Religion & Politics http://religionandpolitics.org Fit For Polite Company Wed, 27 Aug 2014 15:48:27 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 The Hope of Ferguson http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/08/25/the-hope-of-ferguson/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=the-hope-of-ferguson http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/08/25/the-hope-of-ferguson/#comments Mon, 25 Aug 2014 17:56:39 +0000 http://religionandpolitics.org/?p=8254 Canfield Drive in Ferguson

A shirt and roses are left at the spot where Michael Brown was killed by police Aug. 9 on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

In May 1970 four unarmed college students were shot to death by members of the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University. The iconic image from that horrific episode is a photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, a fourteen-year-old girl, kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller on a university road. Its details—the mundane particularities of green lawns and academic buildings juxtaposed to students walking and standing around randomly, enveloped in a moment of collective disbelief and shock around the fact of a dead body—evoke both the startling specter of mortality and the terrifying suddenness with which tragedy can intrude on the business of ordinary life. Bodies ground us. At once unrelentingly specific and yet universal, flesh and blood keep us undeniably tied to the forces of life and death that we can’t escape. During the Civil War, the body of abolitionist John Brown, martyred for his attempt to foment a slave insurrection in 1859, gave birth to a song sung by Union soldiers and eventually transformed into a nationalist theme, the Battle Hymn of the Republic. And the body—first crucified, then resurrected—forms the core of the message for Christian believers, who celebrate both the particularity of the incarnation, of God in Jesus, and celebrate the universal message of salvation that Christ’s triumph over death offers them.

So, too, the mental picture of Michael Brown’s body on Canfield Drive in Ferguson has been evoked, memorialized, and etched into the minds of people within and beyond the limits of that small town over the last few weeks. The blood that escaped from Brown’s lifeless body as it lay for four hours in the road has now been replaced by rose petals, posters, balloons, and stuffed animals. But the memory of that body endures and has, indeed, been invoked as a powerful symbol in these days of frustration and sorrow. For some protesters and residents, it represents an enduring history of black bodies enslaved, lynched, and shot down senselessly, a struggle that continues. For others, it offers the hope of a renewed movement to combat injustice.

For the Rev. Traci Blackmon, the pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri, bodies are the business of the Christian church. She was already a formidably busy woman, working both as a pastor and a nurse, both professions in which intensive care for others plays a prominent role. But she has been on the run since Michael Brown’s shooting: less than five miles from Canfield Drive, Christ the King has served as a community gathering place for residents and their supporters. The church has hosted several packed meetings, and has collected goods for the residents of the Canfield Drive neighborhood who have been terrified by nights of unrest. Rev. Blackmon has counseled congregants and local residents, she has run to the grocery store for mothers stranded by the suspension of bus services, she has organized food distribution, and she is now planning a candlelight vigil for one evening and a session with Elder Bernice King, of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violence and Social Change, for the next. She attends to the bodies that remain, helping them both to commemorate the dead and to move on and work for a better way.

She is not the only shepherd of black bodies in Ferguson and beyond. Clergy and their community supporters in social work and mental health care have been meeting on a regular basis, organizing voter registration, food drives, career counseling, childcare, and even finding alternate housing for residents affected by tear gas. Karen Anderson and Tommie Pierson, two other local pastors, among numerous others, have been equally consumed in caring for bodies. To be sure, there are plenty of visitors—media, ministers, politicians, and others—who have claimed Michael Brown’s body for larger purposes: as a symptom of pressing social ills, of state sanctioned control of African Americans, of enduring economic structures that prevent social mobility. And white ministers locally have also been involved in protests, support, and community workshops to educate local Christians about the history of a city that they may never have heard.

All this is critically important, Blackmon reminds us. Christians need to advocate for peace, for justice, and for healing. But being in her presence for even a short amount of time reminds you that her focus starts with the body and its immediate needs. She is unrelentingly particular in her approach. The first week after Brown’s death, she preached a guest sermon in Kansas City, taking as her theme “The Blood Did It.” In her address she spoke about the body in Ferguson, relating it both to her own role as a mother of three children and as an African American who shared a history of distrust of the legal system. And she connected it to the blood of Jesus and the unity of believers made possible by his sacrifice. This week, her message back at her home church ranged widely, circling around Michael Brown’s death. Her main focus was on the interconnection of people: “We are not alone,” she insisted. Not the protesters, not the looters, not the police, not the Brown family. We need one another to get through this and to move on.

The essayist Rebecca Solnit has written persuasively about the need to use the past, to learn from it, but to move into the future with hope: “The past guides us; the future needs us.” So much of what has been written about Ferguson lingers on the anger and frustration, and keeps people trapped in cycles of recrimination. And there is plenty of anger to go around. Many folks, mostly whites who are sick of hearing about their complicity in racist institutions and structures, just want everyone to get over the past and move on. For African Americans, and for others who were inescapably shaped by the racial injustices of the last century, the past has been a touchstone as well as a burden, providing hope and solace along with grief. It’s a body that they can’t give up, but need to use to move forward.

But if anyone will help us find a way forward, it is the Traci Blackmon’s of this world. Traditionally there has been a division within black churches, between those who saw their main mission as advocating for political change and social justice, and those who provided food and solace, ministering to bodies but not seeking to reform structural impediments to full equality. The black churches around Ferguson reveal a very different, and more hopeful strategy. Heal the bodies, be present with bodies, resurrect the deadened bodies, and you can help them change the world.

At the conclusion of the service yesterday morning at Christ the King, the Rev. Blackmon invited those who wanted to join the church to come forward. She was met there by a young mother from the Canfield Green apartments who will join the church soon. In her introduction of the new member, Blackmon quipped that some people have said the role of the pastor is to give voice to the voiceless: “I don’t believe that there is anyone without a voice. There are only people without an audience.” Her role, as she sees it, is to find the audience, to let the residents of Ferguson speak up, participate, vote, and bring their own voices to life.

Such a strategy may bring social order, she asserts. But peace may not be the ideal outcome, as she says, “We don’t need peace right now—we need unrest.” Maybe she is implying that only death brings peace, while life offers something more complicated but more vital. A movement, not a memorial. Many clergy in St. Louis, both black and white, are hoping that communal resurrection will come from the tomb of Canfield Drive.

Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. 

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Amnesty Is Not the Answer Without Genuine Border Security http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/08/19/amnesty-is-not-the-answer-without-genuine-border-security/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=amnesty-is-not-the-answer-without-genuine-border-security http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/08/19/amnesty-is-not-the-answer-without-genuine-border-security/#comments Tue, 19 Aug 2014 15:45:57 +0000 http://religionandpolitics.org/?p=8234 Over the last several years numerous prominent evangelical officials and agencies have assertively advocated mass legalization of illegal immigrants as a biblical imperative. They joined more liberal Mainline Protestant agencies and officials, who have for many years urged this same policy. Both liberal Protestants and evangelicals frequently cited Old Testament commands to offer hospitality to strangers as their theological justification for sweeping immigration legislation.

Evangelicals are an important Republican constituency. So mobilizing evangelical support for legalization was considered key to persuading the GOP-run U.S. House of Representatives to acquiesce to the U.S. Senate’s version of comprehensive immigration reform, which included legalization first followed by later border security enhancements.

The Evangelical Immigration Table, a program of the National Immigration Forum, was formed to rally evangelicals for the legalization cause. With generous funding, it gathered an impressive list of endorsing organizations and individual religious leaders, from Jim Wallis’ Sojourners on the left, to the National Association of Evangelicals in the center, to Southern Baptists on the right. Hundreds of clergy were flown into D.C. for rallies. There were national radio and newspaper ads. There was a very successful media campaign, with almost every major news outlet announcing that immigration “reform” was the new key issue for evangelicals.

But as one Southern Baptist supporter of the immigration push regretted, it was largely a “grass tops” and not a “grassroots” campaign. Supposedly countless polls proved that evangelicals, along with nearly all other Americans, backed mass legalization over mass deportation. But almost no House Republicans were persuaded. The surprising defeat of GOP House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in his June primary in Virginia against an outspoken legalization opponent helped to ensure the death of sweeping immigration legislation in this Congress.

The Evangelical Immigration Table after Cantor’s loss was defiant, and prominent evangelicals signed a letter to the GOP House leadership insisting they pass immigration legislation before the August recess. But soon even President Obama acknowledged publicly that immigration “reform” was dead for this year.

Why were the evangelical advocates for mass legalization not more effective politically, despite tremendous funding, organization, and media? They perhaps believed their own media hype. Polls usually show evangelicals and others favoring legalization over mass deportations, if forced to choose between the two, although almost nobody advocates the latter. But polls also show most Americans, and almost certainly most evangelicals, favor security first before mass legalization. And when asked, most evangelicals favor reduced levels of even legal immigration. Even when forced to choose between legalization or deportation, evangelical support for the former actually dropped earlier this summer, despite the massive media blitz, according to a report at The Atlantic.

So why have evangelicals not followed many of their elites urging mass legalization? What is the right way for churches and people of faith to address illegal immigration? And how does the recent influx of minors from Central America affect the debate?

Nearly all polls show that evangelicals are the least supportive among religious groups of legalization proposals. Most evangelicals are conservative, and shifting them into a new cause not seen as conservative is naturally difficult. Like other skeptics of immigration “reform,” many likely are doubtful that the promised increased security that would follow mass legalization, as in the Senate legislation, would ever actually happen. The Evangelical Immigration Table pledged support for “secure national borders.” But the rhetoric of its leaders often implied otherwise. Some evangelical elites emphasized that all immigrants, legal or otherwise, are biblical style “sojourners” meriting full hospitality. Some faulted political opposition on racism and xenophobia, disregarding serious arguments for security.

Evangelicals have for decades often politically mobilized for issues like abortion, marriage, and religious freedom. These issues are closely tied to historic Christian teachings. Despite claims of “biblical” immigration policy, the Bible offers no specific policy guidance on U.S. immigration law in the twenty-first century. Christian teaching broadly affirms the dignity of all persons, and the state’s vocation for maintaining order. But the details of immigration law, like most of politics, are matters of prudential judgment about which Christians and others of good will can disagree.

The Catholic bishops, like some evangelical elites, strongly favor mass legalization. But Catholic teaching, with more nuance than often found in evangelical thought, suggests a hierarchy of teachings. Not all public policy issues have binding direction from Christian faith or equally compelling urgency. For example, Catholic teaching asserts that church strictures against abortion and euthanasia are absolutely binding. But what bishops may say about economic policy, or immigration law, while instructive and important, doesn’t claim the same binding moral authority, leaving room for prudential judgment. Evangelicals, among whom I number, can learn from Catholic thought.

Groups like the Evangelical Immigration Table, to be more effective, might take more seriously the deep concerns of legalization critics. What is the economic impact on working-class natives and legal immigrants of increased immigration and mass legalization? What are the theological imperatives for governments to secure borders? When does justice require deportations? And why not prioritize security first, which might facilitate a broader coalition for a legalization process later?

Finally, the dramatic arrival of many underage illegal immigrants at the border has aroused calls by many religious legalization advocates for the U.S. to embrace all minors who arrive at our shores. Churches are right to offer their ministry of compassion to all. But too many religious activists confuse the church’s vocation with the state’s. And often they succumb to narrow sentiment of the moment while disregarding potential unintended consequences of the future.

Many minors and adults illegally rushing to our borders did so believing de facto U.S. policy would permit their entry. Further talk of legalization or non-enforcement inevitably will encourage others to make the dangerous journey. Meanwhile millions around the world, many of whom live amid greater poverty and violence than Central Americans, wait for years for legal entry.

Evangelical elites and other religious advocates for mass legalization would be less polarizing and more persuasive if they listened to, instead of speaking for, their own constituency. They would do well to show more interest in genuine border security and to stop stigmatizing its advocates, recognizing that the Bible is not a detailed political manifesto. Churches would be more faithful to their vocation if they encouraged conversation and consensus on issues like immigration instead of contentious and dogmatic advocacy for only one side in the debate.

