Interfaith Insight - 2020
Permanent link for "Monuments tell stories, sometimes false ones" by Doug Kindschi on August 11, 2020
In the past two weeks’ Insights I have written about statues and
monuments, with particular attention to monuments that become symbols
that verge on the sacred and run the danger of becoming idols. Statues
and monuments tell stories, sometimes to inform about our history in
ways that can be educational, but sometimes to tell a different
political story that seeks to create a new history that is false.
As I have become more aware of the statues in Grand Rapids, I have found both kinds. For example, I was not previously aware of the story of three scientists from Grand Rapids who made the critical discoveries leading to the vaccine against whooping cough. In the 1930s, bacteriologists Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering, working in Grand Rapids with Michigan Department of Health laboratories, began collecting samples from children who were suffering from whooping cough, one of the deadliest childhood diseases of that time. Their research led to the development and field testing on one of the first effective vaccines to prevent the disease. In the 1940s an African American scientist named Loney Clinton Gordon joined the lab. She isolated a new strain of pertussis that led to a more effective vaccine. The work of these three women supported research on the DTP shot that protects against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis or whooping cough. This standard vaccine is used today enabling parents to safely vaccinate their children against multiple diseases at once.
The work of these scientists in Grand Rapids in the middle of the Depression resulted in tens of thousands of children being saved from death by this terrible disease. Their story is introduced by a statue at Michigan State University’s new research center for the College of Human Medicine on the corner of Michigan Street and Monroe Avenue. Of course a statue is only the beginning of the story of these three women and the larger efforts of many others working in the state laboratory in Grand Rapids. It did, however, lead me to learn more about them and their inspiring story, including a report on the History.com website that can be accessed at: www.bit.ly/GRscientists.
One also learns more from this report that Grand Valley State University history professor Carolyn Shapiro-Shapin researched this aspect of health and vaccine history and has written several scholarly articles on it. The statue can’t tell the whole story, but it introduces us to an important aspect of our city’s history and the inspiring story of a disease conquered.
A half-block away on Monroe Avenue NW is a statue of Lyman Parks, Grand Rapids’ first African American mayor. He served from 1971 to 1976 and is recognized for his important role in initiating the revitalization of downtown Grand Rapids.
These stories are worth remembering as we seek to understand our community.
But there are other statues and monuments in our country and even in our community that tell or seek to reinforce false narratives. The statue of Noahquageshik, also referred to as Chief Noonday, located on the riverbank near the Blue Bridge, has been described as portraying him welcoming the settlers, while ignoring the suffering and genocide of Native Americans by European settlers. I have benefited from feedback from Native Americans who want the fuller story told.
The Civil War statue in Allendale’s Veterans Garden of Honor has been controversial and properly protested against. Why a community in Michigan, whose Civil War units sent 90,000 soldiers from our state to fight for the Union, would depict a rebel Confederate soldier with equal standing to the Union soldier is beyond my understanding. The depiction of a diminished black slave at their feet reaching for freedom is despicable and should also be protested. Why not portray one of the 1,600 Black soldiers who also served with the 1st Michigan Infantry?
I have written in previous Insights about the idolizing of Confederate statues that are also in the news, but now the question is what should be our action. Instructive commentary, consistent with my intent can be found in the current issue of Christian Century. Peter Marty, the editor/publisher, writes an essay titled, “Sanitizing history.” He decries “the fictional narrative behind the (Confederate) monuments themselves … installed to rewrite history and whitewash truths about the searing legacy of slavery.” He notes that “these towering monuments served to disguise the Confederacy’s doomed act of mass treason and failed attempt to preserve slavery.”
Marty continues to call for further attention to the issue of removal of such monuments and quotes the former mayor of New Orleans, Mitchell Landrieu, who led the process of the city taking down four Confederate monuments, including a 60-foot one honoring Robert E. Lee. He quotes Landrieu: “Consider these monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth-grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop our beautiful city. Can you do it? Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story?”
In a recent video interview, Landrieu explained that while it is important to remove a memorial that depicts a false narrative, the process of making that decision is also important. His efforts in New Orleans took over three years and were difficult and laborious, but that was also part of the community’s education about the sanitizing of our history. However, when the authorities refuse to do this, then protests are not only appropriate but patriotic and become the beginning of that educational process.
I agree with all of these sentiments and it is what led me to conclude in my July 30 column, “Remembering our history is important, but we must be mindful that statues that become monuments can also become symbols that verge on the sacred and run the danger of leading to idolatry. Our faith traditions as well as our good sense should warn us against such misuse.”
Statues and monuments tell stories and they should seek to be honest in what they portray. They can never tell the whole story and it is important to correct the errors or misguided impressions that may have motivated such stories. This can be a process of education and learning for our communities as we go through the often painful process of correcting our history.
Permanent link for "History, statues, monuments, and idols: a long history" by Doug Kindschi on July 28, 2020
The current discussion about the removal or destruction of monuments remains in the news. This is not a new issue in American history, or even in world religious history. In 1776 following a public reading of the Declaration of Independence, a mob pulled down the equestrian statue of King George III. The metal was melted and used to make bullets for the Revolutionary War effort.
It is not necessary to preserve that statue of King George for us to remember the Declaration of Independence or the American Revolution that followed. The tearing down of the statue is also history. Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating mob actions of tearing down statues, nor am I in favor of another violent revolution. But I do believe we need to think clearly about the proper role of statues and monuments in the telling of our history.
One of the earliest pre-revolution Anglican churches was King’s Chapel in Boston. Even though its members and clergy pledged their allegiance to the King of England, it is not necessary to tear down the church; but neither is it necessary to erect a monument to the king in order for that bit of history to be remembered.
