The Hard Truth of Beloved Community

Today is the day we celebrate the gifts of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther, King, Jr. to our nation and world. 

Martin Luther King, JRThis is a time when many in our nation participate in some action that they believe helps us achieve Dr. King’s vision of “beloved community.” My intention is to continue to do that continually throughout the year, throughout my life, and my hope and prayer is that is true for others as well. 

Yesterday, I heard a fine sermon by Rev. Dwayne Johnson at Metropolitan Community Church in Washington, D.C. in which he focused on the active love of God working in and through us. He drew much inspiration from early writing of Dr. King, such as “An Experiment in Love,” which appeared in in 1958 in a magazine and also as a part of his early book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Circle.

In that article, Dr. King focuses on the Christian ethical concept of agape (a transliteration of the Greek word for love), often described as God’s love for humanity. This love is different from love songs and courtship. He wrote

Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action. Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community. It is insistence on community even when one seeks to break it. Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community. 

Community. There are so many forces, so many people, seeking today to disrupt, even destroy community. From politicians to terrorists to intolerant individuals and xenophobic groups, our life in community is under siege. Dr. King would be preaching, writing, marching, praying to turn that around.

Jonathan and Robin JVP Islamophobia actionSome of the worst right now is virulent negativity toward Muslims and Islam (of course, African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants from Latin America and elsewhere, as well as transgender people, differently-abled people, and LGB people continue to face this, too). 

That’s why Jonathan and I, with other members of the DC Metro Chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, went yesterday to the Columbia Heights neighborhood in our nation’s capital to focus on Islamophobia and to encourage others to join in opposing this harmful attitude that seems to be affecting, infecting, so much of our public discourse. 

About 20 of us handed out flyers, talked to people on the street, and visited store managers and owners asking for permission to put posters in their windows. About 25 retailers accepted the posters and quite a few hung them immediately in their windows. We are shown with one poster, and the other is below. 

Many of us also wore small stickers in the shape of the yellow star Jews were forced to wear in the Holocaust with the word “Muslim” (and the Islamic crescent) super-imposed where the word Jude (German for Jew) was usually displayed. This was not without controversy for some, but the intention was to express solidarity with a people being marked for ugly treatment on the basis of their religion and heritage.

yellow star with Muslim and crescentI also know that expressing that solidarity right in the face of so much hatred is what so many should have done in Germany and elsewhere, including in the United States, when Jews by the millions, and many others (my own tribe, gay men, wore the pink triangle), were being forced to leave their homes and be slaughtered. Just think what might have happened, how different things might have been, if people–non-Jews all over–had stood up in 1935, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, etc.! Hitler and his minions did the deeds, just as others engage in genocide and racial profiling that leads to death and imprisonment for far too many today, but we all bear responsibility for whatever we did not, do not, do to stop it. 

Refugees are welcome here posterThis is what Dr. King meant when he often spoke of the silence of the “good people,” the ones who look the other way in the face of injustice. As Dr. King, and so many who marched with him, knew well, we are called on to speak truth to power when, as it so often is, it is on the side of oppression. And too often for some, perhaps many depending on the circumstances, the power that oppresses some actually sustains, even raises, the rest of us. It is not easy to stand up against our own group when it is wrong, but if we want beloved community, the community which is the whole of God’s people (all people are God’s people) to survive and thrive, we must do just that. 

The fate of community, beloved community, rests not only with others but also squarely with us. Thank you, Dr. King, for not letting us forget that truth. 

 

Celebrating the Baby Born to a Good Jewish Couple

I sang what was for me a new verse to an old hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” last Sunday.

O come, O come, O Adonai, who came to all on Sinai high,
And from its peak a single law proclaimed in majesty and awe
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel!

O Come O Come Emmanuel NCH
from New Century Hymnal; vs. 3 is where Adonai is used.

It was for me the first time I had heard in church this term for God, Adonai, which I often say and sing during Shabbat services in the synagogue.

As one-half of an inter-faith couple, and as a pastor/theologian acutely aware of the deep links between Judaism and Christianity (links so often abused by Christians and understandably denied by Jews), I am always grateful when a connection between these two faiths I cherish is made.

