Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Openness of the Presbyterian Church

The Presbyterian Church has released an open letter to its "American Jewish Interfaith Partners." It contains a lovely series of platitudes, but not much else. Seriously, please tell me if you see anything in there that is remotely substantive. I've read it three times and I've got nothing. "Nor does this [resolution] indicate any desire for the PC(USA) to walk away from our deeply held, multilateral Jewish-Christian relationships." I have no doubt that's true, but that does not tell us whether these "deeply held" relationships will yield any productive fruit. "The assembly's action came about through much prayer and discernment." I don't know what "discernment" means in this context, but suffice to say deep thoughts can still be wrong thoughts. I'd wager that much of the Church's history has been spent taking action regarding Jews that is the product of "much prayer and discernment"; the products of said action have an exceptionally ugly history.

For me, at least, what is missing here is any sense of introspection by the Church -- any sense that the products of continued interfaith engagement with the Jewish community may require the Church to act differently than it would like to if left to its own devices. The Church, to borrow from a Christian theologian, desires "cheap grace" -- it wants absolution from Jews without having to give up anything in return. But why should I give them such dispensation? As best I can tell, the offer on the table is that the Church wants to communicate with Jews, so long as the results of that communication do not require the Church to take any action it would not have otherwise done in the absence of the Jewish voice. That means nothing to me. It does address the root of the harm and it does not acknowledge the nature of the sin.

I've thought quite a bit about what it would take to bring the Church "back into Communion", if you will, assuming that they don't rescind the resolution (which they won't). The answer for me has actually been rather straightforward: Condemn "Zionism Unsettled" as an anti-Semitic document. Don't just "disavow" it as not an "official" Church document -- "Hop on Pop" is not an official Church document. "Zionism Unsettled" is representative of a particular Christian worldview vis-a-vis Jews that is deeply oppressive and problematic, and one that (though not always expressed so starkly) has a deep influence on how Christians understand the Jewish experience. The critical question is whether Christians acknowledge that the Jewish vantage point may require painful reassessments of some deeply held commitments. There is no reason that Christians should expect or are entitled to a reconciliation with Jews that is "self-bestowed":
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man’ will gladly go and self all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
Christian reckoning with "Zionism Unsettled" requires that they acknowledge the reality of anti-Semitism in their own community and how that inevitably colors their instincts when they elect to speak on Jewish affairs. Recall that the divestment resolution passed by 7 votes. The resolution disavowing (which is to say, stating that the document "does not represent the views" of the PCUSA) "Zionism Unsettled" received eight negative votes in Committee. In a very real sense, it is the people who do believe in the validity of "Zionism Unsettled" and do believe it should reflect Church policy, that gave this resolution its margin of victory. Will they "pluck out the eye which causes [them] to stumble"? Plucking out eyes hurts, or so I imagine. It is not fun, to be sure. It is costly. Grace, in contexts such as the historical oppression of Jews by Christian, should be costly.

As noted in my last post, a (if not the) key question regarding the entire Presbyterian participation in this debate is why anyone -- Jewish or Christian -- should believe that the voice of institutional Christianity is a credible contributor on questions of normative values in general and Jewish experience in particular. Historically speaking, there is no reason to believe they are and will continue to be anything but terrible at this, in large part because the warp and woof of institutional Christianity thought and practice has been suffused with anti-Semitic ideology from top to bottom. Deconstructing (unsettling?) those foundations is a critical step in demonstrating that the Church recognizes there may be something internal to themselves that requires a change. In order for me, at least, to find talking to the PCUSA valuable, I need to know that they recognize these basic facts about themselves, their history, and their relationship to the Jewish people -- a legacy of prejudice and oppression that renders them deeply suspect (to say the least) as partners.

The Church wants cheap grace. It will not get it. If it wants to speak to Jews, it needs to first reckon with itself.

UPDATE: This op-ed by Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor of the World Union for Progressive Judaism really puts an exclamation point on the above. I'm not exactly one to put a ton of stock in musty position papers sitting in a drawer, but I admit I assumed the PCUSA had one somewhere. That it, apparently alone amongst major Christian denominations, has never undertaken a formalized inquiry into their relationship with Judaism and how their own ideologies may be implicated by historical and theological Christian anti-Semitism is amazing. That really should have been Step 0 before undertaking a move like this.

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.