But I do believe the status of honored memorials needs re-evaluation given current issues in our society. That said, we have forums and settings where that can be debated and decisions made on what is in the best interest for our society and for proper remembrance of our history.
Thomas S. Kidd, the Vardaman Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, discussed this in a recent article in the magazine Christianity Today. He notes monuments were created at a particular time and for a certain purpose. The university in which he teaches was named for Judge R. E. B. Baylor, a Baptist leader, Southern politician, and a slave holder. The university has appointed a commission to discuss and recommend on how that history is to be remembered, including the future of a statue on campus honoring founder Judge Baylor.
His article also discussed a 7-foot monument in Selma, Alabama, not erected until 2000 to honor a Confederate general, Nathan Bedford Forrest. While supposing to honor a general for his war efforts, the inscription does not mention that he was also responsible for the massacre of African American troops in Tennessee, and later was a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The inscription reads, "This monument stands as a testament of our perpetual devotion and respect for Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest CSA 1821-1877, one of the South's finest heroes." It is not hard to imagine the message sent to the Black community living in proximity to the monument. I doubt that it enhances their historical understanding.
Professor Kidd concludes, “Removing monuments to figures such as Forrest should be an easy call for Americans, especially for Christians. … He committed racial atrocities in the name of a rebellion against the United States. If standing on public land, such monuments should be removed and at most be displayed in a museum, not in a place of honor.”
It gets more complicated when it is a confederate general who didn’t own slaves, or a founding father who played a major role in the creation of our nation but did own slaves. Kidd continues, “Deciding not to give someone a place of symbolic honor is hardly the same thing as erasing history. If all you know about Lincoln comes from viewing a statue of him, you don’t know much about Lincoln anyway. Libraries hold thousands of books on Washington, Lincoln, and even figures such as Nathan Bedford Forrest, and that should not change. What we’re talking about with monuments is publicly celebrating historical figures.”
The 20th century theologian Paul Tillich made the distinction between signs and symbols. Signs, he said, are arbitrary and provide information like a street or stop sign, or a sign identifying a business or historical place of interest. For Tillich, symbols participate in what it is that they signify, like a flag, the cross for Christians, or the Star of David for Jews. While seeking to point to that which is sacred, they can become almost sacred in themselves. It is idolatry when the symbol itself becomes worshiped, rather than just pointing to or symbolizing the sacred.
In our current discussions, I wonder if the monuments under consideration have gone beyond providing historical information, but have become objects representing a reality that has been lost, a memory that verges on worship of a bygone era. Why would there be over 1,700 confederate monuments put up some 50 years after the end of the Confederacy? Was it to provide historical information or was it to symbolize a mindset of what the Confederacy represented, including slavery? Was it seeking to keep alive an idea that refused to be totally defeated? And when do such monuments and other symbols like flags take on a symbolic meaning that tries to create a reality that becomes almost sacred?
The religious traditions on this matter are also instructive. The Hebrew Scriptures set forth the Ten Commandments in both Exodus and repeated in Deuteronomy, including the prohibition: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image.” (Exodus 20:4) The warning against idols appears over 100 times in the Christian Scriptures which of course include the Torah, Psalms, and prophets.
Islam also has strong injunctions against idolatry, traditionally prohibiting any picture or sculpture depicting the prophet Mohammad or any living person or animal.
Remembering our history is important, but we must be mindful that statues that become monuments can also become symbols that verge on the sacred and run the danger of leading to idolatry. Our faith traditions as well as our good sense should warn us against such misuse.
Permanent link for "John Lewis joined other religious leaders in the call for justice" on July 21, 2020
In the midst of so much negative news, the sad news of the death of
John Lewis does remind us of this very positive and effective voice
for social and racial justice. It also takes us back to that tragic
event some 55 years ago when Lewis nearly lost his life on the Edmund
Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Reflecting on it years later, Lewis,
a young age 25 at the time, said, “At the moment when I was hit on the
bridge and began to fall, I really thought it was my last protest, my
last march. I thought I saw death, and I thought, ‘It’s okay, it’s all
right. … I am doing what I am supposed to do.’”
Years earlier he had met Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. who had inspired him “to get into good trouble and I’ve been getting into good trouble ever since.” He was the youngest of the close circle around M.L. King, Jr., first as a founder and president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and then as a member of the House of Representatives for over three decades. He became the nation’s conscience on matters of justice and a powerful voice in Congress.
Lewis was motivated by his deep Christian belief and considered the civil rights movement a religious phenomenon. Last week just hours before Lewis’ death, another civil rights leader and close associate with King also died. Rev. C. T. Vivian was considered the “resident theologian” in King’s inner circle because of his deep understanding of the connections between the Bible and the political struggle in which they were engaged. He was 15 years older than Lewis and died at the age of 95.
The Washington Post story on Rev. Vivian tells of his encounter with the authorities one month prior to the “Bloody Sunday” on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Hundreds of black Americans had been stopped from trying to register to vote. Vivian confronted the local sheriff who had been blocking the effort, wagging his finger into his face and saying “You can turn your back now and you can keep your club in your hand, but you cannot beat down justice. And we will register to vote, because as citizens of these United States, we have the right to do it.” Whereupon in front of the cameras, the sheriff punched Vivian in the face.
Other religious leaders became involved in the 1965 events in Selma, including Rabbi Abraham Heschel who had met King and others at a conference in Chicago. Heschel gave a talk titled “Religion and Race.” His talk sought an expansive understanding of God’s work in the world and called for the kinship with all people regardless of race or religion, pointing specifically to “a deadly poison that inflames the eye, making us see the generality of race but not the uniqueness of the human face. … The Negro is a stranger to many souls. There are people in our country whose moral sensitivity suffers a blackout when confronted with the black man’s predicament.”