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The Blame Belongs to House Republicans http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/08/19/the-blame-belongs-to-house-republicans/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=the-blame-belongs-to-house-republicans http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/08/19/the-blame-belongs-to-house-republicans/#comments Tue, 19 Aug 2014 15:45:54 +0000 http://religionandpolitics.org/?p=8227 Long a priority of the faith community, comprehensive immigration reform is dead. Our response to thousands of unaccompanied children arriving at our southern border points to the consequences of our broken immigration system and our broken politics. Instead of using the legislative process to institute a reform that a majority of the people and their representatives favor, it appears that we are going to muddle along and deal with the issue incrementally in accordance with what best suits the Republican Party’s political interests.

What should have happened—truly for the best interests of all—is straightforward.  In 2013, U.S. Senators on both sides of the aisle created a bipartisan, comprehensive plan to secure our borders, protect intact immigrant families, and offer a pathway to citizenship for those who were in the U.S. illegally but who were willing to wait in line, pay a fine, and meet other requirements. Neither party received all of what it wanted, but the Senate nonetheless compromised and passed a good piece of legislation last July. That’s what competent, functional legislative chambers do.

Unfortunately, on the other side of the Capitol, we no longer have a competent, functional legislative chamber. The House of Representatives should have passed the bipartisan Senate bill. House Speaker John Boehner is, like his predecessors, loath to pass legislation that a majority of his party opposes. Yet at key moments, Boehner has broken this unwritten rule (called the “Hastert Rule”) and passed legislation with mostly Democratic votes in order to avoid political harm to his party (as when he reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act) or economic calamity to the nation (as when he ended the GOP’s shutdown of the federal government and prevented the Tea Party from forcing the U.S. to default on the national debt). Though he claimed he wanted to lead on immigration, Boehner was bullied into submission by his party’s right flank. His weak leadership means that, in the end, broader Republican political and electoral considerations will determine when the House GOP will, and it inevitably will, hold its nose and pass immigration reform.

The House Republican Conference is divided on the issue of immigration and, among its manifold disagreements about policy and politics, clearly lacks a consensus view on the party’s future self-interest. To most Republican leaders, it is clear that the party must expand its reach to groups other than churchgoing and/or affluent whites. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), an author of the Senate bill, warns the GOP not to be “delusional” about immigration. “If we keep playing this game that self deportation is the only answer for the Republican Party, we will have destroyed our chances in 2016 and dealt a death blow to our party” because of long term demographic changes, Graham said.

In this line of thinking, it is not only good policy but also good politics for the GOP to support immigration reform. Republicans should want to compete for the growing Hispanic vote. They should not cede it to the Democrats for generations as they did with African Americans. Liberty University’s Mat Staver and the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez argue that embracing immigration is consistent with Christian values and conservative politics: “If we ever hope to see a social conservative return to the White House, we would do well to encourage our legislators to embrace the bipartisan proposals for immigration reform.”

The faith coalition that emerged to support immigration reform was almost unprecedented in its unanimity. It was quite an achievement to bring the less reflexively partisan elements of the Christian right alongside the Catholic Church and liberal and ethnic minority Protestant groups. Conservative faith leaders are used to having their way with Republicans on sex-related issues. Catholics and moderate evangelicals are often influential because neither party owns them. I have written elsewhere about why even conservative evangelical support could not save immigration reform. It is actually quite normal for GOP leaders to defy their pastors, bishops, and denominations. They do it on non-sex-related issues every day. Faith leaders’ activism, however admirable, is rarely decisive. Greater political forces conspired to render the near-unanimous voice of the faith community virtually irrelevant. The Republican Party knows that Southern Baptists and Mormons aren’t going anywhere.

The politics of the issue are more complex than many advocates let on. Immigration reform would be a difficult vote for GOP representatives in relatively homogenous white districts. Just because the Republicans as presently constituted have no future in 2050 does not mean they cannot survive—and even thrive—as a white party for the next several decades. Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels reminds us, “Even momentous demographic changes occur slowly; non-Hispanic whites will remain a majority of the U.S. population for the next 30 years, and a majority of the electorate even longer.” In the meantime, empirical research suggests that the specter of increased immigration could create a white backlash that further benefits the GOP.

If the House GOP thought immigration reform would improve its prospects of adding to its majority in 2014, it would have acted. Many observers still expect Boehner to pass the reform next year in order to take it off the table for 2016. But if the GOP strategy is to maximize the white vote and cede overwhelming majorities of Hispanic and Asian American votes to the Democrats, it may prefer to punt on immigration through the 2016 presidential nominating contest as well. After all, there are comparatively few Hispanics in Iowa, New Hampshire, and the other winter primary states. The early states that actually do have a sizeable number of Hispanics, Nevada and Colorado, use a caucus system. In any case, few Hispanics vote in Republican primaries because they increasingly identify as Democrats.

House inaction carries one more important benefit for Republicans. In forcing the president to issue executive orders to mitigate the mounting adverse effects of our broken immigration system, the GOP can spin this as further evidence of Obama’s abuse of executive authority.

My friend Mark Tooley is correct to point out that only a small group of utopian liberals wants amnesty and open borders. But neither amnesty nor open borders was ever a part of any serious policy discussion.

Our leaders had ample opportunities to do the right thing, but a powerful minority chose intransigence over compromise and obstruction over governance. The undemocratic result was precisely the opposite of what should have been done. This ruinous course exacerbates the brokenness of Congress, divisions within the Republican Party, and the perilously fractured relationship between the executive and legislative branches. It also helps ensure that the hyper-racialized nature of our politics will continue to be prominent for years to come.

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We Must Fix Our Broken Immigration System http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/08/19/we-must-fix-our-broken-immigration-system/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=we-must-fix-our-broken-immigration-system http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/08/19/we-must-fix-our-broken-immigration-system/#comments Tue, 19 Aug 2014 15:45:08 +0000 http://religionandpolitics.org/?p=8231 The U.S. immigration system is broken. Republicans, Democrats, and Independents have argued that the immigration system is in urgent need of an overhaul. Essentially we have a twentieth-century immigration system addressing twenty-first century immigration realities. The question is not whether or not we need to repair a broken system but rather what should be done to repair this broken immigration system. I am reminded of the existential question of Martin Luther King, Jr., at the height of the civil rights movement: “Where do we go from here? Chaos or community?”

As an evangelical leader, Scripture and Christian tradition help shape the principles I bring to bear on the immigration debate. St. Augustine provides a guiding question for Christians interested in moral laws and good policies. When it comes to any action or law, Augustine asks, “What is the summa bonum (highest good)?” Christians and all people of good will should relentlessly pursue the highest good. The highest good could modernize our immigration system while providing a way for 11 million people, created in the image of God, to come out of the shadows. For the sake of our shared humanity, we must find a better way forward.

While no policy is specifically endorsed by Scripture, biblical principles overwhelmingly point to practicing hospitality while not imposing undue hardships on citizens. Common-sense immigration reform can do both. Scripture continuously underscores the moral mandate of hospitality. The word for hospitality in the New Testament is “xenophilia”— love of the stranger. Love is the highest Christian principle and must always be balanced with justice. That is why I have endorsed the principles of the Evangelical Immigration Table that balance border security, fairness to taxpayers, family unity, and an earned path to citizenship. We can do all of these things. The status quo is both unsustainable and keeps the door closed to approximately 11 million people. Reform would provide a way for many of them to get right with the law and contribute to the future of our country. Few opponents to comprehensive immigration reform have provided a rational response to what do we do with these 11 million people, many of them women and children. No one argues that keeping 11 million people in a state of perpetual limbo is the right course of action.

Of course, love of the stranger must be balanced with love of the citizen. Fortunately, wise immigration policies can do both. Our country has the creative genius and economic viability to make immigration reform a win-win for everyone. Some opponents of common-sense immigration reform said we have a duty to not put undue hardships on those who are already U.S. citizens. We do have this duty, and immigration reform helps us fulfill this responsibility. Any argument that says immigration reform would do irreparable harm to our economy is premised on a false dichotomy of winners and losers that often stokes the flames of economic fears and insecurity. Just laws cannot be based on fear. Moreover, conservatives like Grover Norquist, Alberto Cardenas, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have made the case that immigration reform makes economic and business sense. A recent report from the Bipartisan Policy Center reinforced the fact that common-sense immigration reform would help both the economy and contribute to reducing the deficit. Spurious economic arguments that create zero-sum winners and losers are falling away. In short, immigration reform is not just the hospitable thing to do, it is the economically sound way forward. Our country needs bipartisan leadership to move forward on reform this year rather than kicking the can down the legislative road. No action is simply a de-facto endorsement of a broken system.

One of the most difficult tensions to resolve has been between border security and providing a pathway to citizenship. The reality remains that the border is more secure than anytime in history. In addition to a historically high number of deportations, most people enter legally and overstay their visas. Immigration reform could address the issues of both backlog and visas by modernizing our immigration system. Tragically, some have used the argument that the number of unaccompanied children entering the southwest border in recent months is a sign of a porous border. This argument is not supported by the facts. Many of those displaced children are not sneaking into the United States; they are turning themselves in at the border, seeking asylum as they flee from extreme violence and life-threatening conditions. Diverse voices such as the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the conservative columnist George Will have argued that the United States could easily integrate these children and that playing political ping-pong with the lives of these children is unacceptable. I agree.

The largest obstacle to overcome in the immigration conversation is global myopia. We need a comprehensive response beyond immigration reform. Immigration requires us to look more deeply at U.S. foreign policies and their effects on the people of the world. Immigration conversations require that we take a close look at economic depravation, gang violence, environmental degradation, corrupt governments, and global hunger. We must advocate for a robust foreign policy of sustainable development and security to address the root causes of mass immigration. Ignoring these realities will always leave us with an incomplete response to the movements of people across borders.

In short, the great commandment of “loving your neighbor as yourself” is at the core of why we advocate immigration reform. When the undocumented man, woman, or child seeking a better life dies in the desert between Mexico and the United States or in a large cargo vessel from Asia, we all mourn. Perhaps the way ahead is simply remembering the words of Christ, when he said, “I was a stranger (xenos) and you invited me in” (Matthew 25:35). On immigration reform we can and must do better. Inaction on a broken system is not viable, wise, or the summa bonum.

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From Berlin to Jerusalem, a Lament for Gaza and Israel http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/08/12/from-berlin-to-jerusalem-a-lament-for-gaza-and-israel/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=from-berlin-to-jerusalem-a-lament-for-gaza-and-israel http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/08/12/from-berlin-to-jerusalem-a-lament-for-gaza-and-israel/#comments Tue, 12 Aug 2014 16:18:49 +0000 http://religionandpolitics.org/?p=8190 (Mamoun Wazwaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

(Mamoun Wazwaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

This year, I fasted on Tisha b’Av, a Jewish day of mourning for the destruction of both Jewish temples in Jerusalem. In commemoration, on the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, Jews fast and read the book of Lamentations, which describes the poverty, violence, and alienation that come with destruction and disenfranchisement.

I don’t often fast, but as the day approached, fasting seemed the intellectually, spiritually honest thing to do. The ongoing violence in Gaza and Israel supplies many losses to grieve: Loss of civilians and soldiers, loss of infrastructure, loss of safe public spaces. Racist violence in Israeli streets and racist pronouncements in news and social media alienate and endanger us.

I know less and less what to say. So I ritually grieved. Grief is not a substitute for speaking; it does not anoint silence with sanctity. As the holy day approached, I mentioned my lamentations to a friend, who replied, “But you’re on the wrong side, aren’t you?”

This seems to be a refrain these days. Critical journalists, thinkers, and activists are maligned as traitors by the Israeli right (and center), accused of complicity with Hamas’s threat to their people and Europe’s malice to their nation. Conversely, those who defend the Israeli government’s actions are accused of moral complacency and callousness in the face of civilian death and destruction. The famed Hebrew poet, Bialik, wrote, “No such revenge—revenge for the blood of a little child—has yet been devised by Satan.” Bialik was quoted by Gideon Hausner, then attorney general of Israel, in his opening arguments in the trial of Adolf Eichmann, and Bialik was quoted again in Leon Wieseltier’s recent cogent analysis of the morality of the ongoing violence in Gaza and Israel.

