A small thought on anti-semitic violence and its increase in the US

I do not know how many candles are supposed to be in the Menorah that sits in my bookcase. The Menorah is medium blue. Gold doves and leaves adorn the front.

There are three orange/red candles to the right. And three dark blue to the left and one in the middle, elevated slightly, that is white.

The far right and the far left candle holders are both empty.

I’m not going to read too much into that.

Behind the Menorah is Gandhi and James Joyce, Whitman, the Book of Job (according to Stephen Mitchell), King. (Authors I’ve been trying to engage for maybe 30 years.) A book on dying. A book on trauma. A book on shame.

Today, the New York Times has an article on why we need Whitman in 2020:

In Whitman’s understanding of democracy, we’re bound to one another in the experience of being finite creatures with bodies that will one day die. The scholar Kevin J. Hayes explains that in Whitman’s estimation, people must “feel the humanity within the self. Deep personal understanding can broaden individual perspective, creating a sense of humanity large enough to include everyone.” A demagogue may whip his admirers into a hateful frenzy and impart the illusion of unity, but the loving work of democracy actually provides that unity with others who may be very different from ourselves. Hayes describes Whitman in “Song of Myself” “going from the personal to the national” and finally “to the universal.”
What democracy requires is mutual affection over that shared predicament; what it needs is not just politics but also transcendence, enchantment, grace and love.

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Every day there seems to be a new story about an attack in New York, and elsewhere, against a Jewish person. At worship. At home. In a temple. It is a devastating turn of events, and one I did not expect to surface again in the United States.

It appears that anti-semitism is out in the open. It appears anti-semitism has gone mainstream.

Initial thoughts.

  1. “What democracy requires is mutual affection.” Mutual affection may be too much to ask for just now. Even, King’s network of mutuality is probably too much to ask. Lots of demonization everywhere you turn. For the moment, put aside enchantment and love. I’d take Emanuel Levinas’ idea of encountering the face of the other and seeing there vulnerability and defenselessness. And recognizing that one must not kill, even before you can come to any kind of label or rationalization or assertion of freedom. Do no harm. Do not kill. I’d take that. To see some sacred and holy and the presence of God in the face of the other. That would be a start for me. Then maybe we could work on enchantment and love and mutual affection. But let’s start with, “don’t do violence when seeing the face of the other.”
  2. The important part of seeing the face of the other is putting oneself in a position to see the face of the other, and that is becoming rarer and rarer. We have sequestered ourselves, to a large extent. This is not news, of course. Every one is in agreement that this has come to pass in our particular context. So, an act of rebellious imagination is putting yourself in situations where you are off a screen, confronting someone directly who has a different world view. It is an act of imaginative rebellion against the dehumanizing forces at play in the world. Of course, communities of faith are important factors in overcoming our sequestered selves. The only issue here is that faith communities have been so fearful of losing congregants by being particular in their naming of those dehumanizing factors, that they lost congregants by being generically boring and irrelevant. Faith communities are in special position to engage one another across differences and to put their people in position to meet and greet one another.
  3. Faith communities are also important factors in lifting up enchantment, love and mutual affection. The writer of the Walt Whitman article suggests that this is most likely to occur when we know ourselves as ones who will die, and therefore gain a perspective of empathy and connection to our fellows. If any organization is equipped to speak of death and any resulting solidarity, it is our faith communities. Faith communities must address death head on, speak of dying and not transitioning, or passing, or losses, but death and dying. Because faith communities have a particular and enduring message about death not being the final word.
  4. There is one very special idea that may take us to that place of enchantment and mutual affection, and it comes to us from the rule of St. Benedict: to greet everyone as if they are Christ. Hospitality. What is the role of hospitality in a democratic renewal project? The Unitarian Universalists say that everyone has inherent worth and dignity. The constitution says that all are created equal. Philo, a first century Jewish thinker, says that every soul carries the divine: ‘For the essence or substance of that other soul is divine spirit, a truth vouched for by Moses especially, who in his story of the creation says that God breathed a breath of life upon the first man, the founder of our race, into the lordliest part of his body, the face, where the senses are stationed like bodyguards to the great king, the mind. And clearly what was then thus breathed was ethereal spirit, even an effulgence of the blessed, thrice blessed nature of the Godhead.’ Seeing the divine image in the other — the least, the accomplished, your friend, the one who looks like you, and the one you despise, the one you call enemy. All of it. Seeing the divine in the other is the special secret ingredient. And, that step alone might just re-animate the democratic ideal, and might just resacralize the everyday.
  5. All of this points to one way that faith community may reenergize our public life together. There is one thing to really focus upon, in terms of what the Christian church can do, it is practical and important. Christians and others must speak out against triumphalism and identify ways that our theologizing and preaching casts Christians against Jews, Christians against Muslims, Christians against humanists, and so on. It is especially easy to cast Christianity against Judaism and that kind of supersessionism is toxic to Christianity and destructive towards Judaism.
  6. Kendall Soulen, my professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, in DC, wrote a book: The God of Israel and Christian Theology. Here is the summary (Via Amazon). With acknowledgment that Christian theology contributed to the persecution and genocide of Jews comes a dilemma: how to excise the cancer without killing the patient? Kendall Soulen shows how important Christian assertions — -the uniqueness of Jesus, the Christian covenant, the finality of salvation in Christ — -have been formulated in destructive, supersessionist ways not only in the classical period (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus) and early modernity (Kant and Schleiermacher) but even contemporary theology (Barth and Rahner). Along with this first full-scale critique of Christian supersessionism, Soulen’s own constructive proposal regraps the narrative unity of Christian identity and the canon through an original and important insight into the divine-human covenant, the election of Israel, and the meaning of history.
    “This is the most promising proposal to date for overcoming Christian doctrinal supersessionism while maintaining the continuing theological importance of Judaism for Christianity and not sacrificing the christological claims historically considered essential to Christian identity.” George Lindbeck, Yale Div School.
  7. There will be more in the coming days.

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Roger Butts

Roger Butts

Author, Seeds of Devotion. Unitarian Universalist. Ordained 20 years.