Tuesday, January 7, 2020

On Christian Anti-Semitism

Last month a set of stabbings occurred at a rabbis house that desecrated both Chanukah and Christmas, and I figured that it was time that I took some time to talk about anti-Semitism.

Historically, anti-Semitism comes in two varieties. The first one boils down to simple xenophobia, where you don’t like “those people” because they’re different from you, and living by different rules within your culture. If you’re one of those anti-Semites, then I have nothing to say to you that’s any different than what I’d say to any other xenophobe…and it’s not pretty.

The second variety, the one I find most horrifying, and the one I’d like to address today is Christian anti-Semitism. That’s right…anti-Semitism as practiced by Christians…people who have no business being anti-Semitic, or anti-anyone, at all.

Historically, Christian anti-Semitism boils down to “getting the Jews back for what they did to Jesus.” But let’s take a careful look at the situation here.

I first heard the old “the Jews killed Christ” thing when I was about 11 years old. It was mentioned briefly in the classic British movie Hand in Hand, about a Jewish girl and a Catholic boy who were best friends. When I heard this, I thought it was the stupidest…and most obvious…thing in the world. Of course, the Jews killed Jesus! He lived in Israel. Who else was there? That was like saying the Americans killed Kennedy.

It took me a few years to see things a little differently.

I was about 13 or 14 when Jesus Christ Superstar came out, and then I understood that it was the Jewish leaders, and not the masses, who had it in for Jesus, and who turned him over to the occupying Romans (remember that part, it’ll be on the quiz). So right there, blaming all the Jews for the actions of the leaders seemed a little much.

But as you listen to the lyrics more closely, you’ll find out that he was turned over to the Roman authorities because as someone who didn’t deny that he was a king, he was a threat to Roman power, and a threat that would cause the Romans to come down hard on the rest of the Jewish population of Palestine. Can you say “Masada”?

Years after that, I learned something else very important…crucifixion was a Roman form of execution, not a Jewish one. And it was a Roman form of execution usually used on political prisoners (remember what I said before about Jesus being a threat to Roman power?). There was a particularly Jewish form of execution…it was stoning. This wasn’t used on Jesus, but it was used on St Stephen according to Acts 7 by the Jewish leaders (and again, not the masses), for the crime of blasphemy.

So now that we’ve covered history, let’s talk about a little theology. According to standard Christian theology, and especially things that Jesus said himself, he had to be turned over to the Romans and executed…as a sacrifice for our sins, following the example of the bull sacrificed in the temple at Yom Kippur…and was intended to be the final sacrifice for all. Did you catch that…his death was necessary in order to atone for our sins, and then to be raised again. Necessary, I say. So with that in mind, who is there to “blame”? If none of the parties had played their part in the events leading up to his crucifixion…Judas, the Sanhedrin, Pilate, Herod…where would we be now a Christians?

So with that in mind, anti-Semitism as a form of “getting the Jews back for what they did to Jesus” makes absolutely no sense at all. And theologically, everything that happened had to happen as it did.

There’s so much more I could say, but I’ve already gone past 600 words. But suffice it to say that “Christian anti-Semitism” makes absolutely no sense, and is something that Jesus himself would not be happy about.

So, for Christ’s sake, lay off it already!

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Chanukah...It's Not The Jewish Version of Christmas

A few weeks ago, a Jewish friend of mine shared a post about how people should stop referring to Chanukah as the “Jewish version of Christmas.” This is my slightly expanded response.

OK, I’m gonna tread very carefully here, because I get the point about Chanukah having been a minor holiday before it got swept up in the winter/Christmas craziness...but Christmas was also a minor holiday until it was not so coincidentally placed at the same time as the previously-existing winter celebrations...at which point it took on the trappings of those celebrations. So I feel the author’s pain.

Growing up, my hometown had a substantial enough Jewish population that there was a synagogue three blocks from my house, so I learned about the invasion of Judea, the Maccabees, and the oil that lasted for eight days from my very Irish kindergarten teacher, Miss Laughlin. Did we have a substantial population of Muslims or Hindus back in the 60s? Not that I know of; so there was no reason to learn about their holidays. And Kwanzaa wouldn’t exist for another five years.