So, as facile as it is, “Which side are you on?” remains a potent ethical question. Some would say I have no right to grieve Palestinian deaths. Others would say if I include them in my grief, I dishonor my own nation’s fallen soldiers, my own family cowering fearful in bomb shelters throughout Israel. To avoid such discomforting accusations, many of us make a daily discipline of whittling down our identities to simple, stable categories. This helps us make sense of the world, helps us know which deaths to grieve, and helps us decide where to spend our money. I’m an Israeli Jew, so (most of) the losses of July are not mine to grieve. That’s the idea. I think it’s false.

At the end of June, I participated in a ten-day Fellowship at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics (FASPE), as part of a group of twelve medical students. Several historians and two physician bioethicists guided us through Berlin, Krakow, and Auschwitz, as we studied the role of physicians in the National Socialist apparatus and then invited the history to inform our discussions on contemporary questions in medical ethics.

At sites in which the Holocaust unfolded, FASPE positioned fellows to feel the horror and grief of this history. We also had to examine equally scary, less familiar relationships to this history—namely, to identify with the perpetrators, rather than with the victims. We asked ourselves: As future physicians, how will we be vulnerable to becoming perpetrators of violence? What ethical principles guard against dehumanization not just of us, but also by us?

It was all too easy to find historical relevance. Physicians were instrumental in the development of Nazi murder strategies, for example, in formulating philosophies of “racial hygiene,” planning economies for “public health,” and developing technologies and techniques of abuse and murder. In 1920, German jurist Karl Binding and German psychiatrist Alfred E. Hoche coined the German term translated as “life unworthy of life,” and justified the concept, writing, “The question of whether we can justify the expense necessary in all directions for all these burdensome lives was not urgent in the past age of prosperity. Now that has changed, and we must address it seriously.”  Over the course of the 1920s, physicians and bureaucrats used such ideas to evolve the rhetorical and technological infrastructures that ultimately became the “final solution” and the gas chambers. The logical moves animating these arguments are uncomfortably similar to contemporary bioethics discussions about futility and distributive justice. Similarly uncomfortable resonance can be found in discussions on the tolerable costs of “just war.”

So what is the proper moral calculus, and how does a perpetrator deal with loss? Berlin—the city itself—teaches us about this. The city is textured with ornaments of absence. The artist Gunter Demnig has nestled “stumbling stones” in the sidewalks. These are brass squares, the same dimensions as the surrounding cobble stones, engraved like tombstones, laid in front of apartment buildings from which Jews were captured and deported. Amateur historian Ronnie Golz has etched images and narratives into bus stop shelters, in situ histories describing wartime crimes planned or performed at the nearby addresses. Will Lammert wrought emaciated bronze figures to wait forever on a concrete platform, built into an empty lot where once a building stood. Originally the building housed elderly Jews, then briefly housed all Jews awaiting deportation, then no one, then, one day, it was gone. The grassy lawn behind the lot was a Jewish cemetery, where tombstones once named the buried. The tombstones were desecrated and removed, and German soldiers were buried above, in a mass grave. The few markers that survive now line the perimeter of the property, while the carefully mown lawn looks to the sky.

I thought it would be complicated for me to witness the grief of Germany and Poland—the grief of the perpetrators—because in some ways I see in them the cause of my grief. But my experience, though deep, was uncomplicated. Grief was recognizable and human, even in German.

My friend might say I was on the “wrong side” for these experiences, too. I am the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, four Jews who fled Europe, in varying states of personal danger and with varying degrees of difficulty, between 1934 and 1942. Houses abandoned, fortunes lost, families murdered, camp guards blindsided.

But I’m on both sides, aren’t I? I have inherited survivorship, and with it a complex of anger, grief, and pain, and I will be a physician, ambitious and empowered. If I cannot see myself on both sides of violence, how will I learn to prevent it, from whichever side I awake in the morning? Both possibilities—my vulnerability to violence, my capacity to do violence—guide my ethical action. If I do not see my vulnerability to be manipulated by power, bureaucracy, habit, or bias, then how could I hope to protect others who will be vulnerable in my hands?

As FASPE ended and I traveled to Israel to visit family and friends, I was still asking these questions. It was the first week of July. Three Israeli boys had been kidnapped and murdered, with funding and support from Hamas, and the Israeli government was responding by attacking Hamas institutions. Three Israeli men also responded by kidnapping and burning alive, to death, a teenage Palestinian boy from a north Jerusalem neighborhood. In that first week of July, as I walked through neighborhoods of West Jerusalem, from my grandmother’s apartment in Old Katamon to the old city, I passed clumps of teenagers chanting for revenge. At a rally in Tel Aviv, against a war we all knew was coming, people cursed at us as they passed. Leftists called right-wing apologists fascists, right-wing demonstrators called for revenge against leftists and Arabs, and no one seemed ashamed of themselves.

Hamas’s violence toward Israelis and Palestinians is unconscionable, and many writers have written articulately about this. Does this assessment bring all Israeli actions within the category of self-defense? I have studied the doctrine of double effect and proportionality in war, but are these sufficient moral foundations for relationships among neighbors? Is there a distinct line between self-defense and immoral killing? Or is it possible that one act can accomplish both? I couldn’t help but ask these questions, walking the worn limestone streets in the Jerusalem pedestrian malls, crossing the narrow state to swim into the salty, swirling sea.

These are uncomfortable questions to ask in the Jewish state, maybe in any state. There seems to be an anxiety that allowing an imaginative or discursive space where we might be impugned as perpetrators would cost us existential rights. We like to think of our violence as limited to the moral performance of self-defense. But the categories in which we see ourselves must be flexible, or they cannot be accurate. We need to be able to see ourselves as possible perpetrators in order to make astute assessments of the political situations in which we find ourselves, and this is necessary in order to stand on moral ground.

Perhaps this flexibility is the privilege of my generation, a third generation of Holocaust survivors, who grew up benefiting from some of the healing that our grandparents and parents did. Our parents and grandparents fulfilled a moral obligation to bear witness to the insults and injuries that they so narrowly survived.

I inherit this moral obligation to witness, and perhaps it includes a moral obligation to bear witness to other injuries, too? Perhaps I am obliged to fast when someone else’s city is destroyed, even as it is destroyed in my name? Perhaps I must fast and mourn and be a friend against hatred, however disenfranchised that position?

It is important to be able to recognize myself on both sides. The book of Lamentations describes Jerusalem among her own adversaries; it counts her transgressions among the root causes of her destruction by foreign armies. This attitude does not exhaust the moral or causal relationships in war, nor would I rely on self-blame to teach me all of the necessary political lessons that must be learned. Still, this attitude teaches us to reflect critically on our own actions, to see our failures even if they are ugly. It teaches us to think about long-term consequences in the causal chain of our actions. It may teach us, this summer, that defense has not been our only form of aggression, and aggression may not be a reliable form of defense.

Yael Shinar is an Israeli American poet. She is a second-year medical student at the University of Michigan and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School.

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Does God Hate Shrimp? When Biblical Citation Goes Awry http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/08/05/does-god-hate-shrimp-biblical-citation-gone-awry/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=does-god-hate-shrimp-biblical-citation-gone-awry http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/08/05/does-god-hate-shrimp-biblical-citation-gone-awry/#comments Tue, 05 Aug 2014 17:00:42 +0000 http://religionandpolitics.org/?p=8171  (Gautham Narayan/Flickr)

(Gautham Narayan/Flickr)

One of the most popular “West Wing” clips on YouTube is President Josiah Bartlet’s biblically-based takedown of a conservative radio talk-show host (a thinly veiled Dr. Laura), who confidently justifies her opposition to homosexuality by citing the Hebrew Bible. Specifically, she refers to a so-called “clobber verse,” Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.” In response, the popular fictional president excoriates her by asking questions about other verses surrounding this passage. “Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? … Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads?” His pointed questions leave his interlocutor speechless.

This rhetorical theme isn’t limited to television. In 2006, then-Senator Barack Obama addressed a conference hosted by the Christian social justice organization Sojourners. In addition to describing his own spiritual journey, Obama also questioned the biblical invocations of conservative leaders, asking, “Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination?”

Among current debates in the American public square, perhaps none are more contentious and biblically inflected than arguments over same-sex marriage and related civil rights. The Hebrew Bible book of Leviticus is central to these debates. Opponents of gay rights visibly couch their argument in biblical terms, and their picket signs commonly feature Leviticus 18:22 and other “clobber” passages, as well as broad theological statements on God’s behalf. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church—whose leader, the Reverend Fred Phelps, just died in March—are famous for their simple, memorable, and memorably hateful posters: “God hates fags.”

More recently, however, proponents of gay civil rights have been doing some biblical counter-citation of their own. In addition to theological statements like those made by President Obama, or the recent book or videos by Christian author and LGBT activist Matthew Vines, rejections of Leviticus are showing up at demonstrations as well. Rare is the public protest that doesn’t feature at least a few members of the public, including plenty of Christians, holding signs declaring what other abominations God hates: clothing made of mixed fibers (Leviticus 19:19), pork (Leviticus 11:7), and the aforementioned shellfish (Leviticus 11:9-12). There’s a whole website devoted to this theme, with questions like, “Shrimp, crab, lobster, clams, mussels, all these are an abomination before the Lord, just as gays are an abomination. Why stop at protesting gay marriage?”

Let’s call this rhetorical move the “argument by shrimp.” It may be easy to see why this line of reasoning has become popular among both progressive Christians and non-religious people. It doesn’t require anyone to determine what is meant by “lying with a man as with a woman” or to parse the meaning of “abomination” in order to render it less ominous-sounding. In fact, it doesn’t require much engagement with the particulars of Leviticus 18:22 at all. Rather, the argument by shrimp works by attempting to undermine the significance of the “anti-gay” verse. The troubling verse is surrounded by other biblical commandments that, it is implied, are morally untenable (such as slavery), irrelevant (such as the prohibitions on touching pigskin or eating shellfish), or entirely arbitrary (such as the prohibition on wearing clothing comprised of multiple different fibers). What makes Leviticus 18:22 so special, when most Christians are going about their days blithely wearing mixed-fiber clothing and ordering sweet-and-sour shrimp? In the absence of this consistent observance, those calling upon Leviticus 18:22 for support are revealed to be hypocritical, ignorant of the text they purport to esteem, or highly selectively employing the Bible to affirm their own prejudices.

But despite the ostensible ability of the argument by shrimp to overcome the challenges of Leviticus 18:22, such a move may actually create more problems, particularly for liberal Christians, than it ever solves. The power of the rhetorical shift to some of the Hebrew Bible’s other commandments lies in the assumption that nearly everyone, regardless of their positions on LGBT civil rights, agrees that injunctions against shellfish and wool-linen blends are ludicrous. What kind of foolish person would believe in such a God?

But, of course, there are many people who do affirm the important of biblical commandments regarding questions like which foods may be eaten and which clothes may be worn: Jews. According to recent surveys, close to half of the world’s Jews understand themselves to be at least partially observant of the commandments regarding diet. Although this self-definition varies widely, such statistics testify to the continuing importance of dietary restrictions even among relatively non-observant Jews. Regarding the commandment prohibiting the use of shatnez, or clothing made of both wool and linen, far fewer contemporary Jews adhere to this commandment—but the prohibition is still followed by many traditionally observant Jews. And while some observant Jews may do so for reasons other than divine commandments, there are many others who certainly would affirm the divine origin of their many obligations. For these Jews, God may, in fact, hate shrimp.

The argument by shrimp, therefore, inadvertently functions as mockery of both Jews and Jewish law, whose origins lie in the verses humorously cited as refutations of Leviticus 18:22. But from the point of view of public discourse, what is perhaps more troubling is the erasure of Jews from the normative “we” imagined to comprise the public square. After all, the argument by shrimp works by appealing to the reasonable public, all of whom—with the exception of a few “fundies”—are understood to be in on the joke. The many Jews who value their commandments and the God who gave them have no voice in this conversation.

And for Christians making use of the shrimp trope, there’s another problem. The denigration of some of the Hebrew Bible’s commandments, as well as the assumption that no reasonable people observe such things any longer, comes uncomfortably close to a supersessionist theological claim—a theology in which the old covenantal relationship between God and the people Israel has been “superseded” by a new Christ-based covenant in which no outdated or immoral or ridiculous commandments are incumbent upon anyone. In this formulation, even if there are Jews still observing their commandments, they are simply doing so in the mistaken belief that the covenant in which the commandments were made is still operative when in fact it is not, Christ having done away with the law.

