Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Christ and Christmas

This is that time of the year when millions of chicken, goats, cows, turkeys and all other legally edible beasts lose their lives to the celebration crazed human society and, as if to mock this faunal “genocide”, their devourers moan the massacre in of gallons of alcohol and soft drinks in a world wide merry making frenzy.

The tendency of Christmas holidays to afflict the minds of men with desires, cravings and obsessions that are largely born of flesh rather than the strict scriptural teachings of the Christian faith has led to the rise of voices in Christendom questioning its spiritual authenticity.

For the hundreds of years that the controversial debate on whether Jesus was born on Christmas day has raged on two schools of thought has emerged: Those supporting Dec. 25 as the correct birth date of Christ and those calling it a hoax that conned its way into Christianity via wayward and lax church leaders. The latter base their arguments on the fact that the holyday predates the birth of Christ, with elements of its celebration being traced to ancient Egypt, Babylon and Rome.

Long before Jesus Dec. 25 was celebrated to mark three occasions; the birthday of the Unconquered Sun god or Sol Invictus, the winter solstice and Juvenalia, a feast honouring children of Rome, all of which made the season a carnival of excesses.

“Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun,” explains one ancient writer.

The Roman Church, failing to get inroads in the conversion of the masses that were deeply entrenched in paganism, began compromising by dressing the heathen customs in Christian-looking garb. In religious study this is known as transmutation where conquering religions adopt native worship tools to make the conversion less culturally shocking. This includes worshipping in the same shrines, using the same symbols and observing the same holydays.

And since no one knew the messiah’s exact date of birth, in the fourth century the Church under Pope Julius I chose Dec. 25 as Christ’s birth date principally to entice and accommodate the conversion of the hedonistic heathens.

“The festival was far too strongly entrenched in popular favour to be abolished, and the Church finally granted the necessary recognition, believing that if the day could not be suppressed, it should be preserved in honour of the Christian God. Once given a Christian basis the festival became fully established in Europe with many of its pagan elements undisturbed” explains Encyclopedia of Mythology, Religion and the Unknown.

Some of the “pagan elements” alluded here are the untamed sensual excesses, debauchery and gluttony that underlined these festivities among ancient Romans and which still resonates in many secular modern day Christmas celebrations. Other elements of paganism absorbed by the Church to please the new pagan converts were canonization, borrowed from the ancient “god-making” ritual of Euhemerus and adopting Sunday worship.

In a bid to tame the ravenous spree that this festive season triggers among their congregations church leaders introduced a theme of sharing the surplus with the needy in society, but Christmas still remains the most popular license for gluttony and unchecked indulgence.

Opponents of the December 25 thesis further argue that the events recorded in the bible during the birth of Christ are strong indicators that such a date was impossible. The scriptures say that when baby Jesus was born “there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” In the Holy Land December is a bitterly cold winter in which no sane shepherd would venture out by night.

Adam Clarke, a renown bible scholar, explains that “as these shepherds had not yet brought home their flocks, it is a presumptive argument that October had not yet commenced, and that our Lord was not born on the 25th of December, when no flocks were out in the fields; nor could He have been born later than September as the flocks were still in the fields by night. On this very ground the nativity in December should be given up.”

Clarke further argue that the fact that Mary found a room in the manger for the baby means animals were outdoors as opposed to the case in the winter where the feeding troughs were stockpiled by feeds and the barns packed with livestock. Other scholars say that with temperatures in Palestine during winter dropping as low as 4 degrees Celsius at night, putting a baby in the manger in winter with only swaddling clothes would be unthinkable and suicidal.

However some pro-Christmas historians counter this by saying the said shepherds were no ordinary sheep keepers but Levitical ones from whom the people bought the blemish-less sacrificial lambs, hence they were duty bound to remain outdoors all year round.

Emotional medieval artists, movie directors and story tellers have hugely contributed to this controversy by depicting skewed, distorted and subjective versions of the nativity scene.

