Monday, June 23, 2014

Not The Historical Problem

Spotted amongst the arguments for Presbyterian divestment:
At the General Assembly itself, a shocked Presbyterian blogger reported that during prayers, Virginia Sheets, the vice moderator of the Middle East issues committee, “suggested that Jesus wasn’t afraid to tell the Jews when they were wrong.”
My first instinct, upon reading this, was to vomit.

But after the initial wave of nausea passed, I had two different thoughts. The first was to observe that, among the many characteristics one might use to describe institutional Christianity across history, "unwillingness to tell Jews how they ought behave" is not really on the chalkboard. One might even say it is the unifying feature of the Christian tradition -- starting with Jesus, perhaps, but continuing all the way down. Exhorting Christians to be less passive about criticizing Jews is like telling Mississippi to stop bending to the NAACP, or France to let the Germans win for once. And one might further add that this particular Christian fetish might be not just the single thing they're worst at, but (at least in terms of duration) the single most-worst thing ever. It is quite possible that no single entity has ever been as consistently bad at something over a longer period of time than Christians have been at making normative judgments about Jews -- a multi-millennia run of failure, often punctuated by violence, invariably associated with oppression, that characterized Christians never-ending self-assurance that they understand the Jewish situation better than Jews do. But be not afraid, Presbyterians! This time, it will be different I'm sure.

Thought number two goes to this idea of fear. Rev. Sheets' fellow Christians should not be "afraid" to tell them Jews what's what. One hears this refrain a lot -- how deeply frightening it is to stand up to the dreaded Jewish Lobby. Christians, of course, have rarely been particularly "afraid" to take Jews down a peg -- mostly because the scariest thing about criticizing Jews is the prospect that the Jews will say something that makes you feel temporarily bad about yourself (before reminding yourself that They're Just Playing the Anti-Semitism Card -- always a quick pick-me-up). Jews, on the other hand, have historically had to be genuinely fearful of telling Christians they're wrong, or refusing to heed Christian "criticisms" of Jewish behavior. To do so often quite literally was to render one's life forfeit. At best, it runs the risk of a massive backlash that threatens hard-won and precariously-preserved political and social rights. And so Jews have historically stepped quite lightly around Christian sensibilities; mouthing meek assertions about how maybe tones could be tempered and aren't we all brothers here and I know you mean well, but ....

It is a unique feature of the past 60 or so years that this situation has changed a little bit. Not that Christians now have to fear Jews, though there appears to be no power on earth that could convince the most powerful social organization the earth has ever seen that it is not being victimized by The Other. But it is the case that sometimes, in some contexts, Jews can criticize Christians without the automatic specter of a massacre looming. Or -- and this I suspect is worse than Jewish criticism -- Jews can sometimes ignore Christian criticism without immediate and obvious consequence. For people who view their power over Jews as an entitlement, this I think is what really rankles: there is an entity, that is Jewish, that Christians criticize, that sometimes does not listen.

Power, as Carol Gilligan once wrote, means you can "opt not to listen. And you can do so with impunity." Like most things, this is a double-edged sword. Of course being in position where can "opt not to listen" means one can safely ignore voices at the margins, and thus comfortably maintain a privileged state. But being able to not listen is also a predicate to autonomy. For historically marginalized groups, such as Jews, having the option not to listen is a break from thousands of years of imperial domination where our fates, our rights, and our lives were governed by the whims of others whose words we were bound to respect. Part of liberationist politics is respecting the reality that the formerly dominated group will make its own decisions and, sometimes, stand by those decisions even when their former rulers passionately disagree.

It's a lesson Virginia Sheets, and the Presbyterian Church, might want to learn.

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