How I Became a Witness
In 2008, Amy-Jill Levine, the Orthodox Jewish author and scholar of New Testament at Vanderbilt, became the first non-Christian headliner for the William L. Self Preaching Lectures at Mercer's McAfee Theological Center. Her first lecture was entitled "Christians Say the Darndest Things." It was on anti-Judaism in Christian preaching and teaching. The lecture was replete with cautionary tales to support her thesis that Christians need to be careful what they preach. They don't know when their words may be traumatizing Jewish children visiting a church, giving inadvertent aid and succor to some rising young neo-Nazi, or providing fodder for an unstable mind. A-J Levine is a great speaker, and Dennis and I were lucky to have found out about that lecture series and to have been able to attend. It was the first of several times that we’ve been able to hear her.
After the lecture, when we were standing in line for the luncheon, two men behind us, presumably preachers, were talking between themselves, saying that, no, you really didn't have to be concerned, if you just knew your audience. In other words, they didn’t seem to get what they had just heard. They thought they could still carry on preaching as usual, with confidence in having their familiar audience. They thought they could just know their audience, and presumably talk one way to them, and another way when others were listening, with the expectation that would alleviate any problems. The immediate situation itself illustrated the fallacy of being able to control one's hearers as the two preachers thought they could, since I was hearing them. I was their witness.
I grew up in Decatur, Georgia, a suburb to the east of Atlanta, after the war—World War II, that is. Decatur was unique for having instituted “Saturday school,” beginning in 1902, and by that method having largely kept Jews from settling there, since the school week ran Tuesday through Saturday—Saturday being the Jewish Sabbath. Although Saturday school had ended in 1932 and by the 1950s and '60s had been forgotten, there were still very few Jewish families there during my childhood. So my primary social group was the children of my neighborhood and school—white Southern Protestants.
It was before integration. Nobody talked about religion, at least to me. I wasn’t what passed for “popular” but I had friends, and I wasn’t ostracized. In fact, I wasn’t clear there was anything from which to be ostracized--nothing that I could get my hands on, anyway. I didn’t know there was any problem in society, or I didn't admit it. Maybe I didn't want to know. I didn't realize that my peers may have had bonds between each other that I couldn't share. Whenever I felt uncomfortable, I attributed it to something being wrong with myself, not with the social system. It would have been terrible to clearly face the possibility that I was excluded and could not belong. It was better to think I was at fault.
When I was young, discomfort, for me, typically meant anxiety. I may have been a witness to my times but I didn't know it yet. This was my society, the only one I knew, and I couldn't have faced that there was a tension between whether or not I belonged here, whether it really was my society or not. So I participated in the fiction that whatever was wrong--whatever it was that I felt--was entirely something wrong with me, and I kept my head down.
I do remember an incident. It was in the fifth grade, I think. Miss Bennett wanted to teach the class what religious denominations are. So she made us stand up, and she called out the denominations one by one--Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and so on, one by one, and when the student's denomination was called, he or she got to sit down. So at the end, there were just a few children left standing, and she called out, Catholic, and the one or two of them in our class sat down (most Catholics being students at the local parochial school), and then she called out, Jewish--so that I, the last one standing, could sit down, after having been publicly identified. I really don't think Miss Bennett thought ahead when she began that exercise. I wasn't made to feel ashamed--didn't know enough to feel that. I just felt chagrined--and exposed, which to me was something to be avoided at all costs. So I must have known something was wrong, but I didn't or couldn't recognize it. My classmates knew, though. When, in the 7th grade (still in elementary school in those days), two of the "cute" boys invited me to the after-school "spin the bottle" gathering, I was ecstatic, but before it could happen, several of the girls spoke to them, and I was told I'd been uninvited. I was back to thinking it was something wrong with me.
School, changing times, marriage, work, family, children—whatever problems there were, I never recognized that my Judaism was even involved, much less that it could be crucial. I didn’t really know any Jews other than my family of origin. I had had a limited religious education in another part of town. I had my beliefs, and I was never an atheist, but no religious practice, no community, no “cultural Judaism.” During the '60s and '70s, I had developed something of a Zen or Eastern view, as was so common in those days. The Jewish community? —I didn’t know it existed or had anything to do with me. Being a child of the “youth movement” of the 1970s—and of the civil rights era and feminism--I also thought sensible people everywhere—society—had outgrown the ancient prejudices.
I continued to see myself as anxious and as someone who would not have a community, or close friends, although others did. I could succeed and excel in areas of my life, but I didn't--or wasn't able to--question why I was different in the realm of community and friendship. I did believe this was America, we were all equal, no one was inferior because of "race, religion or creed." It was as though there were a conspiracy not to recognize what the issue was, a conspiracy of silence.
