Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Conversations between Jews and Evangelicals

We met at the venerable Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, where, over fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King met with Jewish leaders to develop strategies for the civil rights movement. About 40 of us were crammed into a small basement auditorium around long, thin tables—half of us Evangelical leaders from various churches, organizations and institutions and half of us Jewish leaders from various synagogues, organizations and institutions. The Jewish leaders were Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed and Reconstructionist. The Evangelicals also came from across the spectrum—Baptist, Charismatic, Anglican, and, of course, Evangelical Covenant, among others. The Jewish community has been meeting for years with leaders from mainline and Roman Catholic Churches, but this was only the second meeting of the type with Evangelicals. Over two days we considered how we might have civil but frank conversations. We explored the response of the Christian church to the foundation of the state of Israel. We explored our common commitment to social justice and our common struggle to come to terms with Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.

Some of us had been in conversations with Jews for a number of years. I have met regularly with a Modern Orthodox Rabbi to study scripture and discuss the challenges faced by the Jewish community in the United States and Israel. For many this was a new conversation—and a fascinating one. What did we learn?

1. For the vast majority of Jews the distinction is not Zionist or Anti-Zionist, but Hawkish or Dovish. Even the most liberal Jews support Israel and value it as a place for the Jews to preserve their culture, faith and community. One leader suggested Zionism was a “cardinal tenet” of Judaism. All Jews long for peace and justice for the Jews in Israel. But they differ on how these goals might be accomplished. One Orthodox leader said that although Israel would not be fully realized until Messiah came, “It is better to wait for Messiah in Tel Aviv than Warsaw.”

2. Although much of the world looks at Israel as powerful and dominant, neither American Jews nor the Jews in Israel feel powerful. They feel fragile and threatened. Even the most liberal are discouraged. One person said, “We got out of Gaza and got rockets in return.” They feel like the rest of the world wants them to lie supine in the face of violence and aggression. They were attacked for setting up buffer zones and so they backed away from them. They were vilified for the incursion into the Gaza to halt the rocket attacks. So they set up blockades and check points, perhaps the least violent, if still distasteful, alternative to stop the rockets and other weapons from being brought to Hamas—and there were still howls of protest. What are their options to keep their homes from being shelled and their citizens from being blown up on buses and in cafes? Giving “land for peace” hasn’t really worked so far. Why would they trust their opponents to stop the rockets and suicide bombings if they eliminated the blockade and checkpoints and tore down the wall? There is little evidence to suggest the extremists among the Palestinians would restrain themselves. What would the world have them to do?

3. Nevertheless, every Jewish leader was distressed and frustrated over the suffering of the Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian. Many were unhappy with the heavy handedness of the Israeli government. At the same time they wondered where were their conversation partners? Who was willing in this difficult climate to really work with them to find peace? Many worried that the opportunity for a two-state solution was slipping away.

4. Most of them understood that Christians lived with an obligation to share their faith. But they refused to be in communication with any group that specifically targeted Jews. They were especially distressed by groups like Jews for Jesus, whom they thought were trying to redefine what a Jew was. One rabbi said, if a Jew becomes of Christian we are sad, but such things happen. But we do not like the deception of saying you can be a Jew and a Christian at the same time. Some Evangelical leaders found this difficult to grasp. I suggested that perhaps it was right that we let the Jewish community decide who was and was not a Jew.

5. The Jews have a rich history of social justice concerns, but some in the room felt that of late the word “justice” was being used as a club against them. Why, they wondered, was it peace and safety for Israel and peace and justice for the Palestinians? Didn’t the Israelis deserve justice as well? They were particularly concerned about the nearly universal hostility of the liberal mainline church to Israel. In some cases they thought the line was crossed from appropriate criticism to anti-Semitism. They had no trouble with criticisms of the actions of the government of Israel. They insisted that criticizing the government of Israel is a spectator sport among Jews in the United States and Israel. But for many Jews in this country it has become difficult to raise criticism when they sense the state is always, and often unfairly, under attack. They feel the positive things done by the state of Israel are chronically under reported and generally ignored.

It was a fascinating, provocative, and at times passionate conversation. I think we all had a sense of camaraderie and even common purpose. We all want Israel and the Palestinians to live in peace and safety and with justice. Many of the Evangelicals were involved in ministries to build bridges between the two groups. We also all wanted healthy and positive relationships between Jews and Evangelicals. We want to be able to call each other when there was a difficulty, question, or opportunity for collaboration. I think we also found common ground as believers in God who take our faith commitments very seriously. These conversations are important and will continue. I hope to be a part of them for years to come.