But “the Jewish version of Christmas”? Sigh...I know what these people are trying to say, but they don’t get that they’re getting it totally wrong. Perhaps because they didn’t have Miss Laughlin to explain it to them. As a result, they’re trying to describe something else in terms of something they already understand, rather than on its own terms. And maybe sometimes you have to start with A before you can get to B. And maybe it’s not really, as the author suggests, a case of Christians wanting to define everything in their own terms. Let’s take sports for example. I’m no big sports fan, but because my daughters have played soccer, and I understand that, I understand basketball as “soccer with your hands” and hockey as “soccer on ice.” And yet, if your main point of comparison between Chanukah and Christmas is the gifts, then maybe your understanding of Christmas is flawed too.

As for the Holiday Season...well, it all depends on how you’re defining it. Are we talking about just the holidays I celebrate, just the ones my Jewish friends celebrate, or, as they say these days, “all the holidays”?

If #3, then the season includes Thanksgiving, Beethoven’s Birthday, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s, and whatever Muslim and Hindu holidays fall in that span. If #1, then it’s my wife’s birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, my sister’s birthday, and New Year’s. If #2, it may be Thanksgiving, Chanukah, and New Years.  

But the other thing that so many people both within and outside of Christianity don’t get...and it’s a very important thing...is that Christmas is as much a cultural holiday as a religious one. As a result, there can be a tree in the city square and in the library without really violating the church/state separation…unless you’re really a stickler about anything with even a hint of The Feast of the Nativity to it. And it’s in the cultural part where we uncomfortably bump up against Chanukah. 

We have an elephant in the room that we can’t ignore, and that will not be ignored. And yet, at the same time, we know that we have to acknowledge the other creatures in the room. How do we do that well? How do we do that gracefully? The answer to that will be different for each person who’s not with the elephant. 

But also, because it’s such a cultural celebration, keeping those aspects of it strictly to ourselves seems sorta selfish. If I’ve made a little something for everyone else in my department, but skip you because you’re Jewish, is that respectful, or petty? Can I give you something because Christmas is when I give things, or do I have to shift the timing, and give you your gift for Chanukah?

It’s all very complicated, and becomes more complicated as more people from more cultures join this melting pot, mosaic, or whatever you want to call it. How do we respect everyone’s celebrations? How does the elephant react to being told that it’s not the only creature in the room?

Holy crap, is this ever complicated!

But…I’d like to wish all my Jewish friends a happy Chanukah…without which there might not even have been a Christmas at all.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

And So It Begins

November 1 was All Saints Day…and the day that the money gets automatically switched over from my Holiday Club account at the credit union to my regular savings account, as if to say “Gentlemen, start your engines. It’s time to start Christmas shopping!”

And yes, despite what you might think, the two are related…at least they are in my mind.

All Saints Day is not a major church holiday. Well, let me rephrase that…it’s a big deal in my church, where on All Saints Sunday we name all those friends and family who have died in the past year, and light candles in their memory…but outside of what I’ll call the “liturgical churches”, outside of Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and some Methodists, I’m guessing that it’s not much heard of or celebrated. After going to Sunday School for many years at Mount Olive Baptist Church in East Orange, I first heard of it when I joined the choir at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in South Orange. And if you’re a Christian who’s never heard of All Saints Day, or whose church doesn’t celebrate it, then you’ve just proven my point.

I’ve heard it said by a number of pastors and theologians that Christmas isn’t the important holiday…Easter is. And yet, to me this seems to be a chicken and egg issue. After all, could there even have been Good Friday and Easter had there not been a Christmas? Couldn’t one say that Christmas celebrates the beginning, while Easter celebrates the completion?

But I digress…sort of.

All Saints Day is not a major church holiday for most Christians. Many people in the church, and most people outside of it, have never heard of it. It’s strictly an “in group” day. You go to church, you do the standard All Saints Day hymns (and there are some), you have some special music for the occasion, you listen to a sermon about those who have gone before us, you go up and light a candle for your friend or family member, and then you go home. It’s just like any other Sunday, but special.

Oh…and of course, it comes right after the four-week run up to the big candyfest of the year…Halloween.

