In the previous section I've discussed how Rachel Corrie's death could function as a recapitulation of Jesus' death. It is in that regard that the demand for justice for her could assume the characteristics of a blood feud--a vendetta (from Latin vindicta). In the present section, I'll be exploring issues of revenge, redemption, and justice at the scriptural level. Please see Part 1 for the introduction and disclaimer, for a discussion of the disputed facts, and a link to the English summary of the verdict.
In this section I'm taking a different tack than in Parts I - III. I might sound sermon-like--and yet I'm not a clergyperson. I might--at times--sound scholarly, but I'm not a biblical scholar. I'm not even limiting myself to talking about just one religion. And to top it all off, my subject is--blood.
I once heard a pastor give a sermon on the Christian rite of Communion and the difficulty of the symbolism--blood and body--for the modern Christian. Compared to the discussion I'm embarking on here, he had it easy. Even though his topic may have been challenging, he was speaking to church goers who were already used to celebrating the Christian Communion. Despite difficulties, the experience has deep resonance, according to A. N. Wilson, writing in The Mind of the Apostle--even for many people from a Christian tradition who no longer consider themselves Christian or religious, that is, for post-Christians. Compared to that pastor whose sermon I heard, I have my work cut out for me, since I'm going to be talking about the land crying out for blood, blood as accusation, and blood in covenant; blood in redemption, in justice and vengeance. My readers are people of various different religions or backgrounds.
We liberals in 21st century America do not easily concede the importance of blood in our religious origins. I previously hadn't give much thought to the omnipresent experience of animal sacrifice in the ancient world. I have heard one Protestant (United Church of Christ) minister state flat out that atonement through the blood of Jesus simply doesn't represent her theology. When I took the Living the Questions course at a Methodist church with my husband in 2007-2008, I seem to remember one of the speakers from the course video saying that the theology of a God who demands his only son's blood is just 'too Jewish.'
Referring back to my text from Living the Questions, the theme of which I think it's fair to say is dominated by liberal Christian theology, I see distaste for and rejection of the blood-dominated themes. At that point the Living the Questions text uses some energy to distinguish (in their view) between biblical Judaism and Christian theology. To those clergypersons and theologians, the theme of blood is, well, just too bloody. To them, it seems to point to a bloodthirsty God whose taste for blood must be satiated.
In the same connection, I once had a rabbi who thought that equating the wine in Passover charoset (an apple-based Passover condiment) to "the blood of the grape"--and thus a stand-in for the blood of the Paschal lamb (Lawrence Hoffman in My People's Passover Haggadah, Vol. 1)--was just 'too Christian.'
Wine is called "the blood of grapes" twice in the bible--once in Genesis and once in Deuteronomy. In Genesis 49, Jacob, on his deathbed, distinguishes Judah and his descendants from those of his eleven brothers with royal symbols; saying Judah washes his garment in wine, his robe in "blood of grapes"--with foreshadowing of covenant and anointing. In Deuteronomy 32 (just after the familiar "honey from the rock" verse), Moses, with themes of anointing and blessing, describes in his long poem how the Lord has nurtured his people--including giving them "foaming grape-blood" to drink (Jewish Study Bible, Jewish Publication Society, TANAKH Translation).
I gather that animal sacrifice still exists within Islam--not only as a culmination of the Haj (pilgrimage), but also in the sense of slaughtering a goat or lamb for a family feast of thankfulness or joy (I Shall Not Hate, Izzeldin Abuelaish). Likewise, from movies we can picture Native Americans--Indians--as thanking God or thanking the animal whose life is poured out so that the people can live. In that sense, even for vegetarians, the earth through its fruits gives of its bounty so that we may live. We do not turn up our noses at those ideas as being too bloody or murderous. As difficult as it may be to think about blood, to my ears the idea of a bloodthirsty God is off target.
Our American feast of Thanksgiving may not be so different. Consider the ritual of the annual "pardon" of a turkey by the President. While treated as humorous, that particular ritual at least focuses attention on the fact the meat we eat does not grow in white Styrofoam plastic-wrapped packages.
