Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Double-Edged Sword, Part 1

Three plus years ago it so happened that I learned a number of college-educated, liberal, professional people in this country--people I consider my peers--look down on me because of my religion, and they look down on Judaism. Now, they always may have done so, but I hadn't faced it. Because of the times I was fortunate enough to be born in, I maintained the illusion that only uneducated, ignorant people had such prejudices. I didn't know such beliefs were widely held and even widely taught, although once I learned this was so, it did explain a lot. The confrontation with this reality launched me into a course of study and a journey into community--or communities. (But luckily, I learned to love the studying and learning. And I need the people, too!)

At first the problem seemed to be that the Christians I met were learning a lot of erroneous information about Jews in Jesus' time. For example, a Living the Questions course taught that Jesus was like a civil rights leader, and all the Jewish leaders were the bad guys--analogous to segregationists. Well, maybe there could be a few good ones but mostly not. Brian McLaren taught in Everything Must Change that there were four categories of Jewish leaders, all either clownishly stupid, ineffective, or corrupt, who didn't know what to do about anything. Only Jesus knew what to do. The Wisdom Jesus by Cynthia Bourgeault, on Christian mysticism, taught that Jesus proclaimed a beautiful, wild, free, deep truth; rabbis in contrast were teaching rigid legalism, all the while running around telling the people not to listen to Jesus. John Dear, a Jesuit priest being interviewed in Sun Magazine said that Jerusalem was the heart of evil of the Roman Empire. The priests in the Temple were extorting the people to get money for the Emperor. Deepak Chopra (not a Christian, but writing for them) said in The Third Jesus that the priests were subjugating the people. He thinks--or at least, wrote--that Jews invented original sin and saw nature as punishment via toil and suffering, that their relationships were enforced by religious obligations which their angry god demanded, that Jews constantly feared Satan (although with his view of "the Jewish God," that sounds redundant). He wrote that Jesus came to free people from being trapped in such a hell on earth, and, further, that Christians who are misguided (according to him) have forgotten Jesus and relapsed into those allegedly Jewish beliefs. Joseph Campbell, similarly, wrote that ancient Mideastern Israelite beliefs blocked the spiritual truths that were later revealed through Christ. People who cannot see Christ's true message are trapped in those snares (Thou Art That). Educated, religiously inclined people from the Christian tradition whom I met in diverse settings commonly believe and insist that Jews in Jesus' time didn't want to bury their dead or even take care of the sick because of purity issues. And so on.

Early on, I knew almost nothing about Judaism, yet enough to know that whatever those writers, intellectuals, and teachers were talking about, it was not Judaism. So it seemed I could simply speak up and correct these gross misconceptions. But it didn't work. It is very sticky. These are not misconceptions that people want to give up. They seem attached to these beliefs. They will quote Leviticus, they will quote Marcus Borg. This is tantamount to claiming that they are not only experts on Christianity but also, as they apparently believe, experts on Judaism. And so, to them, any disagreement apparently means it's I who am being defensive. And even stickier: not only am I being defensive; if I'm contradicting their beliefs about Judaism, I must be attacking Christianity. Just for saying what Christians say about Jews is wrong, I could be--the enemy of the Church!

Then the plot thickens. At the same time that I was being impacted by people's ideologies about the first century of the common era, I was hearing surprisingly similar or parallel teachings about the country of Israel nowadays. Israel is practicing apartheid. Israel is a theocracy. People in Israel who are not Jews are mistreated and have no rights. Israel's existence is based on imperialism. Also, Zionists were opportunistic European imperialists. The 1967 war was a preemptive war for territory. The European Jews were devilishly superhuman even to be able to survive (much less thrive) in their new locale. They have gone about destroying the cultural heritage and artifacts of Palestinians. They could and should stop the occupation unilaterally. While a two-state solution is better than the current situation, Israel really should never have been created and should not be there. Its being there may bring about an apocalypse that liberal Christians say conservative Christians are seeking to actualize. Before the state of Israel was created, there was peace in the region. Because of deception by Jews via the Jewish lobby, Israel is given huge amounts of money just so they can bully their neighbors. The Jews by their control of Hollywood in particular have put forth a successful propaganda effort that has wrongly convinced America that the creation of Israel represented justice, but "if America only knew" the truth, they would all condemn Israel just like the rest of the world does.

"If America only knew" has been the theme of recent liberal anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian talking points from the liberal church, and "If Americans Knew" is the nonprofit organization and website of journalist and lecturer Alison Weir (not to be confused with the British author and historian of the same name). If Americans Knew consists of what has become the familiar anti-Israel polemic and more. For an example of what I mean by "more," I found there a lengthy article by Ms. Weir to the effect that Jews are capturing Palestinians to harvest their organs for the underground organ trade which they, through a conspiracy, are concealing. In case the reader thinks that sounds like the classic antisemitic blood libel against Jews, Ms. Weir claims that during the middle ages, Jews did kill Christians and use their blood, in reprisal for Christian persecution of Jews. One wonders what kind of a guilty conscience those accusations hide.

