Readers Respond: Letters from Summer 2013
A NOTE ON LETTERS TO THE EDITOR:
We welcome your responses to our articles. Send your letters to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please remember, however, not to attribute to Tikkun views other than those expressed in our editorials. We email, post, and print many articles with which we have strong disagreements, because that is what makes Tikkun a location for a true diversity of ideas. Tikkun reserves the right to edit your letters to fit available space in the magazine.
JESUS AND CHRISTIANITY
Tikkun’s Winter 2013 issue provided a wonderful opportunity to consider Jesus and the cross from several viewpoints. Although I’m not a Christian but rather a Unitarian, Jesus plays a central role in my thinking: in Freudian terms, he is my superego; in Kleinian terms, he is my “good internal object.” As a former Episcopalian, I was exposed to a trinitarian view of Jesus. But to me, Jesus had never really fit the trinitarian model as much as a quaternion one: the mother, father, son, and Holy Ghost—trinitarian, perhaps, as a mother-father figure. He has all the gender traits associated with (or delegated to) women as a gentle, peaceful, nurturant presence. For example, Julian of Norwich describes the Eucharist as “his feeding his children with his body and blood as a mother does with her milk.”
Jesus’s gentle demeanor radiates a power that is indescribable though we observe something like it in the Dalai Lama or Martin Luther King, whose posture and facial expressions, we might say, make the loving spirit visible.
Santa Cruz, CA
GUN VIOLENCE IN AMERICA
I strongly support Rabbi Lerner’s call for a gunless, violence-free America, as expressed in his e-mail comments of December 15 relating to the Sandy Hook school massacre. I myself would in fact go even further, extending the scope of nonviolence to include innocent wild animals that remain targets of sport in America for an army of hunters. One need only look into the eyes of an ambushed buck and then back at the countenance of its red-jacketed stalker to know which animal is moved by the nobler instinct.
However, given the formative influence of American history and culture on its citizens, is there any real possibility that Americans could be brought, as Rabbi Lerner advocates, to give up all their firearms except hunting rifles, and allow local elected officials to keep even these under lock and key except during hunting season? And would American parents, so jealous of their right to inculcate their values in their children, ever accept a state-sanctioned school curriculum in which academic learning is bundled with moral instruction in the values and techniques of nonviolence and caring? Many Americans are religiously connected to guns, and the entire culture, including our national political leadership, is steeped in predilections and values that strongly support an acceptance of violence. These include a me-first mentality, a belief that individual prerogative is more important than community welfare, aspiration to personal power, contempt for material failure and its victims, demonization of those who are different, and the use of violence as a tool of domination.
The common denominator for all these dispositions, it seems to me, is fear of the other, which stems from the conviction that we live in an unchangeable dog-eat-dog world. Those who have that fear—whether it’s Tea Party zealots who believe the government is out to get them, or the government itself, which believes America will thrive only as long as its military power is greater than that of the rest of the world combined—will always believe that guns, not the possibilities of a more caring world, are the key to their secular salvation. People holding such a belief will not only reject personal disarmament, but will also be unwilling to have their children schooled, as Rabbi Lerner suggests, in the values of nonviolence and caring. They are much more likely, in fact, to view such a state-sponsored undertaking as a plot to lower their guard against “the other” and make them even more vulnerable to government domination.
For all these reasons, I believe there is simply no direct policy path that can lead to the elimination of all homicidal firearms in America and the strict control of those used for hunting. One might realistically ask, however, about what justification there is, even in America, for the possession of firearms besides the rifles and shotguns used for hunting and sports shooting, and a single handgun in the home for possible use in extreme cases of self-defense. In any civilized society, what other acceptable uses for firearms can there possibly be?
I agree that “lesser measures” of gun control, such as background checks and the elimination of only the most egregious military-type assault weapons, are meaningless, especially when weighed against the mountain of more than 300 million firearms of every description to which Americans already have access. Yet I think one can safely bet that lesser measures are precisely what will come legislatively from the recent carnage in Connecticut. One possible such measure—the banning of high-capacity bullet clips—could in fact produce a demonstrable benefit by limiting the scope of damage done by would-be mass killers. Yet even with this measure and others, the mountain of interchangeable firearms will remain and our culture of violence—the hostile way many Americans feel, think, and act toward other people—will not change. America will remain, for all its pretensions to exceptionalism and goodness, the armed camp of the world, both civilian and military.
