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.
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