Tuesday, May 06, 2008

A Jewish BLT

Not Bacon-Lettuce-Tomato (that'd be impossible to make Jewish -- unless you're Reform), but Black Liberation Theology!

This NYT article on the subject (H/T: PG) brought to the fore a thought I've been having for some time. Black Liberation Theology strikes me as a significantly more "Jewish", if you will, theology than it does Christian.

Now, I'll admit only a moderate knowledge of the parameters of Christian theology. But plenty of Christians I've talked to have confessed genuine trouble with identifying BLT as a "Christian" entity. They object to its particularism, that it "takes sides" (as opposed to Christ's message of universal salvation and infinite love). They think it's too political, and this-worldly, as opposed to concentrating on faith and the world-to-come.

Both of these concerns fit far more comfortable within Judaism, which is also particularistic, and also is more concerned with the state of the human world as opposed to abstract notions of faith and the afterlife. Admittedly, Orthodox Judaism often only concerns itself with "this world" on a ritualistic level, and less so with regards to universal concerns of justice. But Judaism as a whole (including Orthodox Judaism) has developed a strong social identity around the notion of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world). Even if, as my Judaic Studies professor at Carleton argues, Tikkun Olam historically has been only a minor element of Jewish religious practice, it's certainly risen to a dominant position today.

Moreover, the Liberation Theology mantra, "God is on the side of the oppressed", also seems to my ears to ring more Jewish than Christian. In part, this is simply historical: Jews have spent more time oppressed than (White) Christians, so obviously we're going to develop theological accounts that provide sustenance in such situations. But also, as the article notes, the God of BLT tends to be that of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament: God standing in judgment over wrongdoers, and prophets preaching Jeremiads against evil societies. I don't believe this theme is absent in the New Testament, but my understanding is that it takes on reduced significance.

In part, this affinity (brother-sufferers) has been used to explain the disproportionate presence of Jews (religious and not) in the Civil Rights movement. But BLT came to the fore with the Black Power movement -- an event which, at the very least, stressed the Black/Jewish bond. Perhaps one way to repair the rift would be for Black Liberation Theorists and their Jewish counterparts to explore connections and commonalities regarding how they view the world. Orthodox Christianity has not exactly been the most welcoming home for liberation theology. Maybe Judaism can be (and learn something about ourselves in the process).

1 comment:

Stentor said...

I think Christianity has a long history of being particularistic and this-worldly, in the service of the oppressor *and* of the oppressed (from fighting lions in the Coliseum up through Latin American liberation theology). Christianity may have a stronger parallel tradition of being apolitical (which is in effect political in the service of the status quo) and other-worldly, but I don't think that makes particularistic and political versions un-Christian.

Further, I think the call to be apolitical and otherworldly is a tactic -- many Christians, especially white Americans, are deeply uncomfortable with the *specific cause* that BLT has taken up, and so they fall back (perhaps unconsciously) on the apolitical and otherworldly standard as a way of dismissing it.

That being said, your call to explore the commonalities between BLT and Judaism is certainly worthwhile.