There’s no doubt that liberal American Christians, who have led the way in initiating interfaith dialogues with American Jews, do not mean to suggest this. But intentionally or not, the argument by shrimp effectively contains this rejection of Jews, Jewish obligation, and Jewish theology. If good interreligious engagement begins with mutual respect for the customs and convictions of the other, this public trope may be doing quite a bit more harm than good.

Even beyond its implications for Christian-Jewish relations, the shrimp argument poses a sticky theological quandary for Christians themselves. After all, the biblical texts being employed—and, indeed, ridiculed—by the argument are texts from the sacred scriptural canon of these very same Christians. In using these texts to call into question the biblically-based, anti-homosexuality argument into question, the Christians employing this strategy effectively undermine the sacrality and normativity of their own sacred scripture. While appealing to these texts as examples of the immoral, the irrelevant, or the absurd may have rhetorical value in public debate, it also requires these Christians to dismiss as immoral, irrelevant, or absurd parts of their own Old Testament and undermine its sacred status.

Importantly, this isn’t to suggest that the only “sacred” reading of Leviticus is a literal one. But the argument by shrimp doesn’t provide an alternative hermeneutic for the passage—it simply dismisses it as unimportant. Though the argument seeks to assert what the Old Testament is not—i.e. a text containing commandments which are both semantically literal and eternally binding—the response does not give any sense of what the Old Testament is, theologically. In what sense is it sacred? How does the text—even in its strangest or most troubling commandments—function as a purveyor of divine instruction for Christians? What is the value of its many injunctions? And insofar as some of the Old Testament’s commandments, even beyond the famous first ten, are frequently invoked as normative in their literal sense—for instance, those regarding the status of immigrants —how does the Christian determine which have these status and which are worthy of being dismissed when engaged in text-based, theo-political arguments? The charge of selective biblical citation, particularly from the Hebrew Bible, is just as pertinent to liberal Christians as to their more conservative counterparts, and may be just as difficult to resolve.

In the often heated and emotional debates about gay civil rights in the United States, it’s understandable that proponents would use whatever tools are available to them—and at first glance, the argument by shrimp may seem to have tantalizing rhetorical possibilities. But an argument that requires activists and allies to effectively mock Jews or Judaism, or requires Christians to undermine the significance of their own sacred scripture, is an argument that doesn’t stand up to critical analysis. Given its pitfalls, advocates for gay rights should lay this rhetorical trope to rest, lest they find themselves merely exchanging one set of problematic interpretations for another.

Emily A. Filler is a visiting assistant professor of Judaism at St. Olaf College 

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The Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An Interview with Charles Marsh http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/07/30/the-life-of-dietrich-bonhoeffer-an-interview-with-charles-marsh/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=the-life-of-dietrich-bonhoeffer-an-interview-with-charles-marsh http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/07/30/the-life-of-dietrich-bonhoeffer-an-interview-with-charles-marsh/#comments Wed, 30 Jul 2014 18:12:40 +0000 http://religionandpolitics.org/?p=8121 Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin/bpk/Rotraut Forberg/Art Resource

Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin

On April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Christian theologian who opposed the Nazis, was hanged by the regime on the grounds of a concentration camp. Nearly seven decades later, his theological writings and work continue to engage and inspire readers. In a comprehensive new biography, scholar Charles Marsh reconstructs the pastor’s life, providing intimate details using documents that recently have been made available. Earlier this month, Marsh spoke with Managing Editor Tiffany Stanley about the book, titled Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which was published in April of this year by Alfred A. Knopf.

Marsh is a professor of religious studies and director of the Project of Lived Theology at the University of Virginia. He is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and the University of Virginia. He is author of seven previous books, including God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights, which won the 1998 Grawemeyer Award in Religion, and a memoir, The Last Days: A Son’s Story of Sin and Segregation at the Dawn of a New South. He serves on the National Advisory Board of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

R&P: We’re excited to talk about your book on Bonhoeffer, which is getting a lot of attention, so thank you. I know many years of work went into it.

CM: I initially signed a contract with Knopf to do a much shorter book that would have focused mainly on Bonhoeffer’s American experiences. It was actually a project called Bonhoeffer in America and, if I had known then that the project would have evolved into a cradle-to-grave treatment and taken eight years, I would have politely bowed out. I saw my editor a few weeks ago in Washington, and he confessed to having tricked me into writing about a full life. But yes, eight years is a long time.

R&P: After reading the book, I was struck because I had heard you say that originally it was going to be just his time in America and it’s so much broader than that.

CM: It’s a cradle-to-grave treatment. And what happened was that from my editor’s perspective and maybe my agent’s, it was inevitable. I didn’t know at the time because I had never written a full-length biography. There are these interesting biographies—of Einstein in Berlin, or Nietzsche in Turin, or Adorno in California. But in my estimation, to really set the stage meaningfully for Bonhoeffer’s year in America in 1930-1931, you have to do a lot of work on experiences that preceded that and fill in the gaps between the 1931 visit and the 1939 visit and by the time you’ve done that, you’ve started moving in the direction of a full life. Also, the other thing that really inspired the decision more was the availability of new documents and historical archives that made it possible, really for the first time, to write a biography of Bonhoeffer relying primarily on primary documents rather than on the great 1300-page biography that Bonhoeffer’s best friend Eberhard Bethge wrote in the late 60s.

R&P: That was something I wanted to ask about because Bethge’s book has been the seminal biography. There have been a few other Bonhoeffer biographies, notably two in 2010: Ferdinand Schlingensiepen’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance and Eric Metaxas’ bestseller Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Was it the new documents that really spurred you on? Or what context or information did you feel like you could add to your volume that previous books had missed?

CM: Bethge’s biography is, you know, a, magisterial work and has been for nearly five decades the touchstone of all Bonhoeffer scholarship. But, if you’re writing a biography about your best friend, moreover your best friend who was murdered by the Nazis, you’re going to be protective about certain aspects of his character, of his life, of your relationship. Eberhard is a dear friend of mine and has been very generous to me over the years in sharing documents. I would not regard his biography as at all hagiographic. I think he writes quite courageously in some of his interpretations of Bonhoeffer’s life. But, nonetheless, that basic narrative of Eberhard’s book is a grand narrative and it’s a narrative that shaped not only Bonhoeffer biographies but also Bonhoeffer scholarship as well. This includes Metaxas’s biography. Metaxas was using the basic script and applying his flair to that narrative in a way that really connected with a wide readership. But I had access to just a treasure of newly obtained documents through the library in Berlin, the Staatsbibliothek, and the documents appearing in published form in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke, which is now translated into English. The translation was just completed this past fall, the sixteen-volume, complete writings of Bonhoeffer. This is someone who died when he was 39 years old and whose complete writings come to well over ten thousand pages. As a discipline and in terms of my own creative process, I took all the biographies, including Bethge’s, and I hid them away and made myself, or told myself, I wouldn’t look at any biographical writing until I finished with my complete draft of my book, using only the primary materials and documents.

I remember that spring in 2007 when I was a visiting professor in Berlin, having access to what must have been 20 to 25 cases of documents that had just been sold to the Staatsbibliothek from the family of Eberhard Bethge. Bethge had died around 2000. And, just how every day brought discoveries. These were very personal documents, intimate documents, but also the kind of materials you need just to make a life vivid and give it a certain kind of cinematic clarity. Like I didn’t know how tall he was. And then, in a driver’s license or something, you see, oh, he’s 6’1”. And then the documents from his shared bank account with Eberhard or inventories of his library and his wardrobe, tickets to the theatre, or journals about his walk in the park, and shopping sprees and salon knowledge and just all of these aspects of character that begin to reveal—to me, at least—a fascinatingly different kind of portrait than the one of Bonhoeffer that I had carried with me for 25 years since writing a doctoral dissertation on his philosophical thought.

I had a friend who was one of the translators of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer works and I think one of the most brilliant of Bonhoeffer’s scholars in the world. Victoria Barnett is her name, and she’s the director of the Committee on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in D.C. She tells me around the same time, “You know, I have translated Bonhoeffer, I have read Bonhoeffer, I’ve given much of my life to Bonhoeffer scholarship and history, and I still don’t know who he was.” I didn’t really know who he was either, and so I wanted to look directly at this new body of more intimate documents and let that unfamiliar picture of this Protestant saint and martyr and theologian develop in narrative form. I would say that while Strange Glory’s not the first biography written, it’s the first one that’s relied solely on primary documents, other than Bethge’s book. It’s the first one that’s really shaped by the new treasure of documents and materials that are available in archives and this volume of complete works.

R&P: As you mentioned, this isn’t your first book on Bonhoeffer. More than 20 years ago, your doctoral dissertation and subsequent book also covered the theologian. Why return to him now? And what was that like, coming back to him and learning so much more personal information about him?

CM: That’s a really interesting question. Thanks for asking that. As a child of the church, I certainly heard about Bonhoeffer by the time I reached college. In college, I was an English and philosophy major, and I read some passages of his more popular works, The Cost of Discipleship, Life Together. But I was late coming to Bonhoeffer’s, theology as a whole and it was the sort of the more philosophical writings that comprised his body of academic work from 1927 to 1933.

All my graduate studies were very much a part of the theory-separated branch of 1980s postmodern culture, and that was exciting in its own way. But in the summers throughout my graduate years, I went to Atlanta and I worked in an inner-city community center for minority youth in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. I was living in these two worlds. In the summers I was teaching my “Body and Soul” workshop, which was poetry, basketball, Bible study, and then just doing the things of a community worker, and equally fulfilled by this practical work. Then in the fall, I would drive back to school, whether it was in Cambridge or Charlottesville, and be excited about the new year, but I would be reading my German philosophy and feeling a million miles away from the community I served. It was liberating for me to discover Bonhoeffer, as a grad student himself and as a young professor himself who struggled with the same kinds of tensions, which are the tensions of many young scholars. He tried to think through classical German philosophical tradition to locate a more socially conscious, engaged, and relational conception of self and the self as an entity. That was helpful and then I wrote the dissertation and the book.

In the early 90s, rather than to pursue my second, more technical academic and theological project, I began having all of these questions related to my upbringing in the Deep South and inquiries about my childhood and the white evangelical church throughout the last years of the segregated South. I ended up with almost no skills in historical research or certainly in ethnography. I remember, I guess it was 20 years ago this summer, getting in my car in Baltimore where I was teaching at the time, and heading South with my credit card and my microcassette recorder and a list of questions. What were we thinking about Jesus in those churches that made us think we were both the most holy and pure out of all of the Christian churches in the United States while also being completely indifferent, if not complicit, toward African Americans in the Jim Crow South?

I tried to sort a lot of these questions out theologically, and in the course of what became not only God’s Long Summer but also three books on the civil rights movement, I found myself learning how to write theology as narrative, or theology as story. Over the years I taught Bonhoeffer to undergraduates and graduate students. I have a graduate seminar on Bonhoeffer and King. Eventually, Bonhoeffer was sort of standing there, waiting patiently, saying, “You’ve written these theological narratives, these stories, and theological accounts of Dr. King and Fannie Lou Hamer and John Lewis and others. Now it’s my turn.”

I think it was helpful, obviously, to have read all of Bonhoeffer’s writings because I had a sense of his intellectual importance and place in the modern story. Then that kind of decades-long tutelage in writing narrative nonfiction was what I finally needed to come back to him with the hope and the goal of creating a kind of storied and hopefully vivid and engaging narrative of this original, brilliant theologian, this dissident, this leader/activist in the German resistance and conspiracy.

R&P: The beginning of Strange Glory portrays Bonhoeffer’s childhood and early life as one with a lot of privilege and opportunity and accomplishments. It seems like he’s sheltered and shielded from a lot of the political turmoil going on in Germany at the time. I wondered if you could place that in context. What factors later galvanized him into the activist that he became?

