Monday, July 10, 2017

Morality, or Strategy?


The Wind and the Sun
THE WIND and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveller coming down the road, and the Sun said: “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveller to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger. You begin.” So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveller. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveller wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveller, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on.
        “KINDNESS EFFECTS MORE THAN SEVERITY.”
---from Æsop's Fables (Sixth Century BCE)
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.

The top political strategy these days, it seems, is to see someone as doing wrong and denounce him or her.

The wind attempts to strip the traveler of his cloak.
From a 1919 Aesop anthology illustrated by Milo Winter and also included in the Wikipedia page on "The North Wind and the Sun."

Whether anything else beside accusation and blame could be the right course of action goes unasked. For the most part that's what people do--to other people, that is.

Unfortunately when the dust clears those we condemn are still there and still doing whatever it is we have condemned. In fact they often have grown stronger, as though they fed on how they were treated.

But, it is said, evil must be condemned, so we keep on condemning. And, as I said, those so condemned seem to thrive on it. Not only does the condemnation not "take," the behavior thought to be objectionable spreads.

American leftists who hate Israel have been condemning it. Meanwhile, the right wing there has only become stronger while the left is weakened. And now look what has happened over here in America with the election of Donald Trump.

Those Americans who are perennially displeased with American politics, considering the government a criminal enterprise or at least an enterprise being run by the wrong sorts of capitalists, have similarly vented their displeasure, with the apparent result that, with the election, the situation is worse than ever and with the potential to become more so.

Although African-Americans acknowledge having white allies, the rhetoric of race remains mostly binary: those who consider themselves black blame those they deem white and point the finger at "whitelash" as cancelling out progress.

Those are some examples that came to me off the top of my head.

The exception seems to be in the case of a captive audience within limited borders; that's how I'm conceptualizing the situation on some campuses. There, people are cowed, heads down in anticipation of shrapnel from the next impermissible utterance. Even if an exception, though, its applicability may be confined to narrow borders.

But aren't we supposed to confront evil and speak truth to power? Doesn't that define courage? It can certainly feel right, and the Greek chorus of support that so often follows such expression will not detract from that feeling of rightness.

However, if the tactic is making the opponent stronger, something's wrong. To the extent the obvious path of blame and protest isn't working, whether that's the right path needs to be considered.

Maybe we have to decide whether we want to vent or to be the change.  Yet we get locked into the assignment of blame.

I suggest another strategy. Let's call it Judo-ism. Ha--I would come up with that pun!

My analogy is to the martial arts. The strategy is to avoid dissipating one's own strength, while instead turning the opponent's energy in one's favor.

I realize I'm not a student of the martial arts (although at age 29 I did take karate at a nearby Joe Corley studio, attaining the rank of green belt). Nevertheless, please bear with me in this simple analogy.

In fact, bear with me while I try to get down these thoughts that have been percolating in my head.


My focus here involves placing blame on a particular group or people or on a large swath of the population over whom one ultimately lacks control, so that in the end the views and behavior we call unacceptable persist. Or more than persist; we may have fanned the fire.

In the past, before pluralism and before the world grew so small, perhaps the wished-for social control did to a great extent exist.  When one particular group has hegemonic power, their preferred social values and traits can be instilled into the dominant class. Meanwhile the minority is kept on the outs, which really doesn't matter since they are merely the minority.

But now such power is lacking. Polarized segments of society view each other in absolutist terms, thinking of themselves as good and the opponent as without any legitimate concerns, and beyond that, as having nothing positive to contribute. These forces seem stalemated, wreaking havoc on civil discourse while striking out from entrenched positions in hopes of dealing a knock-out blow. To that purpose, anything goes--up to and including turning their invective on the very government that legitimizes all of them and protects their right to speak and be heard. The social fabric is, if not in shreds, worn thin.

What we need to do is to avoid confusing our circumstances with those in which we can deal a knock-out blow.  Look what happened when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor during World War II under that mistaken impression that the US was weak and would be easily constrained. Instead, with one stroke they woke up a sleeping giant, removed our paralyzing internal conflicts, and brought us into the war.

Our polarized forces today hardly look at themselves, focusing solely on the defined enemy.

That's where I think our religious precepts come into play, or should do so. I'm thinking of loving the other as ourselves--which entails thinking of the other as like ourselves--that is, like ourselves in feeling vulnerable, fearing pain and loss, and having similar desires and hopes.

I touched on such ideas soon after the election and was roundly dismissed by the few who ventured to read my reflections as having laudable but naïve and even dangerous sentiments, since one must attack evil, etc., etc.  So, no, I'm not speaking of becoming "nice" and doing whatever Gibbon reputedly thought weakened the Roman Empire. Instead I see the issue as one of strategy, since the modus operandi so obviously does not work, and even, as I've argued, is having an effect opposite to the one desired.

I'm talking strategy. And vision.

Ordinarily, we humans are all too aware of our own weakness and vulnerability but are likely to look on the opponent as a powerful and dangerous monolith against whom anything goes.

We humans are susceptible to the temptation of indulging such a perception, so natural does it appear--and it may in fact be to some degree a natural phenomenon bequeathed to us by our evolution. It's said evolution has made us able to see the faults in others more clearly than those in ourselves, since others can pose an imminent danger that if ignored or overlooked could preclude the possibility of staying alive. From that angle, conscientious self-examination is a luxury best put off until later.

Then, too, the worse we are treating the opponent, the harsher we'll judge them and the darker the light in which we'll see them. As much as we give our judgments as the "reason" for our actions, that kind of judgment follows action, justifying it.

How to wrap our heads around the possibility of that being a short-term view imprisoning us in a zero-sum game, to our mutual sorrow?

In his 2009 book The Evolution of God, Robert Wright argues that in the course of their development, the three Abrahamic faiths each turned to power and force when the facts on the ground permitted it, but when force was not feasible, used precepts more akin to those of the sun in Aesop's "The Wind and the Sun" fable.

The sun persuades the traveler to take off his cloak.
 
What would "the sun's method" signify? Love? Something like recognition that the other, while far from perfect, nevertheless is of value and has something to offer? ...Maybe a lot to offer. The sun's method is sounding something like seeing and understanding the other--superfluous for the wind's method.

According to Wikipedia, "The Wind and the Sun" has been taken not only morally but politically.  Which works better, "severity" or "kindness?" Well, in what situation and to what purpose? Honey draws more flies than vinegar, you might say--assuming we can correctly assess when the situation calls for vinegar and when for honey.

Sometimes one simply lacks the power to squelch the opposition or bend it to one's will.

There have been at least a couple of times I said something so profound and so close to the truth on an online discussion following a book review that I halted in midstream the BS (that's "bad sociology," per James Loewen of Lies My Teacher Told Me fame). I stopped it for around a month, that is. That was as long as the BS could be stopped. There was no power to check it for good and all.

When Deborah Lipstadt prevailed over David Irving after his defamation lawsuit against her on account of her challenging his holocaust denial, was he silenced? No. Not even after the judge handed down the verdict was he silenced; he kept right on spinning. (See the movie Denial.)

Sometimes the balance will finally tip, as with McCarthyism, white-supremacist violence in the Jim Crow American south, or Lost Cause mythology of the Confederacy, but it can be a long time coming before an idea becomes one whose time has come, and in truth we don't know in advance when, or if, that will be. And, truth to tell, we also don't know for sure--although we hope--that it's our own ideas--in part or in toto--that are destined to prevail or should prevail.

But that's ideas. Perhaps there are positive ways in which ideas can be argued, although, truth be told, debate sinks all to quickly into power plays and ad hominem attacks.

Even when it comes to persecution, a little won't stop the entity or movement in question. Arguably, a little persecution spreads the faith. (I attribute that idea to either Bart Ehrman or John Madden in their respective lecture series on early Christianity, but I can't remember which.) Persecution on a wide scale is a different story, but as I said, the groups I'm talking about lack the hegemonic power to suppress the other. I don't much care for the biological analogy but nevertheless will stoop to it here: attempting to suppress a group via disparagement and denigration, but without assuming ultimate power, is like using a weak antibiotic or one not taken for the full course.

Make no mistake: the groups issuing their condemnations are indeed wielding power, notwithstanding that they typically claim to be inveighing against the power of the opponent. That they indeed are wielding power while seeking more of it is not in question, even when we are distracted from noticing.  They may portray themselves as weak and speaking truth to power even as they strive to gain the upper hand.

What's in question is the wisdom--or lack thereof--with which they wield that power.

Moreover, consider that the use of such options are not restricted to one's own group. If one is going to wield the "nuclear option" as one's mode of discourse, one should consider that the opponent may do so, too--and may do so even more effectively.

That's about as far as I can get at this point! To be continued.

Friday, December 16, 2016

My Adventure in Identity Politics

My adventure begins with a group read of two books by my congregation--first, of Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, and, second, of Jim Wallis' America's Original Sin.  It was Fall 2016, and my congregation was confronting the apparent disproportionate shooting of black people in America, particularly black men, by the police.

I say "apparent" since, as Wallis makes clear, we have no statistics.  We do have data on arrests, convictions and incarcerations, but not on police violence. We don't know whether the shootings of black men are what is happening disproportionately or whether we have begun disproportionately noticing the shootings of black men.  Yes, I know what we are seeing, but it takes data to go from appearances to the actuality of what is happening.

Not only are reactions by police subject to unconscious bias, but our perceptions in general are subject to bias. There is confirmation bias: the tendency to interpret new evidence as supporting what we already believe. There is the availability heuristic: a mental shortcut that biases our judgment of a topic's importance based on how easily the topic comes to mind. Another common source of bias is that people's preferences influence what they believe: the so-called affect heuristic. We become convinced of the benefits of the positions we favor, while seeing only the costs of those positions we oppose.  And those are just a few examples.  Not only do we react to what's out there, we create our reality by the act of seeing. We become invested in our vision; the more we see the greater our investment. Polarization happens.

At any rate, we need data to move from story to science, and according to this October 13, 2016 article (from before the election), we're going to get it.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Between the World and Me had been excerpted in The Atlantic, a magazine I take. When I heard all the buzz, I picked it up but found it a hard read, all blame and no transcendence, so I put it back down--until, lo and behold, our clergy put it first in the group read on race.

I love books, and Between the World and Me was a far easier read in book form. Moreover, it has the merit of being short. And, since it comes from the gut more than from the head, its logic is not nailed down tight.  Amidst the clichéd harangue against America's "machinery of criminal power," "club of criminal justice," and "criminal irresponsibility" were openings for thought.