John E. Phelan, Jr.
North Park Theological Seminary

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Israelis, Palestinians, and Rene Girard

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of presenting a paper for the “Theology and Peace Conference” held on the campus of North Park University. I was invited to give the paper by my friend Michael Hardin, seminary alumnus, member of the Theology and Peace board, and author of The Jesus Driven Life. Theology and Peace seeks to apply the insights of Rene Girard to the theology and life of the Christian Church. Throughout his long and prestigious academic career Girard has developed and promoted his theory of “mimetic rivalry” and “scapegoating”. He has argued that human beings learn what is desirable from other human beings. That is, we imitate the desires of others. Introduce a new toy into a group of happily playing toddlers. They may ignore the new toy until one of them expresses an interest in it. The once ignored toy is suddenly intensely interesting. Screeching and hair pulling is likely to follow.

Girard argues that primitive society suffered from the violence of mimetic rivalry. Limited resources and unlimited desires resulted in a war of all against all. Humans finally realized that perpetual violence was not conducive to survival and sought a means to check the violence and bloodshed. At some point in the murky past they seized on the notion of a scapegoat. If one person or group of persons could be blamed for the violence and punished or destroyed the violence would be diverted and dissipated. The “scapegoats” needn’t be guilty of any great crime. They could be people at the margins of society, odd men and women out. Or they could be randomly selected from the community. All that was necessary was that the society unified itself against them and literally or metaphorically sacrificed them. The sacrifice of the scapegoat would bring temporary unity and peace until the next “mimetic crisis” required additional sacrifices.

Girard develops his theory in a series of brilliant works including, most notably, The Scapegoat and I See Satan Fall Like Lightening. Converted to Roman Catholicism as an adult, Girard immediately saw the application of his theory to the death of Jesus. He argued that in effect Jesus is the scapegoat to end all scapegoats. He exposes the mechanism for what it is: a crude but effective means of bringing temporary peace by focusing the hatred and loathing of the majority on a despised minority. As a result of the death and resurrection of Jesus the veil of secrecy is lifted and the mechanism’s effectiveness begins to wane. It becomes clear that the victim of scapegoating is not guilty or at least not so guilty as to merit destruction. For human beings to find genuine peace scapegoating and its attendant sacrifices must be rejected and love of God and neighbor must be pursued.

This week the Middle East has been once again in the news. The Israelis bumbled into a public relations disaster when they boarded a ship bringing supplies to blockaded Gaza. The raid on the flotilla produced a howl of protest around the world. Israeli leaders responded as belligerently as their opponents in the Middle East, Europe and the United States. I was reminded of another conference I attended at North Park. This meeting focused on “Christian Zionism,” that is, Christians who support the state of Israel. I was asked to give a short talk at the end of the meetings summing up the conference. I cited the work of Girard and suggested that the crisis in Israel was not likely to be addressed until both sides stopped “scapegoating” the other. Israel has become the source of all evil in the Arab world and thus a source of unity between otherwise fractious states. The Palestinians and their suicide bombers have provided the Israeli leaders with a convenient source of unity and outrage.

In the United States the left tends to excoriate Israel and throw its support behind the Palestinians. The right tends to attack the Palestinians and stand solidly behind Israel. Israel and the Palestinians become additional proxies in the ongoing fruitless and idiotic conflict between right and left. That Israel is genuinely threatened and that the Palestinians are genuinely suffering seems not as significant as winning points against your opponent. The reflexive support of one or the other regardless of their actions serves neither party well. It only serves the propaganda needs of people on either extreme of the issue. It only furthers the scapegoating violence.

My Orthodox Rabbi friend has children and grandchildren in Israel. He longs for them to grow up in peace and safety. He wants them to be able to sip coffee at a café without fearing for their lives. He wants them to be able to worship and live with freedom. There are many grandfathers in Gaza who want the same for their children and grandchildren. They want them to live free from the threat of violence, from the bitterness of sanctions, blockades, walls and checkpoints. As long as their leaders eagerly use hatred and fear of the other to sustain their power and undergird their moral authority, that is, as long as they scapegoat the other, both of their hopes seem forlorn.