CM: That is true, but he wasn’t altogether indifferent to politics. His older brothers were quite astute, and students of contemporary political and legal affairs, and so there was probably some sense in which he heard Klaus and Karl Friedrich, and then Walter before he died in the war, and his father, and other members of the extended family, many of whom where legal scholars and historians, ponder all these issues. But Bonhoeffer was himself a child of much more aesthetic and artistic sensibilities, and showed kind of a very early predilection for metaphysical speculation. The way I tell the story is in a way that’s true to Bonhoeffer’s later observations of his journey. When in prison he writes to Eberhard, and he recalls that there were only two times in his life that he could observe, from the vantage point of 1943, profound personal growth and transformation. One, he said, was “a strong impression of my father.” His father was a prominent psychiatrist, director for the center of nervous diseases at the University of Berlin. The other, he said, was “the experiences of my first journey abroad, my first experiences abroad.” He meant trips to Italy, and to Barcelona and to Spain, but more than anything else a year spent in the United States in 1930-31. On the eve of that trip to America, in August of 1930, Bonhoeffer is only 24 years old, and he has by now two doctorates, and he is a straight-arrow academic primed for academic fame within the very demanding German scene. He came to America as a visiting student at Union Theological Seminary, thinking that it would be yet another chapter in his privileged life. It ended up being an experience, a kind of immersion if you will, that gave him a wholly new way of thinking about his vocation as a pastor and theologian.

People who know Bonhoeffer’s story and have read his life know that he found plenty of things to criticize in the manner of theological education, and the theological education that defined Union Theological Seminary, really the Protestant mainline in the 1930s. He found the level of education sophomoric; he thought all Protestant, liberal theology was just all sort of indistinguishable from pragmatism, that American Protestant thought was really traded on the laziest aspects of German nineteenth-century liberalism. He thought that Reinhold Niebuhr was more interested in creating a center for labor organizers than really engaging theological education seriously. Beyond his sort of grumblings and mumblings and kind of pompous criticism, he was seeing theology in a strange new light. He’d never in his life seen a professor in a theology faculty at Berlin take a group of students out of the classroom into some blighted neighborhood of the city where there were families who are going through unemployment. It just wasn’t part of the German academic scene or theological world. That ultimately excited him and broadened his imagination. I think that in fact the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr on Bonhoeffer has been understated over the years. One of Bonhoeffer’s first encounters with Niebuhr—he took both of the classes at Union—Bonhoeffer turned in a paper that was a fairly straightforward, tedious exhibition of Martin Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith. It was a fairly typical early twentieth-century Lutheran account and Niebuhr objected. He apparently wrote in margins of the paper, “There are no ethics here. Where is the ethical dimension in your account? A concept of faith without ethics is an empty concept.” Bonhoeffer was mortified by this, but in five years he was writing a book called Cost of Discipleship, and coining a phrase that’s become perhaps the most common phrase in the Bonhoeffer lexicon— “cheap grace.” And “cheap grace” is about obedience and exactly what Niebuhr was telling him in 1930 in response to that essay on Luther.

Bonhoeffer also met a largely vanished generation of mainline Protestant social organizers. It was also the golden age of the American organizing tradition. There were students going off to do labor organizing after they finished Union or during the summers. Bonhoeffer was introduced to members of the ACLU, NAACP, all sorts of labor organizations, and he spoke very favorably. He told his brother in a letter, “We’re going to need to organize an ACLU in Germany.”

Finally, it was Bonhoeffer’s immersion in the African American church that I think inspired what Bonhoeffer said in that same letter I mentioned earlier, in 1943, which he described as his turning from the phraseological to the real. I just love that expression. A black seminarian from Birmingham, Alabama, whose father was pastor of 16th Street Baptist Church church, where three decades later, four beautiful Sunday school girls would be murdered by a Klan bombing—from that same church, this young seminarian Frank Fisher invited Bonhoeffer in the fall to join him one Sunday morning at Abyssinian Baptist Church, where the great Clayton Powell Sr. was senior minister. This really began Bonhoeffer’s intense immersion in the African American church. He became obsessed with race relations in America, with the story of African American Christianity, and also with all of the extraordinary kinds of writings and compositions and artistic expressions of the Harlem renaissance, which was in full flower at the time.

I remember one of my first days sitting in the library in Berlin, holding up a box of papers and seeing a file, larger than any of Bonhoeffer’s files from those years, of research documents on the Negro question—files of studies of lynchings, of writings, of early NAACP field reports of conditions in the South. In the spring of that year, after, for him, the extraordinary experience of becoming an active parishioner at Abyssinian, Clayton Powell Sr. invited Bonhoeffer to preach once in the pulpit, which is a huge honor of any Baptist minister to yield the pulpit to another person, and in this case a sort of erudite Berliner whose sermons were not marked, shall we say, by great exuberance. He also taught Sunday school every week to a group of young boys, and he taught frequently in the WMU, or the women’s missionary union.

At the end of the year, he and some other students took a road trip. It ended up being just Bonhoeffer and a Frenchman because they let the other students off in Chicago and New Orleans. This is one of those research areas in the book where I invested a lot of time early in hopes of finding more primary documents. Bonhoeffer was a very committed journaler—he kept diaries and journals throughout his life. I was hoping to find the journal of this road trip, when in the spring of 1931, Bonhoeffer and this Frenchman named Jean Lasserre, who was a pacifist and would become a member of the French resistance, ended up driving 4,000 miles in an old beat-up car, an Oldsmobile, and then logging another 1,200 miles on a Mexican train. We probably don’t have this in writing because Bonhoeffer was driving; they were up and driving for over 14 hours a day.

But there are observations that conclude that when they were returning, instead of going back the way they came, which would have been through New Orleans and up north to Chicago, they pointed the car east and headed right into the Jim Crow South. Bonhoeffer wanted to see, to traverse this strange landscape he had read about in his courses. I worked with a geographer and I was able to reconstruct the route. They traveled from New Orleans and they went through Hattiesburg and Laurel and Meridian, Tuscaloosa, and Birmingham. They drove within 20 miles of Scottsboro, Alabama, where that same month the Scottsboro boys’ trial was beginning, and then they drove back up the East Coast. It appears that somewhere south of Scottsboro and west of New Orleans the two men stopped on a Sunday morning and worshipped in a rural black church. When Bonhoeffer got back to New York he wrote a paragraph to his supervisor—and this from a theologian who, when he arrived in New York and America eight months earlier, had just been completely contentious toward American Protestant life and culture and didn’t think he had anything to learn—and now was saying that he heard the gospel preached for the first time. And he did not mean the first time in America, he meant the first time for him.

Bonhoeffer returned to Germany with a dramatically different perspective on his vocation as pastor and theologian. He also returned to Germany with a love of the Bible. He had studied the Bible, he’d taught classes on the Bible, he’d written essays on the Bible, but he had never read the Bible devotionally. Now he began to just pour over the gospel narratives and become similarly obsessed with the Sermon on the Mount and what for him became the peacemaking mandates of these writings. He started going to church. He’d never really gone to church. He also asked if he could serve a parish in a city section of Berlin. Maybe Bonhoeffer had seen some unemployment or poverty in Germany, but I doubt it had ever really registered with him. Now he’s moving into the inner city in Berlin to work in a parish that is really the most devastated parish of the industrial layoff in Berlin. And he carried with him a collection of recordings of Negro spirituals and gospel standards. One of my favorite images of the German resistance movement as it clusters around the Bonhoeffer story is that of a group of seminarians at a semi-abandoned estate in northeast Germany, in an area called Pomerania. They’re gathered around a piano and Bonhoeffer is playing, rather theatrically, as he was wont to do. These are seminarians who are taking part now in 1935-36 as part of an experiment in creating a seminary of non-Nazi, anti-Nazi pastors. Bonhoeffer referred to this experiment as “an experiment in new monasticism.” That’s where the phrase the “new monastics” comes from and the new monastic movement that’s been happening here in the past 15 or 20 years. That’s the phrase that Bonhoeffer used in a letter to his brother. His brother was an atheist who was trying to figure out why his baby brother was such a fanatic. And he’s saying that what we need in such a time of deception and great propaganda and lies within the now-Nazified German Protestant church is a new kind of monasticism.

And anyway, they’re drinking their beers and smoking their cigars, and they’re singing, “Go Down, Moses.” The discovery that many of the same songs and spirituals that inundated and energized the black freedom struggle in the South 20-something years later were in the 1930s at the heart of the German church resistance movement that Bonhoeffer led was just wonderful.

R&P: Given with your own work how extensively you’ve written about the civil rights movement, was it a very moving experience to see Bonhoeffer travel similar roads through the South?

CM: Yes. It blew my mind to see Bonhoeffer traversing and visiting the American South really at the bleakest years of Jim Crow. These are the years depicted in Richard Wright’s memoirs, the long, iron years of Jim Crow. He’s asking questions and making notes. There’s a passage where he says, “I had spoken with some of the Negro intellectuals,” and he is referring to intellectuals not only in New York and in Washington, which he also visited in his travels, but also throughout the South, and he says, “It appears that there is a great revolution coming, if not immediately, soon enough.” And his observations of the white southern ministers, who he found—he used the word despicable. He described some of the white pastors he apparently conversed with, who—and this has to be conjecture—were explaining to him why they did not see a contradiction between their profession of the Christian faith and their adherence to the dictates of white supremacy.

There are probably 20 pages of direct observation of the American South. I’m drawn to narrative written by outsiders, or observations by outsiders, of very familiar places. Some southerners of my generation and of my parents’ generation would refer to that as just outside agitation or the critical scrutiny of someone who really doesn’t understand our manners and habits. But I’ve always been really intrigued and fascinated, and I’ve learned a whole lot, probably more from outsider accounts than from insider accounts, of familiar landscapes. To see Bonhoeffer—I had no idea that he had made this trip.

It was a transformative trip. Within two years of returning, the Nuremburg laws had passed in 1933. And Bonhoeffer is within weeks of the passage of the Nuremburg laws and the codification of anti-Jewish church policies in the so-called Aryan paragraph, or the Aryan clause, Bonhoeffer was telling a group of Lutheran pastors—whose jaws dropped—that the victims of state violence, whether these victims are Christian or not, that it was the obligation of the church not simply to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to crush the wheel itself.

There are a number of ways of understanding Bonhoeffer’s prescience, his clarity. I mean, he wasn’t always clear, and he very often made some serious mistakes of judgment. Often throughout the years of resistance and conspiracy, he did not know what the next steps should be, and he lacked clarity, and he fled to the margins to try to mull over options and many times he left Germany thinking he would never return again. But nonetheless he saw the appointment of Hitler as chancellor in 1933 as the emergence of this great masquerade of evil. He saw that with great prescience and clarity that very few, if any, of his fellow churchmen had. Bonhoeffer was raised to have an independent and critical mind, and he had a native distrust of anyone who presumed to speak authoritatively about matters of the state or matters of the heart. I think really the heart of Bonhoeffer’s prescience was that by 1933, he understood that the God of Jesus Christ could not in any way be identified with the voice of the Fuhrer.

R&P: Once he returned to Germany from the United States, he began speaking out against Hitler quickly. You note that on a radio broadcast two days after Hitler took power, he’s already denouncing the Fuhrer. By contrast, how were the majority of German ministers and theologians reacting to Hitler at that time and shortly thereafter?

CM: With great enthusiasm. He was offering the nation redemption from the shame of the Versailles Treaty and from its humiliation after the First World War and the attribution of guilt placed solely on Germany’s shoulders. He was offering the nation redemption and salvation from the kinds of moral torpor that many of the conservatives attributed to the Weimar licentiousness and sexual and political experimentation. Bonhoeffer understood that the so-called Fuhrer could see that there was a huge spiritual void in the lives of the country, and that the Protestant churches, which had been moribund and had no kind of theologically potent resources for distinguishing between the voice of the Fuhrer and the voice of God, had been complicit in this. I think he understood very clearly why this moment was received with such widespread enthusiasm. This is a moment that offers the nation a new identity, a new way of thinking about itself.

R&P: I want to switch gears to a more personal aspect of the book. You make the case that Bonhoeffer experienced a kind of romantic love or attraction to his best friend Eberhard. While you write that the relationship remained chaste, the notion that Bonhoeffer might have been gay has received a lot of attention in some quarters. So number one, I wondered, was this finding a surprise to you in your research? And what have you made of reactions to it?

