[In a 1907 essay title Christian Science, Mark Twain explains the normal psychology of group identity, and spins it into a plea for moral humility:]
“Let us consider that we are all partially insane. It will explain us to each other, it will unriddle many riddles, it will make clear and simple many things which are involved in haunting and harassing difficulties and obscurities now…
“That is a simple rule, and easy to remember. When I, a thoughtful and unbiased Presbyterian, examine the Koran, I know that beyond any question every Mohammedan is insane; not in all things, but in religious matters. When a thoughtful and unbiased Mohammedan examines the Westminster Catechism, he knows that beyond any question I am spiritually insane. I cannot prove to him that he is insane, because you never can prove anything to a lunatic–for that is part of his insanity and the evidence of it. He cannot prove to me that I am insane, for my mind has the same defect that afflicts his. All democrats are insane, but not one of them knows it; none but the republicans and mugwumps know it. All the republicans are insane, but only the democrats and mugwumps can perceive it. The rule is perfect; in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane. When I look around me I am often troubled to see how many people are mad [gives long list]… This should move us to be charitable toward one anothers lunacies.”
Being asked to preach at the Sunday morning closing service of an interfaith conference was, for me, a very great honor. It was also a great challenge. This was the ninth in a series of Interfaith Peace Conferences at the United Methodist Conference Center at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. Usually the preacher at this service has been a Christian guest speaker. It would be my task to bring the conference to an inspiring close with thoughts people could take home with them. I took that very seriously.
This series of conferences was the brainchild of Rev. Wright Spears, a pulpit minister who had done much for inter-racial and interfaith relations in his career. The format involved bringing together religious figures from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to address a theme. Having attended, planned, or lead many conferences in my career I can say that nothing I had ever been a part of was like these events. We were able to bring leading experts from all over the world to speak at our conferences. Perhaps it has been the beautiful setting of Lake Junaluska, but there was something very special about the spirit I felt there.
The theme of this conference was “Meeting The Other: Can We Talk?” This idea of finding ways to help different kinds of people, people who believe different things, talk with and understand each other is on many people’s minds right now. I know that there are many programs and projects around the country addressing this theme.
I have been involved with one such for decades – The Compassionate Listening Project. Their motto is, “An enemy is someone whose story you have not heard.”
Together with a friend who is about 180 degrees from my political views I started a discussion group to facilitate dialogue among people who hold a variety of political and social beliefs. We call ourselves the Curmudgeons. I hold very strong views, but cannot regard myself as having a monopoly on right thinking. I learn far more from people I disagree with than from people I agree with.
What was my sermon’s theme going to be? We would have had three days of talking about dialogue among people of different faiths as well as social and political views. Many of our regulars would be fairly described as liberal Christians, but at this conference we also had forty rural pastors from all over the country who decided to combine their annual meeting with ours. That certainly increased the mix.
I asked myself, “What is the prerequisite for dialogue among different kinds of people?” My answer was that we are all people. We have our humanity in common. Each of the three Abrahamic traditions shares that idea. For several years I have been thinking, writing, and speaking about how I see Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as three faces of one faith, the faith of Abraham. This is hardly novel. Others have long pointed out that these three faiths have one common origin and one sense of tradition. The New Testament relies on the truth of the Jewish scriptures and the truth of Islam likewise rests on the prophets who came before Mohammed from Adam to Jesus.
My method of presenting this idea would use sources from all three faiths as if they were one source, which, in my thinking, they are. The result is the sermon that follows. I do not preach from a written out text, but from notes. In order to present this sermon here, I have gone back to my notes and made of them a readable (I hope) text.
One day Jesus was talking with some Pharisees and one of them asked him a question.
‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ (Matt. 22:36-40)
Jesus’ answer was the Jewish answer and, what is more, the Pharisee answer to that question. A century later a group of Rabbis was holding a similar discussion on the same question. This was in the time of Rabbi Akiva, who usually gave the best and final answer, but not in this case.