In the language of biblical Hebrew, there is no exact word for "sacrifice," which comes from a Greek word. The relevant word in Hebrew is korban, from "to come near, approach"--to get closer to God. In ancient Judaism, the issue was not demands, but commands. Korban did relate to matters of sin but also was for thanksgiving and well-being (communion)--the latter referring to shared feasts of celebration. Far from representing cruelty to animals, the rituals addressed the ethical question of our relationship to the animals we are using for food (The Bible Now, Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky). The rituals focused attention on what it means to take life for food. Blood, signifying life, was part of korban. Via the animal's blood, its life was ritually returned to the earth from whence it had been taken. All this would have been self evident to the people of antiquity--although to us it may be Greek.
We should not imagine that the sacrificial system was peculiar to Israelite religion. In the ancient world of the West, sacrifice was the essence of religion across the board--so much so that in its development the Christian religion instilled sacrificial imagery in part to make sense of itself (Lawrence Hoffman, Covenant of Blood). In the West of antiquity, sacrificed animals were, to a great extent, the meat people ate. Since we're predisposed to think of sacrificial systems as gross and disgusting, it's a useful exercise to compare them with today's slaughterhouse rules, according to which we hide instead of sanctify the source of meat.
Blood was part of the Israelite tradition of blessing and covenant for 1000 years or more before the turn of the Christian era, for example, when, in Exodus 24, Moses sprinkles it on the people (or, as some translators say, on the pillars symbolizing the people) as they accepted God's commands, saying, "This is the blood of the covenant...." In biblical priestly tradition, blood was part of consecration into the priesthood, as well. Thus, in Exodus 29, Aaron and his sons were anointed with oil, following which their ears, thumbs, and toes were touched with the blood of the sacrificial ram. The story is that the blood has attained the power to cleanse, coming from the alter as it does.
In Exodus 30, blood is again involved in ancient Israelite religion when Aaron, and, through foreshadowing, future generations of high priests, purifies the holy space in what is to be the annual ritual of atonement. Note that originally, cleansing and purity existed along a dimension of their own and did not signify sin--although later they came to do so.
Also, as part of the annual atonement, in Leviticus 16 Aaron uses the goat (which, in later theology, evolved into the "scapegoat") to carry away the accumulated impurities and inadvertent sins, plus the deliberate, thus otherwise indestructible, sins. At this point, notice Aaron's involvement, as prototypical high priest, with cleansing and atonement; we'll be returning to that.
Next I want to focus on the connection between blood and justice in our primordial past. In what I've discussed so far, they can perhaps be seen as indirectly connected, such as in returning to the earth (via its blood) the life of the animal that has been used for food. We can already perceive some pattern of relationship between blood and justice since blood is somehow connected to cleansing, atonement and undoing the impact of sin, and to blessing and covenant as well. Perhaps next I can paint you a picture of wrongdoing itself as polluting the world and upsetting the natural rightness of things (an idea further explored in The Bible Now). Thinking that way, we could channel the ancient mindset--or even catch a glimpse of it in our own emotional depths.
Blood and its connection to justice do show up explicitly in the book(s) of the Bible--both in what Jews consider the bible ("the Hebrew Bible," or Tanakh--an acronym made up of the Hebrew abbreviations of Torah, Prophets, and Writings) and the Christian Old and New Testaments. (Because of their different order, different interpretations, and different theological usage, some teachers consider the Tanakh and the Christian Old Testament to have become two distinct books, despite their common origin and overlap.)
As early as Genesis 4 in my Jewish Study Bible, Abel's blood cries out from the ground, after Cain has killed him and the ground has opened its mouth to receive his brother's blood from his hand. In this case blood is an accusation--of the sin of murder. The idea is not of a bloodthirsty God but of a wrong done in and to God's creation. The idea is of an outstanding debt of priceless proportion. As with animals slaughtered for food, a debt is owed, but, as this passage shows, the perpetrator's blood isn't always the answer. Similarly, Deuteronomy 21 discusses what the people should do if they find a slain body outside their town. Even though they didn't do it and don't know who did, the death still occurred. The lifeblood of the victim is still crying out from the land for justice (not a bloodthirsty God crying out for blood). The people then go through a process of absolution so that unredeemed innocent blood does not remain in their midst.
