Sunday, April 21, 2013

Bob Cargill on "The Biblical Dilemma of Denouncing Slavery, Yet Opposing Homosexuality"

On his blog, Bob Cargill has been arguing with conservative Christians about same sex marriage and homosexuality - in particular, against those who claim that to follow the Bible faithfully requires one to oppose homosexuality and same sex marriage, while at the same time not agreeing with the biblical permission to own slaves (found in Exodus, Leviticus, and in the household codes of the New Testament).

I wrote a comment on the blog which I'm also posting here:
I’d like to speak as a scholar and also as one of the gay people whom the religious right demonizes. Yes, demonizes. Organizations like the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family accuse gay and lesbian people of doing things that we do not – they spread lies about us. Some Christian right groups are opposed to anti-bullying laws for students in public schools out of the fear that it would mean allowing gay and lesbian schoolchildren to live in peace. They use the pretext that this is limiting their religious freedom – freedom to harass and ostracize teenagers. People are still attacked and murdered for being gay. Children are thrown out of their homes for being gay by their bigoted parents. We have fought very hard to gain the rights that we have in American society, but we are still not equal in rights to heterosexual people. In many states, without anti-discrimination laws that include gay people, it is still legal to fire someone or evict someone if they are gay. 
If you read the Bible with care, you will see that Leviticus 18:22 does not speak of “homosexuality” as an identity – there was no such concept when the Bible was written. A certain act is forbidden – men having sex with other men in the manner that a man would have sex with a woman. There is no mention of lesbians at all in the Hebrew Bible. 
In Genesis 19, the sin of Sodom is not homosexuality – it is lack of hospitality and attempted gang rape. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah says nothing about a consensual relationship between two men. 
In 1 Samuel and the book of Ruth, close emotional relationships between people of the same sex are presented as praiseworthy – the close friendship between David and Jonathan and between Ruth and Naomi. It’s unknown to us whether sex would have been part of these relationships, but close emotional relationships are assumed.
In the New Testament, Jesus never says anything about homosexuality. Since he consorted with people considered the dregs of society – prostitutes and tax collectors – one might think that were he alive today he would also be consorting with the gay children thrown out of their homes who subsist on the streets of our big cities by selling their bodies. 
I’m not a Christian – I’m Jewish, so I would not follow the New Testament as inspired scripture, but there are certainly beautiful prophetic lessons presented in the New Testament. 
I do believe that the Bible should be read as a product of its historical period, which means that parts of it are not relevant to our lives today, including the two examples that Bob has been writing about, slavery and same sex relationships. 
And I also see no evidence whatsoever that biblical slavery was any more pleasant than American slavery. Slaves were at the mercy of their masters – a master could kill a slave with impunity, as long as he or she did not die immediately from a beating. Leviticus says that it’s permitted to treat foreign slaves בפרך – with harshness. Even Hebrew girls sold into slavery by their fathers had no choice about whom they had sex with – their masters or their masters’ sons. I do not think that biblical slavery is something that anyone living today should defend with the weak argument that somehow it was “better” than American slavery. Slavery is indefensible, period, regardless of the time period in which it was practiced.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

God as therapist and the Holocaust

I was just reading an article in the New York Times about evangelical Christians’ relationship with God – that they treat God like a therapist, someone that you can bring your problems to and share them, that God is close and supportive. Evangelicals have closer, more personal relationship to God than other Protestants or Catholics. I think this is certainly true also for Jews – I have never had a conversation with anyone who has said that they have that kind of personal relationship with God. The people I know don’t talk about talking with God. The article says:

More strikingly, I saw that the church implicitly invited people to treat God like an actual therapist. In many evangelical churches, prayer is understood as a back-and-forth conversation with God — a daydream in which you talk with a wise, good, fatherly friend. Indeed, when congregants talk about their relationship with God, they often sound as if they think of God as some benign, complacent therapist who will listen to their concerns and help them to handle them.
“It’s just like talking to a therapist,” one woman told me, “especially in the beginning, when you’re revealing things that are deep in your heart and deep in your soul, the things that have been pushed down and denied.” The church encourages people to bring those conversations with God into their prayer group and to share their struggles with others, who are expected to respond with love, respect and compassion.
I find it striking that prayer is described as a conversation – which suggests that they receive answers, that there is someone replying to them. How do they envision this? What does God say to them? How would they describe the conversation? How do they imagine God? I have prayed to God and even felt that I was answered – but it wasn’t a back and forth conversation, because for me God is so strange and other than we humans. How can I have a conversation with God like I would have a conversation with a human being? Other humans are on the same level as I am – frail, flawed, limited in time and space. God is not. Communion with God is with the Wholly Other, as Rudolph Otto put it. But yet somehow it is possible to have a relationship with God – but I think much of it is nonverbal, intuitive – not put in words. Can loving God be put into words? Or apprehending God in feeling God’s presence all around – and pointing to something beyond our ordinary human perceptions?
You can see this therapeutic dimension most clearly when evangelicals respond to the body blows of life. The churches I studied resisted turning to God for an explanation of tragedy. They asked only that people turn to God for help in dealing with the pain. “God doesn’t want to be analyzed,” one woman explained to me. “He wants your love.”
I don’t agree with her, because I don’t think that turning to God for explanation is analyzing God. I think it’s a very important part of a relationship with God – at least it has been for me. I wouldn’t even call it asking God for an explanation – sometimes it’s getting angry or despairing with God. The emotion is a bridge to God – even if it’s anger.
A young man — a kind man with two adorable children and a loving wife — died unexpectedly in one of the churches where I spent time. When the pastor spoke in church the following Sunday, he did not try to explain the death. Instead, he told the church to experience God as present. “This is a difficult philosophical issue for Christians,” he said. “We who believe in a loving, personal God who created the earth and can intervene at any time — we have this problem.” His answer? “Creation is beautiful but it is not safe.” He called our everyday reality “broken.” What should you do? Get to know God. “Learn to hang out with him now.”
I like this – “Creation is beautiful but it is not safe.” Read the book of Job – the descriptions of the beauty of the creation are stunning, but it’s clear that creation is not safe. God says to Job, “Where were you when I founded the earth?” Job is overawed and ceases to speak. The world is not safe – we’re in danger from natural and human-made dangers, and we all die in the end. I don’t feel a need to have God explain to me why the natural dangers exist - they’re the conditions of our existence. What I need is an explanation for human evil.
I saw the same thing at another church, where a young couple lost a child in a late miscarriage. Some months later I spent several hours with them. Clearly numbed, they told me they did not understand why God had allowed the child to die. But they never gave a theological explanation for what happened. They blamed neither their own wickedness nor demons. Instead, they talked about how important it was to know that God had stood by their side. The husband quoted from memory a passage in the Gospel of John, where many followers abandon Jesus because his teachings don’t make sense to them. Jesus says sadly to his disciples, “You do not want to leave, too, do you?” and Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”
The question about the source of evil is universal, and can be raised by anything, but as a Jew it is always raised for me by the Holocaust and the other disasters of Jewish history. I can’t imagine not asking God why these things happened, especially within the framework of Jewish theology, where the Jewish people and God have made a covenant. We might have transgressed against the covenant, but God has torn it asunder. I don’t feel satisfied with the assertion that God stood by our side. It’s comforting to think that God stands by us when we are in distress – but did people feel that at Auschwitz? Or when they were about to be shot in front of an open pit? I can’t answer that question, only somebody who was there could answer that question for themselves. I visited Terezin in the Czech Republic when visiting there in the summer of 2005. There were one place there that I could only walk through with the thought that God was present even here in this place – inside the Small Fortress where people were taken to be executed. But at one place I was so horrified that I could scarcely even think – at the crematorium.
So how would evangelical Christians deal with experiences like that? What about when it’s impossible to feel sure that God is with you, because the horror is too great? I’m not talking about unbelief – going to Terezin didn’t make me doubt God’s existence. It made me question reality, in a way – the incommensurability of normal middle-class American existence and life and death in Terezin.
I'm sure that evangelical Christians have seen the sites of the concentration camps in Europe - what are their theological responses?