Subsequently I've learned you'll be called defensive for comparing yourself to the particular identity group in question: in this case, African-Americans.  Comparisons are a no-no, for although we all have troubles, do not presume to compare yourself to them or appropriate their suffering.

I did get in some thinking, though, and here's my review of Between the World and Me, written before this post on which I'm now working.

With the Jim Wallis book I got doubly bogged down: in white privilege and identity politics. And I thought Ta-Nehisi Coates was hard!  Here's my review of America's Original Sin, which got me thinking and led me to this point.

The main theme of America's Original Sin is reconciliation between white and black Christians.

How do Jews figure in that equation? Are Jews even white? (See the timely article, "Are Jews White," Dec. 5, 2016, The Atlantic.)

In the first half of the last century, the Jewish leaders of the era advocated for authorities to remove the racial designation "Hebrew" from incoming immigrants ("Hebrew," since in those days, "Jew" was a dirty word). Jewish immigrants continued to get that label until the 1950s, when, due to the prevailing cultural and political winds, their advocates succeeded in having it removed. During World War II, erasing boundaries between European peoples and categorizing them as ethnic groups instead of races satisfied the country's need to unify and set us apart from the Nazis. In due time there was the expectation Jews would conform to their new "white" identity; if they didn't, what good would it do?  For more on how that worked, see my review of Melissa Fay Greene's The Temple Bombing.  In essence, then, the social pressures of the day pushed Jews to pass as white, even as most Jews aspired to do just that.  Who would not want to emulate the country's most successful cultural group and, furthermore, avoid persecution? (Seeing all success as suspect leads to a dead end in hope and vision.)

Don't think that you can discern whiteness by skin color alone. White isn't just a skin color but is code for a certain level of society.  For further discussion see my review of Eric Goldstein's The Price of Whiteness.

At the top of the heap in America were the WASPs: white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.  The struggle to erase the distinctions between them and other Europeans--Jews, Catholics, Irish, Italians, etc.--and end their particular power and privilege continued well into the 1960s and beyond. Before that point, college students would not have encountered beaucoup Jewish professors as they do today, since there were fixed quotas as well as restrictions on which fields they could enter. Who knew?  It was in the sixties that I started college, and how was I to know it hadn't always been that way? See my review of John Hollinger's Science, Jews, and Secular Culture.

For a variety of reasons explored by Hollinger, Jews had led that advance upon the ramparts of what Melissa Fay Greene calls the white Protestant power structure.  As we are all too aware, the advances of women, and more to the current point, African Americans, did not come until later, since people of color, especially African Americans and Native Americans, were not yet included with those Americans among whom unity was considered desirable.

If Jews are white--or if they have passed as white--do they need to atone?

Here's how the story goes: white privilege accrued to those admitted into the ranks of whiteness. If everyone thinks you're white, you've had certain advantages and avoided certain disadvantages, at the expense of people who were not designated as white. According to that narrative, if you were so designated, it's up to you to atone. And atonement entails having sinned.

Added to that is that standing up for the black community is what American Jews do. It's our basic historic version of social justice.  So, that's the direction in which a lot of our clergy are leading us.

But for Jews, in a sense, it's been there, done that.  This is not to knock what we did during the civil rights era.  We did good--some of us, certainly not all--and some of us paid the price, too.  This time around (at least before the election), though, it has not been dangerous, but popular. This time, we were not leading but getting on the bandwagon.  We were establishing our bona fides with white Christian groups while simultaneously declaring our membership in the "white race."

I understand that Jews want to stand up for black people, not only in general but often for our own partners or children or for ourselves--but this time around, I think the ones we were taking the most care of were ourselves. There was a certain incoherence to our actions.

Historically, Jews in America have tended to stand up for themselves vicariously by standing up for others--African Americans in particular--on the basis that if we support the inclusion of all we'll be supporting inclusion for ourselves as well.

That vicariousness is something I've turned over and over in my thinking.  Above and beyond black and white in America, Jews have long inhabited a bad-guy role in Western civilization due to the cultural dominance of Christianity.  To a certain degree it's to be expected that we would have inhabited that role: we live in the same culture and we're pickled in it like everyone else. At this point I've come to associate our vicarious self-advocacy with the vaunted "Jewish guilt" incurred from that longtime assigned role. Hence the difficulty that Jews, who also happen to be a small group, have had in standing up for ourselves more directly within American society.

If  power is the ability to make people not only listen to a cultural story but also to play the role decreed for them in that story, then, practically speaking, we Jews have had little choice in our symbolic value for the culture as a whole.  Adding atonement to the picture further complicates it.

The privilege Jews have received from being white has been ambiguous, that is, mixed, as one might expect upon reading The Atlantic article on whether or not Jews are white.  Jews have had considerable cultural success.  But, on the one hand, viewed from the political right, Jews aren't truly white but have infiltrated society by passing as such (a not uncommon view among the Protestant intellectual leadership up until the mid-twentieth century).  On the other hand, for the left, now that being white is not so good, Jews are the essence of whiteness. Jews retain their identification with capitalism and with a degree of success that can seem unfair, so are sometimes assigned a disproportionate share of guilt for their presumed white privilege.

Even if Jews are white and whiteness is something for which to atone, proclaiming one's purported whiteness in order to atone can come off like a backhand assertion of status and group membership, given Jewish racial ambiguity: I'm white and you're not. It can feel paternalistic.

This sin-and-atonement model assumes that everyone did the same thing with their skin color, that is, use it for fun and profit at the expense of people of color. Not so!  Even as it has not been right for black people to be stereotyped--so that each individual is stamped with the alleged faults of the whole--neither is it right to mark all people from another group based on supposed group characteristics.

Jews may have something to learn from the interracial experience.  I recently heard author Mat Johnson's NPR interview on his new book Loving DayHere also is my review of his graphic novel Incognegro, featuring courageous light-skinned interracial men who went South undercover during the Jim Crow era to spotlight the practice of lynching.

Saying that the racial designation of Jews can be ambiguous is not saying Jews are black. There are more things in heaven and earth than black and white.  Nor am I claiming we're interracial--although there are not enough ancestors to go around, and at some level we're all mixed.

Note that ethnicity is not the only issue with respect to belonging. Are you smart enough to belong? Economically secure enough? Slim enough? Sociable enough? From the right side of the tracks, the right family, the right community, the right denomination?  Who is acceptable enough? Let's say society demands we all shape up and keep in line--but let's save that extended discussion for later.

Now I want to raise the question of where the storied Jewish brain power is in regard to all these questions of race, identity, belonging, and atonement.  As far as I can tell, for example, none of the clergy leadership has thought to look very closely at what was coming out around the edges of the Black Lives movement (as they commonly were doing vis-à-vis the Trump campaign), nor did they consider the movement's roots in or relationship to Black Power, and the implications. Of the rabbis I know who have taken up the atonement model with its witnessing and listening--that is, being an ally in the sense of deferring to the experience of  those who are people of color and as such are deemed the only experts concerning their own experiences--none examined, through its broader application or otherwise, that model which has so recently emerged from college campuses.

Being submissive and subordinate--not having a voice--is the result of being compressed into a role in the narrative of the dominant social group.

It's not the case that societal demands require constant overt enforcement, since people internalize them.

Despite some overlap, a role in a powerful group's story never comprises the totality or essence of who the other group is.  That's true of Jews in the Christian imagination. It's true for people who have been considered black, in the white imagination.  And it's also just as true for people who have been considered white, in the black imagination.

It took power to suppress black people. And it's a power play to attempt to compress some white-looking people into a people who, to redress the historical imbalance, believe justice now consists of telling particular black people only what they want to hear, while self-righteously scolding other insufficiently subservient white-looking people.

Everyone's voice is needed.  Everyone gets feedback. There's a time to speak and a time to listen.

I spent most of my life thinking I had a deal here in America: I was supposed to "behave." I didn't know that meant squelching myself into the requisite identity.  I didn't know I was responding to powerful societal messages by passing; I thought I was just behaving, doing what I was supposed to do.

For Ta-Nehisi Coates, the issue was "the American Dream," and he learned at an early age it wasn't meant for him. For me it was e pluribus unum. Not until an advanced age did I zone in on my sense of precarious inclusion. Why did it take me so long? I lived in suburban surroundings that were nothing if not genteel. I wasn't being called names or getting beat up on the way home from school, but there were things nobody could talk about. My mother, mistaking her hopes for fact, told me "all that" was over and done with except from the ignorant or stupid. So, I could not read my social situation correctly. When I picked up on confusing vibes, I thought it was me.   As long as that was the case, I could not question--couldn't really see--my automatic assumptions. At the point I gained enough perspective to see them, the deal was off: the deal that meant I had to remain blind to what it means to see or even think about society's demands.


So, as I said earlier, it's complicated. Who is guilty? Who is to atone? Are they atoning for themselves, or are they being put into the role of atoning for others as well? And, if the latter, in whose story is it that they find themselves playing that guilty role?

Abraham Joshua Heschel said, "Few are guilty, but all are responsible."

Assigning guilt is very close to blame.  What would it look like if we were to focus instead on taking responsibility?


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Trouble with Codewords and Keeping Your Mouth Shut

As an  American Jew, I have long wondered why there are areas related to Judaism or Jewishness that I can't talk about, or at least it feels as though they are not supposed to be talked about.  I've been wondering that for about a decade now--as long as I've been able to think about such things--although I certainly felt it long before I could think about it.  Recently my reading has inspired me to think more systematically about one particular area: that of violence toward Jews.  Before I delve into the specifics of my thinking on that subject, though, I'll go into two background areas, one from which I drew relatively more inspiration, and the other a relatively minor, but still significant, contributor to my endeavor.

Background Analysis--The Jim Crow Era

 I was inspired by a book, an older book: Melissa Fay Greene's The Temple Bombing, from 1996, which I've recently read as part of a group study.  My inspiration came from the author's examination of how it happened that that bombing, which happened in 1958, provoked or, at least, preceded change in attitudes toward civil rights in 1950s Atlanta. 

Beforehand, moderates ducked the issue, white supremacists held sway, and the old segregationist way maintained its homeostasis, in spite of the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. There may as well have been no contradiction at all between segregation and what was good and moral.  Afterward, the contradiction stood out in high relief.

Here are some of the highlights:

Before the bombing, Atlantans thought of their city as a bastion of moderation and modernity.  As far as they were concerned, racial hatred didn't exist, at least not here. If you said it did, you were thought to be creating division, not pointing it out.  After the bombing, Atlantans had to admit it did exist. 

In retrospect, preaching about the problem by the rabbi of The Temple was seen as having lured out the racial hatred and exposed it.

