Sunday, November 13, 2016

Jews As "Resident Aliens"

More years ago than I care to acknowledge, I was the Hillel Director at the University of Virginia. We had an association called United Ministry which included most of the religious groups on campus, except for the extreme fundamentalist Christians who didn’t believe in participating with non-Christians.  Every year we would have a day-long retreat. We would all read the same book in advance and that would be the focus of our discussions.

One year the Methodist campus minister, Rev. Brooke Willson -- who is still a good friend -- suggested we read what was then a new book, Resident Aliens, by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimons. The main thesis of the book is that for most of American history, White Protestant Americans controlled the culture and the government and simply got used to the idea that both reflected their ideals and beliefs. But since the 1960s, this was increasingly not the case. This is what gave rise to groups like the Moral Majority and similar Christian Right organizations. It was an attempt on the part of some White Protestants to turn the clock back.

Hauerwas and Willimons said this was a mistake. That first of all, it probably couldn’t be done. But even if it could be done, it shouldn’t be done. Something had gone wrong when Church and Empire fused under Constantine; and the Church, to be true to itself, should not seek to have coercive power or hold the reins of government. Hauerwas and Willimons said that Christians should learn to be more like the Jews, who lived for centuries under governments which were hostile or at best indifferent to their ideals and nevertheless managed to create supportive communities which met their needs and took care of each other.

Many of us are now concerned about the possibility that the United States may soon, or may have already, become a place where discrimination and xenophobia will become much more acceptable. It seems to me that these things are something against which we must all be vigilant, no matter who you voted for in the recent election.  I was glad to see that the President-elect promised to be the President for all Americans and reach out to those who didn’t support him for guidance and help. All of us -- Democrats, Republicans, and independents -- need to hold him to his word.

At the same time, Hauerwas and Willimons were on to something. As I said in my sermon on Kol Nidre evening, our experience as American Jews who are not subjects but citizens is, in historical terms, very novel. It may well be the case -- I hope not -- that as of January 20, we will be faced with a government that is opposed to many things we hold dear and supports many things we find reprehensible. This may be shocking to us but it would have been utterly familiar to most of our ancestors.

The prophet Micah said to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.” He didn’t say “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God -- as long as the White House says it’s OK.” The Torah commands us 36 times to love the stranger -- our commitment to fulfilling that mitzvah isn’t dependent on which party holds the White House or the Congress. As individuals and as a community, we can continue to love the stranger, support the weak and the disabled, feed the hungry, heal the sick and love our neighbors. This is at the heart of why we are Jews, and we can do it no matter who is in the White House. So let’s continue to do it, no matter what.

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