He continued pointing to the connection between the crime of murder, which is punishable by law, and the sin of humiliation which is invisible, saying, “When blood is shed, human eyes see red; when a heart is crushed, it is only God who shares the pain.” Heschel concluded his talk with the quote from the Hebrew prophet Amos, later made famous in talks by King: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24)
Two years later Heschel marched with King in Selma and later recalled that it felt like his “legs were praying.” For both leaders it was a religious responsibility to be concerned for all suffering human beings since they were all created in God’s image. King considered Heschel a modern-day prophet.
In Jon Meacham’s book, “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels,” he writes about John Lewis based on an extensive interview he had with him in 2015, the 50th anniversary of the Selma march. Lewis was born to sharecropper parents and dealt with a childhood stutter “by preaching to the chickens on the family farm.” Lewis had expected to be arrested in the march and had even included in his backpack some fruit, toothbrush, and some reading material for his use in jail. He had not expected a crushing blow to his head causing fracture, but he was prepared to die.
Lewis considered the civil rights struggle a battle of whether the best of the American soul could win over the worst of hatred and fear. Meacham quotes Lewis:
“(W)e must humanize our social and political and economic structure. When people saw what happened on the bridge, there was a sense of revulsion all over America. … In the final analysis, we are one people, one family, one house — not just the house of black and white, but … the house of America. We can move ahead, we can move forward, we can create a multiracial community, a truly democratic society. I think we’re on our way there. … We have to be hopeful. Never give up, never give in, keep moving on.”
Meacham’s newest book, “His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope,” is a biography of Lewis and will be released next month. In interviews reflecting on Lewis’ death, Meacham says, “if we only acted on what so many Christians say they believe, but so rarely actually put into action, we could in fact create that world where justice comes down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. For him it wasn’t rhetoric, it wasn’t a sermon, it was reality.”
Meacham goes on to say that Lewis “was on that bridge, he was in those buses, in that House chamber, because of the gospel. He never wavered from that faith.” Meacham continues, “There are so many people who look a lot like me, who say they are religious, who say they follow the Lord … and yet manage to overlook the Sermon on the Mount, because folks are more worried about the Supreme Court.” Lewis believed in the very end that “there is a power to a religious vision of the world that can open our hearts rather than leading us to clench our fists.”
Can we each catch this vision from John Lewis and other religious leaders? Can we never give up, never give in? Can we catch the vision from the Sermon on the Mount and from the Hebrew prophets as we follow our faith in seeking that better community for all people, for all races, and for all faiths?
Permanent link for "An approach to Israel-Palestine understanding" by Doug Kindschi on July 14, 2020
Last week a great friend of the interfaith institute and of Grand
Valley State University died at age 99. Seymour Padnos and his wife,
Esther, had been generous to the university and to the institute, and
became personal friends as well. During my 28 years as a dean, I had
many opportunities to engage with them regarding the new science
building which bears their names, as well as the Padnos College of
Engineering and Computing. I always knew of Seymour’s deep
Jewish faith, and then as the founding director for the
Kaufman Interfaith Institute I became more aware of his commitment
to interfaith understanding as well. He supported Sylvia Kaufman’s
early efforts in the 1980s to establish a Jewish-Christian dialogue in
Muskegon, and continued both in attendance and support as the
institute took shape this past decade.
Seymour was always kind, gentle, and more interested in what I was doing than in talking about himself. But as I got to know him better I learned of his bringing the professor of Old Testament from the University of Chicago Divinity School to lecture at Hope College on Jewish-Christian relations. It was the same professor with whom I had studied back in the 1960s and who arranged for my wife and me to be invited to a Jewish home in south Chicago to celebrate Passover. It was my first significant interfaith experience and had a profound impact that has influenced me to this day. I will always be grateful to that professor and to Seymour Padnos for the many ways they both enriched my life and understanding.
Another Jewish figure who has recently been important to my understanding is the senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, Yossi Klein Halevi. Emigrating from Brooklyn to Jerusalem in 1983 at age 27, he is a reporter, columnist, and author of a number of books reflecting his own journey of understanding. His father was a Holocaust survivor who was very instrumental in his own early development as he responded with anger about what had happened to the Jews. But then he realized that he was living in what was perhaps the most fortunate generation for Jews in all of history. He was not in physical danger, enjoyed freedom living in America, and Jews had returned to their homeland and established a state. It was the exact opposite of his father, who probably lived in what was the least fortunate generation to be Jewish with the systematic killing of millions of his people during the Holocaust. Young Halevi had no need to be angry, but sought to live fully and not as a victim.
After living in Israel for nearly 20 years, he set forth on a search to better understand the practices, beliefs, and devotion of the Christians and Muslims who lived in Israel and the West Bank. His book, “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land,” chronicles that journey and the insights he gained as he joined the prayers and practices in mosques and monasteries.
In 2013, his efforts to create meaningful dialogue led Halevi and Abdullah Antepli, an imam and founding director of Duke University’s Center for Muslim Life, to establish the Muslim Leadership Initiative at the Shalom Hartman Institute. Each year they bring Muslim leaders from North America to Israel to dialogue with rabbis and Jewish leaders about Judaism and Israel. In 2016, Antepli and the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, Donniel Hartman, came to the Kaufman Institute for a presentation on “Can We Find Common Ground between Israel and Palestine?”
Halevi’s latest book is “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.” He seeks to open a public conversation with his “neighbors” on the other side of the division wall in order for both sides to better understand each other’s narratives and hopes for the future. In a recent video he explains, “One of the great dangers of our time is the breakdown in our ability to argue passionately and respectfully with those with whom we disagree.” This, he describes, is the situation in the Middle East as he seeks a “new approach to the dysfunctional discourse” currently dominating the efforts.