CM: It wasn’t a surprise, this observation of Bonhoeffer’s romantic attraction to Eberhard. Over the years, I’ve gone to many Bonhoeffer conferences. This subject has been discussed often over meals and drinks and beers, but it’s never been discussed in an academic session or a lecture. But there’s been conversation among scholars for as long as I can remember. What I had that scholars didn’t have, and do now, is the body of letters that Bonhoeffer and Eberhard exchanged. They wrote when they were apart during those seven years of their partnership. To be sure, I was intrigued when I found in those archives in Berlin a statement from a joint bank account. I did not realize that their partnership had that kind of formality about it as well. So Bonhoeffer and Eberhard began giving gifts together as a pair, Christmas presents and the like. They traveled and shared a room. They were soul mates of a sort. Bethge never reciprocated the intensity of Bonhoeffer’s affections. I don’t think Eberhard was gay; I simply don’t have any reason at all to think that. I think that Bonhoeffer’s love of Eberhard was one that he, Bonhoeffer, wanted to define as a kind of spiritual marriage, but Bonhoeffer’s love of Eberhard was also deeply romantic.

The challenge for trying to narrate this complicated relationship is, on the one hand, it was a chaste relationship. It was a relationship that was centered on their shared love of Jesus and shared devotional practices and it had a kind of liturgical shape to it. And yes, Bonhoeffer also was in love with Eberhard, and wanted in some fashion to secure a spiritual marriage of sorts, and Eberhard could not and did not want to finally accept that.

Of course, Bonhoeffer became engaged after Eberhard became engaged. The engagement was formalized only when Bonhoeffer was in prison. Even so, in a curious letter—I think it’s kind of a humorous letter—after Bonhoeffer had matched Eberhard’s engagement with his own engagement, he wrote to say, “Now, we can resume our partnership, and we can travel together in those places where we found so much joy, and we can leave our wives back in Germany, in Berlin, or some place.”

I’m not surprised by the response. I’m really grateful for having the resources, the documents, and an opportunity to offer such detail because there’s great beauty and poignancy to this relationship. It does annoy me when someone critical of my treatment says, “Well, this is just like Jonathan and David in the Bible.” Or, “This is just revisionist, and you’re just superimposing contemporary categories on a friendship that in the 1930s and 40s had a very different cast.” But the thing is it did have a different cast; it was different in 1935 and 1936 in Germany. Bonhoeffer’s family was liberal and open yet was initially surprised by the sudden entrance of Eberhard into the family—but accepted him and accepted their relationship. Whatever it was, it wasn’t discussed or put in any particular terms, but they were surprised nonetheless. Once they understood that Bonhoeffer and Eberhard were together, they accepted them fully into the family. Even the recollections of some of Bonhoeffer’s students made it clear that some of them thought that he was gay. So this is not my own attempt to sensationalize a relationship. If anything, I tried to capture it and respect it in its uniqueness, and not politicize it or insinuate. It was understood as a unique relationship, a different kind of relationship, in 1935 and 1936. The letters that we have now between Bonhoeffer and Eberhard are love letters, at least Bonhoeffer’s letters to Eberhard. Bethge’s letters back, I should make clear, were always more perfunctory, and the romantic quality, the quality of enthrallment and enchantment, this sort of romantic love, were not part of Bethge’s responses to Bonhoeffer. But for Bonhoeffer, they weren’t just letters, but beautiful love letters.

R&P: The Nazis executed Bonhoeffer when he was only 39. Seven decades later, why do you think his life and writings continue to have such resonance among Christians and non-Christians alike?

CM: I think there’s the power of his story and the authenticity of his example. I think that one of the aspects of his legacy that I wanted to highlight is his originality as a thinker. I do think his writings, early and late, are marked by originality and genius and also by exquisite beauty. He was a theologian who could write about holy matters in a manner that is both accessible and artful. The heart of Bonhoeffer’s deep devotion to Christ is an equally great generosity. Such generosity is in fact enabled by his full devotion to Christ.

I think one of the things, too, that brought people to Bonhoeffer’s story, aside from his life and the power of his life and the drama of his story and his conscience, was the way he wrote with such attention and out of a particular context. He used to raise as many questions as he answered. He was always willing to ask the hard questions that the scholars and the academy would often be reluctant to pursue.

When he is in prison, he’s observing the ruin of Lutheran Christendom. The resistance church he served, it’s decimated now. The Nazi ideologues were referring to the pogroms and deportations and the death camps as finishing the work of Martin Luther, which is how some of the Nazi propaganda described the architecture of genocide. So Bonhoeffer’s reckoning seriously with the collapse of Western Christendom and wondering what, if anything, might be done. In prison, he’s not afraid to say that the language of the Christian faith has been so profaned and domesticated and misused that it has lost its meaningfulness. In one of this last theological writings in prison, he asks, what should the church do now? These are powerful, and undeniably urgent, meditations.

R&P: I really appreciate you taking time to chat with me today about the book.

CM: Thanks so much for your great work.

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Why Anti-Vaccination Movements Can Never Be Tamed http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/07/22/why-anti-vaccination-movements-can-never-be-tamed/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=why-anti-vaccination-movements-can-never-be-tamed http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/07/22/why-anti-vaccination-movements-can-never-be-tamed/#comments Tue, 22 Jul 2014 17:00:13 +0000 http://religionandpolitics.org/?p=7907 Edward Jenner (1749-1823), the English physician and pioneer of vaccination, vaccinates a small boy. (Getty/Popperfoto)

Edward Jenner (1749-1823), the English physician and pioneer of vaccination, vaccinates a small boy. (Getty/Popperfoto)

In Victorian England, nearly a century after the physician Edward Jenner had shown that exposure to the cowpox virus, or vaccinia, conferred immunity to smallpox, vaccination against smallpox was both a life-saving public health measure and a source of immense controversy. Vaccination was compulsory; parents were required to have their children immunized by three months of age or face fines that escalated as long as they refused to do so. Parents organized against the requirement, forming anti-vaccinationist societies, the largest of which was the National Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League, to promote their cause. They founded their own newspapers, circulating tales of sickened and disfigured children injured by vaccination, complete with shocking photographs, through the national media. Protestors organized mass demonstrations and challenged the law in the courts, banding together to pay the fines and court costs of parents who could not afford them. Without such helps, a family’s goods could be auctioned off and parents jailed until debts were paid—the consequences of opposition were not minor.

In many ways, the history of compulsory smallpox vaccination echoes present-day vaccination controversies. Then, as now, the vaccination debate raised vital questions: what are the limits to the claims a state, acting in the name of the public good, can make on an individual and his or her body? When are individuals justified in resisting these claims, and what intellectual, spiritual, and moral resources can a person draw on in support of his or her resistance? What, ultimately, should be the role of science and medicine in a free society?

In Victorian England, opposition to vaccination had a lot to do with how the vaccine was administered. As described by Nadja Durbach in her book Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853-1907, vaccination piggybacked on the Poor Law which, in the Victorian era, tried to discourage poverty by forcing the indigent into workhouses in which families were broken up, personal belongs taken away, and children and parents forced to work long hours of brutal physical labor. The same officials who administered the laws that ushered the poor into the workhouses oversaw the provision of free, public vaccination. For middle and working class parents, vaccination thus seemed to carry with it with it the social stigma of accepting welfare. They also feared that it was a short step from vaccination to the workhouse.

The vaccine helped to reduce the incidence of smallpox, a deadly, endemic disease. But it was also often unsafe and unsanitary, and those on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum bore the heaviest risk of harm here, as well. Those without means to pay a private doctor to vaccinate their children were forced to go to the public vaccinators, where the vaccine was administered “arm-to-arm.” A vaccinator scratched cuts into an infant’s arm and scraped “lymph,” i.e. pus, into the cuts. The lymph was taken directly from the blisters that had formed on the arm of another child who had been vaccinated the previous week. Initially, there was no way to reliably store vaccine, and the authorities deemed this method the most efficient way to ensure that there was a consistent supply of vaccine available. Parents who refused to bring their babies to serve as a source of vaccine for another child were subject to fines, just like those who refused to be vaccinated in the first place. The middle class and upper classes, because they obtained their vaccinations privately, were able to avoid having their children serve as vaccine factories. The poor were not so lucky.

Objectors rightly believed that vaccination made them sick. In the best-case scenario, the vaccine conferred immunity to the disease and caused some swelling of the arm and fever. But the vaccine could also provoke full-blown cases of smallpox. Additionally, with little attention paid to hygiene as vaccine was passed from arm to arm, other diseases could be spread with it. Syphilis was particularly feared. Depending on the skill of the vaccinator and the quality of the lymph used, the vaccine could also be ineffective in preventing smallpox.

Health and safety objections to vaccination were grounded in broader religious, spiritual, and medical frameworks. Anti-vaccination was particularly associated with religious nonconformists (generally, Protestant Christians who did not support the state-sponsored Anglican Church). Some believed that it was folly to think that humans could circumvent God’s will through vaccination. Others believed that all that God had made was good, and even smallpox must serve a purpose. Others abhorred the mixing of human and animal that occurred when lymph ultimately derived from cows was introduced into the human body: for these individuals, as Durbach observes, vaccination was the “mark of the beast.” (Ironically, from a modern perspective, some evolutionists abhorred vaccination for somewhat similar reasons, worrying that the mixing of animal and human caused the human species to degenerate, or regress, to a lower form of life.) Resistors, connecting the spiritual and the medical, argued that vaccination caused disease because it violated their spiritual precepts.

Opposition to vaccination tapped into the holistic, naturopathic preoccupations of the day, as well. The modern industrial era, with its packed, filthy cities and its sped-up tempo, was making people sick. The vaccine was part of that unnatural modern world; of course it caused disease. Much better to eat a healthy diet, get lots of fresh air, avoid introducing unnatural or foreign substances into the body, and clean up your house and your city. Much better to avoid physicians and their vaccine altogether.

Though medical and public health authorities looked down upon vaccination opponents and their claims, opposition had the effect of making vaccination better. As the historian Peter Baldwin writes in Contagion and the State in Europe, 1830-1930, over time the British government responded to anti-vaccinators’ concerns by taking measures to make vaccination safer and more effective. They came to require more stringent training and licensing procedures for those who administered vaccines. They also moved away from the “arm-to-arm” method, switching instead to lymph taken directly from cows and stored in glycerin, which acted as a mild bactericide, helping to prevent other diseases from being transmitted along with the vaccine. Ultimately, in 1907 the English government made vaccination non-compulsory, allowing parents to obtain certificates testifying that upon careful consideration they conscientiously objected to the vaccination of their children. (This is the origin of the modern category of the “conscientious objector.”) Once vaccination was no longer compulsory, vaccination rates plunged, as did membership in the National Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League. But smallpox remained under control—the disease was on the decline in England, and careful quarantine procedures ensured that cases that arrived from foreign shores did not lead to epidemics.

A lot has changed in the century-plus since the conscientious objector exemption was written into British law. Vaccines are used to prevent the spread of many more diseases. Though not risk-free, they are vastly safer; other diseases are much less likely to be unwittingly transmitted with them, and the side effects of vaccination are relatively mild (usually restricted to a fever or a little soreness at the vaccination site). In the U.S., although children are generally required to be up-to-date on their vaccines before they can begin school, parents can exempt them if they so choose. In some states, parents are required to justify their exemption on religious grounds; in others, a conscientious objection to vaccination is all that’s necessary. Vaccines are more humanely administered, often, though not always, in the privacy of a doctor’s office. Though physical compulsion was used abroad as recently as the 1970s, during the global campaign to eradicate smallpox, poor children were not made to serve as reservoirs of vaccine material for others. There’s also a national reporting system for adverse events that may have been caused by vaccination, so that vaccine injuries can be tracked and vaccines recalled, if necessary. The federal government, in the form of the CDC and the FDA, recognizes that vaccines can cause significant harm, however rarely, and has taken steps to minimize that harm.

Yet vaccination is still fraught with controversy. Latter-day anti-vaccination activists echo many of the concerns, as well as the tactics, of their nineteenth-century antecedents. Certain spiritual and religious communities object to it as part of an overall rejection of medical treatment in favor of the healing powers of prayer and faith. Such groups include everyone from faith healers in Philadelphia (among whom a 1990-1991 measles outbreak lead to the death of 9 children) to the followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Fairfield, Iowa, where a 2006 outbreak required the quarantine of roughly 1,000 people, as described by Arthur Allen in his book Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver.