What happened next was this. Through some personal events in our lives, I found out that Dennis' beliefs about God and religion weren't the same as mine. Now if any of you readers are liberal Christians, you know how that is; you know about keeping Jesus under wraps, and you didn't talk about him in public or to others, and Dennis had been no different in that respect. Dennis and I had been going through some personal experiences regarding religion that culminated in his telling me he was going to join a particular church, which, of course (though I didn't even know it then), I couldn't do. And he planned, as I saw it, to become closer to his Christian brothers and sisters, and our marriage was to be "an arrangement." And that's what gave me the kick in the rear that made me, at long last, take a big risk. Because I wasn't going to settle for that. No. I would not be excluded from his life. There had to be something overarching that was stronger than the forces pulling us apart. So that's why I took the step of going to church with him, the Sunday before Labor Day, 2007.
With that step, going to church with him on that Sunday, I put myself in the position to learn that in churches--in the liberal churches with the educated, professional congregations, there could still be teaching and preaching of wrong and untrue things about Jews and Judaism--Jews in Jesus' time and Jews now--Israel/Palestine being the excuse for the latter. That's what galvanized me--finding out that this is what was going on in America behind (some) church doors! I was spurred into action in a major way, because, while I knew what was being taught was nothing like anything I felt or had ever heard about Judaism, I knew so little that I couldn't do anything but inarticulately protest or seethe. That's why I began to study. That's why I found rabbis to learn from and other Jews to study with. In fact, I didn't study only with Jews; I found other people to study with, as well. And by the way, Dennis came along for the ride. To his everlasting credit, he studied and learned, too. And eventually after several years of percolation and further perceived provocation, I began to write.
This is really what I've been writing about since December 2010. It's not that all churches are portraying Jews and Judaism in a bad light (but I dare say many are doing so some of the time, some more than others--and more toward the liberal end of the spectrum, because, as Amy-Jill Levine says, if someone can't make Jesus profound by way of miracles and divinity, then he or she is more likely to turn to making him special via odious comparisons to Jews).
At any rate, my ears and eyes became sensitized. I saw how many mainstream newspaper columnists would matter-of-factually write in terms of casual anti-Judaism, e.g., "the Old Testament God" when they meant to convey the idea of punishment without mercy. For another example, this past Christmas day 2011, Kyle Wingfield, the politically conservative columnist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, wrote, not in church, but in his column, that Christianity is "news" while other religions are "advice!" He claimed that this was just a distinction, and that he wasn't saying Christianity is better. In other words, Christianity equals belief, faith, and true religion, while other religions are just advice--and that's supposed to be simply a distinction and not a claim of superiority! How easy to mistake one's own feelings from within one's religion as proof of its difference and superiority, then trumpet one's conclusions in the public square to rally political support. This is supposed to be America! Should a columnist for a mainstream big-city American newspaper be making such claims? The fact is, he can make them in public only because he's a member of the majority religion. That creates a power differential.
But I'm not talking just about the casual hum of low level anti-Judaism or Christian triumphalism in society. I'm talking here about polemics, and about how it is that I have become a witness.
I want to make it abundantly clear that this--all my struggle to articulate and write what I have witnessed--is not about being "offended." Being offended conveys the notion of oversensitivity--being thin-skinned. Being offended is not so important. Being dehumanized is. One doesn't dehumanize somebody else because they deserve it, one dehumanizes somebody else because one already doesn't like them.
Just as the Two Commentaries section indicates, the purpose of a polemic is to dehumanize a perceived opponent, and to do so with the goal--maybe conscious, maybe implicit--of saying how to treat that perceived opponent and why it is justified. Once dehumanized, it becomes okay to treat them as less than human. First comes hate, anger, blame or fear, then come words, then behavior.
I decided that this is my society, as well as anybody else's. This is my century, as well as anybody else's. This is my time--too. It's still a free country, and I'm still alive, and in my life I've been quiet long enough.
Some people may believe I arrived at my present vantage point as a sort of spy or troublemaker. This is important because in some circles, anybody who doesn't pass a litmus test for the requisite anti-Israel sentiment might be considered a neocon, or even an "Israeli agent." I came across that latter terminology in the context of the 2010 Presbyterian position paper on Israel/Palestine. In that context, even Presbyterian clergy who conscientiously dissented from the hardline position preferred by others got called "Israeli agents"--so how much more likely would it be for some people to consider me, an outsider, in a similar light. In slightly less dramatic language, these days anyone who doesn't completely repudiate all positive valuation of Israel is likely to be considered a conservative, while antagonism toward Israel is often considered the sine qua non for being a liberal. Nevertheless, I am a liberal and not a political conservative, and I did not come as a spy. In fact, I arrived in a state of such unawareness and unclarity that I didn't know there might be anything wrong, or even that I was going to be anything more than any other anonymous attendee.
Did I possibly expect an experience similar to one I had had in my youth? When Dennis and I were young, he had an experience with Christianity that convinced him of the meaningfulness and living relevance of the tradition for himself. If he hadn't had that experience, who knows, he may never have taken the leap of faith needed to have a marriage and family. But he did have it, and, that time, I was along with him for part of the ride, which most notably consisted of participating in a "coffeehouse ministry" to the hippies and street people of midtown Atlanta circa 1968. With the Twelfth Gate Coffeehouse group, we had study (of the likes of Sartre, Camus and Kierkegaard), and we had communion consisting of a loaf of bread, a gallon of Gallo Rhine wine, and "passing the peace." No scripture was read, which was possibly one reason I didn't pick up on any anti-Judaism in the procedures. You could say it was all a "hippie-dippy" experience, but, whatever it was, it did not seem particularly negative.