The use of the word "unredeemed" in this context is not coincidental. As we shall see, in the case of murder, the nearest relative of the victim is usually called, in our English translations of this ancient text, the "blood avenger," the go'el ha-dam, but the more accurate (or at least more literal) translation of those Hebrew words is the "blood redeemer," or "redeemer of blood." From this humble and perhaps, to our modern understanding, paradoxical, beginning, the term go'el expands to mean the close relative who redeems the land of his or her brother from debt or who redeems his or her brother who has been sold into bondage because of debt. Finally, in Judaism, God becomes the ultimate Go'el (Redeemer), as in Go'el Yisrael, "Redeemer of Israel," and in Christian theology, Jesus is Go'el.
Now, some may ask, what about the Paschal Lamb, and the blood on the doorposts? That indeed is a biblical example of redemptive blood, and maybe a more familiar one. But this time I was inspired by other texts. I had first became interested in religious study around late 2007/early 2008, and early on in that process found myself participating in the Living the Questions class. As you would expect, all the others in the group were Christians, since the venue was a church. When, as the course proceeded, I had occasion to ask them how Jesus' death saves, I received earnest but seemingly intellectualized replies that failed to satisfy my curiosity about such things. So, when I came to certain biblical texts about blood and redemption in Torah study, I pricked up my ears. There are multiple threads that can lead into a ball of yarn! In both English and Hebrew, there are multiple words on the present theme--for example, redemption, deliverance, and salvation--with various discrete as well as overlapping meanings. For the sake of simplicity and remaining on topic, I'm mainly sticking with the concept of go'el (redeemer) and its origins in blood and the land.
Moving on with our story to Matthew 27 (using the New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Edition), we find that according to the narrative Judas has betrayed innocent blood.
In Matthew 23, Jesus says that he sends to the scribes and Pharisees--whom he calls hypocrites--the prophets and sages, some of whom they will kill, crucify, or flog, so that all the righteous blood on earth will come upon them--in words that literally smear them with all the innocent blood that has ever been spilled. Here we have more on the theme of the accusation of blood. The author of Matthew had a point to make. (Editorial comment: crucifixion was a Roman, never a Jewish, method of punishment. Moreover, the NRSV includes an introduction to the Gospel of Matthew that explains how it is that the Gospel pictures all the Jewish leaders as working together in ways they never would have done historically, plus conflates the Gospel writer's own times with the time of Jesus' life on earth two generations earlier.)
So in the ancient Near East, people didn't want someone's blood on them, or as we might say, they didn't want blood on their hands. They didn't want innocent blood in their midst. In the case of a murder, people conceived of the land as crying out for blood--that is, for justice. In adversarial situations, as we saw in Matthew 23, people might accuse their opponents of having innocent blood on them and try to make the charge stick--an unfortunately familiar eventuality we may even recognize in our own polarized society today.
Even if, as I say, the issue is not a bloodthirsty God, none of this blood talk is an obvious fit with 21st century notions of a sparkly clean America where even the meat we eat shows up in those white Styrofoam containers, or nor is it a fit with the widespread cultural ideal of forgiveness. In the ancient mindset, though, violence and sin not only harm the victim and his relatives but also pollute or imbalance the world. But if one thinks about it, the concept is not as foreign as we might like to imagine.
Early in 2012, I saw a film named The Forgiveness of Blood involving the blood-feud code in Albania, a small Balkan country north of Greece that also borders on Macedonia, Kosovo, and Montenegro. Wikitravel says Albania is ethnically and religiously mixed, with over half the people being of Muslim heritage, but also with many who are of Orthodox Christian and Catholic heritage. Currently agnosticism and atheism are widespread there, with much intermarriage. In the movie, there are no clear indicators of ethnicity or religion, until at some point relatively late in the action a character makes a passing reference to Christmas.