In the new view, young men committing violence out of misguided racial solidarity were not, after all, showing their mettle in defense of the system but revealing themselves as dangerous extremists.

The following excerpt from the book contains a quotation from Mayor William Hartsfield in the October 13, 1958, issue of the Atlanta Constitution:


"Looking at this terrible demolition I cannot help but realize it is the end result and payoff of a lot of rabble-rousing in the South.  Whether they like it or not, every political rabble-rouser is the godfather of these cross-burners and dynamiters who sneak about in the dark and give a bad name to the South.  It is high time that decent people in the South rise up and take charge."

...The mayor's statement was a rallying cry, an attempt to reach the vast proportion who wrongly believed that their silence on the race question was an adequate, even moral response.

Before the bombing, ordinary Atlantans could rationalize their resistance to integration, as though the words of liberalizing newspaper columnists and preachers pointed to an abstraction. They seemed to stand transfixed and paralyzed in the vain belief they could keep to their same old ways.


...(M)oderate people, people of quiet goodwill, civilized people could sidestep it all, as if the race question itself were not quite worthy of their notice, as if the subject of Negro rights was somehow slightly obscene.  

After the bombing, people couldn't linger on the sidelines.  They had to decide whether they were for or against violence as a means of perpetuating the status quo. Now they could see what the choice of anarchy entailed.  In the light of a new day, ordinary, everyday people for the first time began to stand up and speak out on these issues.

Let's say that most power structures, once in existence, strive to maintain themselves.  Once established, most power structures--all the way from Stieg Larsson's spooky fictional counterintelligence unit in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest to the beneficiaries of favoritism within ordinary families--don't call themselves out of existence and go quietly into that dark night.   And maybe the likelihood of violence goes up when that system comes under threat.  Melissa Fay Greene says that the violence at the fringes as Jim Crow came up against the pressure for civil rights served to maintain the white Protestant power structure of the day.

During the Jim Crow period in the American South, the treatment of black people both demonstrated and maintained their lesser status.  As such they existed outside the full protection of the law.  The system enjoined upon them to "stay in their place"--not that that held any guarantees.  Illogical and unpredictable events and all too predictable punitive reactions alike served to keep them in that place and maintain the system.

Other people, too--Jews and Catholics, for example--made their way as best they could in the society of the day.  They served at the pleasure, on one level protected by their white skin but also expected to kowtow to the system to keep it in place and keep their place in it.  Dependent on the system, they experienced social pressure to make obeisance to established social codes.  The conventional response was to keep one's head down and under the line of fire.  There was pressure on insiders and outsiders alike to march in time and in lockstep.  

Such is society: it gives us that without which we social animals cannot live, but at a price.  Change, too, comes at a price.

What penalty did dissenters fear? In a sense what they feared was shunning, that they, too, like people of color, would be placed outside the protection of the law and at the mercy of its self-styled defenders.  Awaiting dissenters was a string of accusations to which Jews were particularly prone, that they were radicals, communists, nigger-lovers, plotters against the Southern way of life.  They would be foreigners among us--outsiders whose designation as such would justify plucking them from the safe haven of legal protection and throwing them upon the tender mercies of vigilantes (or turning a blind eye when that happened).  Heretofore there had been numerous southerners in general and Jews in particular toeing the line and striving to fit in (although that was no guarantee).

After the bombing, though, and after some critical mass had been reached, such that right and wrong finally were illuminated,


"...there came yet another noise, one not heard much of late, one often drowned out.  It was the still quiet voice of the moderate heard once again in the Southland" (Pat Waters, Atlanta Journal, October 24, 1958, as quoted in The Temple Bombing).

There were those who spoke up, finally, and there was the flood of financial contributions, despite that The Temple was insured. And there were the well-wishers.  In this instance, then, that congregation of Jews was not shunned or cut off, but instead was sheltered within the circle of big downtown houses of worship, as one of them, and given soothing reassurance and comfort. In the meantime, segregationist leaders, who, as Melissa Fay Greene puts it, had been sanctioning resistance and violence out of one side of their mouths, had to scramble to deplore such acts out of the other side of their mouths, allowing liberal leaders to seize the moral high ground. 

As liberal columnist Ralph McGill wrote (Atlanta Constitution, October 13, 1958; quoted in The Temple Bombing),

Let us face the facts.  This is a harvest.  It is the crop of things sown. 
It is the harvest of defiance of courts and the encouragement of citizens to defy law on the part of many southern politicians....
It is not possible to preach lawlessness and restrict it.  
To be sure, none said go bomb a Jewish temple....
But let it be understood when leadership in high places in any degree fails to support constituted authority, it opens the gates to all those who wish to take the law into their own hands....
....
This, too, is a harvest of those so-called Christian ministers who have chosen to preach hate instead of compassion.  Let them now find pious words and raise their hands in deploring the bombing of a synagogue.
You do not preach and encourage hatred for the Negro and hope to restrict it to that field.  It is an old, old story.  It is one repeated over and over again in history.  When the wolves of hate are loosed on one people, then no one is safe.
------------------------------

Background Analysis--Krugman versus Charen on Republican Presidential Politics

On December 14, 2015, my local newspaper reprinted a matched set of editorials--one left-leaning and one right-leaning--that reminded me of what I'd just been reading in The Temple Bombing.

The first was by Paul Krugman, and the second by Mona Charen.  The topic was the ubiquitous Donald Trump and his pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination.

Krugman holds that mainstream Republican effort to exploit the racist and xenophobic fears and prejudice of their right-wing base, while simultaneously tamping down reaction and maintaining at least a semblance of control, has heretofore been conducted through innuendo and codewords.  Donald Trump has merely said out loud what the party establishment has been whispering.  Trump has ripped away the veil.

So along comes Donald Trump, saying bluntly the things establishment candidates try to convey in coded, deniable hints, and sounding as if he really means them. And he shoots to the top of the polls. Shocking, yes, but hardly surprising.

If Trump has destroyed Republican establishment camouflage, Charen and others are at pains to restore it.  The problem, they insist, is Trump, who is putting them in a bad light, and not the underlying pattern his words have highlighted.

This week, while we were still burying our dead from San Bernardino, every Republican — rather than explaining why President Obama's refusal to fight the war on terror has led to this moment — instead had to condemn Donald Trump's mindless proposal to keep every single Muslim out of the United States until further notice. Again, he's the perfect bogeyman.

It’s not just that what he says demands condemnation. It’s that it seems to give credence to the Democrats’ narrative.

But can what has once been seen be unseen?  Like the other way of seeing a reversible image, you cannot unknow that it is there.

The Charen article also tries to cover up that conservatives, too, have public intellectuals and elites who are shaping their view--Charen herself, for instance.  Republicans would like to have us think that conservatives somehow maintain a special degree of independence from such forces in order that they might "think for themselves."

Trump, of course, has nothing to offer except personality    — even if its charm eludes me. But his emphasis on “getting the best people” is exactly wrong. That’s the progressive idea — that the best people know better how to run your life than you do. That’s what we’ve had under Obama.

As during the Jim Crow era, there are vested interests in maintaining the illusion of a simpler world, one in which we knew who were the good guys and who were the bad, and one in which the good guys were people "like us."  In this connection see Mike Luckovich's August, 26, 2015, cartoon of  Trump wearing a "Make America White Again" cap.

Whatever your political leanings, my focus here is still on the question of how whatever is right in front of our noses can be, for all intents and purposes, invisible, and in how we maintain that blindness, thus denying responsibility for consequences, adopting, in other words, a "hear no evil, see no evil" posture, even as we sustain the animosity-generating illusion. And, further, I'm interested in how such illusions can collapse, as Paul Krugman claims is happening under Trump's spoken-out-loud hate speech--and as happened in my hometown after The Temple bombing.

----------------------------

Codewords and Silence on the Subject of Violence Against Jews

At present we're in an era where many people consider violence against Jews understandable--dare I even say justifiable?--because of Israel, or so it is said.  I explored that narrative in a previous post.  Internationally, terrorism against Jews gets little attention unless in the context of terrorism against others.

What I was reading in The Temple Bombing on the Jim Crow era in 1950s Atlanta made me think of this current situation vis-à-vis Jews.  In the present day, there's this relative silence when violence or injustice against Jews occurs--except perhaps among Jews, and I'm one of those who has begun speaking out; once I had noticed this pattern, words seemed preferable to befuddled disbelief. Anyway, when Jews come to harm, people mostly shake their heads and avert their eyes.  As Melissa Fay Greene writes on the subject of race relations in the Jim Crow South, it's as though it would be slightly obscene to mention Jews, much less speak up for them.

In 2014, swastikas were painted on the Jewish fraternity house at Emory University. The response was officially supportive, but the student newspaper's report included a complaint (not shared elsewhere) that the incident had received a disproportionate amount of attention.   I wondered whether the complainer's real issue was that it had received any attention at all.

The issue here is not competition over victimization.  I am wondering about the seeming imposition of silence on the subject of violence toward Jews or denigration of them.

In another incident, five years ago now, I was online with friends from a liberal Methodist church I'd been attending with my husband as news broke on the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.   At the time, there had been ongoing criticism of the graphically violent Republican campaign language such as Sarah Palin's placing a target over the Congresswoman's district.  "Words matter" had been a constant refrain.  Then it came out that Giffords was Jewish, and, suddenly, silence ensued on the subject of words mattering. It seems her attacker had to be viewed as completely crazy, his actions thus rendered meaningless.

The Emory swastika was "classic" antisemitism, in other words, a Nazi-style slur.  I thought maybe that was why it required attention.  But ordinarily, violence against Jews is not considered big news here in the U.S..  By that I mean it doesn't seem to make the national news.  For instance, we all saw those Westboro Baptist Church signs denigrating gays, but broadcasting the Jew-hating posters they were also brandishing did not happen and seemed to be a no-no.

Most antisemitic acts if aired at all seem to be buried in the local news.  Unless such incidents are reported in a Jewish news source or posted online, I'd not be likely to hear of them at all. 

We in this country--including Jews--would like to deny that there is antisemitism here, or so it seems. Conventional ideas are that Jews are liked here, safe here; in fact, as one sometimes hears, Jews are "privileged." We assume others have taken their place on the receiving end of hate.  Yet, although thankfully rare, most religious violence in this country occurs against Jews.  Most hate crimes in America are racial, but when it comes to religious violence Jews are the most common target.

