Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Back in the early nineties, when I was a history major at UNF, I took several classes taught by Professor John Betlyon. Of course, "Professor" was only one of his hats. He was also a campus minister, a chaplain with the Army National Guard, and an amateur archaeologist. But my exposure to him was through his classes, and he quickly became my favorite professor.

His classes weren't easy, but his knowledge and passion for the material came through every time. I remember to this day one class where he talked about digging for ancient roman coins. He grabbed some loose change out of his pocket and then dropped the coins one at a time on the tabletop in front of him. He then talked about the distinctive ting sound that only gold made and how when you heard it, you could understand how some people can catch "gold fever". His lectures were often as enrapturing as that ting.

Add to all this the fact that he was a fan of Monty Python's Life of Brian and how could you not like the guy.

I Googled him recently to see what he was up to. I already knew that he had long left UNF and moved up to Pennsylvania. Turns out he has his own church up there (Trinity United Methodist Church in Hummelstown) and also lectures occasionally at Penn State. I also found from two sources that he had done a stint recently in Afghanistan. First, he was name checked in General Richardo Sanchez's biography. And second, he was mentioned in a student article on Penn State's The Daily Collegian a year ago. Here is the article in it's entirety:
Working as a chaplain with the National Guard in Afghanistan in 2003, John Betlyon reached out to local mullahs, also known as Islamic clerics, who had negative views of Americans.

Betlyon, lecturer in Jewish and religious studies, said the meetings helped to build bridges between the two cultures, and he still describes the situation as "amazing."

"They had heard all kinds of lies about us and we had heard things about them," he said. "We sat down together and shared meals and prayed together. Small steps were taken to break down the walls of prejudice and ignorance that divided us."

A recent letter signed by 138 Muslim leaders from around the world and addressed to Christian leaders also aims to break down the barriers dividing the religions by underscoring two common principles they share: love of one God and love of one's neighbor.

"Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world," the letter states.

These two principles are also common in Judaism, which the letter briefly mentions.

According to Newsweek, a letter from Muslim leaders to Jewish leaders is currently in progress.

Mansoor Aleidi, president of the Muslim Student Association, said it is important for people to understand the common beliefs the three religions share.

"[There is] conflict between religions in many areas of the world, so it is up to their religious leader to spread peace and dialogue between the religions, and the only way to do this is by interfaith dialogue," he said.

Some Penn State professors agree this is a step forward to opening dialogue with Muslims. Rabbi David Ostrich, lecturer of Jewish studies, said the three religions have a long history of interfaith relations.

"A lot of work and a lot of good progress has been made over the years, so they can learn to agree on some things, even though they may disagree on others," he said.

A. Daniel Frankforter, professor of history at Penn State Erie, said the letter seeks to stress the common bonds of the world's three major religions.

"What they're trying to do is remind the world that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are branches of one tradition," he said.

All three religions trace their ancestry back to Abraham, a figure who appears in the Quran, the Old Testament and the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible. Jews and Christians consider themselves descendants of Abraham through his son, Isaac, whereas Muslims trace their origins through Abraham's other son, Ishmael, Betlyon said.

The three religions are considered monotheistic and worship the same God, although Betlyon said some Muslims would argue otherwise because of Christians' belief in the Holy Trinity.

Despite this common heritage, Jews and Arabs fight each other today, Frankforter said.

"It is a little ironic that the Jews and Arabs have such a rocky relationship today," Frankforter said. "It makes a lot of sense to try and heal the gulfs that have developed between these peoples by expressing their cultural heritage."

Christians and Muslims continue to suffer strained relationships since the Crusades were fought starting in the late 11th century and continuing for several hundred years, Frankforter said.

"Most Europeans and Americans have shoved them into the background as history over and done with, but much of the history of the Crusades is still alive in the Middle East," he said.

"In the Middle East, there is a long tradition of a hostile Europe, a hostile West, which is very much the background of the diplomatic and military problem we face in that region now."

Betlyon recalled how the children in Afghanistan would run throughout the village without any shoes on in the winter.

In order to help, he said that he would help deliver boxes of clothes to the local mosque that would help people stay warm.

It was there that he said he learned of a conversation between a mullah and an Islamic elder."The elder asked the mullah, 'why are you dealing with the Americans? They're evil,' " Betylon said.

"The mullah responded, 'no, they're not evil; they're children of God, just like us.' "
This is the kind of thinking that enamors me not only to John Betlyon, but also to Barack Obama. As evidence by the interview excerpts I posted recently, Obama has a far more open point of view on religion than any politician we have ever had. The religious conservatives that spout their own hatreds on the radio and on television are not the majority of Christians, but rather the most vocal (just as Osama Bin Laden does not speak for all Muslims).

For all of Bush's faults, I don't believe he's one of these hateful Christians, either. But what he did do was allow these people to have a voice. Even if he disagreed with their extreme views he realized that (a) they were the ones that got him elected and (b) they were the ones that would support him in his wars. He could not denounce them too strongly for fear of alienating them, and so eight brutal years of their rhetoric has fermented a culture seen around the world as toxic.

These religious conservatives have now seen their power ebb with Obama's election, and now they have a competitor with an eloquence and intelligence that puts their bile to shame. I don't mean to be corny, here, but we have a hero in Barack Obama. He is a man that sees value in studying and respecting other faiths other than his own. This will be the key to our country's salvation.

And that's what I am thankful for.

Correction: Upon reading the section of Sanchez's biography that mentions Betlyon, I found that it didn't refer to Afghanistan but rather the General's earlier years at Fort Benning where Betlyon was assigned at the time. My bad.


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