Reviewing this litany of what I heard about Jews and Israelis in church and through church, I must mention two more. First, Rev. Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Christian now in the US who, under the auspices of his so-called peace organization, Sabeel, teaches his pro-Palestinian position via the classic Jews-as-Christ-killers motif. Second, the tragic case of Rachel Corrie, the International Solidarity Movement protester who was killed in Gaza in 2003 while trying to block a bulldozer under disputed circumstances. Her supporters in demanding justice and truth claim that she was intentionally killed, again according to the Christ-killing motif. I, too, want the truth, but fear her supporters will claim a whitewash unless their version of the truth, which they have already accepted, is vindicated.

What I'm saying is that the above beliefs and similar ones are being spread through liberal churches today. They are not all being taught from the pulpit, but they or related material is being taught through Sunday school and generally communicated and reinforced through church networks and ministries. The framework which underlies these beliefs and points of view is being taught. The view of Jesus as a social justice leader taken out of his context and played against a supposed unjust and evil Jewish society in which the people were suffering under exploitative leaders is being widely accepted as literal history. It forms a framework for viewing ancient Judaism as well as modern international politics.

What is being taught in churches is important. Malcolm Gladwell, writing in the October 4, 2010, issue of The New Yorker ("Small Change--Why the revolution will not be tweeted"), argues that change does not stem from casual notifications via social networks. It comes not from such casual contacts but from deliberate teaching and planning. His example was the use to which black churches were put during the Civil Rights era. But the new historical and sociological understanding that social actions arise not spontaneously but intentionally does not apply only to positive movements like Civil Rights. For example, the Leo Frank lynching in 1915: We used to think of that lynching as a spasm of mob violence, but now it's known that men who were pillars of the community deliberately planned and carried it out (And the Dead Shall Rise, by Steve Oney). Another example of the planned and orchestrated nature of social movements masquerading as spontaneous: the money and planning of David and Charles Koch, the billionaire libertarian businessmen exposed as being behind the ostensibly spontaneous Tea Party movement in Jane Mayer's "Covert Operations," The New Yorker, August 30, 2010.

Right wing beliefs that spread throughout a society are no spontaneous conflagration from the grassroots, nor is the new anti-Judaism a mysterious virus. It is being taught. After WWII and the grisly evidence of the Holocaust, humility regarding Jews was the predominant note throughout Christian America. Not that antisemitism disappeared, but those voices were muted. Progressive, pro-justice movements flourished, and the Civil Rights movement came to fruition. Then, with the passage of decades, the evangelical movement and "Christian right" gathered strength (although not many years before, those millions of people had called themselves "the silent majority"). As the conservative church gained ascendancy, the mainstream, liberal churches were left relatively depleted and hemorrhaging members, with their voices still muted. To some, the "separation barrier" in Israel must have appeared as a wonderful opportunity--if not an antisemite's dream, then an opportunist's dream. All of a sudden, a voice, a purpose, a new cause! Something with which to chastise the Right. New battle lines were drawn, not against injustice in America, this time, but, using Israel, against the competing conservative Christian movement. And only afterwards did the burgeoning theology in support of the new movement, the revisionism, and the plentiful condemnation follow, in justification.

If America only knew!

And not one bit of this is to say that we must not correct injustice in Israel. This post is about the political uses of blame and the scapegoating and the distraction from themselves that people use, and, yes, the hate they nurture. This about the disproportion, so that what they hold up as symbolic genocide is loudly decried while, elsewhere, actual genocide proceeds. This about silence on terrorism. This about silence on the persecution of Christians in the world unless there is some Jewish connection. This is about claiming that Jews are responsible for America-hatred abroad or for the conflict between Islam and Christianity. This about those who, in condemning Israel for putting people behind walls (with forced comparisons to Nazi death camps), forget who actually invented ghettos. This is about justifying hate. Because this is not Judaism or Israel. This is Christianity's own dark side, projected onto others and, here, called "Jews." This is about making someone else the Antichrist--not a bit different than when the right wing does the same to Islam or President Obama.

I am not writing to condemn all Christianity, but I am writing about those aspects of Christianity that have confronted me since late 2007. I very well know and I am so happy that there are Christian writers and teachers who do not promote anti-Judaism, do not want it to be done, and struggle to undo what has been done. Here are some from whom I have learned and who have influenced me: When I read Barbara Brown Taylor there is no odor of anti-Judaism. She teaches that when one people includes another people in their narrative, they are writing fiction. She teaches that one can protest injustice and protest injustice by governments, but must never use the same methods against which they are protesting. James Carroll in Constantine's Sword struggles with the history of Christian antisemitism and how he, himself--a Christian--might relate to Judaism. The New Perspective Christian scholars on Paul are uncovering the truth that what Paul meant was not what the tradition has held up over the years. In other words, not all Christians seek to celebrate and exploit an anti-Jewish scripture but rather some are not only willing but glad to reveal that Paul's original writings have been put into a context in which they were twisted and misunderstood. These are certainly not the only examples, but in three plus years I have at least come into contact with them. And let me not forget Martin Luther King Jr., who never exploited anti-Judaism, for his beloved community included--did it not?--both Jew and Gentile.