Now imagine if Christmas was like All Saints Day.

Really…isn’t that what Christmas is supposed to be like? Imagine if Christmas was a little in-group religious day that we had all to ourselves. A day where we went to church, did all the standard Christmas hymns (of which there are many), had special music for the occasion, and listened to a special sermon before going home.

And you know something…it is. Christmas, the religious holiday comes at the end of a six or eight-week run up to the Yuletide, which was there first. The problem, and I’ve said this before, is that the Church thought it could tame Yule by putting the Feast of the Nativity on the same date. But instead of Christmas taming Yule, Yule sucked up Christmas…to the point where many of us confuse them with each other, and get upset over the commercialization of “our religious holiday”, which isn’t really the case.

Ah…but what if it was different? Suppose the Church had decided to put the Feast of the Nativity at some other time? Then we could have our little religious holiday all to ourselves, and not get into a snit about people saying “Happy Holidays” during the last six weeks of the year, and claiming it to be part of a “war on Christmas.”

But you know what? It is what it is. To paraphrase the old commercial for Certs mints, “It’s two, two, two seasons in one”…or at least overlapping with each other at the same time, so much as to be almost indistinguishable from each other.

And so it has begun…the preparations for both the secular and sacred celebrations of the Christmas season. We can have both.

And I’m going shopping.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

On Discovering America

Yesterday was Columbus Day...or Indigenous People’s Day...or Rape of the Americas Day…or whatever you want to call it. The day that we’ve traditionally celebrated Columbus’s discovery of America...or not...since he thought until the day he died, that he was in India. 

And then again, there’s that whole “discovery” thing. How can you discover a place that already has people in it? Seems that *they* would’ve discovered it first. Why should old Chris get credit for it?

Well, writer Will Furguson came up with the best explanation in his book Why I Hate Canadians (not to worry, he’s Canadian himself). He compared Chris’s situation to that of discovering a new restaurant. The restaurant was there long before you happened upon it, and thousands of people had eaten at it before you arrived; but it was new to you. You “discovered” a restaurant that you hadn’t known of before. And when you tell all your friends, who had also never known of this restaurant, about this place, they’ll credit you for “discovering it” and bringing it to their attention.

Which is what Columbus did...he “discovered” a new world that no one in Europe had known of before. One that already had people in it, but one that was new to the experience of the Europeans. 

“Well, OK,” you say. “But what about the Vikings? Weren’t they here even before Columbus?”

Oh for sure...and I got in trouble for this one back in grade school when I kept insisting that Columbus didn’t discover America because I had read that the Vikings were here first. A classic case of me being too smart for my own good; of being technically correct, but practically wrong; of technically correct, but missing the point.

Or…of the teacher not being able to patiently explain that I was missing the point, rather than just wanting Gatling to shut up about the Vikings already.

It’s true that among the Europeans, the Vikings got here first...by almost 500 years…and had a few short-lived settlements in Eastern Canada. But as the term “short-lived” implies, they didn’t last very long and nothing came of them. There wasn’t a great Scandinavian rush to settle in this new world, and the Vikings apparently didn’t tell a whole lot of people about what they found; because very few others knew about the settlements in Vinland until hundreds of years later. The point that I was missing, while being technically correct (and that the teacher didn't ’splain to me), was that Columbus’s later “discovery” of America happened at just the right time and under the right circumstances to set the “Age of Discovery and Exploration” in motion.

And that’s why all of us, for better or worse, are here.

And let’s be perfectly clear about something…there’s absolutely no guarantee that if Columbus hadn’t accidentally stumbled upon this place, some other European wouldn’t have, with the same results. In fact, there’s no guarantee that something else or someone else wouldn’t have happened to wreak havoc on the indigenous population. We can romanticize about what might have been, but it’s all just useless conjecture.

We can, however, work to own up to and correct the damage that was done since 1492.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Throwing the Goose Under the Bus

I have to say that the only thing more dismaying to me than the senseless, and tragic, death, of Botham Jean at the hands of former police officer Amber Guyger is the speed at which many of my white friends…my white friends, mind you…are willing to throw her under the bus as a sacrificial lamb in a misguided attempted to try to make it up to us for all the ways that we’ve been mistreated since 1619.