In his book he seeks to explain the Jewish people, their identity and history, and why they return to their home. He recognized that this is also the home to the Palestinian people. It is not an issue of right vs. wrong, but right vs. right, as both parties seek their legitimate goals. Both peoples belong deeply to the land, he asserts. It is a balance between empathy and faithfulness to one’s own story. Halevi sees himself living in the most dangerous part of the world, “but not as victims anymore.” The challenge is to avoid being 100% sure of your own position, for it is in that little space of doubt where one can grow in understanding of the other.
Halevi had his book translated into Arabic and made available free for download. He encouraged Palestinian and Arab responses which he published in the second edition. While he was tempted to respond himself to the responses he received, he chose to let them have the last word. It is his goal to open up a new conversation of honestly seeking to hear the stories of the other and seeking to understand them. It might be a goal for all of us in the polarized environment that seems to have captured much of our discourse these days.
The Kaufman Institute is beginning an online discussion group next week on Halevi’s book. For further information see the notice or go to our website at www.InterfaithUnderstanding.org
In these days of conflict and competing narratives, let us keep open that space to listen and perhaps learn from someone who sees the world through different eyes. It is an opportunity to learn and perhaps take a step toward peace.
I am writing this week’s column on the Fourth of July, not in a big
crowd watching fireworks, but quietly reflecting on our country, its
history – both the good and the bad.
Recent months have led many of us not to celebration, but to challenge. We are challenged by a pandemic keeping us isolated and apart. We have been opened to a new understanding of racism and systemic problems in the police culture. We have had to face our own complicity in allowing and even supporting systems of discrimination. For me it has led to a time of confession and resolve to better understand my own unconscious racism embedded in a “white privilege” which had also been invisible to me.
During these days of celebrating our country’s founding, I appreciate the privilege of living in a free country, realizing that my freedom is not experienced in every nation. And not experienced by everyone in our country – not at our founding and not even today. It is a kind of “freedom privilege” that we take for granted. We are rarely conscious of that privilege. In a similar way many of us have benefited from white privilege of which we have not even been conscious. It was just the way the world was. I went to excellent schools, enjoyed meaningful jobs, didn’t worry about getting into college. I was never threatened by a policeman. Growing up I just assumed that was the case for anyone living in America and generally law abiding.
Reggie Rivers, former NFL running back with the Denver Broncos and now a broadcaster, author, and motivational speaker, illustrates white privilege by telling about a white friend’s experience with the police. His friend had left an event at the Four Seasons hotel and was driving home when he saw the police lights flashing in his mirror. On the busy street there was no convenient place to pull to the side so at the next corner he turned right and then stopped. The policeman informed him that he was driving without his headlight turned on. He explained that he had been at an event at Four Seasons and the valet parking attendant must have turned off his automatic lights, of which he was unaware since the city street was quite well lit. The officer went on to tell him that he had turned onto a one-way street, going the wrong way and further asked if he had anything to drink at the event. He responded that he had a couple of drinks. The police officer then suggested that he do a U-turn and park his car in the right direction and then take an Uber ride home.
Rivers’ response was that this could never, in any way, have been his experience as a Black person. “Driving while Black” means always subjected to being pulled over on some minor charge and then interrogated in a way that almost seems designed to infuriate. It was certainly not the experience of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, who was guilty of “sleeping while Black” in his car at a Wendy’s drive through. Even though he cooperated for over 20 minutes, submitting to a breath test as well as a pat-down. He moved his car, volunteered to leave the car and walk to his sister’s house. Only when the police became physical and tried to handcuff him and take him in did he resist, resulting in a conflict that led to his being shot in the back while running away.
White privilege includes a lot of benefits that most of us have not been aware of as we go through life. We unconsciously assume that this is just way things are. As a child I was not followed by police when I rode my bike outside my immediate neighborhood. When I began to drive, my parents didn’t instruct me to always keep my hands on the top of the steering wheel if I got stopped by police lest they think I might be reaching for a weapon. I was taught that police were there to help me if I was in trouble and that I could trust them. Only when recently learning about white privilege did I begin to see its invisibility to me most of my life.
In another video Reggie Rivers tells of a retreat he had with 34 other Black men. He describes them as very successful, educated, and wealthy. As they began telling their stories, he was amazed at the similarity of their stories and their feelings about what was now happening in America. He was shocked as they described their experiences and that no matter how much success or education or wealth they had, when they get stopped while driving they are “just another black guy in the car.” He polled them to discover that among this group, ages in the 20s to 60s, most of them were college graduates and 28 were CEOs or senior executives.
He continued asking how many feared the police: 29 responded yes. All 34 had been threatened or baited by police and had in just the last 12 months been profiled in a store or by police. Furthermore, everyone was surprised that the murder of George Floyd has led to such a broad appreciation and understanding from people of all backgrounds. America is waking up to what has been happening, but what for many of us has gone unseen.
You can watch these videos for yourself at: https://virtualgalateam.com/racism
Racism is a phenomenon also similar to religious bigotry and hate, which our culture has experienced in the past and continues today. Catholics and Jews were persecuted and faced hatred, as did various immigrant groups. Anti-Semitism has been prevalent in our history and recently led to the murder of 11 congregants at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Islamophobia targets peaceful Muslims and even people who are mistakenly seen as Muslim because of skin color or dress such as the turban-wearing Sikhs. In each case it is the “othering” of people who do not look like, dress like, or worship like my tribe. This attitude violates the teachings and principles of all of our religious scriptures, but is still prevalent in our society.
The Kaufman Interfaith Institute will begin a new book club on Zoom discussing the book “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism” written by Robin DiAngelo. She helps us understand why cross-cultural dialogue is so hard and why our defensiveness actually adds to racial inequity. For more information go to www.bit.ly/Kaufman-Book
We are at a special time in America today. As we move forward from July Fourth let us work toward a new freedom that includes all regardless of race, religion, skin color, economic status, and social standing. This is a special time when more of our society is becoming aware of previous failures. It is time to show commitment to finding justice and support for all peoples.
