I am grateful that the secular spirit of the modern world has made the medieval option of fear of God’s punishment spiritually irrelevant. I felt dignified and challenged as a teacher of Torah in not having the support of God’s punitive powers as a fallback for awakening interest in Torah. In my experiences as a teacher, I never saw Judaism as necessarily weakened by the modern emphasis on the significance to or distaste for the terrifying descriptions of divine retribution awaiting the sinner found in the liturgy and rabbinic midrashim.
-Rabbi David Hartman
from the Postscript of his book
A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism
That isn’t exactly a statement that would be palatable to many traditional Jews and particularly fundamentalist Christians, who adhere to the words “the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) Nevertheless, I don’t think Rabbi Hartman absolutely has to be discussing the absence of divine judgment of humanity, but rather, our human response to God. One of the criticisms leveled against Christianity is our punitive nature, both toward the secular world and within our own. I’ve heard it said more than once that “the church is the only army that shoots its own wounded.” No wonder we don’t have a stellar reputation for love, compassion, and peace within the societies where we live.
Very recently, I’ve been expressing my recurring feelings of diminishment as a believer and frankly, as a human being. It seems that once you become a Christian, as far as other religions and the secular world are concerned, you surrender your passport to travel among your fellow human beings and within your society, and are relegated to a cage assigned to bigots, superstitious louts, and Bible-thumping thugs. If you actually express your faith in terms of compassion, charity, and love toward other people (and not just those who agree with you socially and politically), then repeatedly hearing what a fascist you are can be hard to take.
Time to take a deep breath.
I am deeply frightened by the growth of religious dogmatism and intolerance in many parts of the world, including Israel. I believe that a relationship to God based on fear of punishment, excessive repression, and fear of natural joy and spontaneity contributes to the growth of religious dogmatism and fanaticism.
I’m frightened, too.
I’m frightened because one of the results of dogmatism is the destruction of the message of the Bible which promotes love of your fellow human being as the primary expression of love of God. How can the name of God be sanctified if hostility and extremism is overwhelming the voice of Jesus Christ? It’s not like the Messianic lesson doesn’t include moral and ethical components. Far from it. At the heart of the ancient Judaism in which Jesus taught, is the emphasis on the laws of ethical monotheism and the universal benefits that they yield when applied to human society. But as Paul famously said:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. -1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (ESV)
I get tired of fighting but what I’m trying to fight isn’t really all of the times atheists say, “I hate Christians” or all of the times Jewish people say, “Christianity is a pagan religion.” I get tired of fighting how badly Christianity has carried the message of Christ forward into the 21st century. I get tired of supersessionism in the church. I get tired of extremist exclusivism in Christianity which goes to the point of defining itself by what it’s against rather than by the nature and character of God’s grace and love.
I’m not suggesting that Christianity “liberalize” to the point of blending into secular culture, but there’s a difference between standing on a firm moral center and using it as a blunt instrument to commit violence against anyone who steps outside of your interpretation of “Biblical truth.”
I’m tired of being blamed for a system and a history I have no control of and do not participate in. I think it’s possible to do good and be a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, an atheist, and just about anyone else. My understanding of good is the teachings of the Jewish Jesus. Your mileage may vary.
For myself, belief in the unity of God requires that one learn to appreciate the way every human being reflects the divine image. The unity of God is a challenge to find a shared moral and spiritual language between different faith communities. The declaration of Judaic faith, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” must lead a Jew to relate the profound sense of the particular and intimate relationship of Israel to God (“The Lord is our God”) to an appreciation of the way God is manifested in the variety of spiritual cultures existing throughout the world (“The Lord is One”). Whereas for Maimonides, correct reasoning provides the healing powers that make belief in the unity of God possible, from my perspective the power to appreciate the other, the overcoming of individual or communal narcissism, is essential if we are to act in a way that reflects belief in the unity of God.
Obviously, Rabbi Hartman’s views do not represent all of religious Judaism and they certainly don’t represent most of Christianity, since exclusivism is a requirement for access to God on a covenantal level. For Jews, the covenant is Mosaic, although Gentiles may access through the Noahide laws. For Christianity, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) is an absolutism that locks out anyone who is not a Christian and, in many cases, not a member of a specific congregation or denomination. Even in Judaism, the debate rages on “who is a Jew” which, in its extreme form, is expressed in the contrast between the Haredi Jews and secular Jewish Israel.
Time to take another deep breath.
Let’s try to set all that aside just for a few minutes. I know that most religious people fear the term “unity” because they feel it must also mean “homogeneous,” the idea that in order to have unity, you must surrender all distinctions from the other groups around you, and particularly the dominant group (which, in most cases today, is atheist secular humanism). In other words, the fear is that to have unity, you must either stop being religious, or be religious in name only while really embracing and practicing the entire package of liberal progressive modernism.
But that’s not what I mean.
In Christianity, I understand two things. I understand that God is the God of the universe and not just the God of Christians, Jews, or Muslims. I also understand that every human individual, no matter who you are (yes, even atheists) was made in the image of God. Besides being generically human, we all have those two things in common (whether you choose to recognize that or not). If God is a complete unity of One, then according to Rabbi Hartman, He created humanity to reflect that “oneness,” that particular sort of “unity” whereby we share a common drive to serve Him.
If you’re an atheist, a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, or anyone else, and you have a need for justice and mercy in the world, we all have that in common because God desires justice and mercy. I don’t care if you recognize God as the source of those two qualities or not, the fact remains, in spite of our differences, that we have a common need to create justice and mercy.
We aren’t going to agree on a good many things. That much is certain. But if we find something we can agree upon, let’s say it’s feeding hungry people, is it only good if you do it but not if I do it? Really, do you have to be an atheist to do good? Do you have to be a Christian to do good? Do you have to be a ...fill in the blank here... to do good?
That’s the sort of crap that’s wearing me down. Well, it’s not all of it, but if I could crawl out from underneath societal condemnation long enough to share something good with you, and affirming that we have that much in common, I’d feel a lot more lively and optimistic.
Christians are accused, and sometimes rightly so (but only sometimes) of being bigots and exclusivists. But many other human groups are guilty of the same thing including (believe it or not) political and social progressives. Inclusiveness is supposed to “include” but it often excludes people like me for no other reason than the label “Christian” I have stamped on my forehead. If you want me to listen to you, get to know you, and not judge you on shallow and superficial appearances, then shouldn’t you practice what you “preach?”
I should, too.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9). Making peace doesn’t require compromising morals or ethics, but it does require doing good and putting aside prejudice and bigotry. If Christians and Jews weren’t capable of doing that, there would have been no civil rights movement in the 1960s. We can do it, we can all do it if we choose to. Or we can choose to continue to wage this senseless social battle of defining ourselves by who we’re against rather than what we can do for good.
That’s your choice and it’s mine.
No, I don’t think this is going to work. I don’t think one small human being writing on one small blog is going to change the world. Heck, I won’t even be able to change predominant social opinion on the Internet. But I can take the moral high road just to see what happens. I can promote good just because it’s the right thing to do. I can love God by loving my fellow human being.
And I can continue to remind myself that even if no one else gives a rip, that each and every step I take, every piece of trash I pick up, every person I smile at today just because I can, is noticed by God. Hopefully, some of it will do other people some good as well.
We live in a broken world. Many of us are broken people. Only by realizing that we are all broken together can we begin to heal. One day we will all realize that our healing comes from Heaven. I know many of you don’t believe me. Let’s try out a little cooperation and see how it works. For the rest of it, just wait and see.