Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Interfaith Dialogue and the Middle East in Amherst

For the next month, I’ll be blogging on a series of events on the Middle East at Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst, with whose planning I have been involved.

Contrary to the impression conveyed in the mainstream media, the Jewish communities in the United States, although generally sharing a commitment to the survival of Israel, are often very divided when it comes to the means of achieving peace or the specific policies of any Israeli government. In the case of Christian communities, one often gets the impression that conservative Protestant churches are in general uncritically pro-Israel, whereas the mainstream/liberal Protestant churches have become increasingly anti-Israel or even antisemitic. This view, too, does not reflect the complexity of the reality, for here, as well, there are internal tensions, and each faction tends to feel that it is being “silenced” by another.

The situation is complicated by the fact that many churches feel they have an intrinsic right to speak out on the Middle East crisis—whether on general moral grounds, or because of some presumed special bond to the so-called “Holy Land.” Jewish groups, by contrast, often take umbrage at these interventions, regarding them as biased in light of the history of anti-Judaism and antisemitism in which the churches are complicit. The issue is particularly complex in the case of the Episcopal Church: It feels a special emotional and institutional bond to the Palestinian churches that, as a legacy of British imperialism and colonialism, are likewise part of the world Anglican Communion.

It was the internal tensions and inability to hold a comfortable conversation about the Middle East at Grace that prompted parishioners and the clergy to organize a series of events within the adult education program last year.  The first classes approached the topic only indirectly, by examining biblical texts that challenged modern sensibilities and assumptions (more on that below).  In this round, interfaith relations figure primarily in the context of the modern political world: To what extent do our histories of religious interaction shape, limit, or foster frank and constructive dialogue about the contemporary Middle East, and with what effect on our day-to-day relations here at home?

Because the program of the church’s educational calendar was included in the local paper, these events may conceivably draw a larger or more diverse audience, with unpredictable results, given the current world political situation.

(Note: Because this installment establishes the context for those to follow, it will be rather longer.)

As the moderator, Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, explained, the title—“Waliking Between the Walls of Water”—was a reference to the Exodus story (14-15): the faith that venturing into the unknown for the sake of the ultimate good was a risk worth taking, and the need to confront “difficult passages,” literal or textual.

The Rev. Robert Hirschfeld offered an excellent introduction, built around two parables: one scriptural, and one his own. Like the title of the series, that of the first session, “Who is My Neighbor?” has multiple connotations. Drawn from Luke 10:29-37, the phrase occurs in the story of the Good Samaritan. Rev. Hirschfeld recounted his own evolving understanding of the passage: When asked to explain the command to love one’s neighbor, and in particular, how to know just who one’s neighbor is, Jesus tells the famous story. A priest and a Levite decline to help a wounded traveler along the road. A Samaritan, a member of an alien group, by contrast, takes pity on the victim of robbers and provides for his recovery. The one who truly “was a neighbor” is “The one who showed him mercy.” On the surface of it, what could possibly be objectionable? he used to think. After all, the expression, “Good Samaritan,” has entered our language as a synonym for empathetic and altruistic behavior. If, however, one looks more closely, Hirschfeld quite correctly explained, one sees that the story can easily be fit into the typical pattern of prejudice in the Gospels: the Jews (represented here by the elites of the religious establishment) behave badly (perhaps because of the “legalistic” restrictions of their religion), and the foreigner behaves better—part of a framework in which negative traits are imputed to Jews even as the Jewish identity of Jesus and his followers is subtly effaced. The second parable was a personal one: When in the emergency room of the local hospital, being treated for a deep hand wound, Hirschfeld at first balked at the thought of the doctor probing and injecting the wound—until he, with her assurance, realized that pain was the necessary prelude to healing.