“Difference can be a source of vast enrichment and growth — or a
reason for hate, exclusion, discrimination, and violence. … The stakes
of difference are high.” So writes Ted Hiebert, Professor Emeritus at
McCormick Theological Seminary, in his recently published book, “The
Beginning of Difference: Discovering Identity in God’s Diverse World.”
Our understanding of difference is critical in these days of racial discrimination, fear of immigrants and refugees, political polarization, and even hate. Religious differences as well contribute to anti-Semitic and Islamophobic attitudes and actions.
Hiebert received his doctorate at Harvard University and taught there as well as at Gustavus Adolphus College, Boston College and St. John’s University. At McCormick he was the professor of Old Testament, one of the editors and translators of the Common English Bible, and wrote commentaries on Genesis for multiple publications.
He explores the issues of identity and difference in the book of Genesis as well as in the contemporary scene. In today’s world, identity and difference are frequently defined by religion and skin color. Our history and early texts help form our current attitudes, and Hiebert explores the origin stories of difference as expressed in the biblical book of Genesis.
The various Genesis authors seek to understand identity and meaning for the emerging Hebrew people. The famous story of the “Tower of Babel” as recorded in Genesis 11 has often been interpreted as a story of human pride and God’s punishment. Hiebert wants us to look at this short passage with new eyes. This familiar story, comprising just nine verses, is in two distinct parts. The first four verses describe the people taking bricks and mortar to build a city and a “tower with its top in the sky, and let’s make a name for ourselves.”
Hiebert notes that there is nothing in these verses that indicates pride. Rather, it as a story about a people seeking to create and preserve their own cultural identity. He writes, “I believe the beginning of the story of Babel is dealing with … (an) important human experience — the need for meaning, belonging, and identity that can only come from being a member of a common cultural tradition.” He sees it as recognizing the fundamental need for social identity that is common to all of us.
The reference to building a tower, which some translations describe as “reaching to the heavens,” could also be translated as “reaching to the sky.” Hiebert, a Hebrew language scholar as well, prefers this latter translation and notes that it does not imply pride but just that it would be very tall, much as we might describe a “skyscraper.”
Thus, the first part of the story represents the normal and appropriate desire to find identity in one’s community and culture.
The second part of the story, verses 5-9, describes God’s response. While the people were constructing a single culture, God introduces multiple cultures. Hiebert writes, “God introduces difference. How we understand what God intended and what God did when God brought difference into the world will have everything to do with how we understand the message of this story about difference.”
A common language is a primary marker of a distinct culture, and God brings a diversity of language in order to introduce multiple cultures. The story tells us how God mixes the languages so they cannot understand each other. Some translations describe this as God “confuses” their language, while other translations use the work “mixes” or “mingles” their languages. Hiebert prefers this latter translation since it is more neutral. There is nothing in the text about this being a punishment; it is just the action taken. It is one of the ways God creates multiple cultures.
The story goes on to say that God scatters them across the earth. Geographical location is another marker of a culture and thus God creates difference in both language and common living space.
In these origin stories recorded in Genesis we find insights that can inform the issues of today. The drive for identity and common cultural affiliation is a natural human need. But the reality is that we live in a world of many cultures. We can choose to see this as threatening or we can see it as a reality ordained by God.
It is natural to seek identity with those we see as having something in common, and certainly language and living space are important parts of that commonality. We often also seek our identity with those with whom we share religion, political ideas, professional interests, hobbies, etc. These identities can be very useful and healthy. But when the identities become overbearing and exclude those with different identities they can become hurtful and even lead to hate and violence.
In the current political environment it is important to recognize that seeking identity is a natural desire. Yet our country is founded on diversity and throughout our history this struggle has led to conflict between various ethnic and religious groups. Catholics, Jews, Irish, Asians, Muslims, Blacks and others have all been subjected to discrimination and prejudice because of their identity. By understanding our scriptures, as well as the aspirations at our country’s founding, we can see more clearly the vital role of diversity in our world.
Based on the reading of our religious origin stories, we see the different cultures and identities as a part of God’s plan for diversity. This insight can lead to understanding, acceptance, and peace. Hiebert writes, “The drive toward identity and solidarity is a distinctively human impulse, and the emergence of difference as a distinctively divine choice. … Difference is God’s idea.”
In these days of division and hatred, let us embrace difference in order to learn, grow and find meaning in the rich variety of identities. “Difference is God’s idea.”
As a child I had very positive contacts with African Americans, never
recall telling a racist joke or using the “n-word.” As an adult I
have tried to support equality for all, had excellent relationships
with Black colleagues, and supported Black Lives Matter. But the
recent events have shocked me into realization of how deep the
systemic racism is in our society and how my eyes are being opened to
In the interfaith world I am quite aware of how racial hatred is related to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. They all represent a built-in bias against people whose looks, dress, and worship are different. Our cultural institutions and foundational documents are supposed to lead us to respect all people. “Liberty and justice for all,” “All men are created equal, endowed by their creator with unalienable rights,” “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” etc. But in reality they seem to be aspirations that do not work out in practice.
Our religious scriptures teach us that we are all created in the image of God, that we are to love our neighbors and even our enemies, and yet religious institutions are often segregated by race and perpetuate practices that do the opposite of our religious teachings.
As a white person I was taught that our police were to protect us and keep us safe. Even when stopped for a traffic violation (fortunately not in the past few decades) I never had to fear being shot. Unfortunately, my experience has not been that of those growing up and living in Black communities, or being Black in predominantly white communities. The “warrior police” has more likely been their experience. Of course not all police are bad, and of course there are bad actors in the force, but even good people in a bad system can get caught up in denial, participate in group think, and get carried away with resorting to use of deadly force.
