Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Respect for Diversity? Calling a Spade a Spade

Doc got me thinking about the concept of diversity with her theme for the Country Fair this month. "As per usual," as N. likes to say, I didn't have anything to submit at the time. I'm a day late and a dollar short, Doc, as they like to say in my hometown. But I was thinking about it. And then I read this post from Big Mama over at Weaving Our Circle. And it reminded me of a story. And that reminder got me thinking about the whole issue of diversity in the United States.

This could turn out to be a two-part post. But first, the story. This is a true story and I think it says a lot about how comfortable the dominant culture is with differences and diversity in these United States. And that's not much.

The "Jews are Really Christians in Disguise" Story:

I used to be a member of a Jewish-Catholic Dialogue group. We would get together once a month to discuss an assigned reading and once a year, we ran an educational day to bring others in the community to discuss some issue or another. The more we met, the more I got the sense that the group did not want to discuss the hard stuff--like the role of Christian Europe in the Shoah, or even the differences between us. There seemed to be a sense in which the group wanted to get together and feel good about how diverse and accepting we all were. But differences? Well, they make people uncomfortable. Best not to talk about them.

This was confirmed for me when we got together to discuss two articles published in the Jesuit magazine, America. One article, by a self-labeled "conservative Catholic" archbishop, very matter-of-factly discussed some important theological differences between Catholicism and Judaism. And it was clear that the archbishop, speaking from his perspective, thought that Judaism had gotten it wrong about Jesus. This article was not suprising to me and some of the other Jews there. Nor was it offensive. After all, as a very small minority in the United States (somewhere around 2% if we are lucky), we are well aware that we think differently about the identity of Jesus than Christians do. The Archbishop did not express any contempt for Jews. He did point out the areas of disagreement. Strongly. And that had some of the Catholic members of the group falling all over themselves to show how very liberal and tolerant they are by refusing to acknowledge that we do, in fact, have very different beliefs about Jesus.

The second article, by a self-identified "liberal Catholic" was very different. Nothing was strongly worded at all. It appeared on the surface, that the writer was very "acccepting" and "tolerant." But I found his position to be extremely offensive. He argued that essentially Jews are really Christians who just don't know it yet, and therefore are worthy of "salvation." And the Catholic members of the group just couldn't get enough of it. They thought this neatly solved the whole problem of "salvation" for Jews.

For me, that was the problem.
In order to prove how "diverse" they were, the Catholic members who approved of this notion, and not all did, were essentially erasing our identity as Jews. And so I said something like this:

"Look, some of you have a problem with the Christian doctrine that salvation through belief that Jesus was the Messiah is the only way to relate to G-d. This is a Christian problem. It is about Christian doctrine. It has nothing to do with us as Jews. We do not agree with you about that doctrine. And we understand that it is part of the structure of your belief. And it's a free country. You have the right to believe that if you want to. As long as you do not exert force against those who do not agree with you, I am not offended by your belief. But when you take away my identity as a Jew because you are so uncomfortable with the fact that I disagree with you, then I am offended."

As you can imagine, in that group my statement set off quite a---well, discussion. I took some heat. And ultimately, the subject was dropped. Probably because it was too uncomfortable for some of the touchy-feely types who wanted to feel good about how liberal and accepting of diversity they think they are.

And that is the nub of the problem. Accepting diversity means that one accepts that others are not exactly like you. It means looking deep within and recognizing that your way of seeing the world is unique to you. It's a lonely realization. It means recognizing that yes, we are all human beings and members of the same species, with the same evolutionary heritage and genome. We are all very similar. The words Shakespeare puts into Shylock's mouth are:

"If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us,
do we not die?..."
(Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice Act III Scene I)
However, within this human species of ours, each of us has a unique combinaiton of alleles, making each of us an individual within populations that have different allelic frequencies, making us different enough that we notice. And we also have had handed down to us different cultural memes on what it means to be who we are.
I am sure that everyone who is the object of "diversity" has a story of feeling as patronized as I was in the story above. "Oh, I didn't notice you were black." "Some of my best friends are gay." " I just love the Jews." And so forth, ad nauseum. (To the last, I am tempted to say, "All of us? I don't even like all of us.)"
And we can make excuses for them. I have heard over and over again about how "well-meaning" these people are. About how they are trying to be inclusive, accepting, etc.
But they are not. They are people who, for whatever reason, cannot accept differences. For whatever reason, they are made uncomfortable by people who have different coloring, a different culture, different beliefs, different ways of being human. They are quite willing to erase the identity of another rather than recognize and acknowledge their own fear and discomfort. And that is not "respect for diversity." No, it is a pretense that differences do not matter. And that's a lie.
And it is a scary lie. Given enough power and the right circumstances, could people who tell themselves this lie to allay their discomfort go from erasing the identity of another to erasing the existence of another?
Hmmm. Anne Frank. Matthew Sheppard. Sand Creek. "Strange Fruit."
I think its time to call a spade an " 'f'...'in' " shovel.


denise said...

Well said...Your post has my mind racing - thoughts, ideas, and more. All too much for a comments section. ;) Thank you for your food for thought, and for sharing your story.

Melora said...

Very interesting post. I mentally wrote a long comment this morning, which wandered off in all directions, but, like Denise, my "comment" would have been too long. Your post did make me think, though, for which I thank you!

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Melora and Denise--and anybody else.

I would love to read long comments that let me know what you are thinking. Where am I "on" and where am I "off." What stories do you have racing through your minds?

You're holding out on me! :)

momof3feistykids said...

Wow! I am loving your blog. Very intelligent and thought provoking.