Rabbi Akiva said the most important verse is, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. יי (Lev. 19:18). But this time he colleague Ben Azzai bested him. “Ben Azzai teaches: ‘This is the written account of Adam’s family line. When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God.”, (Gen. 5:1) this principle is the most fundamental. (Sifra on Leviticus 19:18)
If you ask most people who know scripture which is the most important, the most fundamental verse in the Torah, they are very likely to say, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” because it is the Torah’s version of The Golden Rule. Why would a verse most people would pay little attention to top that? Martin Buber noted that this verse could be correctly read, “You shall love your neighbor – he is like you.” The lack of clarity in Hebrew makes TaNaKh difficult to translate, but that opens the way to multiple readings of the text. Rabbinic tradition says that every word in the Torah has seventy meanings, which is a way of saying countless meanings.
Here are the two verses that together show the principle at work here. This is the record of Adam’s line – When God created humankind, it was made in the likeness of God; male and female were they created. And, when they were created, [God] blessed them and called them Humankind. (Genesis 5:1-2) The basis for the Golden Rule, in whatever form, is that every human being is the same, an avatar of the divine. We are all, every one of us, part of one family.
After Cain murdered his brother Abel, God asked him, “Where is your brother Abel?” Of course we all remember Cain’s answer, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God responds, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:9-10) The commentary on this found in the Talmud leads to a well-known principle of Jewish ethics that follows this idea of the unity of humanity. The word translated as “blood” is actually in the plural form in the text.
For thus we find in the case of Cain, who killed his brother, that it is written: the bloods of your brother cry unto me: not the blood of your brother, but the bloods of thy brother, is said — i.e., his blood and the blood of his [potential] descendants. For this reason was man created alone, to teach you that whosoever destroys a single soul…, scripture imputes [guilt] to him as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul…, scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world. Furthermore, [he was created alone] for the sake of peace among men, that one might not say to his fellow, ‘my ancestor was greater than yours, …; again, to proclaim the greatness of the holy one of blessing: for if a man strikes many coins from one mould, they all resemble one another, but the supreme king of kings, the holy one of blessing, fashioned every person in the stamp op the first man, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow. Therefore every single person is obliged to say: the world was created for my sake. (SANH. 37a)
If we were all created the same in one mold or image, why is there so much diversity among human beings? That Biblical story is familiar – The Tower of Babel. After the Flood all of humanity was living in one place under one king. They all spoke one language. They got the idea of building a great tower to challenge Heaven. God looked and said, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us then go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:5-7) This text raises many intriguing questions, but for us it is the story of why humanity is so culturally diverse despite all being of one kind.
Why would god do this? Why divide humanity in a way that causes us not to understand each other? Isn’t this the cause of wars, oppression, hatred, and injustice? It seems that we were not ready for a united humanity and are required to go through thousands of years of conflict. Does this make any sense at all? We find a wonderful answer in two passages from the Koran.
We have revealed the Book to you (Muhammad) in all Truth. It confirms the (original) Bible and has the authority to preserve or abrogate what the Bible contains. Judge among them by what God has revealed to you and do not follow their desires instead of the Truth which has come to you. We have given a law and a way of life to each of you. Had God wanted, He could have made you into one nation, but He wanted to see who are the more pious ones among you. Compete with each other in righteousness. All of you will return to God who will tell you the truth in the matter of your differences.” (5:48)
O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you….(49:13)
Recently I reread one of Teilhard de Chardin’s books about his vision of a common human destiny. He saw us as on an evolutionary path towards what he called The Omega Point. This would be the culmination of Creation and, among other things, would bring all of humanity together as God intended. Pope Benedict XVI explained this vision beautifully.
“And so we can now say that the goal of worship and the goal of creation as a whole are one and the same—divinization, a world of freedom and love. But this means that the historical makes its appearance in the cosmic. The cosmos is not a kind of closed building, a stationary container in which history may by chance take place. It is itself movement, from its one beginning to its one end. In a sense, creation is history. Against the background of the modern evolutionary world view, Teilhard de Chardin depicted the cosmos as a process of ascent, a series of unions. From very simple beginnings the path leads to ever greater and more complex unities, in which multiplicity is not abolished but merged into a growing synthesis, leading to the “Noosphere” in which spirit and its understanding embrace the whole and are blended into a kind of living organism.”