Research about the origins of the verse (and the entire hymn) revealed that they are based on an ancient seven-verse antiphon that was in use, according to some scholars, as early as the sixth century. By the eighth century, these seven verses, known as the O Antiphons, were in regular use in Rome, as part of daily preparation at vespers for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, each one using a title that the faithful attribute to Jesus:

  • December 17: O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
  • December 18: O Adonai (O Lord)
  • December 19: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
  • December 20: O Clavis David (O Key of David)
  • December 21: O Oriens (O Dayspring)
  • December 22: O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations)
  • December 23: O Emmanuel (O With Us is God)
o_antiphons_advent_4
blueeyedennis-siempre.blogspot.com

Interestingly, some see in the first letters of the titles, taken backwards,  a Latin acrostic, “Ero Cras,”  which translates to “Tomorrow, I will be [there].” But scholars do not believe this was the intention of the original writers.

Moreover, from an interfaith perspective, this interpretation is tricky at best: Jews would never use the term Adonai to refer to Jesus. Thus, although I was excited when I sang this verse in church, I became concerned as I did this research to think we Christians, or some of us, might once again be appropriating, or misappropriating, that which is not ours.

Jewish Jesus
theguardian.com

What is undeniable is that the birth of Jesus is a Jewish birth. He is dedicated, circumcised, in the temple as a Jewish boy/man. He goes to temple at age 12 and converses with the rabbis. He never calls himself a Christian. Nowhere in any holy text do we find an indication that he intended to start a new religion.

I want to think, and pray, more about how to be sure that these Jewish roots are not lost or ignored–certainly at Christmas but also throughout the liturgical and spiritual year of the Church. I want Christians to stop using the Hebrew Scriptures to proof-text why they believe Jesus is the Messiah (and really only value those Hebrew texts that they claim do this).  And please do not read this as an endorsement, or repudiation, of Jews for Jesus (any more than Rabbis engage in the arguments between various sects claiming to be Christian).

At this very moment when Christmas overwhelms our culture–of course, much of Christmas as it is enacted culturally has little to do with Jesus or any other faith–and creates a situation where our Jewish siblings can feel claustrophobic, it is vital that we give thanks to God, to Adonai, for the historic and contemporary ground of our faith in Judaism.

Let us celebrate the birth of this Jewish baby who grows up into a beautiful Jewish man and rabbi, from whom we continue to learn and grow spiritually!

Let us celebrate the One who is with us, and is coming yet again.

Real Leaders Seek to Tear Down Walls

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin najaiurban.com
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin
najaiurban.com

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is a leader.

It is important to say this on this particular day, November 4, the 20th anniversary of the death, the assassination, of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli military leader and Prime Minister of peace.

A leader is one who tells people what needs to be done, and models it for them. A leader is one who sees the bigger picture, more than what sounds or feels good in the moment. A leader is one who sees to the welfare of all people not just those who support him or her, not just those of one group but all. A leader has a vision of things as they could be, and is willing to risk discomfort and unpopularity to share ideas and programs to help move toward that new way of life. Rabin was this kind of leader.

Former Israeli President Yitzhak Rabin takegreatpictures.com
Former Israeli President Yitzhak Rabin
takegreatpictures.com

Such a vision continues to be articulated by Rivlin. A year ago, as Jonathan and I were in Israel, he declared that the time had come to recognize that Israel had become “a sick society.” He did not mean that Israelis are bad people but that the unwillingness to engage Palestinians in a shared nation is corrupting the national soul.

And in May he spoke of the need for each group to recognize the value and culture of the other. He even went so far as to say that just as Arab children must learn Hebrew that all Jewish children should be taught Arabic. What a concept! It would be good for us in the United States to insist, in a similar way, that all children be taught Spanish (take that, Donald Trump!). As Rivlin says, language “leads from the ear to the heart.”

What is interesting about Rivlin is that he does not support the two-state solution, believing that Arabs and Jews can live side by side. This is why he goes deeper, dealing with questions of identity and difference, hoping to encourage dialogue between those who stand across the chasm of hatred and yell at each other, and thrown stones and even launch rockets. What he really wants is a unified nation of people of the land, all people of the land.

