Friday, January 28, 2011

Good Work?

President Obama’s recent State of the Union address was a relentlessly upbeat hymn to American ingenuity and creativity. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he produced cheerleaders shaking pompoms and shouting “We’re number one!” Evidently this kind of thing goes down well with the American populace. According to a poll right after the speech 65% of us loved it. This giddy celebration of American ingenuity was, of course, in service of “getting the economy moving again” and enabling American workers to compete in the “global marketplace.” While the economy does seem to be growing again, job creation is lagging and many of the long term unemployed are growing understandably desperate. A job—any job that pays reasonably well and has at least minimal benefits—must look good to them. And Obama, like President Clinton before him, knows that, in the latter’s immortal words: “It’s the economy stupid.” Of course, this is perfectly clear to Republican politicians as well—perhaps even more so. For most of our political leaders, nothing should be permitted to restrict the growth of the economy. The next election depends on it!

Good work is a gift from God. To be without work that sustains one’s imagination as well as one’s family and community is a great sorrow. Georgetown College’s Norman Wirzba argues in his recent book Living the Sabbath that “human work finds its inspiration and fulfillment in God’s own work of healing, restoring, strengthening, and maintaining the life of creation.” From the beginning human beings were created to work alongside God, to continue God’s work of creation. When there was “no one to till the ground” (Gen. 2:5), God created human beings. Adam was given the task of naming the animals God had created (Gen. 2:19, 20). From the beginning human beings were stewards of God’s creation. Work itself was not the result of the first couple’s disobedience, but fruitless and painful work (Gen. 3:16-19). Even good and necessary work would be at times frustrating and difficult. All around us, to this day, we see and experience degrading, destructive, and even useless work. Wendell Berry calls such work “blasphemy”, making “shoddy work of the work of God.”

I have profound sympathy with the jobless and underemployed. I grieve with those who have worked diligently all their lives only to see their life savings evaporate and their homes suffer foreclosure. We certainly do need good work, good jobs. We need jobs that produce delight as well as useful products and services. We need work that, with Wirzba, “finds its inspiration and fulfillment in God’s own work.” One of the great tragedies of this recent near economic collapse is that as a people and a culture we did not step back and ask what a better, healthier, more sustainable economy would look like. We have assumed along with our leaders that  only more of the same will sustain us. I fear that approach is not simply foolish but suicidal. I am not sure what an economy that joined our work to God’s would look like. But I am quite certain we need to ask our leaders and ourselves more probing questions about our current set of assumptions and practices. I fear we are only rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Seeking Moral High Ground

For the last week we have been subjected to a rather distressing game of moral one-upmanship. In the wake of the tragic shooting in Tucson people, understandably, sought explanations and then, unfortunately, rushed to assign blame.

“It’s your side’s fault,” some said.

“Well, your side does the same thing,” was the response.

“Your side is worse.”

“Is not!”

“Is so!”

Ad nauseam.

Both sides sought to wrap themselves in righteousness and victimhood while the real victims lay bleeding in front of the Safeway.

I understand the anger. I was angry myself. Here were Americans engaged in an activity most fundamental to our democracy—speaking to representatives and listening to constituents--and they were killed or wounded by a spray of bullets from a semi-automatic handgun. I had not heard of Gabrielle Giffords. For the first hour or so I did not know whether she was a Democrat or a Republican. In fact, given the area she represented I assumed she was a Republican. And for most of us, Republican or Democrat, it didn’t matter. I was moved by the evident emotion of Speaker of the House John Boehner in the immediate wake of the tragedy and even more moved by the speech of President Obama at the memorial service. When Americans suffer such a tragedy there is no room for partisanship. But we can’t seem to help it.

Incivility, I suppose, like pornography, is in the eye of the beholder. We know it when we see it—or hear it. But we might begin by acknowledging a few fundamental facts if we wish to improve our fractious civil discourse.