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

The latter history of Kathy Boudin

Despite my leftist tendencies, I do have an online subscription to the Wall Street Journal, and I read the tweets of one of their writers, Sohrab Ahmari. He just tweeted today that Columbia University has hired Kathy Boudin, the Weather Underground terrorist who spent many years in prison, as an adjunct professor in the School of Social Work. As the New York Post reports, she is also the Sheinberg Scholar-in-Residence at NYU Law School. Sohrab is interviewed by Mary Kissel on the "Opinion Journal" part of the Journal website - Opinion Journal: Columbia Hires Ex-Con Professor.

Who is Kathy Boudin? She was a member of the Weather Underground, a leftwing terrorist group active in the early 1970s. She was one of the members of the group who survived the destruction of the house where they were living in 1970. It was destroyed by a bomb in the basement of the house - one of the bombs that they were constructing for a terrorist campaign. Three people were killed. She escaped before being questioned by the police, and was on the FBI's most-wanted list until 1981 when she was captured by police. See this New York Times article for more on the destruction of the house.

She spent 22 years in prison for her role in an armored-car robbery that killed two policeman and a Brinks guard. Her role was as the getaway driver for the robbery conducted by the Black Liberation Army on October 20, 1981. She was paroled in 2003.

It is actually not news that she is employed by Columbia. The Post has apparently just learned of her employment at Columbia - she has been teaching there since 2008. I can't figure out why they published the article today, perhaps because they just learned that she is a scholar-in-residence at NYU as well. In March, 2013, she delivered the annual Rose Sheinberg Lecture on the "politics of parole and reentry." According to the NYU article that reports on her speech, she spoke on the politics of parole for violent offenders, and I have to say, reading the summary, that she what she says is quite self-serving. She argues that the recidivism rate for people who have been convicted of homicide is the lowest of all crimes (I'd like to see the evidence for this). She also argues that long-term prisoners are the ones who undergo the greatest transformation during their time in prison. She also says that more punishment does not lead to more accountability. All three arguments certainly would support her release from prison in 2003.

If you go to the School of Social Work web site, her biography mentions nothing about her involvement in a terrorist group or her 22-year imprisonment for her part in an armored car robbery that killed 3 people.

Why would Columbia have hired her? According to the Wikipedia article about her, she was active in starting five programs while imprisoned at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in New York. The programs were intended for teens whose mothers were incarcerated, the parent education program for incarcerated mothers, the adult literacy program, the AIDS and Women's Health Program, and the College Program, for incarcerated women to take college courses and gain degrees.

When she was released she went to work for the HIV/AIDS clinic at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center. She earned an Ed. D. from Columbia's Teachers College.

Based on the work she did in prison, and her subsequent employment at the HIV/AIDS clinic, and her Ed. D from Teachers College, I can see that she would be qualified to teach at Columbia. But why would they decide to employ her in particular? And why would they leave out the very salient facts in her faculty biography about her history as a terrorist, accomplice to murder, and long prison sentence? It's not like these facts are a secret. If you just Google her name, you get many links to articles about her. If you go to the New York Times website there are hundreds of articles about her.

I feel the same way about her that I do about Bill Ayers (whom I wrote about earlier, in 2008). These people should not be lionized or honored. They committed horrible crimes. In Boudin's case, she spent a long time in prison. In Ayers' case, he avoided any punishment because the FBI case against him was tainted by improper surveillance. While they certainly should be able to get any kind of work that they are qualified for, I do not see why it has to be in the most prestigious universities in the United States.

Sohrab Ahmari and Mary Kissel raise a good point in their discussion - would a university in the United States ever hire someone with their same records if they had been involved in a right-wing terrorist cell that had committed bombings and had killed people? If, for example, Timothy McVeigh had not been executed, and had been paroled (admittedly unlikely), I don't believe that any college or university would have hired him regardless of how much he had "rehabilitated" himself in prison. Why do Ayers, and Bernardine Dohrn, and now Boudin, get a free pass?