In that spirit of doing what was painful but necessary, he said, we should embark upon our activity of the evening, the viewing and discussion of the first installment of a documentary on antisemitism: “The Longest Hatred,” a 1991 WGBH documentary based on the book of the same title by Robert Wistrich. It was difficult viewing for many of those present because the first installment, “From Cross to Swastika,” outlines the essential Christian roots of antisemitism. Most scholars distinguish between anti-Judaism—hostility to Jews based on religious difference (e.g. the Jews rejected Christ as messiah), which found expression in doctrinal, legal, and popular forms—and antisemitism—hostility stemming from false or irrational beliefs about Jews (e.g. they conspire against the rest of the world and commit horrible crimes), as well as modern social and political hatred. Obviously, the one feeds the other. This portion of the film—which I have used to considerable success in classroom teaching (that’s one reason that I chose it for screening tonight) covers some 2000 years of history in 45 minutes, but makes the following key points, among others.
• Without Christianity, there could have been no Holocaust. That is: its teaching of contempt over the centuries was, in philosophical terms, a necessary—but not sufficient—condition:

• In the climate in which the Gospels were written, it was advantageous to dissociate the Church from the Jews—identified then with the great armed revolt against Rome—and thus to shift the blame for the death of Jesus from the Romans to the Jews.
• The social isolation and oppression of the Jews deriving from this theological worldview forced them into social roles that fed conflict and prejudice (e.g. the Jews were forbidden to own land and practice trades, but allowed to serve as moneylenders).
• The demonization of the Jews—literal or figurative—allowed them to become the protean object of every possible prejudice that could later arise.
• The rise of modern racial antisemitism absorbed all of these traits but now made escape through conversion impossible.
In its latter sections, the installment dealt with the rise of Nazism and the silence of the churches during the Holocaust, but it ended on a hopeful note, with a service of reconciliation in which Anglicans and Jews came together to commemorate the massacre of the Jews of York in 1190.

Although the average layperson may find these points provocative or deeply wounding, they have been accepted by mainstream scholarship for decades, and indeed, the film includes comments from a panoply of distinguished historians of religion and European history. The audience was clearly moved to reflection.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about the penultimate scene in this part of the film, in which John Hapgood, the then-Archbishop of York--he who will, in a moment, preside over the ceremony of reconciliation—clearly ill at ease, slow of speech and of a slow tongue, says: "um, while acknowledging a Christian responsibility for Auschwitz, I also want to say, um, this has really nothing to do with Christianity in its true form."  It is a revealing reaction, for it is dead wrong—because it undercuts the message of the entire film—though in another sense, it is provisionally understandable. (Did the audience notice the problem? I wondered.) The wrong reaction is one that I’ve gotten from some students when I have taught this material in class, and in fact, also when I presented it to a similar audience in town.

The point is: It is impossible to disentangle Christianity historically from the teaching of contempt that it contains. It is not incidental, but essential to the original message contained in the New Testament. There is simply no getting around that. To that extent, the Archbishop was wrong and in total denial. That said, one can understand why he nonetheless likes to pretend (in the sense of "claim" or any other) that this hatred and contempt are not part of the essential message of the faith, or thus of today’s church, whose message he lives and preaches. And in that gap lies the challenge: Christians need to be able to confront the intrinsic dark side of their tradition without either instinctive defensiveness or paralyzing guilt.

I fully understand the challenge, for many of us face similar ones. Germans today still struggle to find a healthy and balanced identity, which acknowledges the enduring shame and moral burden of the Holocaust without negating their entire past or saddling the current generation with personal responsibility for actions that occurred long before it was born. In the case of the United States, our great original sin is that of racial prejudice, and the legacy of oppression of indigenous peoples and African-Americans. No white American likes to be reminded of it, and yet no one can deny it. Most of us regard the election of Barack Obama as a great symbolic and practical step in the overcoming of that legacy, yet it neither washes the slate clean nor negates the fact of continuing discrimination. Not unlike the archbishop, we want to insist that, even though our founding documents institutionalize that very sin, they also contain positive ideals that, however distorted or ignored in historical practice, contain the promise of future transcendence.