1. No one has cornered the market of civility, or for that matter, incivility. The right gets bashed a good deal for incivility. But if you don’t believe the left can be just a vicious and uncivil read a conservative blogger and look at the responses. Read the scornful, profanity-laced tirades in the responses from the left. Could you find the same thing on a liberal blog from the right? Of course. And that is the point. There are angry, hateful, and dangerous people on both the far left and far right. Seeking moral high ground by saying the other side is worse is an act of self-deception.

2. It is not uncivil to disagree and disagree sharply. Our democracy is advanced by such disagreements. But to be productive the disagreements must entail listening to the other, respecting the other, not caricaturing or abusing the other. We need to listen to understand the nature of our disagreements. We also need to listen to learn from the other. Because whether we are on the right or on the left we are bound to be wrong about something! After all, we are fragile, sinful human beings.

3. We must recognize the humanity of the other. It is all too easy to dismiss the other as “a right wing nut” or “a liberal loony.” But behind the opinions we find uninformed or even offensive is a human being made in the image of God. Everyone has a story. Our opinions are part of our personal narrative and some of that narrative may be quite painful. We will never find common ground if we do not first acknowledge a common humanity.

I have not always been civil myself. Certainly in the privacy of my thoughts I have been uncharitable and worse. But in my writings and on Facebook I have recorded thoughts I later regretted—thoughts that were intended to wound, not to enhance our discourse or engage our common humanity. But I need the love of my critics to grow in grace—even if I still in the end think they are wrong. And whether or not they know it or want it, they need my love as well—even when they remain unconvinced by my arguments. For a follower of Jesus the call to love is still preeminent. St. Paul, no stranger to conflict himself, makes this clear in I Corinthians 13. Seeking moral high ground in order to rain down fire on the enemy is, in these days, a particularly inapt metaphor and I trust we will reject both the image and the action.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Aryan Jesus

I am in the midst of reading Susannah Heschel’s book The Aryan Jesus. It is a study of “The Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life.” Founded in 1939 the institute sponsored conferences, produced books and pamphlets, and worked with university students and pastors in an effort to purge German Christianity of Judaism. Many important German biblical scholars and theologians were prominent members of the institute and participants in its activities. After the war they understandably ignored, suppressed, or minimized their participation in such anti-Semitic activities. Nevertheless, Heschel makes it clear that the impact of the institute and its scholarship survived the war in the scholars and their students. Their research into the nature of first century Judaism and its conflicts with early Christianity shaped European New Testament studies especially, given the prominence of German biblical scholarship. This was seen, for example, in the effort to differentiate Galilee from Jerusalem: to make the former more “Gentile” and the latter more “Jewish”. Recent archeological evidence makes it clear that in the first century even the cities of Galilee were overwhelmingly Jewish. But especially during the pre-war period this was a way to distance Jesus from Judaism and even make him “Aryan.” Heschel makes it clear that this scholarly activity had its roots deep in 19th century anti-Semitic fantasies about race. The “white” Europeans surely had to find different theological and cultural ancestors than the despised Jews. So they constructed a Jesus in their own image—a Jesus who as not only not Jewish, but anti-Semitic—a white Jesus.

Recent generations of New Testament scholarship have rejected the non-Jewish Jesus. But anti-Semitism still hangs over biblical studies and Christianity like a pall. Although I have questions at points about her methods and conclusions, I commend to you Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. Dr. Levine is quite right to point out that our off handed comments about Judaism in comparison to Christianity are often not only offensive, but wrong. There are certainly differences to discuss! There are certainly areas of serious disagreement between Jews and Christians. But these differences can be engaged respectfully, carefully and thoughtfully only when Christians do not caricature and distort Judaism and Jews. These days anti-Semitism is alive and well. It even flies under the flag of liberalism in the blanket critiques of the state of Israel. Israel at times deserves criticism—as done the United States or any nation state. Not all who critique Israel are anti-Semitic. But the popular abhorrence of Israel that characterizes liberal critics in Europe and the US provides cover for anti-Semites to be respectable.