According to the plot of the movie, a teenage boy's uncle and father have killed a man in a fight over the right to cross his land in the course of operating their bread-delivery business. It seems there has been a dispute over that land. The father and his family used to own it. At any rate, after the killing the uncle is apprehended, but the father runs, becoming a fugitive. At that point an extralegal system called Kanun (from the Greek "canon," as in "biblical canon") kicks in. Accordingly, the teenager, as the male relative of the presumed murderer, is confined to home, which is considered a safe haven. If he is caught off site the victim's family can kill him; so school, friends, and girlfriend are all off limits now. The teenage sister is left trying to maintain the delivery business; the father is portrayed as putting his own skin above his family's and especially above his son's. A community leader's attempt at mediation to get the avengers to "pardon the blood" fails.
Wikipedia says Kanun was originally a huge twelve-volume compendium of honor-based codes applicable to all aspects of life in this mountainous region. Kanun is an oral code from the 15th century that was eventually written down in the 19th. It may have itself mitigated an earlier Bronze Age code. It more or less disappeared under Communist rule, with its accompanying strong state police system, but fragments of kanun have subsequently resurfaced in the context of a relatively toothless present-day government. (That government, however, does not officially acknowledge the existence of Kanun.) Kanun applies to everybody--to all the various ethnic groups. When it comes to a presumed murder, sometimes feuds go on until all the males on each side are dead.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica Online, the same term, kanun, also applied to administrative regulations that supplemented early Shari'ah law to adapt it to local situations in newly Islamic locales--even though there was officially no law but Shari'ah in the early days of Islam. So, generally speaking, Kanun is an ancient law code and way of life predating modern times.
One can get a sense of the pervasiveness of the whole idea of "feud" in both ancient and modern times, and all over the world, from the Wikipedia entry. If the reader doubts that the theme lives on, think of the Hatfields and McCoys, or about the residual frontier justice of "stand your ground," or of the death penalty. According to the Wikipedia entry, the Hatfields vs. the McCoys found its way to Appalachia compliments of the Celtic tradition. As in modern Albania, the feud mindset tends to thrive in the absence--or perceived absence--of effective rule of law.
Citing the Oxford Companion to the Bible, that Wikipedia entry includes the ancient Hebraic context among its examples of "feud," but we must remember the Tanakh/Old Testament does not portray a simultaneous collection of events. Instead it recounts narratives covering up to several millennia, and, as such, incorporates evolution and change. For example, although from the vantage point of today we may look disapprovingly at "an eye for an eye," we can recognize that even a literal understanding of eye-for-an-eye improves on the disproportion of "a life for an eye" or of revenge for a killing by wiping out an entire clan.
Evolution in the bible does not stop there. Even more momentous is that in the distant biblical past, centuries before the common era (BCE), scripture came to differentiate between intentional murder and accidental killing (manslaughter, or murder of a lesser degree). In the case of manslaughter, God, according to the biblical story, says to build cities of refuge. There had to be enough such cities that a manslayer (whether a murderer or one who had killed somebody unintentionally and without malice aforethought) could reach a city of refuge quickly, before the blood avenger caught up with him. The blood avenger (or blood redeemer, go'el ha-dam), was a relative of the victim who was called to avenge, or redeem, make up for, or provide resolution for, the unjustly spilled blood. In that view, even though the death might be accidental, the land still was crying out for justice. Reaching the sanctuary gave protection to the manslayer. The decision was taken out of the hands of the victim's relative. Instead it became the job of the assembly to decide between the claim of the manslayer and that of the blood avenger.
Thus developed a way to mitigate the ancient pre-biblical, tribal practice of revenge. No longer was the remedy for any death the corresponding death of the perpetrator at the hands of the blood redeemer. Instead, the community distinguished manslaughter from murder, and took the call out of the hands of the victim's family, giving it instead to an assembly, eventually a court. Remember, too, it came about that in the Tanakh/Old Testament, one witness was not enough. In capital cases there had to be at least two witnesses. The victim's family couldn't take revenge against the perpetrator's family. (Caution--we are not speaking here of "Jewish law," which was a later Rabbinic development starting at the end of the first century CE after the fall of the Second Temple. The confusion comes about partly because of the translation of Torah--the first five books of the bible--into Greek as nomos, and later into English as "law," while a closer translation of the Hebrew word Torah is "divine teaching." In that sense, reference to "Jewish law" in the Tanakh/Old Testament is anachronistic, that is, retrojected back into an earlier historic period where it did not yet exist.)