It's confusing, and one reason may be that, Anti-Defamation League or no, anti-Judaism is so thoroughly interwoven with the culture.  Sometimes it's hard to tell when anti-Jewish attitudes end and ordinary church begins, given negative preaching and scriptural passages read free of accompanying educational material.  One small example to give an idea of what I'm talking about is the passage about hiding behind locked doors "for fear of the Jews" (John 20:19), read around Easter time. (I mention that one, having had occasion to waggle a finger quietly to signal it's too late; I'm already inside.)  I'm not talking about egregious antisemitism but about ordinary church.  I hypothesize that the overlap between anti-Jewish attitudes and normative values enhances an attitude of denial.

In some leftist circles here, including some liberal Christian and Unitarian circles, the idea that the U.S. has been too receptive to Jews is conducive to what I call Holocaust, not denial, but minimization.  It happened, but it's over, so the story goes, and Jews are using guilt over the Holocaust to deflect condemnation of Israel.

Israel!  People do talk about Israel; in the public square we are allowed to talk and argue about Israel.

Beyond that, the veil of silence falls and we enter the arena of innuendo.  Jews in France are murdered.  They aren't Israeli, but somehow, for more and more people, the subject of Israel makes the violence make sense, makes it reasonable, makes it, if not exactly okay, something they can understand and to which they could, under some circumstances, even subscribe.  The fact it happens to other Jews (Israelis being used as though synonymous with Jews) may be unfortunate but is understandable.  And, since understandable, not a big story, not news.  Not a subject of concern.

With Israel as the cover story, those telling that story have their excuses: "It's Israel.  We're just criticizing Israel.  Israel causes antisemitism."

But rationalizing, even tolerating violence, then using words to camouflage it--that's plausible deniability.

Just as, around the turn of the twentieth century, the racial pseudoscience of the day gave the disenfranchising of Jews its scientific gloss, the cover story of Israel disguises the focus on Jews as being a social justice issue about Israel.  The effect is arguably a narrative in which Jews are, for some people, back in their place as "the other," and without a word of it spoken. 

I'm arguing that there is a purposeful silence on the issue of violence toward or denigration of Jews, analogous to the silence Melissa Fay Greene says prevailed regarding race relations in the Jim Crow South.

If that's the case, we would expect energy expended to maintain the silence, that is, to keep the lid on, as Paul Krugman delineated regarding Republican political strategy.  And there are such efforts.

First may come an accusation of over-sensitivity, "Jewish paranoia," or the like; to say, in other words, "You're exaggerating" or "You're just imagining things," and thus to deflect comment--a dynamic similar to telling black people that voicing their concerns amounts to "playing the race card." "It's all your problem," in other words.

If deflection fails, one might hear ever-bolder condemnation of Israel, with any effort to widen the outlook portrayed as an opportunistic diversion from the matter at hand, Israel. 

Continued failure to fall into line can result in the charge of a blatant deficit of empathy for Palestinians.

Then may come the accusation of conflating Jews with Israel, all the while the accuser is doing just that: the best defense is a good offense in which one accuse the other party of doing what you yourself are doing.

And the volume increases.  At all costs, keep the focus on Israel and off of the accuser.  Distraction is the name of the game, and, loud though it may be, it functions to maintain the silence.

This is the system maintaining itself.

Melissa Fay Greene also wrote that the dynamic of silence and tolerating violence at the fringes of society served the prevailing white Protestant power structure.  Does the silence regarding Jews, and the pattern of looking the other way and rationalizing violence against them, have a corresponding function?  What "power structure" would that serve?

Here are two columns from 2010 that say, no, the traditional power structure is not seeking to maintain itself.  Both articles appeared on the heels of the appointment of Justices Sotomayor and Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court, leaving a Court devoid of Protestants.  Max Fisher wonders whether Jews are the new WASPs.  And Noah Feldman goes so far as to hypothesize that WASPs are phasing themselves out.

Is that what has happened?  Do groups willingly divest themselves of power?  That's not the picture we would expect to see.

In a mainline liberal Protestant Sunday school class, after the last two appointees gave us the Court we have now, a friend made what was for me a memorable slip of her tongue: she referred to a Supreme Court without any Christians.  She was neither magnanimous nor pleased.

Those two articles from 2010 allude to something else that has transpired over the last sixty or seventy years, something other than the emergence of the state of Israel yet something that has emerged during the same time frame: economic competition for the positions that Protestants could previously take for granted.  Prior to that time, the universities and professions and the airwaves and the ranks of public intellectuals--and the Supreme Court--weren't full of Jews as they are at present.

We should not underestimate the impact of economic competition.

Lastly, Paul Krugman in his column pointed to the political aims of silence. According to him in his discussion of Republican presidential politics, Trump's playing openly on fears and prejudices is confounding the Republican establishment's plausible deniability. Trump outed the dynamic of targeting immigrants, people of color, and Muslims in particular as "other," as common enemy.

Correspondingly, the political aim regarding Jews could be to use them as the common enemy.  When times are difficult, there's nothing like a common enemy to build your base and rally people to your cause.  Moreover, this has been a traditional role for Jews, and, in fact, one in particular that can't be said out loud.  A cover story is needed.


As it used to be rationalized, violence against "Negroes" was understandable or to be expected.  It was "normal."  You might say the story implied they required special measures.  What else could you expect?  For a very long time such special measures weren't news, either.

But can violence be targeted exclusively toward those you may not like or approve of?  Is hate divisible?  Or, might the earlier quotation apply again in the present day?

"...It is an old, old story.  It is one repeated over and over again in history.  When the wolves of hate are loosed on one people, then no one is safe."

Talking about what can't be talked about isn't easy, but I decided it's worth trying. I don't want it to be said, "...they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out..."

----------------------------


Readers have reported difficulty with commenting on my blog. You should be able to leave a comment if you log in via Google.  But in any case, copy your comment before trying to post it, so whatever happens it won't be lost.


Sunday, November 8, 2015

Israel and Antisemitism

Does Israel cause antisemitism?

There's a pretty compelling narrative to that effect these days.  That's to say that it's what Israel does and what it represents that makes people hate Jews.  In other words, if only Israel wasn't occupying Palestine and mistreating Palestinians, people wouldn't hate Jews.  Carried to its logical conclusions, then, if only Israel didn't exist as a Jewish state (since the story goes that by its very existence it's depriving Palestinians), people wouldn't hate Jews.

Please note I'm recounting that narrative but don't mean by doing so to be affirming its accuracy.

The anti-Israel message tries to make itself true by dint of volume and repetition.  That is, the message is being broadcast loudly and often.  Its publicists reserve the right to judge who's been good and bad, and they say they're on the side of the weak and good against the strong and evil, thus claiming the moral high ground.  That makes the message difficult to rebut and itself can instill a defensive posture in those on the receiving end.

The Jewish state is an immoral entity.  So goes the narrative.


On the other hand, prior to the inception of modern Zionism and, later, the existence of the state of Israel, there was another compelling narrative, one that held forth the statelessness of Jews as the cause of antisemitism. Jews were a foreign people, aliens in their host countries.  There they competed unfairly, by their obscene success sucking the wealth out of those host countries and caring only for themselves at the expense of the generous hosts--in what for the Christian benefactors was a fatal embrace.

Can a thing and its opposite both be the cause of antisemitism?

Well, someone might say, maybe so, if the Jews were evil in both incarnations.

So, then: that would suggest the latter rendition remains as compelling as it was in its day, which is not likely to be the case.  In the latter version, we can all likely recognize some of the classic antisemitic tropes that have since been discredited.

Still, though, the latter message helped inspire the father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl.  Believing that Jews as unwelcome interlopers in their host states were the cause of antisemitism, he thought antisemitism would disappear once the Jews were ensconced in their own state like other nations.

After a high point of acceptance for Jews, starting with their emancipation at the time of the French Declaration of the Rights of Men and of the Citizen and under Napoleon, things had been going backward for them over the course of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth (Ori Soltes, Untangling the Web: A Thinking Person's Guide to Why the Middle East is a Mess and Always Has Been, 2009). Horrific pogroms were occurring in Russia and elsewhere.  Antisemitism was on the rise even in France. Nor did better educated populaces prove immune.  In other words, antisemitism in both word and deed was a stimulus for Zionism, conceived by Herzl as an attempt to get out of Dodge while the getting was good.


But now that there is an Israel, the tune has changed.  In a sharp reversal of the former conventional wisdom, their being there is what's causing antisemitism.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

This has happened before.  When Jews were still in the ghetto they were considered degenerate and inferior--an example of what mid-twentieth-century American doctors might have called "piss-poor protoplasm."  But after they emerged and began to participate successfully in society, then they were considered clever and conniving and cunning (Emancipation: How Liberating Europe's Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance, Michael Goldfarb, 2009).  In other words, the narrative morphed.

The narrative has been rolling and morphing for a couple thousand years.

When there was a backlash against the new commercial societies that had emerged from the Enlightenment, Jews were blamed.  For Karl Marx, in fact, capitalism was "Jewdom."  Jewish involvement in capitalism was singled out as the cause of antisemitism.  But when some Jewish intellectuals attempted to remedy that by becoming communists, communism became in the minds of many the "cause" of antisemitism.  A thing and its opposite!  The misguided stereotype that all Jews were radicals eventually contributed to the Western liberal democracies' closing their borders to Jews not long before Nazism arose in Europe (Jerry Muller, Capitalism and the Jews, 2010).


The difficulty is that these purported causes of antisemitism are not causes at all, but story elements.  That is, although they are plausible, there is no causality to them.

It is a red flag when a story and its opposite are both touted.  Another clue is the simplicity of the stories.  Simple stories that pick and choose which (limited) facts to include tend to be plausible and to attract adherents--in particular, stories that target a common enemy.  Moreover, popular stories grow.  Most people aren't sociopaths, so it's advantageous for a story to become expansive about the alleged evil of those in the common-enemy role, to justify both hateful attitudes and misbehavior toward them.  Excuses are needed.

On the "causality" thing, it's difficult to predict the past.  If we see an ice cube at room temperature, we can readily predict the future: it will soon be a small puddle.  But if we see the small puddle, we can't say what "caused" it, for the possible causes are legion. There you have Nassim Nicholas Taleb's helpful ice-cube explanation from The Black Swan, 2007 and 2010.

That's just the tip of the iceberg regarding stories.  Stories are part and parcel of human existence.  But, as Barbara Brown Taylor (An Alter in the World, 2009) intuited, making another person into a character in one's own story is to become a fiction writer.  What I'm advocating here is that we learn to train the light of our consciousness on our stories, so as to illuminate aspects usually left in festering darkness.

In these particular stories about what "causes" antisemitism, I'm also suggesting that Jews especially could benefit from understanding that we're talking plausibility and not causality.  As the foregoing illustrates, Jews have been just as likely to hop on these bandwagons as anybody else.