Physics tells us that the universe is undergoing an inevitable process of increasing disorder in the universe called Entropy. What de Chardin, who was a scientist as well as a priest, taught that human activity can reverse entropy itself. “This will be the end and the fulfillment of the spirit of the Earth. The end of the world: the wholesale internal introversion upon itself of the noosphere, which has simultaneously reached the uttermost limit of its complexity and centrality. The end of the world: the overthrow of equilibrium [the Heat Death], detaching the mind, fulfilled at last, from its material matrix, so that it will henceforth rest with all its weigh on God-Omega.”
Our teacher A. J. Heschel put it this way. “For whom does he plant who plants a tree? For generations to come, for faces he has never seen. Higher purposes are shrewdly disguised as ends of immediate usefulness. It is as if divine cunning operated in human history, using our instincts as pretexts for the attainment of goals which are universally valid, a scheme to harness man’s lower forces in the service of higher ends.”
So where do we, you and I, fit into all of this? Each of us is so small in the scheme of things. It is essential that we go through our days encountering other people and recognizing them as being just like us, even though they are different. Every single person is a living avatar of god – that is what it means that we are made in the divine image. Some like to say, “we are in god’s hands.” I see that differently, as did and do so many of the spiritually great people we try to learn from. We are not in god’s hands – we are god’s hands.
In closing I want to share with you my favorite teaching on dialogue between people of differing opinions. It comes from Rabbi Menachem-Mendel of Kotzk and was taught to me in this form by my teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (z”l).
If I am I because you are you
you are you because I am I
I am not I and you are not you
If I am I because I am I
you are you because you are you
I am I and you are you
[And we can talk.]
May each of us be able to see in our human encounters the face of God.
If anyone reading this wants to hear the original sermon from the conference, it is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNZ0Ga9N5YY&t=33s My sermon begins an hour into the recording and nothing much happens for the first forty minutes or so. However I do recommend listening to the music of the resident musical group on the recording. They were very much the heart of our conference – Abraham Jam. They are three accomplished singer-songwriters, one from each of the Abrahamic faiths. You can find them on Youtube as well. Also on Youtube there are major addresses from our last three conferences.
If anyone reading this would like to know about our next conference, which will take place on November 21-24, 2019 at Lake Junaluska. The theme will be “Peace and The Arts” There isn’t much posted on it yet, but go to http://www.lakejunaluska.com/peace for information.
 This is usually a misunderstood term. The Pharisees had nothing to do with the Priests who ran the Temple in Jerusalem, but were actually their opponents. During Jesus’ lifetime the Pharisee party was engaged in creating a form of Judaism that took much of Jewish practice from the Temple and put it in the hands of individual Jews. They taught that Moses received an Oral Torah in addition to the written Torah (the five book of Moses) which had been handed down from one generation to the next and which they were in the process of writing down. The arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees were all typical of Pharisaic arguments that actually continued for centuries after the destruction of the Temple and the rise of the Rabbinic Judaism which we still have today. I believe Jesus himself was a Pharisee and these conversations and arguments were the conversations and arguments of colleagues, even when Jesus says, “you Pharisees…”
 The Torah translation I am using is “The Contemporary Torah,” a gender-sensitive version published by JPS.
 I cannot resist the temptation of quoting my favorite comment on the story, which is by Franz Kafka. He wrote, “If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without ascending it, the work would have been permitted.”
“One vehicle for taming history is various patriotic holidays, with Thanksgiving at the heart of U.S. myth-building. From an early age, we Americans hear a story about the hearty Pilgrims, whose search for freedom took them from England to Massachusetts. There, aided by the friendly Wampanoag Indians, they survived in a new and harsh environment, leading to a harvest feast in 1621 following the Pilgrims first winter.