In the face of these realities, there is, as I see it, only one realistic hope for curbing the country’s gun violence: those Americans who are actively motivated by a sense of generosity and caring must join with others of like mind to do what they can to help build a society that is marked by concern for the welfare of others, a commitment to the common good, economic fairness, compassion for society’s “failures,” acceptance of those who are “different,” and help for those in need.
It may well take many years to fully achieve a caring society, as the effort to build it will only slowly gain steam and attract the necessary strategic and tactical political support. As the movement grows, however, it will begin to give the children of those now plagued by hopelessness and fear both a practical and psychological foundation for hope, self-respect, and the creative expression of inborn talents. With a support system that makes obsolete their parents’ convictions that “you’re on your own” and that a gun may be their only reliable friend, these young people will have a stake in working with and trusting others, and securing thereby the humane rewards of a constructive life. In my own opinion, it is not legislation, but only the slow, hard work of building a caring society that offers a realistic solution to gun violence in America.
JEWISH VOTE FOR PRESIDENT OBAMA
This morning I had read a piece on the overwhelming Jewish vote for President Obama in 2012, in spite of the GOP effort to enlist the Jews and Bibi Netanyahu’s meddling in the US election, in which the writer came to the conclusions that Israel is not a major factor in Jewish voting (especially of older Jews) and that most American Jews actually favor a two State solution. Then I read MJ Rosenberg’s Tikkun Daily blog post on Chuck Hegel and the Jewish Organizations, and it seems to me that the Jewish Organizations are quite out of touch with the Jewish people in the US whom they profess to represent….
I know the Claims Conference in NY, an organization which includes the heads of many major Jewish organizations on its Board, a group of wealthy men who might like the label of Jewish philanthropists, but themselves have absolutely no contact with the “masses” and whose social contacts are other wealthy people living in a rarefied world. In spite of their own wealth and social position, these are men who are not adverse to either having their travel and meals paid for through funds from those who need them for their existence nor are they as concerned about the fate of these human beings as they like to pretend and actually see themselves as the bearers of a torch for a renewed “glory of Judaism” and “the Big Picture”. The Claims Conference staff stems mainly from Brandeis, which seems to me to be a Neocon indoctrination center.
I am not quite sure which side Mr. Rosenberg is on… and there definitely ARE sides in this situation. I do not belong to any of the organizations you mentioned and most Jews I know also don’t. The vote for Obama indicates that American Jews are not on the side of the Neocons, so I wonder who actually belongs to these organizations, if anyone, or are they simply in existence due to the generosity of Jews who are taken in by the philanthropic blah blah and perhaps the names that go with it. A story on the actual influence of these organizations within the Jewish community would be very interesting. I believe they use their money and implied power (emperor with no clothes?) to influence politicians who don’t realize how little power these organizations have.
These organizations may have money, but that money didn’t help the Republicans get the votes, did it? It seems to me that someone ought to call their bluff.
CHRISTIANITY WITHOUT THE CROSS
Tikkun recently issued a series of articles by a number of different theologians entitled “Christianity Without the Cross“. Each writer was asked to respond with their own thoughts on how central the Cross (and Crucifixion) is to Christianity and whether a “modern” Christianity might not be better without an emphasis on the Cross. This series of articles was meant as a response to/fleshing-out of Lawrence Swaim’s “The Death of Christianity” (unfortunately, most of this article is behind a paywall–though you can try this link, although I don’t think this will work without a Tikkun subscription–but the outline of his thought is clear in the excerpt available at the former link). So let’s begin with Swaim’s article. Swaim essentially finds the doctrine of “blood atonement” both central to Christianity and morally repugnant. I’ll address each of these claims in turn. We should also note here that from the outset, Swaim seem more concerned with social and political issues rather than theology itself; however, he grounds his whole work in theology, so his theological position is central to understanding the whole thing, in my opinion. So in this response, I am focusing solely on his theology: I do not intend to deal at all with this social or political claims.