Consider the old story, widespread in America, that goes Jews are persecuted "because you set yourselves apart." I'm thinking of the humorous line from Driving Miss Daisy (the play; it was left out of the movie): when Miss Daisy is told The Temple on Peachtree Street has been bombed, she exclaims, "Don't they know we're Reform?"  (meaning, "We're not that different; we are not supposed to have caused antisemitism.")

And consider those Jews who want to dissociate themselves from the state of Israel.  After all, there's the going narrative that to condemn Israel is the way to be a "good" Jew.

Do what's right for you, but whatever that is, don't do it in the blind belief in these narratives.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Comment re comments: Comments welcome, but I've been told in the past that comments have not posted appropriately and have been lost.  So save before posting.  You should be able to post by logging in with Google.  Someday I'll seek assistance in making these posts more comment-friendly.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Politics of Family Planning

In a sting earlier this month, a politically-conservative activist group, pretending to be purchasing fetal organs for research, filmed the Planned Parenthood director of medical research talking about the cost of obtaining the organs.  She was talking about obtaining the organs--and the cost of obtaining the organs, not about selling them for profit, but short edited parts of the longer interview appeared more damning.  Even in the presumably full interview, the medical official came across as impersonal and as if she were objectifying the fetuses and organs.

Right after the publication of the original sting, some of my more politically-conservative friends were up in arms, equating Planned Parenthood to the Nazis and calling for its immediate defunding.  I said I didn't like the process of attacking the target du jour in the media.  And I don't.  I abhor it--whether the target is one considered politically conservative such as police or Vietnam vets, or a liberal one, like teachers, child protective service workers, members of the Obama administration or Planned Parenthood.  That process seems more akin to scapegoating than truth-seeking.  Rather than deciding based on the trial in the public eye, I prefer to wait until the dust has settled, then read and think further.

The dust hasn't finished settling.  But today I read Ross Douthat's July 25 column reprinted in my local paper.  He's a conservative writer whose columns sometimes make some sense.  In this one, though, he attempts to marshal disgust at abortion.  Douthat is not accusing Planned Parenthood of selling organs for profit; he's just running with the renewed negative attention on abortion and on Planned Parenthood.

Why is Planned Parenthood such a political bone of contention, even though such a small part of its function has to do with abortion at all?

In traditional societies women had children.  There was no alternative.  Where the equality of women is accepted and where women are educated, the birth rate drops.  No wonder, then, that such a change provokes resistance in some quarters.  No wonder that in some segments of the world, "Western education is a sin."

But whatever Western modernity now means to some Middle Eastern or African nations, change even in the West has been hard-won.  Jill Lepore's November 14, 2011 article "Birthright" from The New Yorker gives some history from 100 years ago:

When Sanger began nursing poor immigrant women living in tenements on New York’s Lower East Side, she found that they were desperate for information about how to avoid pregnancy. These “doomed women implored me to reveal the ‘secret’ rich people had,” Sanger wrote in her autobiography.

I have remembered that phrasing ever since I first read this article.  And,

“I have Ben married 4 years the 25 december and I have all Redy given Birth to 3 children and all 3 of my children ar Boys and I am all most Broken down and am only 24 yers old,” a Kentucky woman wrote in 1922. “mrs sanger I do want you to write me an Return mail what to do to keep from Bring these Little one to this awfel world.” Mailing her that information would have broken the law.  

According to the same article, even by 1965, well within my lifetime, 94% of women dying from illegal abortions in New York were black or Puerto Rican.

So, the issue, really, is about birth control, not about abortion.  If women don't have to have babies and if they don't want to, or don't want to have enough of them, what then?

Unless we belong to certain traditional conservative religious groups, or to a political group that puts a high value on keeping its numbers up, most of us don't want to have eight or ten babies. We certainly aren't aiming to die young.  But under today's conditions, we sometimes don't want to have any children at all.  Remember the 2012 The Atlantic article, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All"? If having children is so hard and poses such a penalty career-wise and even on personal happiness and well-being (a penalty that can seem to increase exponentially with each additional baby), the outcome of the emotional calculus that underlies the personal choice about whether to have children isn't hard to derive.

If modern society wants educated and productive women to have children to whom to pass on their social capital, then stop penalizing them for it.  I'm talking not only about the institutions of society, although those are important, but also about traditional sex roles regarding who does the childcare and cleaning and cooking.  Who shoulders most of the load?  Those institutions and the roles would need to evolve.

Regarding pregnancy and childbirth outside of marriage, not too many years ago I remember hearing some television evangelist call for women to take up their traditional (in his view) role in preventing extramarital pregnancies.  But he's wrong.  That is not something women can do alone.  They can't hold back the whole tide of society.

When I was a teenager, extramarital pregnancies at my (segregated) public high school did happen but they were hushed up and rare.  It may be hard to resist the pressure of hormones and young love, but most of us did it.  How?  The whole weight of society was behind us and "on our side" in that endeavor.  The boys accepted it, too: it was what was accepted as right and good.  I have often been thankful for that and sorry for the irresistible pressure to which girls have been subjected in later years.  "Frigid" and "selfish" and "teasers" if they don't, "slut" if they do.  They don't have much of a chance.  You can't expect one segment of society to hold back a tidal wave.

I just finished reading a book on Christian ethics, The Sacredness of Human Life: Why an Ancient Biblical Vision is Key to the World's Future.  The author, David P. Gushee, an evangelical Christian ethicist and seminary professor, has attempted to detach traditional socially conservative positions from their rigid political moorings so ethical imperatives can evolve.  Thus, as to abortion, he says the focus should be not only on children but also on mothers, and he focuses on the disproportionate number of poor and disadvantaged women who choose abortion.  And thus he calls for addressing the suffering, abuse, and poverty of women rather than an exclusively antiabortion focus. David Gushee is by no means pro-abortion, but I don't think he'll be looking for any large beneficial societal impact of the current anti-Planned Parenthood vitriol.

By the way, there may be worse things than abortion.  Steven Pinker, in his 2011 tome, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, argues that infanticide, far from being unnatural, has been the evolutionary modus operandi.  If a hunter-gatherer family had a viable child that had survived infancy which would be endangered by a new and uncertain life, that new baby had to go.

If I have tried to make infanticide a bit more comprehensible, it is only to reduce the distance between the vast history in which it was accepted and our contemporary sensibilities in which it is abhorrent.  But the chasm that separates them is wide.  Even when we acknowledge the harsh evolutionary logic that applies to the hard lives of premodern peoples, many of their infanticides are, by our standards, hard to comprehend and impossible to forgive. (p. 418)

Criminalization of infanticide and religious injunctions against it began to turn the tide, but

(f)or almost a millennium and a half the Judeo-Christian prohibition against infanticide coexisted with massive infanticide in practice.  According to one historian, "exposure of infants during the Middle Ages was practiced on a gigantic scale with absolute impunity, noticed by writers with most frigid indifference" (Milner, L.S., Hardness of Heart/Hardness of Life: The Stain of Human Infanticide, 2000, quoted by Pinker). (p. 425)

"The several-thousandfold reduction in infanticide enjoyed in the Western world today" has resulted from religious and legal precepts, from our elevated standard of living, and from birth control--and from abortion.  The latter two reduce the number of unwanted babies. Added to the injunctions against infanticide has been a change in the valuation of children, no matter their parents or the circumstances of their conception and birth.  So, now infanticide is rare and makes the front-page news.

One of Steven Pinker's hypotheses is that we retain the taboo against infanticide while not even being able to imagine what it is that the taboo serves to repress.

Meanwhile, according to Pinker, abortion rates around the world are also falling.

Finally, in the following paragraph from Lepore's article in The New Yorker, there is a lot I'm still processing:

If a fertilized egg has constitutional rights, women cannot have equal rights with men. This, however, is exactly what no one wants to talk about, because it’s complicated, and it’s proved surprisingly easy to use the issue to political advantage. Democrats and Republicans thrust and parry, parry and thrust, in a battle that gives every appearance of having been going on forever, of getting nowhere, and of being unlikely to end anytime soon. That, however, is an illusion. Neither abortion nor birth control is, by nature, a partisan issue, and, from the vantage of history, it’s rather difficult to sort out which position is conservative and which liberal, not least because this debate, which rages at a time when there is no consensus about what makes a person a person, began before an American electorate of white men was able to agree that a woman’s status as a citizen is any different from that of a child.

Not a partisan issue?

Let me say that David Gushee does not want to see the lives of women ruined by bearing children, any more than I'm wanting to see women in problem situations to which the only solution is abortion.

The people on either side of these issues should not be demonized, as so often happens in our polarized rhetoric.   Each side for the most part is made up of good people.






Saturday, February 22, 2014

Polemic in Religion: "Rules" Revisited -- How a Methodist Clergyman Defended Performing His Gay Son's Marriage Ceremony

Last year I wrote a four-part series on rules, religion, and free will in relation to the modern claims of cognitive psychology and the other cognitive sciences; the first part focused on "Free Will."  A recent news item had me returning to the territory of "rules." 

I haven't broken this post down into shorter posts, and it's a long one.  The first part is about a particular interpretation given to a parable.  It can be read at one sitting.  The second part is longer and more complicated, with more in it.  I subdivided it into chunks with wider spaces in between: What is the import of that particular interpretation of the parable?  How did it get publicized, and why am I giving it so much attention?  How do "common-enemy" narratives work?  Polemic occurs in both Judaism and Christianity, but is it justifiable?  Is religion especially bad?  Can we get the polemic out of religion?  What is the downside--for its users--of using polemic?  What good is religion?

Looking at the interpretation of a parable
The first quote of the year listed by The Christian Century ("Voices of 2013," issue of December 25, 2013) reads as follows:

"I couldn't pass on the other side of the road like a Levite to preserve a rule.  All I saw was love for my son."
--The Rev. Frank Schaefer, who was convicted in November by fellow United Methodist clergy for officiating at the wedding of his gay son in 2007.

So here's this clergyman for whom I, as a liberal thinker in the matter of gay rights, had been rooting, but who is defining doing the right thing in opposition to the Judaism of Jesus' time--a Judaism he caricatured as representing stereotypical legalism over ethics and mercy.

