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.

Morning After Thoughts

A couple of weeks ago I sent out a “Prayer Before Voting” which ends with the following words:

Creator of all flesh, we know also that the real work begins tomorrow morning. Whether or not I am pleased with the outcome of this election, help me to be a good citizen and work for understanding and reconciliation among all Americans. May we continue to work for the day when none shall hurt or destroy, when justice shall flow like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

That morning has now arrived. Based on the results in Montgomery County and also on the usual breakdown of the Jewish vote, most of you reading this are not pleased but some of you are. Now that the election is over, the hard work begins.

A few scattered thoughts:

  1. We really are two countries, almost evenly divided in population. One of the things which I’ve not seen receive too much notice is that although Donald Trump won the Electoral College, Hillary Clinton seems to have won the popular vote by over 100,000. We have got to, as a nation, figure out how to speak with each other more civilly, try to work together and try to understand each other.
  2. Our tradition wisely gives us a road map for dealing with grief and loss. When emotions are at their most raw we don’t do anything but focus on our loss. But there is a time limit. After sitting shiva we get up and ease back into our lives. If this describes you, it’s OK, in fact probably a good idea, to take some time and work through your grief. My only advice to you is be careful how you treat yourself and those around you for the next few days.
  3. If you supported the winning side, congratulations. Just be aware that many people around you are in shock and grief. Be compassionate. Treat them as you would want to be treated.
  4. Our commitments as Jews and as human beings don’t change or waver depending on who is in power. We are called to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. This hasn’t changed.