Modern anti-vaccinators raise health and safety claims, too. As in the nineteenth century, such objections to vaccination are frequently rooted in spiritual beliefs about health, healing, and human development. Sometimes modern anti-vaccinators’ beliefs can be directly traced to those of the earlier generation of vaccine resistors. In the United States, for example, opposition to vaccination sometimes overlaps with Waldorf educational philosophies. The Waldorf educational approach, developed in the early twentieth century by the Austrian mystic Rudolph Steiner, is part of an overall spiritual and philosophical framework according to which illness is believed to strengthen both body and spirit. According to Allen, twenty-first century resistors building on Steiner’s philosophy cast this claim in modern scientific language, saying that suffering through diseases is the only way to really develop one’s immune system. Many anti-vaccinators are not simply anti-science; rather, they selectively incorporate mainstream scientific knowledge into their belief systems.

Most famously in recent decades, British physician Andrew Wakefield linked autism to the combined vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella. This connection has been definitively disproved (and Wakefield’s research shown to be fraudulent), yet it persists. Celebrities have taken up opposition to vaccination as a cause and used their fame to amplify the spread of misinformation and fear. Jenny McCarthy, the most famous of modern antivaccinators, continued to perpetuate the connection between autism and vaccines after it was disproven, questioning the scientific research that showed it to be false. Concerned parents can find each other on the Internet, where they discuss their fears, dissect the science, and promote their movement, much as nineteenth-century anti-vaccinators started newspapers and wrote books.

This activism has had sobering effects. In the U.K., measles vaccination rates dropped from 90 percent to 80 percent after the research linking vaccines to autism was published in 1998. In the U.S., measles cases are now at a 20-year high, with almost all cases being the product of unvaccinated individuals—most of whom have rejected vaccination for religious, philosophical, or personal reasons, rather than medical necessity—bringing the disease home after travel to parts of the world where it is endemic. The prevalence of whooping cough, or pertussis, which can be fatal for infants, has also tracked with anti-vaccination scares. (Though, in this case, the scientific issues are somewhat more complicated; individuals who reject the pertussis vaccine for themselves and their children do not bear all the blame for recent outbreaks. The immunity conferred by the acellular form of the pertussis vaccine, which uses only fragments of the pertussis bacterium, fades over time, requiring booster shots. But researchers only discovered this fact after the acellular vaccine replaced the whole cell variety in the 1990s.)

Opposition to vaccination, especially when it’s based on fears and misinformation, is frustrating. But it’s also understandable. Tellingly, such opposition is the province of no one group (religious or otherwise). Vaccination occupies a sensitive spot in the science-society interface, inside a square formed by a parent, a doctor, a baby, and the state, which still insists (though less firmly) on vaccination as a precondition for participation in civil society. Opposition to vaccination is driven by the fear and uncertainty that attends all things, the raising of children especially. In the service of protecting those we love most, we seek to understand; we seek to control. When things go wrong, we long for someone—or something—to blame. And scientists and doctors can’t always answer all the questions that we have about the effect that any vaccine, or any medicine, will have on a given individual. Given these pressures, it seems unlikely that anti-vaccination movements will ever be permanently tamed.

Even if it were possible to put an end to opposition to vaccines, it’s not clear that this would be a good thing. In nineteenth-century England, the anti-vaccination movement helped to drive a political and scientific process through which smallpox vaccination was made safer and more effective. Furthermore, no public policy—not even one grounded in thorough scientific research undertaken by those with the best of intentions—is exempt from political opposition. This is true even when that opposition defends itself with bad science or no science at all. It’s especially true when public policy impinges on an individual’s charge over her own body and the bodies in her care.

We can, and should, do our best to counter fear and misinformation with the evidence that vaccination is safe and effective. Yet we should also remember that the history of vaccination as the triumph of humanity over disease is not just a history of heroic doctors, intrepid scientists, and public health officials; it’s also a history of concerned parents, anti-science spiritualists, and conscientious objectors.

Elizabeth Yale is an historian of science and adjunct assistant professor at The University of Iowa Center for the Book.  

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Hobby Lobby, Wheaton College, and a New Religious Order http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/07/14/hobby-lobby-wheaton-college-and-a-new-religious-order/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=hobby-lobby-wheaton-college-and-a-new-religious-order http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/07/14/hobby-lobby-wheaton-college-and-a-new-religious-order/#comments Mon, 14 Jul 2014 17:12:51 +0000 http://religionandpolitics.org/?p=8032 (Getty/Bloomberg)

(Getty/Bloomberg)

Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court handed down its much-awaited decision in Hobby Lobby, holding that closely held business corporations are “persons” endowed with religious rights. Then it followed up with an even more stunning order granting a temporary injunction to Wheaton College, which objects to signing forms that certify its eligibility for exemption from the “contraceptive mandate.” In addition to their troubling reasoning about the scope of religious rights, these decisions send strong messages about race and gender: religiously motivated conduct that is racially discriminatory is still unlawful—religious conduct that undermines gender equality, not so much.

We write to acknowledge that some of the arguments made by Hobby Lobby’s opponents were weak. They made it easy for the Court to shoot their (that is, our) position down. The results pose a serious threat to the ability of employees and their dependents to gain access to contraceptive services. We believe there are better arguments to be made, drawn from history as well as legal doctrine.

These cases were not constitutional decisions—instead, they involved the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). RFRA was designed by Congress to mimic the constitutional law of religion before Justice Scalia’s majority opinion in a 1990 case sharply restricted the free exercise clause. Much like the conscientious objector cases from the 1960s and 70s, the recent interpretations of RFRA are decisions based on a statute with profound constitutional implications. Hobby Lobby and Wheaton College are vitally important decisions. Together, they add up to a major expansion of what lower courts thought was the scope of RFRA—and a significant contraction of the countervailing government interests and equality rights.

In Hobby Lobby, opponents argued that a line should be drawn between non-profit and for-profit religious corporations. This was the position taken by the Obama administration and adopted by the four liberal Justices who dissented. This theory leads to the view that religious people must check their religion (and religious rights) at the marketplace door. The pro-exemption side argues that religious freedom for businesses means freedom from government regulations that restrict owners’ ability to conduct their business according to their beliefs. Despite their differences, both sides assume that there is a trade-off between recognizing that corporations can be religious “persons” and laws that protect employees and consumers.

Justice Alito’s majority opinion emphasized that it was only deciding the rights of closely held corporations, like Hobby Lobby and the other two companies involved in the case. There is no principled basis for distinguishing between a closely held and publicly traded corporations, however, just as there is none in the line between for-profit and non-profit. Hobby Lobby is a closely held business run by the Green family, but has over 16,000 employees nationwide. Co-plaintiff Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation also is a closely held family-owned corporation, with 950 employees and five factories located in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Only one of the three plaintiff companies, Mardel, which sells religious office and educational supplies, is actually a small closely held religious corporation. The scale and the nature of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood make it hard to see any meaningful distinction between the closely held and publicly traded corporate forms.

Other positions taken by the parties on both sides of the controversy are equally faulty, as demonstrated by both legal doctrine and history. First, the argument from history. The pro-exemption camp commonly claims that intrusive regulations arose recently, with the appearance of the modern regulatory state. The idea is that the expansion of the federal government in the modern era has subjected businesses to sweeping regulations that reflect progressive politics and interfere with business owners’ conservative religious beliefs. The implication is that before the “nanny” state, business actors operated without government interference.

Far from the imagined golden age without regulation, however, early American law regulated economic activity—and religious corporations. Our history reflects support for religious entities, coupled with willingness—indeed, determination—to subject religious corporations to regulation. That determination was partly the legacy of anti-clerical sentiments inherited from Europe. But the adoption of such regulations in the early national period primarily reflected the development of a distinctly American approach, in which opposing the aggrandizement of power and property by religious corporations bespoke a commitment to the value of religious freedom. Regulations applied to religious corporations gave expression to this understanding. Indeed, the first general incorporation statutes, starting in the 1780s, were written expressly for religious institutions, which were allowed to incorporate upon completion of a few simple procedural requirements—a much easier process than incorporation at the time for business ventures or municipal bodies, for example, which required legislative approval for each incorporation.

Under these laws, religious institutions in America have long taken the corporate form. And their activities have crossed the supposed boundary between commercial and noncommercial activities. The experience of religious organizations with corporate structure dates back to well before any division between for-profit and non-profit appeared in federal legislation. The Methodist Book Concern, for example, whose operations were based in New York City and Cincinnati, was the largest publishing house in the world by 1850. Such religiously affiliated institutions were commonplace, as were other types of “faith-based” services that defy the distinctions between religious and economic—or religious and secular activities drawn today.

Contrary to the laissez-faire assumptions of many judges and lawyers, American history is full of controls imposed on religious corporations. In Pennsylvania, where Conestoga Wood is based, religious corporations were restricted to a maximum of five acres of land and an income of no more than £500 in the 1790s. Many other states restricted property and income in similar ways across the nineteenth century. When Oklahoma, the home of Hobby Lobby, was first organized as federal territory in 1890, it was subject to federal territorial statutes, which limited all religious organizations to a maximum of $50,000 in property.

What do we learn from this history? First, the binary divisions offered in Hobby Lobby (for-profit/charitable; closely held/public; religious/secular and so on) do not reflect the complexity and variety of American religious and commercial life, both in history and in the present. Second, the assertion that the regulation of such religious corporations is hostile to religion and inimical to religious freedom is false. Across the country and for much of American history, these regulations co-existed with great religious growth and innovation. In other words, regulation need not entail repression, and traditionally has not operated to the detriment of religion in American life.

This history should remind us that the regulation at issue in Hobby Lobby and Wheaton College, whether imposed by state or federal government, should not be automatically or viscerally confused with attacks on religion. The long American tradition of regulating religious corporations without undermining religious freedom makes the recent Affordable Care Act decisions just two in a long line of regulatory measures. To be true to the patterns set across American history, no corporation would have been eligible for exemption, either non-profit or for-profit—all would have been held to the standards imposed by law.

Hobby Lobby was right about a central question, however. People can, and should be allowed to, express their religious beliefs by forming business enterprises under business incorporation laws and by conducting their businesses in conformity with their faith. The case that the majority cited to establish this proposition was Braunfeld v. Brown (1961), a case involving Jewish merchants who closed on Saturdays in observance of the Jewish Sabbath. They claimed an exemption from Pennsylvania’s Sunday closing law, saying they already lost one day’s business each week. The majority upheld this case as evidence that religion and commerce often overlap. What the Court failed to mention is that the Braunfeld plaintiffs lost. Even though the challenged regulation made the plaintiff’s business less profitable, that was deemed too “indirect” a burden on religious practice to trigger constitutional protection.

Braunfeld is a peculiar case for the majority to use as support for its decision. After all, the challenged regulation in Hobby Lobby also makes operating a business in conformity with religious faith more expensive, but does not compel business owners to violate their beliefs. The ACA subjects employers who refuse to provide comprehensive healthcare plans to potential economic costs in the form of fines or government assessments (whether the costs of such fines and assessments would exceed the costs of providing compliant plans remains open to dispute). Under Braunfeld’s logic, facing costs like this is not a substantial burden. A careful reading of the Sunday Closing Law cases—sorely missing from the Court’s decision—provides a cautionary note for both sides of the controversy.

Braunfeld assumed that businesses can be religious “persons” (and that religious persons can express their religion by the way they conduct their business enterprises). But businesses are no more entitled to exemptions from laws that burden their religious practice than are natural persons. This is true of laws that proscribe murder, theft or abuse, and other behaviors such as racial discrimination (which the Court asserts in Hobby Lobby is immune from claims to religious exemptions). It should be equally true of laws—such as the regulations in both Hobby Lobby and the Sunday Closing cases—that don’t prevent people from acting as they choose but merely make them pay a price for it. It is especially clear that laws that regulate the provision of a benefit—such as social security, tax exemptions, and so on—are regulations that have traditionally received substantial deference from the Court, as in Bowen v. Roy (1986), where the Supreme Court held that a religious objection to awarding social security numbers did not trigger a right to bar the government from such record-keeping measures.