We should remember that early on police had the task of tracking down escaped slaves and returning them to their masters. Is this attitude of treating Blacks as property rather than persons still an unconscious factor in the police culture? Property is to be controlled and made to serve the owner. Putting on the police uniform can also be putting on a historical mindset.
The era of cell phone cameras has let us all witness events of police brutality, blatant murder and provocations that escalate to physical struggles leading to someone being shot in the back. What was for many a fact of everyday life has now been graphically exposed for the world to see: the systemic racism in our country.
In addition to the daily news stories, I have watched two videos that have given me new insights in understanding our situation.
The film “Just Mercy,” released last year in theaters and now available through many streaming services, vividly depicts a Harvard-educated Black lawyer being subjected to the very kind of treatments that were everyday experiences for others in his minority community. The film is based on his book describing his day-to-day experience while working with prisoners on death row in Alabama. His encounters with police and prison officials, while attempting to do his work, help me understand the recent news reports from Minneapolis and Atlanta. It also helps me understand why Black persons convicted of murder are 11 times more likely than whites to receive the death penalty, and that as many as one in nine on death row are actually innocent.
This movie is now available for free on many major web streaming websites such as Google, Amazon, Netflix, etc. Kaufman Interfaith Institute included it in this month’s cinema discussion series, held this week. You can get more information about the film and our online discussion by going to our website: www.InterfaithUnderstanding.org.
My other video experience this past week was the talk given by Willie Jennings at last year’s January Series at Calvin University. Jennings, raised in Grand Rapids, is a Calvin graduate with a master’s degree from Fuller Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Duke University. He is now a professor of theology at Yale University. Jennings makes the connection between racism and geography, of how our hopes and dreams are tied to our location, our immediate environment.
His talk takes us back to the dreams of the early European settlers who saw the wide-open spaces as an opportunity to possess the land and turn it into what would sustain and provide value to them personally. They looked down on Native Americans as naïve in their living with the land rather than seeking to possess and control it for their personal benefit.
Jennings sees this relationship to geography and one’s environment as key to understanding the systemic racism in our country today. It goes back to this early white-European vision “based on mastery of this world, control of its land and resources and a freedom to live unencumbered by anyone.” Such a control was fundamental to slavery society. He sees it present as well in geographic restrictions from zoning and financial constraints, to the actions of real estate brokers and the police.
You can watch his presentation at: www.bit.ly/Calvin-Jennings
I am now striving to be a “recovering racist,” one who recognizes the problem and seeks to make corrections. I am seeing more clearly how our society and many of its institutions have been built on a racist premise, and I am discovering my own invisible complicity with that system that dehumanizes large segments of our population.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “In a free society some are guilty, but all are responsible.” I am not guilty of killing George Floyd or for the shooting of countless Blacks in our society, but I must take responsibility for my role in a society and its institutions that make these acts too commonplace.
I don’t want to be racist, or even non-racist. I want to be anti-racist. The path is not totally clear to me. But I believe it begins with confession, and with increased awareness of society’s institutions and assumptions that permit hatred based on race, skin color, immigrant or refugee status, or religious practice.
Permanent link for "Faith communities call for racial justice: A Jewish reflection" by Allison Egrin on June 16, 2020
Note from Douglas Kindschi, Director
Faith communities from Minneapolis to Washington to the Vatican have joined the chorus responding to the protests with calls for racial justice. Evangelical responses in Minneapolis included helping in the clean up efforts. In Washington D.C. conservative churches led a march supporting Black Lives Matter, and Senator Mitt Romney joined the effort. Pope Francis denounced what he called “the sin of racism” while referring to the killing of George Floyd. He addressed all Catholics saying, “We cannot close our eyes to any form of racism or exclusion, while pretending to defend the sacredness of every human life.” The Islamic Society of North America unequivocally condemned the “horrific death of George Floyd,” and its president, Dr. Sayyid Syeed said, “Incidents like this go against the very fabric of our nation and the ideals we hold so dear.”
Other faith communities representing Bahai, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist traditions have likewise condemned the murder of George Floyd and called for action to end racism. In today’s Insight, Allison Egrin from our Kaufman Interfaith Institute staff relates a recent online discussion sponsored by the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity.
On June 4, I attended a Zoom call hosted by the black-Jewish coalition sponsored by the Detroit chapters of JCRC (Jewish Community Relations Council) and AJC (American Jewish Committee) called “Dear White People, Please Listen.” The Zoom was hosted by several clergy, bishops, and pastors who were there to call on the local Jewish community to stand by them and support them in dismantling systemic racism. Each leader spoke out about what their own thoughts and struggles were and gave tangible ideas and actions for what we can do to support them. As a white Jewish female from metro Detroit, my first takeaway was the importance of mutualism in activism. Activism is a two-way street.
On the Zoom call, many of the speakers reminded us that the black community shows up for the Jewish community when it comes to lobbying for Israel and for standing up against anti-Semitism. I have seen this personally with my own eyes at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee convention in D.C. I have seen the large turnout of black evangelicals there to lobby and stand with us to support our country and to fight against anti-Semitism.
As a Jewish woman, I have felt the deep support of other communities in the face of anti-Semitism. After listening to the call, I am asking myself and my Jewish community, what are we doing when those same supporters need us to stand up with them? Furthermore, what can our broader interfaith community be doing? It is not just on the Jewish community to support our black brothers and sisters, but also on every community with the means or privilege to do so.
It is not enough to just simply “stand by” and physically be there for the black community. Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to Be an Antiracist,” once said, “What’s the problem with being ‘not racist’? It is a claim that signifies neutrality: ‘I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.’ But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘antiracist.’”
It is not enough to not be racist anymore. We must work towards becoming antiracist, to fight this long-overdue fight. A 400-plus-year-old fight, to be specific. Our neighbors, our friends, our brothers and sisters deserve this from us. You can’t have activism without action.
The speakers on our Zoom call gave clear actionable steps for us to take, and while they may not seem quick or easy, they are vital in getting this work done.
Challenging our friends and family members when they say something that they shouldn’t, or calling out people when they need to be called out, is not a comfortable thing. At Kaufman, we also say the worst thing you can say during a conversation is “agree to disagree” because it ends the conversation. In order to really be an ally and advocate, we cannot be satisfied with agreeing to disagree. The conversations must not end.
Challenge your friends. Have those uncomfortable conversations at the dinner table. That is how we can all actively be antiracist in our day-to-day lives. Consider who you are voting for. Where do they stand when it comes to racism? Is your company voicing their opinions right now or sitting idly by? Are the companies you are purchasing from doing the same?
Most importantly, I encourage you to listen. Listen to your peers. Listen to what they need and are asking of you. I encourage you to learn. Seek out literature, television, movies, and documentaries that elevate black narratives.
This work is not easy and it cannot be done alone. We all must come together to dismantle our own internal biases, fight for change, educate the younger generations to continue this work and to not stop until every life is treated equally. This work is a constant and it’s a must. It cannot end when the news cycles change to another topic. This must be an active, persistent, and conscious effort. It isn’t enough to go to one protest, make one donation, or have one uncomfortable conversation. We must continue until the work is no longer needed.
If you ask yourself the same thing I did -- “Why me? What position am I in to be sharing my thoughts?” – consider this from the Jewish proverb, Pirkei Avot 1:14: “If not now, when? If not me, who?” Hillel the Elder says this as a call to action in Bible times. Now, it cannot be more relevant in regards to racism in America. It is on all of us to speak out against racism, to fight for equality, and to fight for our black brothers and sisters in these urgent times.
All lives can't matter until Black Lives Matter. We must never fail to act when we witness bigotry, racial discrimination, or the devaluing of human lives. Most importantly, we must get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Racial justice is certainly the critical issue we face today. The
pandemic of racial injustice has even pushed aside the coronavirus
pandemic. The murder of George Floyd and the worldwide response has
brought this issue again to our consciousness. It also begs the
question of how will faith communities will respond.
The response has been strong and widely diverse, from the Parliament of World Religions to the evangelical journal “Christianity Today.” The Parliament joined with other organizations like Religions for Peace to issue a joint statement titled “This Perilous Moment.” It reads, in part:
Our words come in an hour of peril informed by a sense of crisis.
Racial injustice, deep inequities, hate speech, brutality, and
authoritarian power converge in a vulnerable moment when millions are
infected and affected by a global virus that we have yet to find
either a vaccine for or any medication to deliver us from. This
endangers the fabric of our society.
Our wicked scourge of discrimination and racism is structural, systemic, systematic, and institutional. …We soberly own up to the fact that our religious communities have been complicit for far too long. We have upheld in far too many ways the false tenets that enable racism to continue in our society.
We confess that we have a sickness in America that is spiritual and moral in nature even in as much as it is cultural, economic, political, and social. Our sacred texts and traditions have been used, wrongly so, to further racial injustice. Yet, they are also a deep well that informs our understanding of justice, and which can now call us all towards our better angels to overcome this crisis. People of faith must stand for love and stand up for equity, equality, and justice.
Christianity Today also addressed this issue in a May 28 article, “George Floyd Left a Gospel Legacy in Houston.” It points out that Floyd, before moving to Minneapolis two years ago, lived in Houston for decades where he mentored young men to break the cycle of violence. He was known as “Big Floyd” at a housing project where he “used his influence to bring outside ministries to the area to do discipleship and outreach.” Pastor Patrick Ngwolo of the Resurrection Houston church said, “George Floyd was a person of peace sent from the Lord that helped the gospel go forward in a place that I never lived in.”
One of Floyd’s friends there said, “I think he wanted to see young men put guns down and have Jesus instead of the streets. … The people who knew him personally will remember him as a positive light. Guys from the streets look to him like, ‘Man, if he can change his life, I can change mine.’”
The response to Floyd’s murder swept the nation and even countries around the world. Longtime advocate of racial justice and founder of the evangelical journal “Sojourners,” Jim Wallis wrote, “In my lifetime, I have never seen more white people involved in the deep and growing movement to address systemic racism, structural injustice on many fronts, and, specifically, the violent policing and killing of black people. … Thousands of mostly young people — diverse across faiths and ethnicities — were exercising their power to protest. I have never … seen so many white people who care so deeply about America’s Original Sin, structural racial injustice, and the 400 years of violence against black lives, following the lead of their black brothers and sisters to voice that concern to the police and military, and all the political leaders behind them.”
Another posting from Christianity Today reported how the evangelical churches of Minneapolis have joined together in protesting racism and police violence, as well as participating in citywide efforts to donate food and supplies and recruit volunteers for cleanup efforts. An organization of evangelicals called “Transform Minnesota” has led efforts to address social issues in the community. A black Baptist pastor told the group, “Yes, we need your help right now. Yes, we need your help cleaning up. Yes, we need your resources. But we also need long-term partners who are going to help us stand up for God and tear down the systems that hold people down.”
Greg Boyd, senior pastor at the evangelical megachurch Woodland Hills in the Minneapolis area, was also reported to have told a group of pastors on a Zoom call that he was “convicted that racism is the responsibility of the white church. If white Christians had loved like Jesus loved,” he said, “they could have stopped slavery before it began, squelched the Ku Klux Klan, and prevented the laws that instituted racial segregation in America.”