First, it’s simply incorrect to argue that Christianity is centrally dependent on this “blood atonement” doctrine, best known in two forms: the satisfaction theory and the penal substitution theory; this approach wasn’t even fully fleshed out until Anselm explicated it in the 9th century–so for a good 800 years, alternate doctrines of the atonement were not just alive and well, but much more central to Christian thought! (Though some have argued that traces of it are present in earlier thought, scholars are still in debate about this, and, as I’ll suggest below, I don’t think there’s a good argument there). Furthermore, the latter penal substitution approach which Swaim seems particularly upset with wasn’t developed until after the Reformation began. So right off the bat, Swaim is operating with a Christianity=Western Protestantism (and really, more specifically, Calvinist/Reformed Western Protestantism) which is both inaccurate and insulting to all the other Christians, in the West or elsewhere. Swaim’s oversimplification of the issue is easily summed up with this quote: “Blood redemption, the central doctrine of Christianity, is the train wreck of Western civilization.” (Emphasis mine; this quote can be found in the beginning of paragraph 11 in the full version of the article).
The fact of the matter is that the earliest Christians seem to have had a radically different understanding of how Jesus’ death was salvific. For one, St. Paul makes it clear that it was not Jesus’ death that was salvific in and of itself, but rather his Resurrection: “…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (1 Cor 15:17). Jesus’ death does not show the promise of salvation: his victory over death does. This is absolutely crucial, and Swaim is both right to critique the satisfaction/penal theories for de-emphasizing this and yet sorely mistaken in missing how central this older Resurrection-focused soteriology is for any serious Christian theology.
So what are these other theories of atonement? First, the Christus Victor model seemed to have been especially popular among the Roman and later the Germanic converts to Christianity. This model portrays Christ as a sort of cosmic warrior who came to earth to battle evil and who, in his resurrection, defeats sin and evil in a sort of military action. The Ransom model, alternatively, understood Jesus’ sacrifice as not an offering to an overly-litigious god, but rather to Satan, the incararnation of evil itself. This approach has serious flaws vis-a-vis God’s sovereignty, but it clearly casts God as offering Jesus as a sacrifice not to Godself, but to God’s evil opponent, in order to save humanity, or indeed the whole universe. In this view, the Resurrection is almost a sort of “trick” that God plays on Satan: Satan thought he had killed a divine Person, but in fact, this person arose after death, undefeated, displaying God’s power and love over the forces of sin and death.
Other models are even more intriguing and, I think, from a modern perspective, very promising–and I am shocked and disappointed that Swaim seems either ignorant of them or doesn’t find them worth his time. The Recapitulation model, in particular, is extremely powerful. In this view, Jesus came to show humanity how to live in a godly, loving fashion, and we are called to follow his example, with the promise that if we do, no matter what evils befall us in life, we will, in the end, find ourselves in God’s presence. Such a view fits very well with Chardin’s “evolutionary Christianity” approach and thereby ought to be dusted off and re-analyzed by modern theologians. Swaim’s failure to do so reflects, I think, on the shallowness of his thought on this subject. (One might note that each of the doctrines explored above was developed during the second era of Christian intellectual development: the “Patristic” period, roughly 100 CE to 700 or 800 CE, while the theory/theories Swaim focuses on were developed subsequently.)
And such a view is also in full accord, I think, with the traditional Eastern Orthodox understanding of Jesus’ work. For the Eastern Orthodox, Jesus became incarnate in order to reveal to humans how to achieve divinization: in Greek, theosis. God became human in order that humanity might be come god-like. Such a view is focused, again, more on the Resurrection than the Crucifixion, but of course does not deny the reality: those who choose to turn to God and act in obedience to God are often met with hostility and violence.