Some background on the Rev. Schaefer's situation: The Atlanta Journal Constitution published this summary of The New York Times write-up of 12/19/13 on his status at the time:

The United Methodist Church on Thursday defrocked a Pennsylvania pastor who officiated at his son’s same-sex wedding six years ago and who refused to agree not to perform other gay marriages. In 2007, the Rev. Frank Schaefer performed a wedding for his son in Massachusetts,where same-sex marriage is legal. A member of Schaefer’s congregation later reported the wedding to church authorities, and the pastor was found guilty last month of violating church law and given a 30-day suspension. Schaefer had until Thursday to agree to abide by the United Methodist Book of Discipline, the church’s rules and doctrine.    — NEW YORK TIMES

As may be obvious, the Rev. Schaefer's quotation is referencing the New Testament story of Jesus' telling the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37):

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.  "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"  He said to him, "What is written in the law:  What do you read there?  He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."  And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"  Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.  Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  So likewise a Levite, when he came to the priest and saw him, passed him by on the other side.  But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them.  Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn and took care of him.  The next day he took out two dinarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him; and when I came back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.'  Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?"  He said, "The one who showed him mercy."  Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."  (New Revised Standard Version)

Amy-Jill Levine's 2006 book The Misunderstood Jew, The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, devotes no fewer than six pages to the good Samaritan parable.  She explains why purity laws, specifically, do not apply--because, for example, the Levite (and the Priest) are going down from, not up to, Jerusalem, and in fact how the commandment to love the neighbor as oneself or, for that matter, to bury the dead would have trumped them, anyway.  She explains how the Hebrew word mitzvah carries the connotation of commandment and good dead. She gives a lot of documentation about such laws, for example, that laws exist in tension with each other, so that burying the dead and caring for others can take precedence over other pertinent laws in the course of daily life.  Christian tradition, on the other hand, often frames "law" as rigid regulation to be blindly followed. 

Iboo Patel, an Indian-American Muslim whose 2012 book Sacred Ground -- Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America makes a case for religious pluralism also takes up the parable of the good Samaritan.  His examination first goes in the traditional Christian direction of focusing on legalism and the law.

Clearly, helping those in need is an important part of this story.  Well, why don't the priest and the Levite--both representing important positions in the community of Jews--stop to help?  They were both aware of the law.  In fact, they were expert in the law, and had responsibility for interpreting and implementing it.  Perhaps it was their very expertise that prevented them for helping.  One of the laws forbade the touching of the dead; another forbade them from touching Gentiles.  Perhaps the priest and the Levite feared that the man was dead or thought he was a Gentile, and chose to follow the letter of the law so that they would not become unclean.  Clearly, Jesus was saying there is a good higher than the letter of the law--the ethic of helping one in need.

Then Patel explains the weakness of that interpretation and how it misses the point of the parable.

But if that were indeed the main point of the story, why not have the priest or the Levite choose to override the letter of the law in the spirit of the higher good?  Certainly, that would have brought home the holiness of helping.  Something else is happening here. (My italics).

The priest and the Levite get only three short sentences in the story.  The Scripture is not about them.  The man who is hurt is also barely described at all.  It is the Samaritan who gets all the attention.  His action are described in rich detail--using oil and wine (valuable resources) to dress the wounds, using his own animal to transport the man, spending his own time caring for him, offering the innkeeper whatever money is necessary to nurse him back to health.

Jesus is telling a story about people who were not part of his audience. In fact, he is making one the hero of his story. (p. 144)

The relevant text of Luke, he says, is not making a point about the law nor is it about the Levite and priest.  It is about the Samaritan.

Amy-Jill Levine says,

To hear this parable in contemporary terms, we should think of ourselves as the person in the ditch, and then ask, "Is there anyone, from any group, about whom we'd rather die than acknowledge, 'She offered help' or 'He showed compassion'?"  More, is there any group whose members might rather die than help us?  If so, then we know how to find the modern equivalent for the Samaritan. (pp 148-149; my italics)

Here are my proposed rewrites according to Amy-Jill Levine's specifications.

If an American conservative Christian population were the target population of the good Samaritan parable, it should go something like this: 

A man is on the way to church when he is set upon by robbers and left along the side of the road.  His pastor--it could even be the Rev. Schaefer--hurries on by, keeping eyes fixed straight ahead since he is late for church.  Following the pastor comes the lay leader, whom the victim has known for years.  Like his predecessor, he, too, looks neither to the left nor right nor does he stop.  The compassionate giver of help in this version: an unmarried African-American woman (mother of six).

So here we have the "welfare mother" as the one who finds both the time and the will to fulfill the good Samaritan role.  The revised scenario would also work if the helper were an illegal immigrant, or it could be a gay man. As Amy-Jill Levine says, the story works as intended if that victim would almost rather die than accept help from those particular good Samaritans.

This modern-day version even parallels the internal pattern of the original: instead of Priest, Levite, but not (as the audience would have expected) Israelite, we have Pastor, followed by Lay Leader, but not by fellow Church Member.

Neither the pastor nor the lay leader is bad to the core, nor does the story pass judgment on their politics or religious views or blame those views for what happens.  Just as in the original parable, this version is not about the pastor or lay leader beyond their immediate actions nor about the strengths and weaknesses of their particular denomination.   In other words, the parable is not condemning the pastor for the sin of "legalism" because he wants to get to church on time.  The point of the story is not to blame or judge them.  The point of the story is to teach how the concept of neighbor is to be envisioned.  And the aim of the story--both the original and the revision--is to shake the target audience out of their complacency and preprogrammed assumptions.   

Along the same lines, if the target audience were a liberal one, then to make our point we would need to cast the one who stops to help as a stereotypical political conservative--say, a tea party member or gun-rights activist, or maybe even a right-wing militia member--but in any case someone whose imagined help stings the listeners.

If the audience rather than being merely liberal leans further toward the political left, then try setting the story in Israel. Picture the first person who walks on by without helping as a Palestinian Christian pastor, followed by an Arab West Bank resident. Who but a settler--or make him an IDF soldier--should stop and help?

Today, and in that setting, that's how the story about Jesus and the parable of the good Samaritan should go if it is to be heard as it would have been in its New Testament context.  The good Samaritan is the focus of this story, not those who do not stop and help.  Iboo Patel has that right.  

There's nothing there about rules.  Nothing at all.


If the parable of the good Samaritan is not about the deficiencies of Judaism in Jesus' day or about the superiority of love over "law," then what is  it about?  Let's look further.

According to the essay "The Concept of Neighbor in Jewish and Christian Ethics" by Michael Fagenblat (The Jewish-Annotated New Testament, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, 2011), the parable is best seen as describing who a neighbor is by what a neighbor does.  In this case, a neighbor puts love over labels.  When that happens we should recognize that it has, instead of being blinded by the box into which we have placed a person.

In the Jewish setting of that time, the issue is how the community is to get along, that is, how the individuals who are part of the community should relate.  Many Christians misinterpret the parable as broadening the concept of "neighbor" to include gentiles, simultaneously claiming that Jews restricted neighborliness to other Jews, while Christianity universalized the concept.  Although there was enmity between Samaritans, on one hand, and Judeans and Galileans, on the other, Samaritans were not "gentiles," nor did the earliest rabbis post-Temple consider them to be gentiles.  The differences were religious--for example, the two groups had different versions of the Torah, different priestly lines, and different locations for their temples.  So broadening the concept of "neighbor" to include gentiles is not the message of the story of Jesus' parable here.  Instead, the message is to recognize loving, caring actions even when the one who performs them has been categorized as "the enemy."

Moreover (and still from Michael Fagenblat's essay), the Leviticus commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself" (19:18) is not a substitute (that is, not a replacement) for all other rules about how Jews should relate.  Jews were not anarchists and neither was Jesus.  Rather, it  shows which principle is the overriding principle in relationships.  

That, I propose, and not later Christian interpretations, would have been the understanding of the historical Jesus. 

Finally, Michael Fagenblat says,

(t)he fact that Jewish tradition understood Leviticus 19:18b in the context of national law and not as a universal moral principle...does not imply that Jews are legally obliged to love only each other.  This view of ancient Judaism as restrictive ironically restricts Jewish ethics to one verse and neglects the full charter of Leviticus 19.  The chapter goes on, in v. 34 (cf. Deuteronomy 10:19) to mandate: "The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God" (p. 541).

The essayist then goes on to elucidate further the presence of universality in Jewish ethics. 

Looking at polemical thinking
We have now reached the point at which to ask just what is going on here.  Where does the Christian tradition of turning the parable into a criticism--in fact, a condemnation--of the priest and the Levite come from?  And should we be thinking in terms of a simple misunderstanding that a good logical explanation will correct?  I don't think so.  A misunderstanding that has persisted over the centuries must be a useful one.  It is certainly popular.  How people cling to it!

My understanding is that this particular Christian interpretation--this particular Christian misunderstanding of Judaism with respect to the good Samaritan parable--is a specific instance of the larger and probably foundational pattern of Christian belief that Christianity is an improvement over Judaism and is meant to replace it--officially verboten but alive and well nonetheless.  If that's the case then it's to be expected that the Christian tendency to fault Judaism is going to be given expression.  

In the remainder of this post, I'll be looking at what that process entails and how it happens, and also what are its implications--how should we think about all of this.  Looking at the interpretation of this particular parable as part of a pattern, we can springboard from there to looking at the pattern itself--the pattern of Christian belief that frames Judaism as a religion of rules and not love, punishment and not mercy, and caring only for other Jews and not others.   Part of what I'm going to argue is that the Christian tradition has come up with a "Judaism" amenable to its own talking points--which have in effect, then, through habitual usage, hardened into canon--the interpretation of the parable of the good Samaritan being one instance of that.  

I'm suggesting that the Judaism of legalism and obsessive-compulsive rules and punishment, absent of grace and spirituality--that Judaism is part of Christianity: Judaism as it has come to exist in the eye of a Christian beholder What was once useful for pulling adherents of the emerging new tradition together (by externalizing conflictual aspects onto "the Jews") thus ends up producing a distorted picture of Judaism as a system of rigid laws and no love--a picture that itself becomes unfortunately useful in raising up Christianity by contrast--all  of which are operations occurring in the minds of Christian beholders.

But in the present case such mental operations defeat the message.  They conveniently insulate the hearers from the provocative and traumatic message of this story about Jesus and the parable of the good Samaritan, a story not about criticizing some competing religion or its officiants, but one about how we should live.  

The story, in fact, is not about rules; it is a rule; a rule in story form; a rule for seeing loving others as higher than putting them in boxes (even the "enemy" box).


The lead-off quote in their "Voices of 2013" column notwithstanding, the December 25 issue of The Christian Century didn't strike me as particularly anti-Jewish.  Although I didn't read it from cover to cover, three articles I did read are respectful of Judaism.  For example, there is a fictional ethical case in which an architect with a Jewish colleague has to take a stand when a client/pastor doesn't want the colleague on the job ("Case by Case: Dress Code").  The issue also contains a favorable and deeply understanding review of the late Jewish author David Rakoff's Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish.  Thirdly, the issue includes Walter Brueggemann's book review of Violence in Scripture by Jerome F. D. Creach.  Although that review is somewhat opaque to me, Brueggemann at least has not taken the usual Marcionic path of disowning signs of violence in the bible by pinning them on "the Old Testament" and Jews.