Actually, I’m pretty steamed about the way that some of my white friends are all too eager to throw all white people on this continent…even those born just a few hours ago…under the bus as part of that same misguided attempt. But that’s another opinion for another time. I want to focus on one particular case here, and not make the mistake too many people have made of making one particular situation, one particular tragedy, emblematic of another, larger, problem.

In order to get my perspective on this, you first have to read my piece from November 18th, 2013, If it Looks Like a Duck. But for those of you who won’t bother taking the extra effort to go there, let me summarize: Sometimes what appears to be a duck…the same old tired duck of a white person shooting a black person intentionally…is really a goose. A very scared goose, packing heat, who thought that having a gun would protect it, and made a split-second decision with very tragic results. In that piece I cited three different cases where that happened, including the one of Bobby Crabtree, who shot and killed his 14-year-old daughter Matilda Kaye, when she jumped out of the closet to surprise him late at night. Her dying words were “I love you, Daddy.”

Remember that. It’ll be on the test.

Now, remembering what I said about that goose, there are two things we need to keep in mind about the Amber Guyger case.

First of all, had this been a white officer accidentally killing a white person in their apartment, we would’ve heard crickets. It would’ve just been another tragedy borne of a scared person with a gun making a horrible split second decision that they wouldn’t have had they been unarmed, and had to consider other possibilities.

Second, similar to the first one, had both victim and officer been white, there would be no huge controversy over the showing of forgiveness in the face of what was a tragedy for all involved.

But...because the victim was black, it became a big racial issue turned into something emblematic of all racial issues in this country. Because the victim was black, and it became a grand racial issue, we are unable to see it as what it is...a single tragedy, and a single response to that tragedy.

As I said earlier, I find it troubling how many of my white friends seem a little too eager to throw Ms Guyger under the bus in a well-meaning, but mistaken effort to make up for all the intentional violence done to us since 1619. Sacrificing one person who unintentionally made a tragic split second decision does not make up for all the lynchings and intentional violence inflicted on us over the centuries. Throwing her under the bus does not advance the cause of true justice.

I might also add, to my black friends, that insisting on looking at this single specific tragedy as a racial issue, when it wouldn’t have been had both parties been white; and wanting this scared and disoriented goose to be treated as a premeditated murderer “just to even the score”, doesn’t advance the cause of true justice either.

And before people give Botham Jean’s brother any more grief, and look at this through a lens of “black people always forgiving whites” (which you know darned well that we don’t...it’s just that it makes news, and is a shock to most people’s senses when we do), it would do everyone good to consider the Amish response to the family of the man who intentionally murdered the girls at the school in Nickel Mines.

Remember that test I said there would be? Well here it is: How much different is Brandt Jean’s response to the woman who killed his brother from Matilda Kaye’s dying response to her father?

I’ll just let you think about that one for a while.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

How Do We Remember?

I stumbled across it quite by accident two weeks ago…what purported to be the only photo in existence of the first plane hitting the Twin Towers in New York 18 years ago. And this photo was accompanied by a caption that said something like “Never forget” or “We must always remember.”

I have many thoughts about remembering, forgetting, and perhaps even the importance of allowing things to be forgotten. Some of these I’ve talked about before, and some will wait for some other time. But right now, a week after the 18thanniversary of that terrible day, I want to talk about how we remember.

Because how we remember, and what it does to us is important.

18 years. That’s a long time, and yet, not a long time. To put this into perspective, let me talk about something that happened 15 years before I was born…Pearl Harbor. Obviously, I don’t remember whether or not it was still a raw wound in June of 1956. I don’t recall whether or not it was still a raw wound in December of 1959, 18 years after the attack…when I was three years old. I probably wasn’t even aware of a thing called Pearl Harbor until I was about 10 or 12 years old…a good 25 years later, by which point, as horrific as it was to people who remembered it, it was the stuff of history books to any Baby Boomer who wasn’t from a military family or didn’t grow up in Hawaii.

