Since the summer of 2017, Portland, Oregon has seen at least a dozen White Nationalist rallies. Proud Boys, Three Percenters, and the American Guard surge into Portland, openly carrying weapons and threatening death and destruction on social media to all who oppose them. Living here is it easy to imagine that White Nationalism, a cosmology of hate based on the most violent and hateful extrapolation of Christian Supremacist theology, is a root problem that must be excised. It seems obvious that people of faith and good will need to focus our gaze on countering these folks if we are to create a safe, loving, inclusive, just and equitable society; a world where Black, Brown, Asian LGBTQI+, Immigrant, Refugee, disabled, Muslim and Jewish people are no longer harassed, attacked and killed.
But, recently my gaze has been drawn in a different direction.
I have been seriously engaged in local and national interfaith activism for 22 years. Every single Christian and UU person I have worked with over these years has had a passion for justice and a spirit of love. Most had fantastic liberation theology and brilliant strategic minds. But I can count on two hands the people who see how standard Christian theology, even that expressed by progressive folks, (though this is not their intent) desacralizes, dismisses, if not negates, and renders trivial, if not hateful, Judaism and Jews.
What theologies are those? They include Grace superseding and rendering irrelevant the Law; the narrative of a loving Christian G-d and a vengeful ‘Old Testament’ G-d; the narrative that all of Judaism was corrupt in Jesus’ day; the depiction of Judaism as an arcane, disgusting purity-based tradition calcified in the Hebrew scriptures with no context for how Jews understand ‘purity laws’ – which is to say, NOT about casting anyone out. Then there is the deep ignorance of the Oral/Rabbinic tradition in the Talmud and Midrash, which continues to evolve today through midrash, halachic analysis, and more.
Adding to the frustration is the appropriation of what is seen as groovy (Shabbat! Jubilee! Seders! A Hebrew word here or there! Let’s sing a Hebrew prayer today!), despite the overall negation of the holiness of the Jewish faith.
I have seen all of this in Christian progressive circles-not with malice or intent to harm, but with unconscious acceptance.
I have come to believe that if progressive Christians don’t examine and unlearn their implicit biases, then the underlying Christian Supremacism that fuels White Nationalism cannot be rooted out.
I came to this realization from a place of exhaustion. After raising these issues for over 20 years, in the past month I saw that a UU Minister compared how one can relate to COVID 19 to how Jews relate to Shabbat. And the world (including many Jews) gloried in that comparison.
Yet in my circles, many Jews cringe at comparing Shabbat to the opportunity afforded us by a plague that kills Black, Brown and disabled people at much higher rates because racism, xenophobia and ableism greatly amplify the likelihood of underlying conditions. A plague that makes vulnerable and kills lower wage workers like grocery clerks and postal workers who are sacrificing themselves unwillingly because they aren’t given proper PPE. A plague that is killing our elders in assisted living and nursing homes.
This is not what Shabbat is.
I am not dense. I got the point of the “poem.” For those privileged enough not to have to work, chill and be still. But the unexamined privilege of its gaze offends me, and its metaphor of Shabbat horrifies me. Shabbat is not a months long experience of isolation and grief and horror at what greed and unregulated capitalism creates. It is a joyful, Spirit filled, companionship drenched taste of the world to come that restores us and supports us in doing the hard work of the rest of the week.
Yes, I am exhausted.
To have been raising these issues for over 20 years, only to see that national and local reputable, smart, kind Christian leaders suggest to their readers that since you can’t go to church on Easter Sunday, why not chalk on the sidewalk in front of your home, to be been by anyone who walks by–perhaps the Holocaust survivor or the person whose ancestors were killed by allegations of the Blood Libel or the person screamed at and accused of being a Christ killer around Easter in their youth– to post on that sidewalk, “Christ has Risen!” is tone deaf at best, decidedly traumatizing at worst.
Truly, I am exhausted.
A few months ago I asked my progressive Christian friends, “What is your tradition doing by way of reparations to atone for the stealing of Indigenous children to boarding schools, or for religious wounding towards LGBTQI+ peoples or for participation in subjugating African peoples through missionary work, or for child sexual abuse, or for anti-Semitism, or to address White Nationalism, since it is based in Christian Supremacy. Only one person responded that her tradition has a reparations program in the Pacific Northwest regarding boarding schools (GO METHODISTS! THANK YOU! Oh-and the local IMIrJ just launched a campaign to activate people of faith against White Nationalism. GO IMIrJ and THANK YOU TOO!)
And this is what progressive Christian and UU leaders do or don’t do. People I adore, who are brilliant and compassionate and loving, who are doing amazing work to be part of the solution.
Yes, I wish you would stop scheduling things on Shabbat and holy days when I can’t attend. Yes, I wish UU Ministers who get a tiny amount of training in Jewish history, philosophy, theology and practice, would not think that this grants them license to lead Jewish prayers in Hebrew or a celebration of Chanukah. Yes, I wish every Christian leader would be strong enough when they see a grotesque anti-Semitic act to call it out and just say no.
But what needs to happen for us to get out from under the grip of Christian Supremacist White Nationalism is soooooo much deeper than that.
Some suggest that education is the answer. Of course I agree! What if Christian ministers were required to attend a special ministerial track at a rabbinic seminary, with a CPE program for those who are already ordained.
What if every denomination adopted a reparations commitment, pouring millions into healing the harm that it had caused.
What if you paid your guest teachers and speakers as professionals? So when you invite a Rabbi or Tribal Elder or Imam or Sheikh you don’t pay them $50 or $100 for 6+ hours of work (4 to prepare, 2 to be present and deliver.) Perhaps you pay a minimum of $100/hour.
Moreover, sermon topics would have to prioritize the education and liberation of your congregants from ideologies that do not support love and delight in Judaism. Not a superficial love, but a deep appreciation born from a rejection of supersessionism, a re-sacralization of mitzvoth (not that you have to perform them-just love on them) and an acknowledgment that Jesus was a Jew, and was never seeking to leave Judaism.
More pointedly on the White Nationalism work, congregations could raise money to support Life After Hate so those who have left the life can bring those still caught in its throes out of it.
Communities could ensure that 100% of their congregants learn how to be Upstanders-skilled in de-escalation and risk reduction with a lens towards empowering targets of hate when confronted with stranger danger. They could also ensure that 100% of their congregants are committed to reporting hate when targeted, seen or heard about through databases like Portland’s ReportHatePDX.com.
For those who do legislative work, they could lobby for age appropriate universal anti-hate curricula in public schools from K-college.
And finally, my favorite remedy of all. Wouldn’t it be amazing if progressive Christians took on as part of their mission the outreach, love-bombing and re-integration of folks who use Christianity in a hateful way (whether anti-Semitic or Islamaphobic or racist or homo or transphobic or or or) into their kind, open hearted, peaceful, compassionate, just and loving way to live.
Keyn yehi ratzon. May it be the will of the One.
Rabbi Debra Kolodny has been pursing justice as a spiritual activist since 1981. After 35 years leading Unions, Queer and Jewish organizations, they are now the spiritual leader of Portland’s UnShul, the Executive Director at Portland United Against Hate and Convener of the Portland Spirit Led Justice Alliance.