This kind of thinking is where peace is actually made. Treaties are not peace, dividing up the political spoils among various groups or nations–that is not peace. Such things may help, by reducing warfare and overt violence, but peace requires deeper change, peace is a matter of the soul and spirit of people. It is overcoming the inner, intimate instinct for violence.

ibtimes.co.uk
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ibtimes.co.uk

Rivlin seems to understand this; or maybe he just sees how hopeless it is to keep playing the political games of Netanyahu and Abbas and others (even Obama and Kerry). It is telling that recently the Prime Minister of Israel said, “I am asked if we will forever live by the sword? Yes.” (see story here)

The President of that same nation says, according to a report in The Times of Israel, that

opposing narratives were at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a “zero sum game between identities, between national stories.

“My independence is your catastrophe,” he said, alluding to the Palestinian Nakba, marked with an annual day of mourning that coincides with Israel’s celebration of its independence in 1948. “You build your identity, which negates mine, and I build my identity, which negates yours.” (read the story here)

He wants each side to cease building separate identities at the expense of the other, to recognize a shared inheritance in the land and a deep spirituality.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas

The difference between the two attitudes, between Rivlin and Netanyahu, is stunning. One will help Israel survive and thrive. The other will cause more sickness and, I believe, ultimately lead to its demise.

To live by the sword is to die by it. Rabin knew this from personal experience, even before the assassin’s bullet. Rivlin seems to know it today.

On this day, we must pray in gratitude for Rabin, as we pray for the life of Rivlin (who has, like Rabin, received many death threats). Theirs is the journey of hope and liberation from hate and violence, the way to godly living in the land of such promise.

And we must pray for Netanyahu, Abbas, and all the others, that they finally come to their senses, to learn to reach across the great divide to begin the really hard work of peace.

Shalom.

Not in God’s Name?

I will go to Shabbat this evening, sharing with my Jewish husband and many other good and faithful people in saying prayers and singing beautiful, haunting songs of God’s power, goodness, and mercy. We will say to each other, “Shabbat Shalom,” sabbath peace.

Mishkan TorahI have come to cherish this time, to be accepted as a member of the temple, even as I continue my worship and identity as a follower of Jesus. Both Congregation Or Ami, the Reform congregation in Richmond, and Congregation Mishkan Torah, the Conservative/Reconstructionist temple in Greenbelt, recognize our family (Or Ami did so before we were legally married, and I think it would have been the same at Mishkan Torah).

I learn much about faith and living from the wise and deeply spiritual rabbis who lead these two congregations and from other leaders and members, too. Judaism is a beautiful faith and these are beautiful people. I am blessed. I grow in spiritual depth by being fed at temple, and participating in the life of the congregation.

boycott_divestment_sanctions_560I also am troubled. During recent High Holy Days services, speakers told us about the importance of buying Israel Bonds. They also spoke of how wrong any efforts, such BDS (Boycott Divestment, Sanctions), to change Israeli policy through pressure from the world, were wrong, even evil. We were told that BDS seeks to destroy Israel. I have read and heard people say that Jews who support these efforts are self-hating Jews. Even the idea of selective boycotts–not buying products from selected companies who are part of maintaining control of Palestinians–are judged as anti-semitic. The implication is, for me, that I and other non-Jews who may support at least some of these efforts are anti-Semitic.

Int._Day_Against_Fascism_and_Antisemitism
en.wikipedia.org

Of course, it is hard to escape anti-Semitic attitudes–like white racism, homophobia, sexism, they are part of the air we breathe (even after the Holocaust and a desire for “never again”). But I have worked hard to overcome it, and am committed to opposing it every way I can.

Free Palestine and anti-semitism
http://www.thoughtsplural.com/ (of course, Jews are not the only Semitic people)

But that does not mean I accept everything done by the State of Israel as good, any more than I accept everything done by the United States of America as good. And it surely does not mean that I want to do to others what has been done to Jews.