It is this centrally important lesson of the Crucifixion that Swaim seems also to miss. It’s hard not to see in his approach a very comfortable, middle-class worldview (I should point out that though I researched Swaim a bit on the internet, I do not know his class background, and am only commenting on his intellectual position and what appears to me as its most likely social/class setting). The Crucifixion is so violent, so messy, so unfair: can’t we just move beyond this? But of course, for many people in this world, Christianity is appealing precisely because it talks honestly about the realities of death, torture, and suffering. James Cone makes this point much better than I can in his entry in the “Christianity Without the Cross” series: “Legacies of the Cross and the Lynching Tree“. He points out that so much of the power of African-American Christianity comes from an understanding of how a lynched black person hanging from a tree is Christ on the Cross, in a metaphorical/theological yet nonetheless ontologically real way. Cone’s point suggests that a Christianity without the Cross would be a bunch of feel-good self-elevation that ignores all the blood, the mess, the suffering of Jesus’ life for a cleaned-up story of ethical teaching and reassuring symbols.
How quickly we seem ready to forget that if we want to follow Christ, we must take up our Cross and follow him! (eg. Matt 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23) Where does Swaim think we are following Christ to? A 3,000-square foot suburban colonial house to share some good whiskey and watch Frasier? Swaim almost seems to be aping Peter:
From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.”But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” Matthew 16:21-23
Swaim seems to believe exactly what Peter is reported to have thought here: that Messiahship, that good, modern religion, means glory and civilization and beauty and an easy road ahead. But the whole point of the Resurrection is that it is a promise that despite the evils of this world, if we choose to love–to act in obedience to God’s love–then we will act as effective channels for God’s grace in the world, and act as God’s agents in building the Kingdom of God. We are not promised that this will be an easy road, or that building the Kingdom means disavowing all the messy, terrible suffering of this world: we are called to face that suffering, others’ and our own, with confidence and compassion, humility and love. Swaim’s sterile, bourgeois theology strips Christianity of all its realist impact, and renders the whole faith meaningless.
Furthermore, although I think that these other theories of atonement we’ve discussed are, on the whole, much better than the satisfaction/penal approaches, Swaim’s single-minded rejection of this latter paradigm seems to also betray a complete misunderstanding of Trinitarian theology in the first place. Even if one insisted on a penal substitutionary model of the atonement, this should never be seen as God offering some other being as a sacrifice for God’s supposed anal legalism; Trinitarian theology insists that Jesus was and is truly God: so in this framework, God offers Godself as the sacrifice. This isn’t bloodthirsty or cruel: it reveals the deeply self-giving (kenotic) reality of God as pure love. Swaim’s inability to recognize this absolutely central pillar of any theory of atonement is both shocking and depressing: there are, apparently, prominent Christian thinkers and writers who don’t even understand Trinitarian theology, which is supposed to be the foundation for our community! (cf. The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds)
But what really worries me is that an institution I had a lot of respect for, Tikkun, would publish this without recognizing the deep theological ignorance at its heart. [UPDATE: Tikkun did publish a critical response to Swaim by Kavin Rowe] It’d be like publishing an article about Judaism written by someone who didn’t know about the central importance of the Torah–and its diverse interpretations. Swaim seems only concerned with his own understanding of a pseudo-historical Jesus, who he casts, much like liberal theologians before him, as basically a clone of a middle-class Westerner: Jesus is presented as a bourgeois teacher, calling on people to lead ethical lives but with little interest in the mystical, the apocalyptic, or even the theological. Of course such a reading is only possible by excising much of the Gospel text on dubious grounds. But I’ve talked about this before.
For now, let me finish by pointing you back to the seven “Christianity Without the Cross” articles themselves; I hope to have specific comments on each of them soon. As I mentioned above, I found Cone’s article to be very well written and relevant…I was less pleased with most of the others. But that complaining will have to await another day and another post!
Let me finish by reiterating that I only intend here to critique Swaim’s theology: some of his other points, especially his critiques of right-leaning Christianity, are obviously not without value. But once they are cast in such a theologically ignorant and uncritical context, they are basically lost in this forest of bad theology. Lawrence Swaim may be an excellent political or social thinker, and he may do great work with the Interfaith Freedom Foundation–I really don’t know, and I certainly don’t here intend to dismiss him outright. But his theological thinking is confused and poorly-informed at best, and is just the sort of thinking that I think is driving so many people away from a liberal Protestant establishment increasingly afraid to even call itself “Christian”. Surely, let’s admit the failures of the past; but this revisionist dismissal of everything that even smacks of religiosity is certainly not the path forward.