Another issue pointed as a source of discrepancy by opponents of Christmas as a birth of Christ is the census that was taking place around the time the baby was born. In Luke 2:3 it is written: “Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David.” The census, believed to be one of the very first ones in the Roman Empire in order to establish the number of people to be taxed, must have been one of the reasons why the inns were full.

Experts on Roman civilization have reasoned that the Emperor would not have ordered the census in winter when massive movement of people back to their birth towns would have been difficult and troublesome. Evidence backing this opinion was found in a Roman document discovered in Egypt dating back to A.D 104.

Besides, Romans were famous for their meticulous and efficient sense of social order and administrative skills from which modern day governments and military organizations derive most of their blue prints. Hence it’s argued that Quirinius, the Roman governor of Syria at that time, could never have organized a census in the dead of winter.

One author claims that this census “could hardly have been at that season (winter) for such a time would surely not have been chosen by the authorities for a public enrollment because it necessitated traveling in storms, heavy rains and mud which made journeys both unsafe and unpleasant in winter, except in especially favourable years.”

Another incidence presented as evidence against the December date is the conception and birth of John the Baptist, who happened to be a cousin of Jesus. In Luke 1:36 (NIV) an angel informs Mary that “Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in old age, and she who was to be barren is in her sixth month.” This means that John was conceived and born six months ahead of Christ and by following the temple duty roaster of the priests of the order of Abia, in which John’s father Zechariahs belonged to, it emerges that the Baptist was born around March or April according to the Roman calendar. Adding six months to this brings the birth of Christ to September or October in autumn, way ahead of Dec. 25.

Santa Claus, the mythical white haired gift giving old man riding on a sleigh pulled by flying reindeers, is yet another prominent Christmas feature that strongly points to ancient paganism. Though some people have linked this fictitious character with a St Nicholas from Myra in the Mediterranean, his fur-trimmed wardrobe, sleigh and reindeers betrays his true origins of the cold climates of the far North. While some sources trace Santa to the Northern European gods Woden and Thor, from which the days of the week Wednesday and Thursday get their names from, William Walsh in The Story of Santa Klaus claims that the figure has its roots in the Roman god Saturn and its Greek counterpart Silenus.

However the supporters of Dec. 25, who are the majority, remain resolute in their belief that Christ was born in this day. Alfred Edersheim, a Messianic Jew, summarizes radical standpoint by claiming that “there is no adequate reason for questioning the historical accuracy of this date. The objections generally made rest on grounds which seem to me historically untenable.” Peculiarly, among the gospel writers only two, Mathew and Luke, delve in the details of the birth of Christ where they notably omit the actual date and time.

Therefore the biggest question among believers across the world for ages have been whether it’s by coincidence or providence that the bible, the book on which the Christian faith is based on, never mentions “Christmas”, Christ’s birth date or anything about commemorating that birth?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

City of Jails

We are aboard a Steinway Transit Corporation bus marked Rikers- Island –Limited-Stop-Service cruising through Queens, one of New York City’s five boroughs. Majority of the passengers, most of who are in a state of deep quietude, are Blacks and Latinos. After a brief stop over on 19th street to pick more people the bus mounts a three way bridge rising from the north west of Queens to extend for more than a mile over the East River.

Besides the uniformed officers guarding the entrance and the roadblocks there are numerous signs on the bridge walls warning motorists not to drop or pick passengers along this route. Only the roar of jet engines overhead from planes flying in and out of LaGuardia Airport’s northern run ways shatters the silence that rules the bus. Thousands of cars and buses commutes past this steel and concrete roadway each day, we are told, but few New Yorkers want to end up where the tightly guarded bridge heads to.

More posters prohibiting cameras, tape recorders, cell phones, beepers and weapons line walls as we approach the gates to the city of jails.