“Some aspects of the conventional story are true enough. But it’s also true that by 1637 Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop was proclaiming a thanksgiving for the successful massacre of hundreds of Pequot Indian men, women and children, part of the long and bloody process of opening up additional land to the English invaders. The pattern would repeat itself across the continent until between 95 and 99 percent of American Indians had been exterminated and the rest were left to assimilate into white society or die off on reservations, out of the view of polite society.”
Since 1970 Native Americans have observed our Thanksgiving as a day of mourning. They consider this day as the start of a pattern of genocidal behavior that continued for centuries and was followed in the 20th century by a campaign to destroy Native American culture and languages. Meanwhile our popular culture ignores this history. It took the Pine Ridge Reservation revolt and AIM (whose violence I was against) to wake up at least some Americans to this dark aspect of our national history. Saying it is past time to remember it and seek atonement is a moral statement, not a political one. It is being used for political purposes however.
There is a big difference between actual history and nationalist indoctrination, which is largely what the teaching of US history in our school system consists of.
We should know what kind of religion and society the Puritans lived in. They were too narrow-minded even to tolerate other kinds of Christians. They believed that God is eternally angry with even the most virtuous of us (see Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners In The Hands of an Angry God” which is considered the beginning of American religious literature. here is a site with quotes https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/618854-sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-god) These are the people who carried out the Salem witch trials. They certainly did not respect the native peoples who allowed the survival of their first group.
Again – Having said all of that, I regard Thanksgiving as important, just not for the story of “the first Thanksgiving.”
Here is an excerpt from Kirkpatrick’s book posted on her web site.
Many famous figures walk these pages—Washington, who proclaimed our first Thanksgiving as a nation amid controversy about his Constitutional power to do so; Lincoln, who wanted to heal a divided nation sick of war when he called for all Americans—North and South—to mark a Thanksgiving Day; FDR, who set off a debate on state’s rights when he changed the traditional date of Thanksgiving.
At a time when this nation is more divided than ever with a POTUS who feeds on that division, we need Thanksgiving as much as we did when Lincoln first made it a national holiday in the midst of the Civil War.
The ability to give thanks is the only real source of happiness, because otherwise no one will ever be satiated enough to be happy. Giving thanks to God, if you believe in God, is one of the best things about faith. Being able to acknowledge the support we have from other people and also from society is part of that too.
Those who cannot acknowledge how other people and society (including government when it functions as it should) are not going to be happy. They will be afraid, sad, and angry. This misreading of “Self-Reliance” (Emerson’s essay that we all probably read in high school). I admire the local culture which is one of interdependence. People mind their own business. Most respect others. Many stand ready to help when they are needed. This is based on the idea that each of us is an independent being but we are all connected and we all rely on each other. I think that is the best of America, where it exists (much less in places like NYC than here).
If some Americans see the dark side of our history as predominant, I think that is wrong. I do not agree that Thanksgiving should be observed as a day of fasting (far from it). On the other hand those who feel this way do not deserve to be condemned for taking a moral stance. Either you believe that this is a free society which allows diversity of opinion, which is what Thanksgiving was made to celebrate, or you think we should all march in lock-step following our national mythos. We condemn other societies for doing that (USSR, PRC, etc.) We should guard against that temptation in our own.
Jewish history is a mix of dark and light. Here’s how we regard our holidays in a well-known (among us anyway) quip. “They tried to kill us. They failed. Lat’s eat.” Denial is wrong but so is wallowing in victimhood.
Eat with good appetite and give thanks to the thousands of working people who made the bounty on your table possible. Have a Happy Thanksgiving.
A year ago I delivered a four-part series on the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Hendersonville NC. This summer they invited me back and I gave a three-lecture series on Anti-Semitism and Reconciliation.
The reason for speaking at a church on anti-Semitism was not to send anyone on a guilt trip. I think that knowing something on the dark side of life is part of a defense against it. As it happens that dark side has been showing up lately, especially at Charlottesville. I think it is urgent that Jews and Christians know this history in order to avoid being submerged in it.