Lawrence Swaim replies:
I’ve gotten a great many responses that argue that I just haven’t studied enough Christian theology. But of course I’m not interested in theology, but in behavior, specifically aggressive behavior. So theology doesn’t really concern me that much.
Let me put it frankly: If a guy worships chicken schmaltz, and he’s a kind and compassionate person, chicken schmaltz might be a good religion for him. On the other hand, if another guy knows the theology of Karl Barth forwards and backwards, and he’s still a jerk, I’d say his Christianity just isn’t working out. Never mind going to heaven—I’m interested in how we can change ourselves and the world in the present moment, and what kind of world we’re leaving our kids. As a father to both a Jewish and a Muslim daughter, I’m very concerned about avoiding religious war.
In other words, behavior is the test of religion, and best evidence for its effects. Once we’re talking about behavior, we’re talking about something observable. That answers the objections of the atheists, who are always saying (correctly, I believe) that believers want to talk about something for which there’s no evidence. Let’s talk about something that we can all agree exists. Once we agree that human behavior exists, we can discuss what is good behavior and what’s bad, and figure out the relativity of the two to institutional religion. Theology is a bad place to start because it all takes place in the imagination of the believer—and as such can be beautiful, but is inherently self-serving and certainly far from conclusive.
ATHEISTS AND RELIGIOUS BELIEVERS
In his email assessment of the November elections, Michael Lerner criticized those on the “Left” who, as atheists, impugned the intelligence of religious believers. As one of the most active atheists in the country, I must say that these types of activists on the Left are not that invested in atheism per se.
The fact that a discernable number of progressives might be critical of the intellectual abilities of religious believers is only a by product of their general iconoclasm toward traditional beliefs that have been used to oppress people.
Those of us who are professional atheists, as it were, do not hurl personal insults, by and large. Rather, we attack the actual claims, themselves. Just like some religionists claim to love the sinner and only hate the sin, we can cherish the believer as brother or sister human beings and still dismantle the supernatural claims.
If someone insists that UFOs visit us, we can argue that the distance between us and any potentially inhabited planet is so vast that, coupled with the limitations on speed imposed by the speed of light, pose insurmountable odds for crafts from other planets, occupied by live beings, to reach us. We don’t have call the UFO advocates insulting names.
The same is true for those who claim a dead man was resurrected two thousand years ago, or that the human consciousness is not eclipsed by the death of the body and brain.
So, the Lefties you wrote about are not that vested in the promotion of atheism. Rather, atheism is just a minor component of their overall efforts to dislodge from power what they see as reactionary traditional institutions. However, those of us who interested in the promotion of atheism per se will focus on the diplomatic yet rigorous explanation of why the universe is natural and not supernatural.
Also, those of us who give atheism our main focus do not hold people to a generally left of center political perspective. As long as one supports a secular legal and political system, we do not have generalized litmus tests on a wide range of issues that we impose on people before they can be welcome in atheistic organizations.
For those of us who are involved in the dissemination of atheism, generally, we are happy to have libertarians and otherwise conservatives join with us. We thus do not berate them for what could be considered right-of-center views on a number of unrelated issues.
I just wanted to make this clarification, as leftist political activists who belittle the intelligence of religious fundamentalists are not representative of those of us who explicitly focus on the dissemination of atheism per se.
CONCERNS ABOUT ESRA AND DON SHRIVER’S RESTORATIVE JUSTICE PIECE
I recently read the web-only article “Restorative Justice: The Long Struggle” by Donald Shriver. This is a topic that I have covered briefly in some classes on decision making at Columbia; I’m currently working on an article called “Moral Standards in Decision Making” which has led me to think further about it. I also know well who Shriver is, though I don’t know him personally, and I was hoping for some new insights.
I have no quarrel with Shriver’s attitudes and beliefs about justice. I also am very sympathetic to the idea of supporting those attitudes by looking at Jewish law and at the teachings of Jesus. Nonetheless, I found this article to be seriously flawed, in 4 different ways.