This was the spirit in which the participants approached the film. Indeed, the thing that struck me most was the absence of denial, and on the contrary, a willingness to confront the darker side of the tradition. The most common response was for people to say that they had not been raised with these prejudicial teachings and learned of them only much later in life. To be sure, their insistence that, when they encountered prejudicial passages in the New Testament, they either did not think of real Jews or tended to universalize the message of that criticism showed that they had not been sensitive to the existence of a problem—but this postlapsarian innocence stood in welcome contrast to the norm of the historic original sin depicted in the film.

The problem lies in the context and the inconsistency. As I told students when I was teaching a Holocaust course at Mount Holyoke College half a decade ago, I was horrified when, at a Palm Sunday Service at Grace Church, the selection from the Gospel was presented in the form of a dramatic or responsive reading, in which the congregation, taking the role of the Jewish mob in Jerusalem, shouts out: “Crucify Him!” The students—most of whom, incidentally, were not Jewish—were scarcely less shocked. Few if any in the congregation, however, seemed disturbed when this passage or similar ones were read out—for the practice has persisted to the present.  To be sure, I understood their reasoning and accepted their assurances: They saw the passage as warning us that we are all collectively guilty of rejecting truth and goodness. But, knowing how history turned out, can we really read such passages with innocence and equanimity?

It would be easier to think so were it not for a very clear countervailing example. When it came to certain “Old Testament” (itself a prejudicial term, implying Christian replacement and supersession) readings, a small but vocal group of congregants—many associated with the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, which sees so-called peace activism and anti-Israel activism as virtually identical—repeatedly went so far as to demand that some of these texts be expunged from the service. They objected either to general depictions of violence, or to references to the death of Egyptians and Canaanites, in particular.  Even leaving aside the theological problem, it was ironic, of course:  On the one hand, they heard the words, “Egyptians” or “Canaanites”—whose ancient states and civilizations long ago vanished—in a Jewish text, and worried that this would promote prejudice against modern Arabs. On the other hand, they heard accusations against the "Jews" in a Christian text, and it did not cross their minds to associate this with real Jews, dead or living--even though these very passages had directly or indirectly inspired persecution and slaughter for nearly two millennia.

Because these "Old Testament" texts are part of the official lectionary of the Anglican Communion, however, and not just some arbitrarily chosen local flavor of the week, the clergy, to their credit, insisted on retaining them.  During the last Lenten season, the clergy moreover instituted a series of oral and written explanations, calling attention to the problem of anti-Judaism in the New Testament and liturgy. It was in that context that our first series of meetings, dealing with descriptions of biblical violence and other "difficult passages," took place.  This month's workshops are the next phase in that process.

One sees the nature and magnitude of the challenge.  Thankfully, the clergy and the participants showed that they were willing to take it up tonight.  The conversation was serious, thoughtful, and respectful.  

It was marred only by the recurrent interventions of a single person—a visitor to the parish, one should emphasize, for it turned out that she was an adherent of the nearby Peace Pagoda (your sarcastic comment here) in Leverett.

At every possible opportunity, she chose not only to take issue with the material being presented (which was of course her right), but also to assert rather than engage, and above all, to convey her opinions in a blatantly antisemitic (a word I would normally hesitate to use) manner. At every juncture, her semi-coherent comment could be boiled down to:
But the Jews are bad, too—or: the Jews deserved it.
To refute her rants in detail here would be to dignify them, so I cite them simply because they exemplify the problem that we were trying to talk about:
• in response to Rev. Hirschfeld’s sensitive reading of the Good Samaritan parable and the general question of Christian anti-Judaism:

“It’s a two-way street! There are so many rules in Deuteronomy that tell Jews to treat each other well but others badly.”

Because this is wrong in so many ways, suffice it to say that it exemplifies the classic anti-Judaic prejudice that Judaism is a religion of “law” rather than “love,” or “letter” rather than the “spirit,” and glides smoothly into the antisemitic belief that Jews regard themselves as superior to and possess an ingrained hatred of others.

• In response to the film’s wrenching depiction of the Holocaust and silence of the Christian churches:

“It didn’t mention the Balfour Agreement [sic], in which the continental Jews made a deal with England! They betrayed their country in wartime! Can you blame people [i.e. the Nazis] for being mad??”