Now comes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who claims it was a Muslim leader, Jerusalem’s then-grand mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who gave Hitler the idea, or if not the idea then the push, to burn all Jews. Historians universally scoff at the claim, as do many Israeli leaders, including some in the Netanyahu cabinet.

ibtimes.co.uk
Benjamin Netanyahu ibtimes.co.uk

The Prime Minister, admittedly never a favorite of mine going back to when he was the Israeli Ambassador to the UN in the 1980s, seems to be seeking to deflect any criticism of Israeli actions towards the Palestinians by suggesting that the current wave of violence, and by extension all the Palestinian anger and violence in prior years, is due to only one cause: an ancient animus of Muslims and Palestinians toward Jews.

It is true that the Grand Mufti was an odious anti-Semite. And it is true that many other Arab leaders, and people, have been so, and continue to be so. It is disappointing, to say the least, that the current President of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has not condemned the violence and sought to stem it.

Mahmoud Abbas
Mahmoud Abbas news.bbc.co.uk

At the same time, there seems to be ample evidence that Abbas and the authority are not inciting it either. Frankly, Abbas is a pretty weak figure, and that is in part due to how ineffective he and his government are seen by the people in changing the living conditions of Palestinians.

What Mr. Netanyahu may want to consider is the contribution his government, and prior Israeli administrations, make to this perception among Palestinians. Perhaps if they could find ways to lessen the Israeli control of Palestinian lives, to allow more movement not less, to stop what would be considered racial profiling in this country, to provide access to more water, to stop bulldozing Palestinian homes (those of the families of bombers as well as just ordinary people), or join the President of Israel in acknowledging some of the wrongs done to Palestinians over the decades–any one or more of these things or others–then perhaps there would be ways to stop or even slow the escalating cycle of violence.

As it is now, the cycle is picking up speed and intensity. Tighten the screws, and Palestinians will react more angrily. Tighten again in response, and more anger, more bombs, more cars used to run over people, etc. Tighten more, more reaction, etc. I for one cannot see that Israel is being made more safe by all this.

My friends who stand with Israel–with only muted criticism, if any–will say Israel can’t afford to be weak, that the Palestinians cannot be trusted not to take advantage of any kindness for their own gain. They have evidence to support the claim.

I acknowledge the risk.

But I also know this. People revolt against what they perceive to be unreasonable authority, people fight back against oppression. And they will not stop until it is over.

The forced marchof Cherokee westward voice.nationalgeographic.com
The forced marchof Cherokee westward voice.nationalgeographic.com

This is part of our national history here, too, as our nation overrode the anger of Native Americans to losing their land–by wiping most of them out, and put the rest on reservations. I do not want that for Palestinians.

And I take them at their word that the leaders of Israel do not either. But frankly the Prime Minister’s comments feel all too much like a set up for justifying actions I, and most others, would find odious. I do not say he wants that, but it is a slippery slope he is on. It is too easy to move from mass condemnation of a people to deciding they should be removed or massacred or otherwise overrun. Jews surely know this. The rest of us should know it, to our shame.

And here’s something to ponder: is the history of Islam one long effort to kill Jews? No. When Christians were on vengeful Crusades, it was often Islamic people, among others, who protected Jews.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks www.cbcew.org.uk
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
www.cbcew.org.uk

It is too easy to get inside your own “in group,” into dualisms, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, and decide that the other group is entirely to blame for whatever ails you (Rabbi Sacks writes of this in an excellent book, “Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence”). We have to break that cycle in many places in the world, most certainly in Israel/Palestine.

Somehow, some way, these warring peoples have got to find ways to live together. Shalom. 

Or they shall die together, not in the dignity of old age but in every growing hostility and conflagration.

God weeps at the prospect.

Repent, and Celebrate

Jonathan acting head shot
My husband, Dr. Jonathan Lebolt

God has blessed me with the love of a Jewish man, and through him to connect in ways with Judaism that otherwise might never have happened (although the priest most influential in my adolescence and young adulthood was clearly most in love with the Hebrew Bible).

I worshiped in temple last week on both days of Rosh Hashanah and am doing so this week for Yom Kippur. These are very meaningful times of reflection and prayer for me, a declaration of the new year and an opportunity to let go of habits and attitudes and behaviors that get in the way of living the full life God has for me in this new year.