At any rate, within the Tanakh/Old Testament narrative the mitigation of the concept of revenge has begun. Revenge no longer lies entirely in the hands of the go'el ha-dam. Yet within this system and this world view, the imbalance or pollution of the land resulting from the spilled blood still prevails, even if the verdict is manslaughter. Similar to the situation in our Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, in which the last fairy cannot undo the death curse of the vengeful fairy but can change it into a 100-year sleep, the new development cannot undo the state of injustice resulting from the spilled blood, yet changes what it takes to set things right.
It may occur to some readers at this point to wonder whether the story is saying that God places a curse on the manslayer. I think the story places into God's mouth words that reflect what the people at the time understood, and my interest is in comprehending that mindset, not in a literalistic (that is, fundamentalist) reading of scripture. Why would I want to understand that mindset? Because William Faulkner has a point: the past is never dead; it's not even past. And because our scriptures are living texts to be learned from.
If the assembly found in favor of the manslayer, that is, found that the death was accidental, the people were supposed to escort the manslayer safely back to his city of refuge. Within those boundaries, the blood avenger could not touch him; to do so would not be justified, but would shed further innocent blood in the people's midst. The concept of the city of refuge was one of sanctuary--not prison--where the manslayer would live, since the land still "cried out for blood." And there he was to remain until a certain specific event occurred--that event being the death of the high priest. (Numbers 35 and Deuteronomy 19.)
Remember, when we were discussing the high priest previously (underlined above), I said to make a mental note that he was the one involved with the annual ritual and process of atonement. The high priest was consecrated to be capable of mediating atonement, as the story goes. "Licensed to atone," we might say. He was the one involved with the scapegoat, too. Because of the nature of the high priest's involvement, when he died, the debt was settled, and then the residents of the cities of refuge could all go home.
In that context, we could say the high priest's life satisfied the persistent cry of the land for all the unredeemed blood that had been spilled. We could look at his life--in other words, his blood--as possessing expiatory value. As for the pollution and imbalance resulting from killing (whether murder or manslaughter), the high priest's death represented a reset, a "reboot."
In Romans 3:25, according to the NRSV narrative, God presented Christ Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood. Matthew 26 presents the words now associated with the Christian Communion: Take, eat; this is my body.... Drink (from this cup)...for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Looking at Jesus in his priestly role, then, we get a snapshot of how his life--his blood--may have functioned within the Christian religion at its inception within Judaism. In that view, his blood atones for all unredeemed wrongs, redeems all the accumulated debt, and it satisfies the cry of the land for blood (justice)--just as in the case of the particular high priests vis-à-vis residents of the cities of refuge and the priestly role vis-à-vis annual atonement for accumulated impurity and sin.
What do these scriptural narratives tell us, then? I'm saying they tell us to live without revenge and vigilantism, and they make us think about what that would mean.
Under what circumstances will people give up revenge? Could they be forced to do so? The question becomes one of what will induce people to cede control to authorities or to the community? The answer to that question is justice.
A way of life without revenge and vigilantism depends on human justice systems as we've been able to develop them over time, and on the rule of law. If that is nonexistent or flimsy, then kanun or other forms of feud and vigilantism will surface, as we saw in the movie The Forgiveness of Blood. On the other hand, raw power, as in a police state, is not the ultimate solution.
Concern for justice is evident in the scriptural narrative. For example, Deuteronomy 16:19 says not to take bribes, which will blind the eye of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Exodus 18:20 has Moses' father-in-law instructing him to appoint as administrators of justice incorruptible men whose fear of God (that is, their consciences) will lead them to put doing the right thing above the popular, or easier, course.