But there is one thing I was aware of once I became aware of what Pearl Harbor was, and that was how the desire to “Remember Pearl Harbor”, and by extension, the people killed in that attack turned into a hatred of the Japanese. Not just those who planned the attack, not just those who were ordered to carry it out, not just the civilians trying to live out what they could of a normal life during wartime…but of all Japanese. Americans of Japanese ancestry (can you say “Manzanar”?) and Japanese who weren’t even born during the war. Our desire to “not forget” metastasized into a hatred of Japanese that lasted for decades; and it’s only within the past 20 years or so that the Japanese, along with other Asians, have come to be seen as “model minorities” rather than examples of the “yellow peril.”

What am I getting at? 18 years after the attacks of September 11th, what has happened to our resolve to “never forget” or to “always remember”? Has it been something that would honor those who were killed that day, or has it, like what happened to the Japanese in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, metastasized into a hatred of Muslims…all Muslims.

I think that we all know the sad answer to that question. An answer that shows that we didn’t learn a lesson from the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.

But really, how do we remember those we lost? How do we remember them and honor their lives? Do we remember them by seeking vengeance on “those people”, whether they were involved or not, and forgetting that they too live in fear of those extremists? Or do we more properly remember them by trying to make the world a better place for all of us…a place where there aren’t any violent extremists from any religion? And let’s admit that there are Christian extremists, Jewish extremists, Hindu extremists, Buddhist extremists, and others, as well as Muslim extremists…all of whom give a bad name to the religions they purport to represent. I think that if we’re wise, we know what the answer to that is.

The question now is, how many of us are wise?

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Dress Codes and Accusations of Racism

I used to teach at a school that had a very precise dress code. And of course, with a very precise dress code, students were always trying to find ways around it. Some parts of the dress code were particularly hard to enforce…especially if you were a male teacher.

We could handle enforcing the rules about blue denim, ripped clothing, clothing with writing on it, untucked shirts, or any of a number of dress code infractions (no matter how petty or stupid we thought they were); but there was one rule we didn’t want to have to deal with.


You couldn’t win this one. If you called a girl out for showing too much, she would turn it into an accusation of you looking where you shouldn’t be looking. You just couldn’t win.

And then one day, bless her heart, one day Laura, one of the administrators, dealt with it that in a way will not be forgotten. Upon seeing a girl who was practically falling out of her blouse, she said to her in a loud voice, “Put those things away!” and then took her to get a sweater.

There was no way that anyone could accuse Laura of anything inappropriate, and we had very few of those incidents after that.

So what does this have to do with accusations of racism? Well, it’s not going where you think it is, that’s for sure.

This has nothing to do with the fashion choices of people of certain ethnic groups, and everything to do with a conversation that came up in a Facebook group devoted to library workers.

It seems that a library worker was wondering how to approach patrons of certain demographics about their behavior and that of their children, without seeming racist. And the moment they asked that question, the torches and pitchforks came out, accusing that person of being racist for simply asking that question.

The problem is that I know that as with the girls showing too much cleavage at my old school, some members of some ethnic groups will turn any interaction with a white person that doesn’t go their way into a racial issue…whether it was or not. I have seen it done, and sometimes I’ve had to put on my “Laura hat”, and tell those people to “put that attitude away.”

And as with the male teachers who didn’t want to call out a girl who was practically falling out of her blouse, and would probably try to ignore her if she was totally naked, there are many white library workers who don’t want to deal with behavior issues of patrons of color, and may indeed cut those patrons a lot more slack than they would white patrons, because they don’t want to deal with accusations of racism.

The poor library worker who innocently asked this question was really trying to do the right thing, but knew, as do I, that unless you’re really careful (and sometimes even if you are), some people in certain groups will turn an interaction that might have gone fine with anyone else into a racial confrontation. And for even suggesting that this was a problem (which it is), they were accused of being racist, and the conversation got so nasty that comments had to be turned off.

What can we do about this? First of all, all of us need to admit that it happens, and is a problem, rather than immediately accusing someone with a question like this of being racist. Second, those of us who are in those demographics need to remember that not everything is a racial issue, and that sometimes we’re just wrong.

Finally, when we see a situation like this, those of us who are in those demographics need to “put on our Laura hats” and say, “Put that attitude way!”