Christians are not to scapegoat. We, perhaps more than others, should see its perniciousness. Our own history is a sordid tale of scapegoating violence. It has taken us years to see clearly that the gospel does not sacrifice the victim, but sets the victim free. Christians refuse the crudity of scapegoating. We refuse to blame the liberals or the conservatives, the African Americans or the Jews, the Catholics or the Fundamentalists, the Muslims or the Atheists. We refuse the cheap and easy assumption of evil at the margins, the smug assignment of blame and disdain. We do not sacrifice—we love. Can we, together, contribute to the peace of Jerusalem? Sadly, if this week is any indication, I doubt it.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Talking but Not Listening

In his book American Protestantism and a Jewish State Hertzel Fishman describes the disagreements between pro-Arab and pro-Israel Protestants following the establishment of the state of Israel as follows:

The rival groups in American Protestantism were simply talking past one another with neither group answering the other’s viewpoint convincingly. The position of the pro-Israel faction who argued Israel’s security needs, was ignored by the pro-Arab group. The latter’s claim for justice for the refugees was all but brushed aside by the former group. (pg. 129)

Nothing much has changed, I thought, reading these lines. To this day such conversations often amount to little more than verbal struggles for the moral high ground. Few are really open to being convinced by the other. Few are willing to really learn or really hear the other. In a black and white world of heroes and villains we assign noble goals to our favorites and sordid motivations to our chosen adversaries. Undoubtedly some of us listen and learn eagerly. Some of us overcome our skepticism, if not our convictions, long enough to ponder the positions of our opponents. But this seems increasingly rare.

Last week I inadvertently initiated a (fairly mild) conflict with members of my own family when one of my siblings posted one of those ubiquitous Facebook polls. The poll read as follows: “Do you approve of Obama’s decision to skip the Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery to go on vacation?” My objection to this poll question had little to do with whether skipping the ceremony was a good thing or bad. I rather objected to the way it was put. First it uses “Obama” rather than “President Obama” or even “Mr. Obama.” During the years of George W. Bush’s presidency his last name was used in similar and equally disrespectful ways. Second, I was put off by the phrase “to go on vacation.” This implies that a rare weekend in Chicago with his family was the equivalent of “going on vacation.” It also suggests President Obama intended to do nothing to honor American dead on Memorial Day—also untrue. I suggested the poll question was about as fair as asking, “Should Bush have launched a preemptive war that killed thousands of innocent Iraqis?”

Be all that as it may, this poll and the conflict that followed underscored for me how poorly we engage in significant conversations about important things. We often seek advantage not clarity. We frequently seek to silence our opponents, not understand them. Now it may surprise some of you, but I am a real fan of conflict avoidance. I would rather not get into arguments over the relative merits of the Republicans and Democrats. I would just as soon skip the fulminating about the perfidious behavior of the Palestinians or the Israelis. And please don’t try to rally me to your cause on the issues of hymns and praise choruses. I am definitely an on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand kind of guy. When all else fails, I would argue, keep your mouth shut! Now this may keep the peace (especially important in a family!), but it seldom helps us solve our most intractable human problems. If the Arabs and Israelis really want to engage their differences (and there are plenty on both sides of the issue who have little interest in doing so), they are going to need to listen to each other. If those who are concerned about the poor who lack the most basic healthcare and those troubled by the growth in government spending are ever going to find common ground, they will need to stop shouting at one another.

A perfect example of all this is the ongoing uproar over the Arizona law requiring people suspected of being illegal aliens to produce their papers they are requested by a policeman. On the right people cry, “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” while the left accuses such people of racism. Neither side, I think, is really listening to the other. No country can be expected to permit unlimited and unchecked immigration without significant fraying of its infrastructure and support systems. On the other hand, it seems likely that persons targeted by police will have darker skin and Hispanic accents. And would the law’s supporters be happy if the police had the right at any time to demand that any of us show our “papers”? Such a demand reminds one of an eastern European country under Communism! All this is to say that the conversation could be carried on around different poles than “illegals” and “racists”. Could we ask what are the conditions impoverishing our southern neighbors? Could we discern whether the labor needs of southwestern agriculture could be effectively served by more readily granted work permits? Could we open our hearts to children brought into this country as infants who have no legal status but are in every way as American as the other kids in their grammar and high schools. Could we sit still long enough to genuinely hear the concerns of the other? I have my doubts.