First, a minor point: the article fails to distinguish belief from evidence: “… ‘an unholy alliance between the media and most politicians promoted the illusion that punitive reactions promote community safety’ … The statistics belie that opinion in New Zealand and in the United States.”
But no statistics or social-science evidence is ever mentioned in the article. Instead, we are handed a BELIEF: that prisons are schools for crime. Well, I share that belief; but my belief is not evidence. If one is going to mention evidence, one should offer some, and to be fair, one should search also for contrary evidence. Inattention to evidence, or worse, the view that what one believes must be true BECAUSE one believes it (George W. Bush!!) reduces arguments to shouting matches.
Second, the article does not attempt to understand the motivations for belief in severe punishment. “Unholy alliance” seems to attribute such beliefs to forces of evil. Attempting to understand those who oppose you is important, dismissing them as evil is a serious error. Relatedly, the motives given for excessive retribution are not credible. The power of prison guard unions? The economic benefits to communities that house prisons? Give us a break here. Personally, I wish unions would have much more power, and that economic benefits to communities would be better taken into account in formulating policy. Weakness of unions and disregard of communities are rampant. Citing these motives simply reveals the failure to make a serious attempt to understand retribution.
A proper understanding of retribution ought to start with the reality of anger. Love and anger are both powerful human reactions. People can learn to control their behavior — to hold back from touching inappropriately one who is loved, and to hold back from striking one who has elicited anger — but they can’t control the emotions themselves. Love and anger are both human, not unholy. If one starts from the reality of anger one can understand the motives for retribution.
Third, Shriver’s essay does not consider any concrete steps that could have an immediate impact to promote restorative justice or to restrict severity of retribution. This may be beyond the scope of his essay, but the failure probably stems from his lack of understanding of the strength of retributions as a motive.
Fourth, and most shocking, is the strong retributive strand in the essay’s discussion of collective levels of crime. “… by restorative principles ‘every Minnesota realtor should be imprisoned for dealing in stolen property gained through murder’.” The idea that healing “the vast wounds of our national and global histories” should be accomplished by retributive punishment of institutions and political organizations is inherently contradictory. I share the anger about apartheid and genocide, and can fantasize punishment for those responsible; but restraint from punishing those who make one angry is the virtue under discussion here.
So I did not think very highly of Shriver’s article.
After reading this article, I looked for something more central to what Tikkun is doing, and I spotted the ESRA link. Here again, I have no quarrel about goals. Three bullet points describe the goals of the proposed amendment, and I agree fully with all of the goals. I did not see how a constitutional amendment could accomplish these goals, but I thought it possible to formulate something brief — perhaps an addition to the preamble to the constitution — that would provide a legal foundation for restricting the power of large organizations (including churches as well as unions, PACs and corporations). So I read the full proposed amendment.
I’m afraid that I have never seen a “progressive” document as thoughtless, even stupid, as this one. Having spent over 500 words on a critique of Shriver’s article, I reckon it would take at least 5000, maybe much more, to tell you what is wrong with the ESRA text. One scarcely knows where to begin, because there isn’t even any little bit of it that is any good.
It seems obvious to me that no legal scholar was involved in preparing this draft amendment, that no thought was taken about unintended consequences of any of its provisions, and that the whole concept of law — as clear, unequivocal, applicable — is deeply flawed. Interests are bound to clash. When the interests of the powerful clash with those of the weak, or the silent (rabbits, fish and algae), one can say yes, power needs to be restricted; but interest will always clash, with or without power disparities, and law will never be clear and unequivocal. The dependence on courts and juries is unbelievably naive; and the view that only law can restrain the powerful amounts to saying that goodness resides ONLY in the meek.
Try again, and keep it down to 100 words total. Lay a foundation, do not try to build a whole new and utterly unwieldy structure.
So I have sampled only a little — I suspect there are many better things tucked away in the Tikkun website — but it is enough to make me worry — not believe, but only worry — that Tikkun is a barrier to progressive thought, not an asset.
I’ve done what I can by sharing these bleak thoughts with you; now I need to go back to doing my job for a while.