Jesus the Incarnation, the being born into flesh of deity. Unlike Judaism, Christians conceive of the deity as a Trinity, three persons united in one godhead: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (Ever eager to avoid patriarchy and sexism, the "progressives" of the Church today prefer, "Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, which simultaneously commits two heresies. One, it depersonalizes the Trinity, which consists of persons in relation to one another, to humanity and the cosmos at large, and two, it reduces the godhead to a small collection of role players or functionaries rather that a fullness of the godhead. But that’s all for another post, perhaps.)

The theology of the Trinity followed rather than preceded the life of Jesus. Of course, the Jews affirmed the Oneness of God, and the most common translation of the Sh’ma, the traditional call to worship of the Jews, is, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One" (Deut. 6:4) Scholars of Jewish theology point out that the Spirit of the Lord is also referred to in unique ways in the Jewish Scriptures and may be understood as referring to a special presence of God with his people, although not really as a separate person of a unified godhead.

It was the resurrection of Christ and his Ascension into the heavens that forced the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, the scope of which is beyond my point here. Suffice it to say that the deity long proclaimed by the Jews, including, of course, Jesus, came to be understood by the Church Fathers (the church’s leaders who followed the apostles) as a unified godhead consisting in three persons.

Christians say that the birth of Jesus is the Incarnation into full human being of the second person of the Trinity, the Son, and so Jesus was God-being-human. Jesus is thus understood by Christians to be a special and unique presence of the deity with humankind and the created order - not the only presence by any means, but a "never before, never after" presence. So Matthew’s Gospel cites the Hebrew prophet Isaiah to call Jesus Emmanuel, meaning "God With Us."

The apostles and the early churches were all Jews before they began following Christ. They retained their Jewish beliefs. In fact, all the apostles were Jews to begin with and remained so until they were martyred, save John, for following Christ.

The most important thing that the Christians brought with them from Judaism was the theology of covenant. The children of Israel who followed Moses out of Egypt, the focal event of Jewish history, made the Covenant of Sinai with God at that mountain, which became was focusing theological statements of Jewish faith.

For the Jews, the sign of their covenants with God (of which Sinai’s is central, but not solitary) is circumcision. For Christians the sign of their covenant is Christian baptism. Christians do not claim to be under Sinai's covenant, but under the New Covenant in Jesus Christ, instituted by Jesus at the Last Supper, now celebrated by churches as the Eucharist, also referred to as Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper.

The only mention of the new covenant in the Jewish Scriptures is by the prophet Jeremiah, in the 31st chapter of the book bearing his name. Jeremiah’s prophecy of the new covenant begins,
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt ... .
Modern scholars debate whether Jeremiah was referring to a new covenant that would entirely supplant and replace the covenant of Sinai and its related covenants, or renewal/restoration of the historic covenants, which Jeremiah clearly thought had failed. No prophet after Jeremiah picked up on the new covenant, nor did Jeremiah mention it but this once.

At his Last Supper with his disciples, said St. Paul, Jesus "took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood." However, that’s all that Jesus ever said about the new covenant. Jesus never explained the relationship between himself and the shedding of his blood to the new covenant foretold by Jeremiah.

Nonetheless, Jesus himself, and his apostles after his resurrection, saw Jesus as a unique and personal representation of God among human beings. John said that, "The Word became flesh and lived among us. We have seen God’s glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son."

Christians believe that the incarnation of God as human being was the decisive event in human history because the incarnation changed God’s relationship to us and our relationship to God. The incarnation means that human beings can see, hear, and know God in ways never before possible. “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus told his disciple Philip.

The Incarnation of God in Jesus means that in Christ, God placed himself at the mercy of all the things which we endure. Jesus became tired and hungry. He was dependent on the charity of others for food and shelter. He lost his patience with other people and became angry; the Gospels record both. There is nothing we experience that Jesus did not know. In every way that we are human beings, so was God in Christ. Jesus was Emmanuel, God with us.

In so acknowledging, we recognize the bond that God has established with us, and its revelation in Jesus. God did not stay distant from us, remote and isolated. In Jesus, God chose to live with humanity in the midst of human weakness, confusion, and pain. To become flesh is to know joy, pain, suffering, and loss. It is to love, to grieve, and someday to die. The incarnation binds Jesus to the “everydayness” of human experience.

When someone receives Christ as Christ was sent – the unique embodiment of the eternal God – and when someone believes in the name of Jesus, God makes him a son or her a daughter of God. It takes a second birth to be made a child of God, a birth of the spirit, not of flesh. We are reborn from above. Jesus said, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again’”(John 3:6-7).

So we become brothers and sisters of Christ in the family of God. The New Testament book of Hebrews teaches, “Both the one who makes people holy [that’s God] and those who are made holy [that’s you and me] are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 2:11). In a way, the Nativity is an adoption ceremony of all humanity as God’s actual children.

This kind of relationship is, I think, somewhat different from the historic Jewish understanding of themselves as "children of Israel," which (Daniel, correct me if I'm wrong) refers to their descendancy from the House of Jacob, whom the Lord renamed Israel. Christians place (or should place ) no importance on physical genealogy; the Christian New Covenant depends not on lineage but on rebirth by the Holy Spirit through the Lordship of Christ. Hence, Jesus said that his real "mother and brothers" are "those who hear God's word and put it into practice."

That is the significance of Christmas for Christians people, and the basis of Christian proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The apostles saw the life, work and resurrection of Jesus as a natural continuation of the history and covenant theology of their own people, the Jews, although with a new twist, centered on an historical person whose significance and very identity was a sharp departure from previous figures in Jewish history. For this reason, and others, Christ following did not survive more than a couple of generations within Judaism. A fuller historical inquiry is for another post sometime. Suffice now to say that Christianity at its finest is aware of its daughterhood of Judaism, and at its worst - well our history is sadly self-explanatory of that.