Sunday, July 14, 2013

young rabbi

Let there be no compulsion in religion.

-- Quran 2:256 (trans. Yusuf Ali)

I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one cometh unto the Father, but by me.

-- John 14:6 (KJV)

For a long time he sat with the man, whose mind was slowly decomposing, who was forgetting his English and reverting to Spanish, an old Catholic man from Puerto Rico who loved the Bible.  So the young rabbi took up the Spanish Bible that lay on the night table and read from it phonetically.  He read psalms, those songs shared by two faiths, and when he was done the old man looked up at him and said, "You touched my heart."

Something had taken its course.

"You didn't read him anything about Jesus," said the aide.

She'd been listening.  Not for what was there, but for what was not there.  And then began an argument that the rabbi did not want.

It doesn't take two to make a fight: if they're throwing punches at you, you're in a fight whether you like it or not, and the only question is how you will conduct it.  You can conciliate and compromise and negotiate if you wish, or you can leave the field, but there's no sharing with those whose purpose is to deprive you of place, and if you don't defend your turf you encourage the bullies.

You don't want to use a nuclear option.  You don't want to escalate the conflict.  So the question is, how to defend your square foot of ground, and your right to stand in it, without enlarging the skirmish into war.

"Jesus is his savior.  And yours."

The rabbi tried to explain that Jesus, the Jewish prophet, was not his personal savior, but that there was much to share, including the scripture known to Jesus, with those who believe he is their savior.  But the aide wasn't interested in sharing.

I've heard and read scholars and pastors of such erudition and courage, integrity and passion, such rigor in facing the historicity of scripture and yet recovering its sacredness, that they make me feel that I could call myself a Christian; but the deeply seated exclusiveness of the Christian claim stands in my way.  If you believe, I say, that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus, then how can I sit down with you?  You've just told me there is no such place at the table.  I want to sit with you, but you'll have to provide the place -- you'll have to deny the offending verse or stuff it back in the closet.

I can usually avoid theological hand-to-hand.  People in trouble mostly don't care what color your collar is or if you're wearing one: they can use the help.  They say "All our prayers go to the same place."  They say "We play different positions but we're on the same team."

But now and then there is an interrogator in the family, who wants to know whether I think rightly about Jesus and enjoy the proper relationship with him.  For such a person I am wrong from the start.  Yeshua himself was a  young rabbi,* and I can't imagine he cares much whether I get his name right.  He cared much more about whether I would feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted, and many of those admitted to the reign of God don't even know his name.  Though I don't want to fling Scripture-bombs, I have scriptural authority for my position.**  There's no point in arguing, but the young rabbi's patient was grateful for what had been given him, and the aide had no authority, no standing to dispute it.  He could be kind about it, but he could not win her assent.

In my own church I have encountered a different militancy, from those who used to dominate the movement and are losing their outsized power -- the people who think that if you never say the word "God" you can commit no sin.  The number of killings in the name of the "people" during the previous century's industrial-scale slaughters surely exceeds the last thousand years' sum of murders in the name of God.  (There were fewer people to kill in the old days, and less efficient ways of finding and dismembering them.)  And if we intend to be solid with the oppressed, we must respect their trope of liberation, their identification with the chosen people whom, according to scripture, God and a prophet moved out of Egypt through exile and eventually into a Land of Promise.  Dr. King came to the Lincoln Memorial fifty years ago not as a social worker but as a preacher; instead of reading demographic tables, he testified to the rolling of God's justice like mighty waters, speaking the very words of biblical prophecy.  I do not please atheist militants by pointing out the importance of prophetic language.

No argument will defuse militancy.  But one must keep one's dignity.  There is no testimony to faith so commanding as the beauty of one's life.

*Jn 1:37-38: "When the two disciples heard what he said, they followed Jesus. .  . . They said, 'Rabbi,' (which means 'Teacher') where are you staying?'"

**Mt 25:37: "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and fed you, or thirsty and gave you drink?"

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