What, then, are we to make of the anti-Jewish lead-off quote slamming the Levite?  Is it an editorial oversight that got in under the radar?  Are the editors (and most of Christendom) so deep inside the Christian box that such remarks don't register?  Are such traditional interpretations taken as facts of history, and, if so, does that make it right and proper to hold up "the Levite" as a negative beacon?  Would a term such as "imam" instead of "Levite" pass muster--or would any such term from any other religion or culture, past or present?  How is it that the editors don't seem to see the implication of the Rev. Schaefer's mini-sermon--that while standing up for one minority culture, the Rev. Schaefer is denigrating another?  

(Or, as an alternative to all of the above, could the editors be aware of the import of the Rev. Schaefer's statement and anticipating future comment and discussion?  If so, I haven't found that commentary yet.)
 
Let me entertain the possibility that at this point some readers may say the Rev. Schaefer's allusion to the Levite is not deserving of the sort of attention it's garnering here.  From that position, the question arises as to whether I'm making too big a deal out of a single awkward comment.  If this were an isolated instance, maybe so, but the point is that it isn't an isolated instance.  The remark fits within the broader pattern of anti-Judaism in Christianity.  Let those who cannot see the problem yet perpetuate it be the focus of some attention for a change!

Examples can be ugly but useful in clarifying just what we are talking about.  Here's one: the caricaturing of Judaism as the way not to live, as though being Christian were being good, and Judaism, bad--as captured in the belief that, for Christians, the evil impulse is "the Jew" in them.  Yes, somebody said in Sunday school that he'd been taught that.  But the Rev. Schaefer's words and their subsequent recapitulation in The Christian Century are more important than deplorable beliefs in the rank and file since they serve to encourage such patterns of belief.  

I myself resisted knowledge of any such concerns for much of my life.  Growing up after World War II as more a Jewish American than an American Jew, I was taught that anti-Jewish prejudice was, for good people, a thing of the past.  I grew up among genteel people who gave minimal direct expression to that kind of prejudice.  The fact that it was kept under wraps turned out not to mean that it was gone; nevertheless, we were to keep up the pretense that it was.  What I heard in the public square isn't what woke me up after all these years.  Neither is what I heard indirectly or by report from evangelicals or the black church.  My wake-up call indeed did come from behind church doors--mainline, liberal church doors--where, as one member of an interfaith married couple, I've had more regular attendance at church and Sunday school over the past six years than many Christians.  The bottom line is that, since the anti-Judaism is there, it's better to stop denying and face it.  That is the reason I talk and write about it.  Although nobody likes it and it's uncomfortable for all, I believe that it is important not to maintain silence and deniability.


That out of the way, let's look how polemic works.  Polemic against outsiders promotes group bonding.  It creates ties by projecting all internal conflict onto what has been called the "indispensable enemy," and simultaneously it dispenses with doubt or guilt, since "It's not 'us;' it's 'them.'"  But, if polemic distorts what we are supposed to learn and our views of others in the world as well, then the ties it creates are ties that blind.  (Thanks to Jonathan Haight in The Righteous Mind, 2012, for the idea of ties that both bind and blind.)

Does everybody these days understand how the "common enemy" maneuver works?  It's a theme to which I've returned often (for example, see Rules, Part II of Rules, Religion, and Free Will--and Cognitive Science, at about the half-way mark), so I may assume more familiarity with the concept than I should.

Once upon a time in the early history of what would become Christianity, there was active polemic that unified the followers of the emerging tradition by blaming internal troubles and dissent on the earlier tradition--in effect making them "the enemy."

Here's Barbara Brown Taylor on the uses of the common enemy (in "The Practice of Encountering Others," An Alter in the World, 2009):

I know that nothing strengthens community like a common enemy.  I know that when religious people are feeling overwhelmed by a world with little use for their ancient truths, they can find new meaning by identifying a great evil to oppose.  I know that the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are especially vulnerable to the formation of "oppositional identity," both because the stories of their struggles with their enemies have been made sacred in their scriptures and because monotheists--one-true-God people--have never wasted much charity on those who do not acknowledge their one true God.  Here is a law as reliable as gravity: the degree to which we believe our faith is what makes us human is the same degree to which we will question the humanity of those who do not share our faith.

"We have just enough religion to make us hate one another," Jonathan Swift once observed, "but not enough to make us love one another."  Because we are human, which is to say essentially self-interested, we are always looking for ways to add a little more authority to our causes, to come up with better reasons to fight for what we want than "Because I want it, that's why."  If we can convince ourselves that God wants it too--even if that means making God in our own image so we can deny the image of God in our enemies--then we are free to engage in combative piety.  We are free to harm others not for our own reasons but in the name of God, which allows us to feel holy about doing it instead of just plain bad.

People can see how that works in other segments in society, but they have the devil's own time seeing it in themselves.  In a nutshell, if we read scripture as literal eye-witness history, we are going to be putting people in boxes.  For Christians, that is what I call New Testament fundamentalism.  Indeed, even for post-Christians living in our culture, this facile way of seeing who (and what) is good and what isn't can remain unchanged, even if their various beliefs about divinity and miracles have changed.  When faith dies, the residue it leaves among the post-Christian Left is likely to be the anti-Judaism.  The short version of that is that although they may no longer accept the truth claims of Christianity, they still believe Jesus was a very good man opposed by very bad people whose society--rigid, rule-bound, exclusive, misogynistic, the whole nine yards--was in need of him to reform it.  In that way the anti-Judaism perpetuates itself outside the church. It also happens that when faith hasn't quite died but requires defibrillation, that too is often administered via a jolt of anti-Judaism.  All of the aforementioned leads to putting Jews in the "enemy" box.  Either way, the negative beliefs and perceptions about things Jewish can survive unscathed.

A small but telling incident illustrative of the impact of anti-Judaism occurred while my mother was still alive and in assisted living.  An African-American man who contracted with the facility to provide transportation used to help me chauffeur her to her doctors' appointments.  One day I had with me the book Finding God: Selected Responses (Rifat Sonsino and Daniel Syme, revised edition, 2002), an exploration of Jewish theology.  While we waited he picked it up and casually began to riffle through it.  All of a sudden he dropped it as if it had burned his hand.

As a rabbi of my acquaintance--one of my teachers--has been known to say, he gets tired of being the bad guy in somebody else' story.


As the earlier quotation from Barbara Brown Taylor indicates, Jews aren't immune to use of the common-enemy motif.  Because their biblical scripture predates Christianity, the scriptural polemics aren't about Christians but about their own cultural competitors in those times--the Canaanites, Moabites, and so on.

Is that polemic justified because the targeted populations are no more?  That is, is it okay since there are no more Canaanites to be hurt by it?  There is a traditional explanation along those lines--that it is okay for just that once since the formerly targeted group is gone.

Now, that is not so different in implication from the Christian corrective that only certain specific Jews (not all Jews for all time)--who, like Canaanites, are dead and gone--are guilty of killing Jesus.  Such rationales attempt to sidestep literalism without confronting it head on. Those rationales then become a precedent for elevating one's own tradition by lowering someone else'--a kind of mental shortcut that, as we see, is not a one-way street but that supports raising up people like oneself by demonizing people who aren't (and which, by extension, could even suggest a final solution of making them dead and gone).

As the world comes into focus for us through the lens of a common enemy, we gain the secure feeling of walking on solid ground.  We become in our own eyes the vindicated ones who have followed the right path, in contrast to those who, according to our vision, took the wrong one.  We don't let go of such ideas easily.  But that shortcut to solidity--being right in contrast to those we deem wrong--is most certainly not without consequences.  It not only informs our own self-justification and sense of security.  It also gives us our rationale for whom we make the "enemy," the "bad guy."  A vicious circle then ensues: the more we think badly of someone, then the more we have to believe they deserve it, and as we treat them worse they keep morphing into ever more devilish form--in our eyes.  

And so our "innocent" little self-esteem-enhancing polemic becomes the conduit for what we put back out into the world--the birth canal for what we are delivering into reality, you could say.

I've been wondering about what Jonathan Swift said regarding our having just enough religion to hate one another (as in Barbara Brown Taylor's quote).  Is hating one another religion at all?  I've been struggling with whether hating one another is in fact the opposite of religion.  I know that some cognitive scientists, at least as represented by Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind), say that the best we can do is to behave better within our own group, since humans have evolved and survived in groups and in opposition to competing groups.  

Yet, who is my group?  Other Jews?  Americans? Liberals? (and so on).  Western civilization as we know it has been working because of the plethora of competing and overlapping groups woven into the social fabric.  If only that fabric can hold!

It seems all religions tell us to love others as ourselves.  That is how religion tells us to live.  Religion is saying that is the main law of life, the top organizing principle.  It certainly is not a rule just for the sake of having a rule, or for the sake of having an excuse for punishment--common takes on rules in Christian tradition--but a rule that takes into consideration that we all loom large in our own eyes.  

We all understand we ourselves are wanting to live and thrive.  We all see ourselves as fully human, so we cut ourselves yards and yards of slack, all the while holding the other guy to the letter of our own law.  We see what the other guy is up to and are not about to let him get away with it.  Oh, how biased we are in favor of ourselves!  No religious law ever told us to love ourselves best--because we already do.  We don't need to be told to rationalize in our own favor!


At this point I want to ask if religion is primarily to blame for the hate and violence in the world.   My topic is religion, but are the modes of thought and mental operations I've been talking about specific to religion?

Now, some people do believe that religion is the major source of evil in the world.  They are really down on religion.  It may be that that is part of how Western civilization is still being shaped by the dreadful civil wars of religion that plagued Europe in the sixteenth through mid-seventeenth century--Catholic against Protestant, and the various Protestant sects against each other.  It may be that the extended hell of those wars at the dawn of modernity has left a lingering distaste, so that certain committed secularists flag religion as "the cause" of hate and violence.  However, the French Revolution (end of the 18th century) gives a striking counter-example of violence as bloody and vindictive as any stemming from religious war.  

Although the revolution was happening in the name of popular sovereignty, there were large popular uprisings to bring back the king and clergy.  Revolutionaries, though, could not countenance opposition on the part of the peasantry.  How could there be resistance by the very people in whose name the revolution was occurring?  