Once we see it for what it truly is, the proper way to analyze claims for exemption made by religious businesses as well as non-profits becomes clear. Employer-based health insurance under the ACA delivers a large government subsidy (in the form of a tax exemption) to employees, funneled through their employers. This in turn permits employers to lower the cost of their compensation packages. In 1982, in Bob Jones University, the Court considered the right of a Christian university to escape the application of federal laws against race discrimination. Then, the justices firmly held that the government has the authority to regulate the conduct of private organizations that receive government subsidies in the form of tax-exemptions. The only difference between Hobby Lobby and that case is that in the case of employer-based health care plans, the tax exemption/subsidy is funneled through employers instead of being delivered directly to employees. The Wheaton College case is even closer to Bob Jones. There are no grounds for objecting to regulatory requirements that are attached to the receipt of tax exemptions (or to other forms of government largesse).

Yet in 2014, we seem to have forgotten the rights of women, many of whom have their own religious interests and rights, and none of whom are forced to accept any form of contraception under the so-called contraceptive mandate (the regulation in question does not actually force either employers or employees to do anything). The majority in Hobby Lobby expressly announced that it would still protect race—women, however, are in the crosshairs; and other issues of gender, including laws requiring same sex couples’ equal access to commercial services, are now in substantial doubt. Only by recognizing the long tradition in law of religious freedom and regulation in America, can we overcome the differential treatment that the Court has imposed on women workers.

Sarah Barringer Gordon is Arlin M. Adams Professor of Constitutional Law & Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. She is co-editor of Studies in Legal History, the book series of the American Society for Legal History, published by Cambridge University Press.

Nomi Stolzenberg is the Nathan and Lilly Shapell Chair in Law at the University of Southern California Law School. She is the director of USC’s Program on Religious Accommodation and co-directs USC’s Center for Law, History and Culture.

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Remembering the Rebbe http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/07/08/remembering-the-rebbe/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=remembering-the-rebbe http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/07/08/remembering-the-rebbe/#comments Tue, 08 Jul 2014 04:00:09 +0000 http://religionandpolitics.org/?p=7989 (Getty/Eric Thayer)

(Getty/Eric Thayer)

On a summer night in Crown Heights, thousands of Hasidic Jews sit on plastic, fold-out chairs to watch a projected recording of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the former religious leader of Chabad-Lubavitch, speak about Torah. Fifteen-foot screens line the side of Eastern Parkway, and Schneerson’s voice plays out of speakers. Streets are blocked and city policemen sit by in vans.

To his followers Schneerson is known as simply “the Rebbe”; and while he passed away 20 years ago, his face still lines the streets of this Brooklyn neighborhood, fluttering from flags on telephone poles, gazing down from each corner.

The solstice has just passed, and the night air is balmy. Painted portraits of the Rebbe are for sale ($350), and pins and bumper stickers bearing his face and the title Moshiach, orMessiah, can be bought for less than $5. One middle-aged woman selling Rebbe merchandise is also collecting money to support Israeli settlers living in the West Bank. “There are so many of our boys over there,” she says. “May the Rebbe watch over them.”

Twenty-two year-old Shmuel was born and raised in Crown Heights. He wears black slacks and a striped shirt unbuttoned at top. He’s clean-shaven with a yarmulke perched on top of his head. We walk down the sloping Kingston Avenue, the main artery of this neighborhood in central Brooklyn. He doesn’t regale me with tales of the Rebbe’s spiritual powers or tell me that a blessing from the rabbi when he was alive could change your life; he’ll leave that to his friends. Instead, Shmuel greets everyone on the street and points out a bakery (“they make the best donuts there”) and a coffee shop that has just opened (“almost as good as Starbucks”).

In the basement of 770 Eastern Parkway, a historic, spiritual center of the movement, there is a constant hum of prayer. During his life, this is where the Rebbe worked and preached. Dozens of young Hasids are dancing, their arms clasped together. “They believe the Rebbe never died,” Shmuel tells me. A banner is strung from the rafters: Long live our master our teacher our Rebbe King Moshiach forever and ever! “Our Messiah!” one man shouts.

 

TO UNDERSTAND THESE dancing Hasids–and the tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of followers of the Rebbe–we have to look back to the eighteenth-century Ukrainian countryside. All Hasidim trace their spiritual lineage to Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, who was born on the eastern border of the Kingdom of Poland, in a village called Okop, to a poor, elderly couple.

Tradition holds that the Baal Shem Tov—the “Master of the Good Name”—could speak with animals; he could fly, heal the sick, and commune with angels. He gained a following, first in small, poor villages and later in towns and cities, because he taught that even an illiterate, uneducated Jew could be pious, even without years of study. The most important thing was to worship God with earnestness and joy.

Other rabbinic leaders of the day watched the movement spread through Europe with skepticism. They were alarmed as formal study and well-established rabbinical courts were being challenged by a surge in folk religion, which some believed emphasized emotion over intellect, faith over scholarship. And his followers, who became known as Hasidim, “pious ones,” were also accused of idolatrous worship, of putting their leaders on pedestals.

The Baal Shem Tov had dozens of disciples, and various strains of Hasidism developed over the years, among them Satmar, Bobov, Karlin, and Chabad-Lubavitch, and dozens of others.

Hasidic Jews of all different branches have been living in America since at least the 1900s, mostly in the New York area. In 1940, the sixth Rebbe in the Lubavitcher dynasty, Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn, moved to Brooklyn, where he led a community of only a dozen or so families. The following year, his daughter, Chaya Mushka Schneerson, and her husband, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, joined him. Nine years later, after his father-in-law passed away, Schneerson assumed the role of spiritual leader for the growing Lubavitcher community.

Unlike his predecessors, he wore contemporary suits and a fedora; he has often been described as a modern, forward-thinking man. He had studied in Leningrad, Berlin and Paris, spoke seven languages, and could read ten. He had a college degree, at the time uncommon for a Hasidic leader. His father-in-law had already made it a mission to preserve Hasidic practices in the face assimilation, and Schneerson expanded this work, ramping up efforts to spread Hasidism. Jewish tradition, he taught, provided a deep well of spiritual wisdom, from which all Jews could draw.

To his followers, Schneerson was a tsadik, a holy man and miracle-worker. While all of the Lubavitch rabbis were revered in their day, the Rebbe may be ascribed even more power. “He was a Hasid among Hasids, a holy man among holy men,” I’m told. It is said that his eyes were radiant; his presence filled a room of any size. At 770 Eastern Parkway, where he held fabregens, Hasidic gatherings, thousands would pack inside to listen, hanging on his every word. Many of these speeches, delivered over the course of four decades, are available on DVD. Even now, listening to him as he delivers his winding, mystic discourses can feel hypnotic.

In 1992 one Israeli critic, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, said he couldn’t decide whether Schneerson was “a psychopath or a charlatan.” He went on, “This kind of degeneracy, of phony prophets and false messiahs, is as ancient as Israel itself.”

 

SHMUEL’S FATHER LEADS us in blessings, first over the wine, then as we wash our hands, and then finally as we tear apart a fresh loaf of challah. As the meal goes on, gefilte fish, hummus, and brisket are brought out to the table. Shmuel’s mother was not born in a religious family but became religiously observant later in life. She is what is called in Orthodox circles a ba’alat teshuvah, one who has “returned.”

The Rebbe’s hope was that all Jews would adopt ritual practice, specifically by wearing tefillin, keeping kosher, and lighting the Sabbath candles. These small gestures, he taught, had deep spiritual significance. He preached a streamlined, accessible form of Hasidic Judaism, tailored for the modern age. (Among other outreach efforts, Chabad was quick to make use of the Internet to spread spiritual teachings.) If all Jews performed the religious rituals, the Rebbe taught, collective, spiritual redemption could be achieved. There are thousands of Chabad Houses all over the world now, promoting the Rebbe’s brand of Judaism and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Jews who consider themselves Lubavitchers. The Rebbe’s influence on the wider Jewish world is undeniable. Many other denominations—Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Reform—have also been influenced by his teaching.

We sing a blessing after the meal and lounge at the table, where Shmuel’s sisters, brother-in-law, and grandfather sit too. The Rebbe’s portrait hangs on the wall and next to it is an aged photo of Shmuel’s grandfather, who was imprisoned in a succession of Nazi concentration camps. He was worked so hard, Shmuel says, that he lost one of his legs. Four of his siblings were also killed by the Nazis.

The Holocaust loomed large in the Rebbe’s life too. As a young man, he fled the rise of fascism in Berlin and later Paris before moving to America. Schneerson saw the hand of God in the story of the newly-formed state of Israel, mixing hard-line Zionism with esoteric Jewish mysticism. During the Six-Day War, Schneerson urged Jews everywhere to wrap tefillin around their hand and forehead and pray for Israel’s victory. “When one puts tefillin on his head,” the Rebbe said, “he projects fear over our enemies wherever they are.”

While Shmuel’s older brother volunteered in the Israeli army, learned to load and aim assault rifles, and patrolled West Bank settlements, Shmuel hasn’t. It’s not a priority, he explains.

He tells me that when he was a teenager, he realized something about the conflict in Israel and Palestine. “Everyone is just trying to take care of their family,” he says, pausing as if still thinking this over. “And that even means Palestinians, too. It’s never about politics, it’s about bread and butter.”

When Schneerson died in 1994 after having a stroke, he left behind no children and no spiritual successor. He had taught and influenced thousands—sending out young emissaries to found Chabad outreach centers in more than 80 countries—but without his charismatic presence, the community was in danger of splintering apart.

Even though a funeral was held and his casket was buried in southern Queens, some of his followers refused to acknowledge that the Rebbe had passed away. While the Messianic strain in the community surged, Lubavitcher representatives downplay its influence, calling these ideas fringe. Chaim Pil was only a child then, but to this day says that the Rebbe is alive. Chaim has a wispy beard, wears tefillin, and rocks back and forth as he prays.

“Every generation has believed their leaders were the Messiah, all the way back to the Baal Shem Tov,” Chaim says. “So, of course we do too. The difference with us? We proclaim it, we say it aloud on the street.”

Shmuel sees it differently.

“Do I think the Rebbe is alive? No. Do I think he was the Messiah? No,” he says, but then softens his words. Whether he was a man or something more, whether he is alive or dead, these are not the most important questions for Shmuel. “How do these things affect me day-to-day? They don’t. Whether he is or isn’t, I still have to ask myself, how will I live my life?”

 

JEWISH TRADITION TEACHES that prayers said at the tombs of holy men will fly straight to heaven. This is why, every year, tens of thousands of Jews make the pilgrimage to the grave of the seventh rabbi of the Chabad-Lubavitcher dynasty, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. At the graves of tzadikim, prophets like Abraham, David, and Joseph, followers believe God is listening.

The 3rd of Tammuz in the Jewish calendar—July 1st this year—marks 20 years since Schneerson’s death. On a summer afternoon in Queens, cemetery groundskeepers are preparing for the influx of visitors. The grass is newly trimmed and the hedges are manicured. Workers sit in an idling truck with yard tools piled in the back. “We keep this place nice and clean,” one appraises.

Four men stand over Schneerson’s grave. The Rebbe is buried here next to his father-in-law in an enclosed, open-roof structure with cement walls. Candles are lit outside and prayer books in Spanish, Russian, French, and English are stacked against the wall.

A stocky man takes a photo with his iPhone and the other three pray quietly, rocking back and forth. One finishes and backs out of the room, never turning his face to the grave. The quiet is interrupted only by planes from the nearby JFK airport, flying overhead. “A tsadik’s soul is always near his resting place. We don’t visit the grave just to pay respects to the Rebbe,” a middle-aged Hasid explains to me. “We come here so the Rebbe won’t forget us.”

Thousands of handwritten and typed prayers have been torn to bits and scattered at the Rebbe’s grave. They are in Hebrew, Russian, and English. They ask for what we all need to survive—health, family, a livelihood. The papers pile up and rustle in the wind like dried leaves. Pilgrims who come here may not see a miracle performed before their eyes. But faith is believing in what we may not see, the presence of something concealed, accepting that this may be as close as we come.

At the end of every week, the sheaves of paper are raked together and burnt. No prayer is recited. This task is performed not by priests or holy men, but by the maintenance workers who clean the gravesite.

Sam Kestenbaum has worked for Harper’s Magazine and in newsrooms in Sana’a, Ramallah, and Beijing. His writing has appeared in Tikkun Magazine, Killing the Buddha, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere.

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