L'Shanah Tovah
Good New Year, sometimes with u’metuka (and Sweet). card-images.com

This sequence is so much more satisfying than the one I am used to as a U.S. Christian–beginning with Advent that portends (and even offers) great spiritual depth but is then overcome by secular Christmas and the hoopla of New Year’s Day and the well-meaning (but for me often ineffective) efforts of resolutions. Three years ago, at the first night of Rosh Hashanah, in a very crowded Jewish Community Center in Richmond, I received a holy message to change the focus of my life’s work. I have not been the same since.

biblia.com
biblia.com

Perhaps I find the Jewish practice more spiritually satisfying because it is not about marketing products and holding parties but rather about introspection, fasting, and self-change.

Self-change . . . the element missing from most of our public life, and probably private life, too.

Certainly, we don’t often hear national political candidates talk about self-change–either for themselves or for our nation. Instead, we hear them promising to make America great again. I just know that means someone else outside our nation is going to have to change. For us to stride the world, as in the time of Reagan for example, means someone else is going to have to stand down. We are the good guys, and you better get out of the way.

Many are critical, even dismissive, of President Obama, because to them he seems weak. He, in some modest but important ways, wants to run things in the rest of the world less and work more with others. I am grateful for that. It is certainly unusual in a U.S. leader.

Indeed, nations and their leaders are notoriously lacking in self-reflection and the desire to change themselves. First, they have to admit errors (but I don’t think President Obama is very good at this either).

jimmyong77.com
jimmyong77.com

As a nation, we have yet to really make amends to African people who were dragged here against their will and forced to do all sorts of things, or to Native Americans who were already here and were routinely pushed aside and even butchered so we could have our land. Both peoples still bear the scars and pay the price, as, of course, do the rest of us in other ways. This Yom Kippur, we could atone, but I doubt we will.

The United States is not alone in this. Europe still acts as if what various nations did in Africa, South America, and Asia was just fine.  Israel doesn’t seem to understand why Palestinians might be angry for being forced from their homes and land, in 1948, and now, too. Russia certainly is not over bullying behavior with neighbors, and Lebanon’s Arab neighbors do not hide their desire to maintain that nation as their fiefdom.

But what about us, you and me? Am I ready to change? Are you?

I will speak for myself (I hope you feel free to write and share your own thoughts for yourself, if that would help you).

My big change this year, now and over the next twelve months, needs to be in focusing–as in, I need to focus. I am accustomed to hard work but usually on agendas set by someone else or by society. Now, I need to take my own agenda, my own call and vocation, seriously enough to focus on it and move forward.

I am nowhere I am now here
mountainmovingmindset.com

This means learning to be organized, to set goals, to write regular hours, to listen and be alert to the prompts I receive from God (often through others), to invest in my vocation as a writer and teacher/workshop leader/ minister.

Pretty prosaic, huh? But life-changing nonetheless.

I repent of all the times I did not do this, when I was sloppy, disorganized, unfocused, distracted, not trusting God’s desire for me but living to get by without too much strain. And I ask God’s help to move forward in new ways, to learn new daily practices, to discern priorities better, to not say “yes” to every request, to be prepared to speak up with my truth and even gracefully to take some heat for it sometimes.

Of course, there is much else for me to repent–being rude to people, not caring enough about my loved ones, not always eating well, not getting enough exercise . . . oh my, the list goes on too long to bore you. One thing I really appreciate about Yom Kippur is its focus on ethical lapses, not about doing ritual things right in the synagogue but living right–and how it is about both the individual and the community).

Yom Kippur empty plate starting a good cleanse
blackgayjewish.com

The good news is that for Jews the ending of the ten Days of Awe, teshuvah (reflection, repentance, return), on Yom Kippur, while the holiest of days, is also a day of celebration–commemorating God’s forgiveness of the sin of the Golden Calf.

I repent of it all, and will celebrate at the end of the fast this evening a new, lighter (from carrying less remorse and guilt), more focused me. I also pray for repentance for our country (and how I have not always helped make us a better nation), and a true celebration of independence from all that holds us down as a people.

May you repent as is right for you, and also celebrate! Blessing to all! L’Shanah Tovah!