Justice, in Hebrew, is tzedek. "Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land...(Deuteronomy 16:20)." The narrative portrays God's covenant as requiring the pursuit of justice. To that end, the instructions in Exodus 18:20 and Deuteronomy 1:16 and 16:18 remove the administration of justice from the hands of tribal elders who may not be impartial, and place it instead in the hands of professionals ("magistrates and officials"). We are now at a yet further remove from revenge and feuding.
In a 92nd Street Y program of December, 2011, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer asked a provocative question: Why do we listen to the Supreme Court? They don't have weapons like the executive branch, nor do they dispense money as the legislative branch does. The answer seems to incorporate our perception that, as their titles indicate, they are in the justice business. We recognize the unacceptability of settling disputes in the street. In that connection, think of Egypt since the Arab Awakening, or picture the still ongoing Syrian civil war. For that matter, think back even further, to our own Civil War. If we have sufficient perception of justice, and sufficient respect for what the alternative would entail, we cede our option of revenge through violence in favor of letting justice take its course.
We cede power to our justice system even while knowing full well that it lacks perfection. In a recent local case, the jury found that a seemingly brutal murder had been committed in the heat of the moment, that is, not murder but voluntary manslaughter. Given that verdict, the highest sentence possible for the convicted man was 30 years with the possibility of parole, while if the verdict had been murder, he would have received life without parole. The words of the victim's brother were striking: "These are manmade laws.... We don't agree, but all we can do is go by the court's decision." No blood feud ensued. I'm suggesting we shouldn't take peaceable responses like that for granted. Accepting a verdict represents a compromise, an acknowledgement of limits on one's personal power and control and on getting one's own way.
We know that the human justice at our disposal is at best a reasonable facsimile of perfect justice, affected at times by the color, creed, ethnicity, or national origin of the involved parties. We accept it, even while struggling for its improvement. We accept our justice system because of a broad societal understanding that we are making an effort, and it beats the alternative. Plus, just maybe, if my arguments hold water, our scriptures point us in that direction.
As noted earlier, it often seems that we have some residual conception of the land's crying out for justice. Take the recent case of Trayvon Martin. We all remember the uproar that ensued throughout society--accusations and warnings of impending chaos from every side--as long as George Zimmerman avoided entry into the justice system, which all subsided once he did enter it. At that point, starting down the path to justice sufficed to calm the storm, even with the outcome yet unknown. That example serves as an illustration of the efficacy of our court system in addressing the demand for justice apart from revenge and violence.
Justice, tzedek, is derived from the root zakah--meaning, to be clear, clean, or pure, and, from that, right or just; justified, that is, made just. The verb, zakah, means to act on someone's behalf; to justify. Also derived from that root is tzadek, which means "righteous one"--a saint, a righteous person, and tzedakah--including the meanings of both charity and justice.
This Hebrew root zakah, then, highlights Paul's meaning--in its earlier context within Judaism--when he says sinners are justified through the sacrifice of Jesus, "a sacrifice of atonement by his blood" (Romans 3:24 and 25, NRSV). In these words the language of covenant and of atonement again makes itself heard.
So Jesus' death as it functioned in the narrative at Christianity's inception highlights the message that sufficient blood has been shed. Enough! The blood that has been shed redeems all unredeemed blood, settling all accounts. If the ground is no longer crying out for blood, then the narrative teaches that the tie between vigilantism and justice is severed.
Of course I cede formal Christian theology to the Christians, leaving later iterations to them. Of course Jesus' death has a special meaning for all of you readers from that tradition. But if as the dominant religion in these parts it's worth its salt, surely it has some message or lesson for the world, something besides making more converts ad infinitim or contributing to national unity--or, for that matter, barking for one or the other side of the political spectrum. The alternative is that religions have some here-and-now purpose--something to share and something teach the world. I'm not talking about action and social justice right now, but about truths everybody needs to know, regardless of color, creed, ethnicity, or potential for conversion.
It is the truth that sufficient blood has been shed in revenge. No more revenge! Wrongs are to be righted through justice, not vendetta. No small thing, that!
According to publications and claims, Rachel Corrie advocates have rejected the verdict vindicating Israel in the matter of her death. They have said they are going to appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court. To appeal to a higher court--is that their intention?