“Home of New York’s Boldest” sign board welcomes us to Rikers Island, New York and the democratic world’s largest correctional facility. Known as the Rock to inmates and Gotham City to outsiders, Rikers is one name that runs the ice down the spine of every wannabe lawbreaker in the Big Apple and beyond. Sandwiched between the East River and the borough of Queens and the mainland Bronx and adjacent to the LaGuardia Airport runways the jail is a “township” by its own right. It has a budget of USDs 860 million a year, a staff of ten thousand officers and one thousand five hundred civilians to control a yearly population of up to 130,000 inmates.

Named after a Dutch settler Abraham Rycken who owned it, the island was acquired by the City of New York authorities from his descendants in 1884 at a fee of USDs 180,000 and has acted as a penitentiary since then. However due to its small size then, measured only 87 acres, the island had to be expanded by landfill to its present size of 415 acres. Even after that overcrowding led to introduction of make shift cells in form of barges.
The fortress, consisting of ten jails each the size of Kamiti Maximum Prison, is only accessible over the unmarked 1.28 kilometer long Rikers Island Bridge, later renamed Francis Buono after the supervising warden, which is not open to the public. Before the bridge was built the only access was by ferry two of which were later converted into floating jails.
Rikers Island holds local offenders who cannot afford or cannot obtain bail, those serving sentences of one year or less, and those pending transfer to other facilities which does not have space. It also has a maximum security section for hard core criminals.
The jail town is a self contained colony catering for inmates, popularly known as Rikers, of all ages hence have its own schools, medical clinics, ball fields, chapels, gyms, drug rehab programs, grocery stores, barbershops, a bakery, a power plant, print shop, a bus depot and car washes. Although it’s official function is to contain New York City’s social misfits Rikers Island has been a source of powerful emotions to many, especially artists.
“How loud quiet nights in the mists of crime” sang R Kelly in his 1997 hit Gotham City “ “A city of justice, a city of love, a city of peace; we all need it, can’t live without it”. Other artists whose inspiration bells were rung by Rikers are Coco Tea, LL Cool J, Kool G Rap and Jim Carroll.
Just eleven miles away from the blazing torch of Lady Liberty and her promise of freedom to newcomers Rikers Island is famed for its hot reception to new residents of New York. Coco Tea attested to this in his timeless classic hit Rikers Island when he said:
The first time the youth come a New York,
Them tell the youth you mustn’t skylark,
Learn a trade or go to school,
And don't you turn yourself in a fool.
Coz him never wan go a Rikers Island.

Besides songs and other literature Rikers Island, also known as Land of Darkness, has also featured in numerous movies, books and video games. Carlitos Way, Marvel Comics and A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints are some of the movies where the jail features prominently.

Known for its infamous residents, ninety nine percent of whom are Blacks, Latinos and immigrants, the jail has had its own share of famous inmates. Multi platinum selling artistes DMX, Intelligent Hoodlum, Tupac Shakur and Lil Wayne are just a few of the big names that once served a term here.

Landing at Rikers leaves one bewildered, especially those from Africa where maximum security jails are hostile labour camps. Instead of an Alcatraz- like atmosphere hushed by a looming potential for violence, Rikers is a “town” bigger and better maintained than the Nairobi CBD, with enough parking for hundreds of vehicles that visit every day. The marble lanes interlacing the mundane cell apartments are so smooth and the lawns so neatly manicured that they resemble scenes from a middle class suburb somewhere in Kileleshwa or Muthaiga. Until you see the barbed wire and the gangs in orange jumpsuits.

For a jail of this magnitude the atmosphere is quite serene and peaceful thanks to a spate of reforms in the New York City jail system. Prior to the reforms the island cells used to be a hotbed of gang wars.

Since ours is a chartered educational tour we are guided to our main area of interest; the Island Academy. Although you have to pass through a lot of security hurdles to get here elements of a regular school setting are noticeable. Wall displays of student achievement and friendly interactions among staff and students through the hallways. Classification of the two thousand plus students in the Academy is according to gender, crime type, mental stability and intellectual abilities. Many students describe their first day at Rikers as extremely intense with the feeling of physical restriction setting in the moment they walk through the gates.