I am a quasi-practicing Christian with a Catholic husband. To be honest I was a little surprised by a few of the things I read in your post. I had thought the Catholic church no longer believed that salvation comes only through belief in Christ. I understood the church teaching to be that, due to Jesus' sacrifice, salvation was offered unconditionally to all people (depending on their actions). Of course, my information is based on occasionally reading The Catholic Virginian - *LOL* - so it is safe to say I am not a theological expert.

Most of my reactions and opinions on the things you wrote about are dead on with yours! I, too, was offended by the thinking of some Christians. It was sort of like saying, "Sure, Jewish people are eligible for salvation ... but of course we deny everything you are and what you believe in." If acceptance is offered through denying or ignoring the heart of your faith, then it can hardly be called "tolerance," can it? Actually, I dislike the word "tolerance" just a little. It implies that there is something to "tolerate." We all have beliefs based on deep cultural and theological roots and - as I often tell my kids - we all understand Him in different ways. I doubt all that came out right. I hope it did.

Thank you for sharing this.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...


You can bet that I am no expert on Catholic theology, either. You probably know more I know that the in Nostre Atate, the pope wrote that Jews should not be targets for evangelism. In that document he also wrote that Jews are absolved from blame for the crucifixion of Jesus. (That statement has implications all of its own from our perspective).
So my framing of the issue may not be quite as the article framed it--this was several years ago and I do not have a copy--but the issue of making Jews unintentional Christians is accurate.

I think the concept bespeaks a discomfort with differences in ideas--almost as if a disagreement about ideas is to be shunned. And I don't think it is unique to Jewish-Christian relations. I think it is a problem in every "diversity" issue in the United States.

I think I understand how you feel about the word tolerance. At the same time, though, tolerance means that people acknowledge and respect differences, but may disagree with them. Speaking strictly for myself, that would be an improvement to the kind of pretence that differences don't really exist.

Good comment. I appreciate it that you have taken the time to share what you know with me.

Rebecca said...

Hi Elisheva,
I visit your blog regularly and really enjoy it, but I've never left a comment before. I especially enjoy your posts relating to Jewish observances (I am Christian), unschooling (I use a classical approach), and religious education (I share your frustration from a different angle and withing a totally different context.)

This was such an insightful post, and since you asked what stories we have have racing through our heads, I thought I'd chime in.

I agree that what you have identified is really rather symptomatic of a prevailing attitude in our culture -- one that would equate (and thereby annihilate)all belief systems. My former pastor frequently pointed out that when in an attempt to be tolerant and accepting, we try to make all viewpoints equally valid, we actually dishonor and disrespect those who hold the opposing view; by denying them the possibility of being wrong, we also deny them the possibility of being right. Modern philosophy,too, has left behind propositional truth. We shy away from saying that if "A" is true, then "B" is not true. We don't like "unchoosing".

I am a traditional, confessional Lutheran (I'll gladly wear the labels catholic and orthodox)and the wife of a pastor. As a Christian, I was put off by the approach of your Catholic discussion group friends -- but I can understand where it springs from. There's a sense of shame about the Shoah, and a desire to distance ourselves from those who committed the crimes of the past, to assure you that "we're not like them." There is the desire to not sound too much like a fundamentalist -- Catholics aren't very much like fundamentalists at all, but even so, making black-and-white statements might get you negatively characterized as one. There is simply the question of how well catechized those particular individuals were, how much they really knew about their own faith, and how much of what they believed actually came from good ol' American pop-spirituality and not from the Catholic Church. And finally, there is the topic at hand, the cultural malaise of a "tolerance" which means looking for commonalities and minimizing differences. (Looking for commonalities is fine. Minimizing differences is denial.)

I would strongly disagree with momof3feistykids when she says "we all understand Him in different ways." I don't think all religions are different ways of understanding the same reality -- in fact I think this notion is the very root of the problem you are describing. Now, that "we all have beliefs based on deep cultural and theological roots", THAT I can agree with, and it has profound implications for any kind of dialogue between persons of different faiths (and why interfaith marriage can be such a train wreck.) I came to Lutheranism from a "broad evangelical" background, and just the change from a non-sacramental to a sacramental belief and praxis represented an entire worldview shift. I'm sure any convert from Judaism to Christianity (or the reverse)can testify to how wide the gulf is that they crossed.

"I just love the Jews"...that's humorous. Perhaps what is really meant is love or appreciation or what-have-you for Jewish CULTURE. Perhaps it's an acknowledgment of Christianity's roots in Judaism. But for me, it calls to mind (yet another) former pastor, who said, "You cannot say, 'I love people' because that is impossible. You cannot love people that you have not even met. You can only love individuals."

I loved your response to the group:
"Look, some of you have a problem with the Christian doctrine that salvation through belief that Jesus was the Messiah is the only way to relate to G-d. This is a Christian problem. It is about Christian doctrine." This is absolutely true, and reveals the deeper issue at work in those Christians. If I understand your faith correctly, Judaism is the way of salvation -- for Jews. Christianity does not teach that. The word "catholic" means "universal" -- for the whole world. So of the two,I am the one with the "narrow view" of G-d and the burden of proof is upon me. I'll admit that makes me squirm, and I'd venture to say that your words were downright prophetic -- you "read their mail". If what I believe is true, then love for my neighbor would dictate that I bear witness to the truth. But in our present world, believing there is only one way to salvation and seeking to convert others does not make you especially popular. You've also inadvertently stumbled upon the liberal/conservative polemic within the church; this is one of the main points of delineation between the two camps.

You also wrote: "No, it is a pretense that differences do not matter. And that's a lie. And it is a scary lie. Given enough power and the right circumstances, could people who tell themselves this lie to allay their discomfort go from erasing the identity of another to erasing the existence of another?" Interesting thought, considering that the pretense arises from the mistaken idea that it is the attention given to "differences" which caused the atrocities and persecutions of the past.