Back in the 1980s my boss, the director of a county mental health center, got fired for "double-dipping," that is, working for pay elsewhere while on the mental health center clock. In his hastily-called final meeting he proclaimed his innocence of the charge and promised to sue, then beat a quick retreat. We never heard from him again. Will that be the case with the Rachel Corrie advocates? I don't think so. The usual suspects rallied to their side to condemn the alleged injustice of the verdict reached in Israel and to belittle the whole process. There's no proof of those allegations, though, and those responses tend to merge with the more general anti-Israel hullabaloo. It's sound and fury and preaching to the choir and if-you-hear-it-enough-it-must-be-true.
Would they ever accept a verdict with which they don't agree, or do they insist on an extra-legal answer? If the latter, the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice is anything but.
Even taking the plans to appeal at face value, the disparaging of the Israeli justice system--and Israel en toto--may be muddying the water--trying the case in the media and creating a situation that makes it harder to accept an unbiased verdict; maybe even harder to render one. Under the cover of "just criticizing Israel," the noise and agitation looks an awful lot like incitement. Justify hate; throw in the claim that Israel itself is causing "antisemitism," so it deserves what it gets! Create a poisonous climate. As I wrote in the prior section, when liberals hear similar incitement against gays, or people of color, or Muslims, they are going to protest.
What's wrong with hating your enemy is that the more you hate him or her, the more you have to blame him or her (to justify it), and then the more you blame, the more you hate.
When it comes to Judaism and Jews, Christianity always risks becoming reactionary. "Reactionary" in this sense would mean adopting a conservative worldview based on anti-Judaism--that is, blaming Jews for the death of Christ, for not accepting Christ, for being the enemy of the Church and of all that is good and honorable (the familiar litany)--in general placing Judaism in the role of "the other," the dark side. Doing so makes Judaism into the "indispensable enemy," using it to smooth over Christianity's own internal conflicts--as in the childhood party game, pinning those conflicts on an (external) donkey. No matter how few Jews there are in the world, the reactionary can only see them--and their religion--as a sort of bully or overlord for all time who must be suppressed at all costs lest they take over "the good side." Given text and tradition, those interpretive possibilities remain perpetually open and available for exploitation (and, incidentally, that reactionary Christian position eerily tracks how today's further-Right American conservatives portray "liberals"). At one end of history, this means foundational stories taken as history--what I call "New Testament fundamentalism;" on the other end, another story, that of the modern state of Israel cast as the destroyer of peace. The spotlight is on those two points, with light deflected from points in between.
Within the Christian narrative, there is a tension between redemption and vengeance, between affirming Christ, on one hand, and condemning Jews, on the other. I am arguing that the reactionary position fails to hold that tension. That position comes down squarely on the side of condemnation, leaving those who take it up mired in a perpetual quest for vengeance.
There's a joke that's told regarding the occasions on which Israel's critics expect it to suffer attacks without responding or otherwise hold it to unattainable standards. The joke goes like this: "They want Israel to be the first Christian nation."
Theological difficulties with the reactionary position abound. Think about that joke. Holding Israel to a higher standard of perfection or making it play the scapegoat for history could yield some strange theology. If you have to make Jews, or Israel, pay (for that role Christians wrote into their story), then the corollary of that story is that Christ's death failed. In other words, in that theology, his sacrifice would not have atoned for sin while people were yet sinners. To say it yet another way, needing to punish Jews for Jesus' death makes that death insufficient. After I found my way to that understanding, I remembered hearing the Pope (Benedict, the one who has just retired) say essentially the same thing. Once again, we see how that position would lead to the story's becoming one of revenge, of never-ending blood feud. You can't have it both ways. Either accounts are settled or they are not. If you're still having to sacrifice someone, they are not.
This has been such a long slog. I have arrived at my point: Vengeance can never solve the problems of the world, including the death of Rachel Corrie. The answer is justice.
But what about forgiveness? I've been talking about vengeance versus justice, but not so much about forgiveness. Some of the same people who ordinarily are most preoccupied with forgiveness do not bring it up in the same breath with Israel, Jews, or Rachel Corrie.
To be continued....