Later, traversing through the hallways to get to a backyard, we gaze across the bay on the expansive LaGuardia Airport, bigger than JKIA by any standards. “You never think about how an airport is such a symbol of wealth, privilege and freedom until you are in prison next door, watching planes fly overhead.” observed a sixteen year old boy from The Bronx on noticing our curiosity.

I couldn’t agree more.

Since we are here as part of a volunteer program working with incarcerated teenagers, among our activities in the class will be conducting poetry and visual arts.
As the lesson progress we give the students an open session where they freely air their views. They speak eloquently in heart wrenching verses and prose about their past and present predicaments. For a moment the room ceases to be a cell. The youngsters feel empowered to express themselves and for a few minutes take control of their tethered lives. Most of the juveniles are in for drugs or petty crimes. And most of them are very willing to change their ways and start a new life.

Time and prison restrictions allow us to stay no more than one hour hence the rest had to be postponed to the next session which is in a week’s time. We can’t wait to come back for the bond with the young jailbirds is already tight even in this very first day. On the way out at the entrance lobby there hangs a four by three inches sketch of Jesus on the cross.

“The original was done by Salvador Dali and hung on these walls for sixteen years before it was stolen and replaced by this fake in March 2003.” Explained a prison official. The artist did the sketch as an apology for not attending an art lecture at Rikers back in the sixties, and the piece was brought here from the prisoners dining hall after an inmate tried to vandalize it with a cup of coffee during an emotional outburst.

We are ushered by the uniformed escort to the parking bay where we board the white bus back to Queens. Though there are hundreds of enquiries and requests by potential visitors to Rikers every year, only a few are granted after a prolonged processing. Our case sailed through on the basis of charity and although we are scheduled to hold our classes every Friday for the next three weeks the same bureaucratic protocols had to be observed each time.

There are no surprise visits to “Gotham City.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


When people think of Christian history and shrines, countries such as Israel, Rome, Greece, Italy and Turkey come to mind. Ethiopia? Rarely, if ever. However, high in the Lasta Mountains in the Ethiopian highlands is a collection of one thousand years Christian history in the ancient rock hewn churches of Lalibela.
A stroll through this dusty little town is a walk through the pages of history.
The architectural ingenuity, beauty, antiquity and sheer presence of these mighty churches is amazing. But despite the large number of foreign and local tourists who visit the site every year, little is known about the magnificent structures outside Ethiopia. The origins of these churches are still clouded in myth; what little is known of King Lalibela’s life is drawn largely from hagiography done centuries after his canonisation by the Ethiopian Church.
Born of the Zagwe dynasty while his half-brother was on the throne, Lalibela is said to have been exiled to Jerusalem after the reigning king tried to poison him. As a youth, Lalibela witnessed the dejection of Ethiopian pilgrims after the fall of Jerusalem to the armies of Islam in 1187 and vowed to build a New Jerusalem. After being ordained king upon his return to Ethiopia, Lalibela embarked on his quest for an African Jerusalem.
This claim is backed by the fact that although the rock churches are connected to one another by maze-like tunnels, they are separated by a stream symbolically named Jordan.
The structures on one side of the Jordan represent the earthly Jerusalem while those on the other side represent the heavenly Jerusalem. However, like the Great Pyramids, the actual methods used to build these churches remains an engineering enigma, since archaeologists estimate that the chiselling of the structures from the solid volcanic stone must have been the work of more than 40,000 men!
To credit the ancients for their labours and to avoid destruction by human encroachment, Unesco named the churches to its World Heritage List in 1978. Despite once being the headquarters of a great kingdom, the centuries and modernisation have reduced Lalibela to an obscure village with a slow pace of life, where residents hardly seems aware of the importance of the monuments in their