The revolutionary mentality had no room for diverse opinion, so the peasants involved had to be adjusted to make them fit the story.  First the revolutionaries called them "ignorant dupes."  Next, the terminology progressed until they were said to be "corrupt," that is, corrupted by long contact with the church.  Ultimately those people became "gangrenous" in the eyes of the revolution--thus requiring surgical removal from the body politic.  According to the lecturer Donald M.G. Sutherland (Lecture 8, Odyssey of the West V, Modern Scholar), the guillotine couldn't kill them fast enough to effect the desired cure or teach the wished-for lesson.  Some macabre methods were attempted; if gas chambers had been invented the revolution would have used them.  So it is that from the French Revolution we take not only the lessons of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, but also the legacy of transformative violence--that human nature and society can be perfected through violent revolution.  

Thus, although religion has been a major source of demonic stories about "the other," it is not the only source.  So it is that nowadays in America, the political Left teaches that conservatives are the dupes of business and that conservatism is a sickness, while the Right for its part warns of godless liberals selling out the country to benefit themselves, appeasers of radical Islam and in thrall to socialism.

No, the fault is not in religion but in ourselves.

In fact, aren't secularists who are demonizing religion just doing more of the same?


Can we extricate ourselves from polemics and common enemies?  Christianity does have its own particular religious ways to talk about all this: Love your enemy.  Because we see what will happen if we don't: we will turn the other guy into an enemy and scapegoat him for our own faults. We will be blinded by the log in our own eye.  But does anybody pay attention?  I have not noticed any diminution in the making of enemies.

The question still remains whether the parts of our stories that lead us to make enemies are religion at all, no matter how interwoven.  For better or worse, polemic is woven into all our traditions.  Not only is there polemic against other religions and cultures but also against the earlier forms of a particular tradition--the forms that did not prevail, even the stepping stones.  There certainly is polemic between the competing branches of a religion.  Does the fact that it has been woven in mean that it must be believed, taught, and passed on?  For that indeed is happening on an ongoing basis.

Many people hope that the way out of the conundrum of polemic is critical scholarship.  They hope that historical study will enable the eye to discern what is history and to distinguish history from theology with its attendant agendas.  For example,

“What history can do is show that people have to take responsibility for what they activate out of their tradition. It’s not just a given thing one slavishly follows. You have to be accountable.” (Karen L. King, quoted in "The Inside Story of a Controversial New Text About Jesus" by Ariel Sabar, in the September 18, 2012 issue of Smithsonian Magazine)

But the paradigm of having enemies remains the way of the world, with no exception for religion.  How do you change a paradigm?  The tipping point at which a paradigm will shift isn't easily achievable.  Our minds have ways of maintaining their familiar paths.  Our scholars can confuse history with theology.  Being human, they have their own agendas.

In the end, most of us, if told a convincing tale about how we as a class are better than the next guy, find that an offer we don't refuse.  That is, people can't or won't easily say no to that sort of empowerment if it is handed to them, nor will they readily question problematical strains of belief being expressed within their own groups--if they can even hear them.  Just think how hard it really is to confront even egregious behavior from within a group, for example, child sexual abuse--no matter what everyone assumes he or she would do. How much harder it is to confront the more subtle missteps!  Seeing one's situation through the common-enemy lens is based on human needs and realities; the fact that that's ultimately a poor foundation for an edifice of faith is small consolation to outsiders or dissenters for centuries of second-class citizenship and ill treatment.

Evolutionary theory in many fields--biology, psychology, anthropology, and so on, gives us to understand that group empowerment stemming from believing bad things about "the other" boils down to an issue of survival.  The group that prevails, survives.  We flatter ourselves that we as individuals have made our own informed personal decisions on right actions, but we forget there is a sociological level to life as well as a psychological level.  We are harnessed to our group's struggle for survival.  In other words, whatever our rationalizations for our own decisions and actions, we as members of broad societal groupings are simultaneously striving to sink our own roots deeper, if we are a beleaguered minority, or, if the majority, to see that others never so much as threaten to spread and crowd us out.  That sort of populism, which builds on group identity and group feeling ("team spirit")--is going on whether or not we are paying attention.

Everyone, of course, credits his or her own self with full-fledged independent decision making, blind to the currents in which we are swept along.  We can readily see such dynamics occurring in other groups but not in ourselves or our friends.  We make an idol of our own perceived rationality.

We not only reinforce group solidarity on the basis of our narratives; we also act on the basis of our narratives. And that's where what we birth into reality comes in.

So, no, we can't exclude from religion the polemics and the assigning of common-enemy status to outsiders any more than we can exclude them from other forms of human endeavor.

The majority of people don't stop and examine their behavior out of the goodness of their hearts alone.  As noted, from within our groups we self-justify.  To that end the other guy--the outsider--must be bad.  His treatment is thus "understandable."  He "deserves" it.  So, while morality may suggest a pause for reflection, it is not likely to happen on a widespread basis--not unless those dishing out the problematic attitudes or behavior come up against other powerful forces in society--since people rationalize their attitudes.  We generate more self-justifying stories on demand.  It's hard to stop a vicious circle!

Even serious guilt won't work indefinitely in changing the thought patterns and behavior of a dominant and empowered group unless it comes up against opposing forces in society.  For human beings to change, they must perceive the cost and not only the benefit of not doing so.


Facing our human dilemma squarely and without deluding ourselves about human nature, one work-around may be to articulate the disadvantages polemics and common-enemy thinking pose for groups using them.  We know the real and present danger polemics can pose for a targeted group, if they lack power or if the societal network of constraints on powerful groups breaks down.  But what does our discussion imply about the danger of polemic for its practitioners

First, as shown in the distorted usage to which Christians often put the parable of the good Samaritan, polemics can and often do cause us to misunderstand our own teachings and make us practitioners of "bad" religion.  Arguably, polemics even take us out of the true realm of religion entirely and into the politics of group survival and advancement.

Second, polemic blinds us to others, making it all too easy for them to appear to our eyes in demonized form.  It increases the likelihood of horrendous behaviors in the name of religion.  As an adjunct to that, polemic encourages our human tendency to be extremely attentive to the faults and failings of others, while remaining conveniently blind to our own--even when the latter are on a much larger scale.

Through placing the "other" in the box labeled "enemy," polemics prime the impulse opposite to that of loving one's neighbor--that key enterprise of religion and first and foremost rule for how to relate to our fellow.

Finally, in falling wholly into our own propaganda we risk blindness to real dangers outside the narrow range of the stories we tell.  Cognitive science tells us the stories that are the easiest for large social groups to believe are those that incorporate the fewest facts--thus omitting "inconvenient truths"--and embody the least complexity.  But "easiest to believe" does not equate to "true," nor "plausible" to "probable." Preferring illusions of solidity, how will we know when we're skating out over thin ice?


It sounds as though what I've come up with here is a "realism"-based theory of group relations.  It sounds like I'm saying that, as in the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, we can't lift the curse but only improve it to a hundred-years sleep; we can mitigate but not remove our dilemma.  Well, then, what good is religion, if we are so prone to fooling ourselves, and if being between a rock and a hard place, not morality per se, is the effective mechanism for change?  Is religion just shilling for politics, enabling one group to feel good about themselves while they are becoming dominant and overpowering some other group?  Even if the interpersonal dynamics within a group improve, all that gets us is better internal relationships, while relationships with outsiders remain lousy.  Is that the best we can hope for?

Beyond looking at the harm polemical thinking can do to others and ourselves, can we say anything about the positive value of religion?   So far I've said it's not to blame for all evils--that it's no worse as to polemical thinking than other sorts of group endeavors, yet is prone, as are the others, to leading people into common-enemy thinking and, so, self-delusion and error.

For most of my life up until six or seven years ago I had no use for organized religion.  Due to various personal and historical factors, my early experiences with it did not work for me.  Anyway, I thought that life in the secular world, free from organized religion, was freedom.  In my mind, not belonging was freedom.

But I found out that the secular world is not nothing.  It is something.  That "something" turns out to be whole webs of rules ripe for internalization that I had mapped into myself without knowing it--rules about what is allowed, what one can and cannot say, can and cannot do, rules about being nice.  This is Western civilization, and Western civilization was/is paternalistic--the American version being white-dominant--and it is culturally Christian.  You are not supposed to see any of that or say that, because theoretically we are all equal, but you feel it.  Oh, the youth revolution came along, and I rebelled, all right, but not at a level that could touch that web.  Maybe as I struggled it only cut deeper.

If you happen to be descended from the dominant culture, maybe cultural Christianity would be congruent with who you are, so it might work for you--all other things being equal.  But that was not my experience as a woman born in the mid-20th century, growing up in the suburban Protestant South as a member of a minority religion and ethnic group, one that is not necessarily so accepted and popular as we all like to believe (and a group identity of which, since I'd become unmoored from it, I experienced the social disadvantages but not the benefits).  Adrift in the larger society, even the fact of my Judaism was an unmentionable; one must be nice, and in some undefined way that wasn't nice--not when I was growing up and not now.

To think, perchance to speak--so don't!  Above all, one must not contradict the dominant narrative; you can live here--you can live--as long as you relinquish all control of the narrative.  Never subvert the narrative, including and especially when it includes oneself!  Or (what?) will happen?  In short, one must suppress oneself, hold one's breath, walk on eggshells.

That's why what I heard behind the church doors was key.  For the first time, I heard articulated what had been hush-hush in the public arena.  I heard what my mainstream peers were saying, what was really in their hearts and on their minds, and what everybody had always been so careful not to let out of the bag.  It turned out to be a blessing that I did, because that freed me from pretense.  It set me to studying and learning and--for the first time in my life, really--letting go and thinking, and it sent me back to my roots, where, for the first time ever, I was asking to be taught.

I have heard it said that to be free you must first belong to something.  A religion is something, my something.

So, here, then, is the other side of the picture.  Here is what religion can do, in contradistinction to its being the source of group bonding and survival, which leads to the problematical factors that I've been writing about and that we all know about.  Religion can be eye-opening.  Religion can make a person stop trying to hide and come out in the open.  Religion can make someone stand up and be counted.  Religion can make you think a new thought.

Remember Hannah Arendt and "the banality of evil?"  For her that consisted exactly in the inability to question oneself or to think a new thought.  The banality of evil means that evil consists of the thinking of conventional thoughts only--group-think.  Proper religion can counter that.  It can give us the ability to get outside our boxes and have a new view.  We have the chance to see and think and learn and speak, and that's the way to go.


Addendum: Please note that the moderator function for comments is in use to prevent spam, which may be connected with the disappearance of some prospective comments, according to prior feedback I've received.  Therefore, please take the precaution of copying your comment before attempting to post it.  You should be able to post via a Google account.  I apologize for any difficulties.