As I did last summer I am posting the series here in the form of the audio recordings of the lectures and the Power Point presentations that went with them.
The first lecture was on the origins of Christian anti-Semitism in the New Testament.
The second Lecture in the series started with the Early Church Fathers and surveyed sources up to Martin Luther. Most of the quotations were anti-Jewish, but a few were positive about Jews and expressed opposition to harming Jews or even disliking them.
The subject of the third lecture is Jewish-Christian reconciliation in the 20th century. Most of it is about Vatican II and the roles of Pope John XXIII and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
- Do not deny God.
- Do not curse God.
- Do not murder.
- Do not engage in illicit sexual relations.
- Do not steal.
- Do not eat from a live animal.
- Establish courts/legal system.
Many years ago I was in the cast of a production of “Evita.” A woman in the audience from Argentina said it reminded her of exactly how things were under Peron. In that show (an opera really) is a song called “The New Argentina.” Trump’s campaign rhetoric and his inaugural speech yesterday reminded me of that. Here are two verses.
Now I am a worker, I’ve suffered the way that you do
I’ve been unemployed, and I’ve starved and I’ve hated it too
But I found my salvation in Peron, may the nation
Let him save them as he saved me
Peron has resigned from the army and this we avow
The descamisados are those he is marching with now
He supports you, for he loves you
Understands you, is one of you
If not, how could he love me?
And the chorus…
A new Argentina, a new age about to begin
A new Argentina, we face the world together
And no dissent within
What I heard and saw yesterday reminded me of every populist demagogue in the world and in history. Some compare Trump to Hitler, but that misses the point. Hitler is the worst of a class of national leaders. Trump sounds like Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Lenin, Mao, Chiang Kai Chek, and many, many more.
The inaugural address was very short and consisted of hostility to those he replaces and promises he can fix everything. He gives a dark view of America and promises to make everything right again. This is not optimism. Ronald Reagan was optimistic and he followed a President who was notably pessimistic. Here are two quotes from his 1981 inaugural.
Well, this administration’s objective will be a healthy, vigorous, growing economy that provides equal opportunities for all Americans, with no barriers born of bigotry or discrimination. Putting America back to work means putting all Americans back to work. Ending inflation means freeing all Americans from the terror of runaway living costs. All must share in the productive work of this “new beginning,” and all must share in the bounty of a revived economy. With the idealism and fair play which are the core of our system and our strength, we can have a strong and prosperous America, at peace with itself and the world.
The crisis we are facing today does not require of us the kind of sacrifice that Martin Treptow and so many thousands of others were called upon to make. It does require, however, our best effort and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds, to believe that together with God’s help we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us.
I disagreed with much about Reagan’s political views but his appeal to the entire country cannot be gainsaid. What did Donald Trump say yesterday? Reagan did not make accusations about the difficulties our nation faced when he became President. He did not lay blame, but indicated that government was not serving the people.
Now here is what Trump said yesterday.
This is his motto: America First. The first use of that term was The America First Committee in 1940. It’s spokesperson was Charles Lindbergh and they were explicitly anti-Semitic. Their claim was that the Jews (who ran everything, of course) wanted to get our country into the war against Germany for their own purposes. I still see this accusation today (and so will you, if you read on)
That expression was then the name of a political party in the 1940s while we were at war with Germany. They ran Gerald K. Smith, a racist and anti-Semite for President in 1944 and again, under the name Christian Nationalist Crusade, in 1948 (he got 42 votes nationally). The name America First has been used for far-right (and I mean really far right) organizations and parties since then. Most recently, in 2002, it was reborn when a group of Pat Buchanan supporters split from the Reform Party (Ross Perot’s).
The ADL appealed to Trump to stop using that phrase which is associated with anti-Semitism and racism. That was during the campaign. Trump ignored that.
Trump’s speech was co-written by Steve Bannon (did you think Trump wrote it?) who represents the right-most edge of American politics. We can see that this political adviser is the voice of the Trump administration.