So the Jews invited their own genocide?!  First, none of the presumed facts are true: the Balfour Declaration (1917) merely endorsed the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine; it was not a treaty between Britain and the Jews of the enemy Central Powers.  Second, I never thought that I would hear a clerico-hippie version of the Nazi stab-in-the-back theory (give her points for originality) used to justify the Holocaust here in “progressive” Amherst (but then again, we do call it a vocal and surreal place, “where only the ‘h’ is silent” and “reality is an option”).

• and, in case you thought that the Holocaust was a topic that could not be morally denigrated and diminished:

“I’m really offended when there was a war and over 100 million people died but we only talk about 6 million of them! 94 million people died, but we can’t talk about them because they weren’t Jews!”

(Has anyone seriously made this argument? Is any commentary on this sort of racism really necessary?)

• when another participant, sensitively trying to come to terms with the history of Christian antisemitism said, “I certainly would not want someone to identify me with that,” the interlocutor felt obliged to add:

“Certainly not the Palestinians. They had nothing to do with it.”

(No one said that they did. This comment embodies the increasingly popular though utterly erroneous belief that Zionism is a product of the Holocaust rather than a national movement of longstanding and a response to conditions that existed long before Hitler was even born.)
To their general credit, the moderators chose to pass over these bigoted, ignorant, and deeply wounding comments in silence. It’s a tough call, as any classroom teacher can tell you. Somebody says something stupid and offensive: Do you confront it publicly, and possibly in a heavy-handed manner that may generate undeserved attention for the offensive view (or just otherwise prove counterproductive)? Or do you let it pass, but possibly thereby incur the risk of seeming to tolerate if not endorse it. It’s the kind of judgment call that depends very much on the chemistry of teacher/moderator, institution, and audience. I think that the clergy made the right decision tonight, though I have to confess that, having sat silently through the whole series of tirades, I finally could not restrain myself from at least correcting the erroneous historical description of the Balfour Declaration by the end of the evening.

The contrast between these hateful harangues and the thoughtful closing comment by a parishioner could not have been more apparent, and it was not lost on the other participants.  He perfectly summed up the dilemma.  Having recognized the anti-Judaic elements of the Gospel narratives, he agonized:
“We see it’s plausible that it’s not true, but it’s in the Gospel. We just read it in church without commentary, it’s just put out there. What do we do??”

As noted, the congregation has now begun to address the issue. There is in fact a very good answer to the question and guide for the larger endeavor.  For years, I have recommended to friends and colleagues a book written over a generation ago by the Lutheran scholar Norman A. Beck, entitled, in its revised edition: Mature Christianity in the 21st Century: The Recognition and Repudiation of the Anti-Jewish Polemic in the New Testament (NY: American Interfaith Institute/World Alliance, 1994).

Beck argues that, for a variety of intrinsic and historical reasons, Judaism alone developed a powerful self-critical impulse that has by and large yet to take hold in Christianity and Islam. The “continued health and vitality of the Christian tradition in the future” require the development of a “self-criticism of the New Testament and of contemporary Christianity” even though this may appear “far more radical, for example, than the demythologizing of the language of biblical and liturgical material advocated during the past half century.”

That self-criticism must begin, he says, with the recognition of anti-Jewish polemic in the New Testament. That polemic takes three essential forms: (1) the christological (“In the past, Adonai was Lord, but now Jesus is Lord.”) (2) the supersessionist (Christianity has superseded or replaced Judaism and denies the validity of the latter as a living faith); and (3) the defamatory. The book dissects these polemics in detail and provides differentiated practical advice for scholars or clergy seeking to avoid perpetuating the harm that each has done.

From all the available evidence, the audience tonight was indeed receptive to the idea of theological maturity.  At the opening, Rev. Bullitt-Jonas said that she was convinced the event was a sign of hope, and one can only agree.  The conversation established a very firm ground for the more difficult steps to come.

So far, so good.

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