Because of that coffeehouse ministry experience many years before, I probably arrived expecting something similar, in kind if not in size. At first I didn’t even know I couldn’t join a church unless I converted. I had no thoughts of converting, but I did think I would participate. I even did some planning with the clergy toward getting gluten-free bread. And then I heard what was being taught about Jews, past and present. The last thing I expected was to hear the degree to which in 21st century America, Judaism is held up as a foil for Christianity. Hearing what was being taught and preached was my wake-up call.
The Introduction to Matthew's Gospel which I discussed in Two Commentaries suggests that, at some not-to-distant point in the past, Christian leaders contemplated teaching Christians about the polemical times in which that gospel and the others were written, so that, through education, Christian people might learn to take the anti-Judaism in the text with a grain (or handful!) of salt--so that the hate and violent tendencies of the past would no longer be routinely instilled as in the past. But from what I have seen and heard, I gather that in many settings, the polemic, far from being taught with an eye toward correcting past tendencies, is still being utilized today. In fact, some Christians want to build on it, under the guise of not holding back on criticizing Israel just because the Holocaust happened, as this logic goes. In settings where that is the dynamic, New Testament literalism about the role of Jews in Jesus' time is the order of the day, a literalism that is only intensified when it is paired with the political scapegoating of modern-day Israel.
It may sound like I stumbled into a particularly problematical church, but I doubt it's terribly unusual. It has a particular political message and a theological perspective that supports the politics. The theology and politics tend to be mutually reinforcing. It's not the only church with a similar message. At the same time there will be other churches with messages all along a continuum from one extreme to the other on this matter of Jews in Jesus' time, as well as on Israel/Palestine.
As in other types of organizations, one can see in religions and religious organizations a tension that exists between self-preservation, on one hand, and carrying out the intended purpose of the religion, on the other. By their intended purpose, I mean spreading their message. Although I know that one purpose of Christianity is proselytizing and making converts, for my particular vision here, I would see that activity as being more in line with self-preservation--in other words, with sheer numbers. By the intended purpose of the religion, what I mean is something more like spreading love, or giving its gifts to the world. Now, I don't mean that one side, self-preservation, is bad, and the other side is good. Obviously if a religion is to carry out its intended purpose--here let's just say sharing its gifts--then it has to have some people. It has to maintain itself to a certain degree. But I do think that the tension between self-preservation and carrying out the intended purpose can get out of balance, which is more likely if the religion or the particular church feels itself to be under stress and duress.
It should be obvious that Jews are not a threat to the continuation of Christianity or of a particular church, nor have they been for two thousand years (if indeed they ever were to the extent perceived or believed by some) so why do I bring up self-preservation in the context of anti-Judaism and anti-Israel incitement? I bring it up because the cultural competitor to the liberal Christian church today is the conservative church--and maybe proselytizing atheism, as well, but here I'll stick with conservative Christianity as the major cultural competitor of the liberal church. And the conservative church, if I paint with a very broad brushstroke here, has an opposite view on Jews and Israel these days. So, although many liberal Christians may feel in their hearts as though they are standing up for Christ against Jews, both in a religious sense and regarding Israel/Palestine, nevertheless, on another level, their brand of Christianity is involved in a stand-off with the conservative church. Which will win, which will achieve cultural dominance? For the liberal church, their anti-Israel stance both distinguishes them from their cultural opponent--conservative Christianity--and gives them a voice against that opponent. Plus, the liberal church has Israel (and Jews) as a common enemy against which to rally the troops, so to speak. In other words, on the subject of Israel and Judaism, the liberal church is polemicizing against the conservatives. Israel is a political bonanza for the liberal church.
Sure enough, the Christians at the church I became involved with seem preoccupied with a sense of standing up for justice against evil, with a sense of themselves as being on the right side. There seems to be little complexity to this stance. The dominant members of the congregation are very political. They are very externally-oriented. In this sense, one doesn't hear much about "Love your enemy."
I spotted the term "Christianists" in a newspaper column. Maybe I'm dealing, not with Christians, but with "Christianists." Muslims whom we Westerners judge to be overly-concerned with the lesser Jihad--external struggle for political dominance over infidels--we call them Islamists. No, I don't think I could use a Christianist/Christian dichotomy. I think calling people Christianists would be simplistic and antagonistic. It involves self-deceptive thinking and code-words. It would be name calling with "plausible deniability." I would be avoiding the tough questions and difficult issues. Also, it would be treating others in a manner I myself find abhorrent.
The bottom line is simply this: If some Christians are going to teach and preach in their churches the way I have described, then it doesn't need to be a secret. It needs to be known.