Meanwhile David Duke responded to the speech with a declaration of war on Jews. Here is a quote from his web-site. http://davidduke.com/dr-david-duke-trump-inauguration-speech-declares-war-on-the-neocons-promotes-our-slogan-america-first/
Trump evoked my campaign slogan I used in my successful race for the House of Representatives, and I used in my quest for the Republican nomination in 1992, America First.
This is the historic slogan of the original Alt-Right and all patriotic Americans in days of Charles Lindbergh and the America First Party later that has stood up against both the Jewish globalist Commies and the Jewish globalist Capitalists.
Although there are a number of Jews around Trump, there is no doubt the Jewish-elite tribalist establishment hates Trump….
White people have the most basic human right of all: to live, and we have a right to govern our own nation rather than have these unelected Jewish tribalists run our politics, our foreign policy, our media, our banking institutions. An no one, no where will prevent us our right of self-preservation.
This is classic anti-Semitism and White Supremicism. This is the political voice of the new administration as voiced by our new President.
In such times, those of us who stand for humane values must be watchful and responsive. Silence is death.
This morning I thought about writing a letter to our local daily newspaper calling for patience. “Street demonstrations, ” I was going to say, “will only deepen the national divide. Our President-elect said he wants to be the President for all Americans.”
Now, this evening, I have seen the news on who will likely be in the new cabinet. Deplorables would be too gentle a term for this bunch of extremists, self-seekers, and incompetents. How about despicables?
Let’s see. Reince Priebus is the only reasonable choice on the list. The leader of the GOP is conservative, of course, but he has shown himself to be level-headed and, so far as I can see, competent. He is a reasonable choice for White House Chief-of-Staff. Alongside of Priebus Trump has named Steve Bannon, the bigot-in-chief of the Alt-right, the home of every kind of hatred and fear-mongering movement in this country. He is anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, racist, misogynist – all of this is explicit from his own statements. Bannon will be reporting to Trump, so his power will be equal to that of Priebus. In doing this he follows his managerial policy of setting up rival forces just beneath him. I think this is to keep any potential rivals off-balance. Trumps own children are reportedly opposed to naming extremists to the administration. Ivanka, who is Jewish, should be especially upset about Bannon.
Among others being named as possible cabinet members are Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich and (no joke) Sarah Palin. Palin is likely to be the only woman in a high position in this administration. Giuliani and Gingrich have both shown themselves to be men of poor character both in their personal and political lives. For Secretary of the Interior the name being mentioned is that of an oil industry executive – the fox guarding the chicken coop. Actually foxes in charge of chickens is pretty much everyone on the list of possibilities.
There is no hint of any attempt to unify our bifurcated people unless he means, “Everyone must do it my way.” This is historically the danger of electing populist demagogues of any political stripe. Minorities and women (who, of course, are not a minority) always suffer under populist regimes.
I am sometimes asked how the most civilized nation in Europe, Germany, could descend to such depths of national depravity. I suggest that we are seeing how that happens right now. Watch one of Hitler’s campaign speeches from 1932. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KqBEJweLV5s The parallels with the Trump campaign are striking. Watch Leni Riefenstal’s “Triumph of The Will” to see how familiar a 1935 film of a 1934 Nazi rally looks and sounds.
Anti-Trump demonstrations are promised for every day leading up to the inauguration. I now hope we see that happen. It was the silence of too many Germans that gave Hitler’s Nazi Party so much power. It was the self-delusion of German industrialists and her military that they could control Hitler that made them collaborators with evil. It was the collection of human misfits Hitler surrounded himself with that led Germany astray.
So what are those of us who are appalled by all of this to do. Violence is never the answer but neither is silence. If Trump’s followers will not extend their hands to heal the national divide then we must. Every action and policy that violates human dignity and decency must be met with public protest and with intelligent legal and political response. Basic to all of that is the power of love. Every human being is made in the Divine Image and that must be respected. Respecting that means appealing to that divine spark in everyone, even those who are against us.
I hope my fears are unjustified.