Jewish and Muslim groups have also mobilized and raised money for the racial justice efforts and recognize the affront that racism has been to these religious communities as well. Leaders gathered together this last Sunday afternoon for an online interfaith forum on “Police, Prejudice, and Prophetic Paradigm” sponsored by the Islamic Society of North America.
When asked “What is your best cause for hope today?,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms called for a “monumental shift” in order to “signal to our country that it is time to heal.” She added, “I am so inspired when I see protesters across this country and see police kneeling with protesters across the country because they are saying to each other, 'I hear you, I feel you, and I want something better for our country too.'"
Is this a turning point for our nation? Can we find hope in the developments that have occurred?
I do find hope in the number of police leaders from Flint and Houston, and now in Grand Rapids, who have met with the protesters, shared their concern, marched with them, and even “taken the knee.” I take hope in the protests that have not only swept the entire country but have gone worldwide to places like England, Germany, and New Zealand. I find hope in pastors from all religious affiliations who are in words and actions addressing this 400-year blight on our society. I find hope in the many faith traditions that have initiated cooperative commitments bringing their scriptures and beliefs to work together for needed action.
We cannot hide from the truth taught by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” We may not be guilty of George Floyd’s murder, but we are all responsible for systems that perpetuate racism, tolerate abuse of authority, and for our failure to act on our religious and ethical imperatives to love justice and mercy for all.
"Is it my responsibility to speak?" is a better question
than "Is it my right to speak?" So wrote Justin Meyers in a
recent Facebook blog. Meyers is a minister in the Reformed Church in
America who serves as the associate director of the Al Amana Center in
the country of Oman, an interfaith center in this Muslim country in
the Middle East. He is also a graduate of Grand Valley State
University before going to seminary to pursue his theological education.
In his post Meyers was sharing what he called “one of the most important shifts in my life,” when a seminary professor encouraged him to think more about responsibility than about one’s rights. Of course, rights are important in a free society but the issue is “how and when we claim these rights.”
Meyers continues, “Rights are self-focused, responsibility is community focused.” He then applies it to our situation today by posing the following questions:
1. Is it responsible to go out?
2. What ways can I responsibly speak out for those who are suffering?
3. Are there ways I can make my point in responsible ways that won't cause more harm?
4. Is what I am doing going to benefit others who aren't me (and my "tribe") and those who are unable to be heard?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks made a similar point in a recent BBC interview. The former chief rabbi of Great Britain said, “We’ve had too much individualism … and too little concern for the collective of the nation and for humanity as a whole. We have talked far too much about rights and far too little about responsibilities … Without responsibilities in the end you find you have no rights.”
Sacks is quick to point out the true heroes who have acted including the “doctors, nurses, responders, and the public accepting the responsibility.” He is also positive about what can emerge from this shared experience noting, “There is something within us, as social animals, that makes us feel better when we are altruistic, when we help others, when we make their life better. ...We will come through it with a much stronger identification with others.”
Last week we honored those brave members of our society who actually gave their lives to protect our liberty and freedom. I watched a Memorial Day video tribute that included the playing of “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes and showing scenes of brave soldiers, many of whom gave their lives for our freedom. That freedom of course includes our rights, but I shudder to think that what it is about for some is the freedom to endanger the health of others by my behavior, or the freedom to bully someone with whom I disagree. Our rights and freedoms we consider to be sacred, but let us not squander them on trivial matters of selfish behavior.
An early champion of freedom was written by the English philosopher, John Stuart Mill in his 1859 essay “On Liberty.” Mill defined liberty as living “one’s own life in one’s own way.” But in a recent essay, University of Chicago Professor of Theological Ethics William Schweiker notes that Mill recognizes a “rightful boundary to one’s liberty.” He writes that Mill calls it the “harm principle — my liberty goes only so far as it does no harm to others … and that liberty without boundaries is chaos or war.”
Schweiker reflecting on our situation today writes, “Competing notions of liberty in our nation are routinely divided and named: blue versus red states; right versus left; … liberal versus conservative; journalism versus fake news, and on and on. Each side accuses the other of causing (and exacerbating) the division; all while each side believes itself to represent the true spirit of the nation. But as Lincoln rightly noted — citing scripture — a house divided cannot stand. As it was in his time, so too is it in ours.”
But what is the role of religion in our currently divided situation? Schweiker responds, “Whether it is the Exodus and Sinai, and so the giving of law for a life in freedom, or the so-called Golden Rule, the teachings of Jesus, the holy Qur’an, or the Buddha’s middle way, the religions have sought to hold in tension freedom and liberation with a rightful submission to the law of other-regard.”
In this week’s Christian Century, editor/publisher Peter W. Marty affirms the importance of rights, but asks, “If I see my life primarily as a prepackaged set of guaranteed rights owed me, instead of as a gift of God, what motivation is there to feel deep obligation toward society’s most vulnerable? If I’m just receiving what’s my rightful due, why would I ever need to express gratitude? What’s the point of looking outward toward others if I’m chiefly responsible for looking inward and securing the personal rights that are mine?”
Rabbi Sacks is actually quite hopeful that our current crisis will bring us together for the common good for all of humanity. In his interview he continues, “We’re coming through this feeling a much stronger sense of identification with others, a much stronger commitment to helping others. This, in a tragic way, is probably the lesson we needed as a nation and as a world.”
Richard Rohr, widely recognized ecumenical teacher, Christian mystic, and Franciscan monk, also sees our current situation as an opportunity. He wrote, “If God wanted us to experience global solidarity, I can’t think of a better way. We all have access to this suffering, and it bypasses race, gender, religion, and nation.” He calls it a “highly teachable moment.”
It is up to each of us to weigh carefully our responsibilities in our current situation against the desires for a kind of freedom that could bring harm to others. It involves not only what it means to be a good citizen, but also what our faith commitments require of us.