Sunday, July 18, 2010

Mixed Premises: Glenn Beck, Collective Guilt and "the Jews"

Norma Rae:You a Jew?
Reuben Warshawsky: Beg your pardon?
Norma Rae: Are you a Jew?
Reuben Warshawsky: Born and bred.
Norma Rae: I never met a Jew before.
Reuben Warshawsky: How ya doin'? . . .
Norma Rae: Well, what makes you different?
Reuben Warshawsky: History.
(From the Movie Norma Rae, 1979)

History. That is what defines the difference between how a Jew--however secular--thinks about anti-semitic statements and how a non-Jew thinks about them. History. That is why many non-Jews are mystified by what Jews consider to be anti-semitic. It's history. The history of European Jewry that even American Jews seem to carry in their DNA and the history that Americans thankfully have not experience and know nothing about.

This difference in understanding is exempified by the popular radio talk-show host Glenn Beck, and his TV Christian testimony, and a crucial remark that probably seemed innocuous to him, but was disturbing to his Jewish listeners. In the interest of full disclosure, I do listen to Glenn Beck frequently. I am not crazy about his current revivalist mood, and I am not interested in his religious opinions, but I do admire his ability to make connections that are not obvious, and from them to discuss what is happening to the Constitution of the United States. I often agree with his assessment of the people and the actions that are making the news but my definition of the terms and my reasoning is very different from Beck's because his morality is definitively collectivist and Christian and mine is definitively individualist and rational. And yet, being a Jew and knowing the history, I shuddered at his remark.

On his Tuesday July 13, 2010 TV show, Beck dicussed the issue of collective salvation as presented by Black Liberation Theology. Part of the connection between liberation theology and Marxism is the idea that salvation is not individual, nor can it be attained by individual choice, rather it is collective, and therefore the initiation of force against individuals in order to "save" them can be morally justified. In liberation theology in general, Jesus is identified as the ultimate victim, and thus only victims have spiritual value and are among the elect. They, in turn, by forcing the oppressors ( usually identified as white, male, or wealthy) to "give back what they took", can save them as well. Since this salvation is collective, one does not have to be among the actual oppressed to be saved, rather one merely has to belong to some "oppressed" class or group as identified by those who promulgate this idea. (Jews, though certainly oppressed for millennia, never make the collectivist cut).

The problem is that such an idea also assigns collective responsibility over generations, and promotes the notion of collective punishment. There is no place for the individual moral choices that promote life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The "oppressed" are good by definition, and the "oppressors" are evil by definition, regardless of the actual actions of individuals so defined. This kind of collectivist morality has always led to mass torture and murder of the second group by the first.

In the segment of Glenn Beck's TV show on Fox News that is in question, Beck first plays a video of the founder of Black Liberation Theology, James Cone. (Full segment is available at JIDF. I do not agree with JIDF's politics nor their assessment of the Glenn Beck remark). Glenn Beck's full response to Cone deals with the Christian theology of the atonement by the crucifixion of Jesus.

Note: Jews DO NOT agree with the doctrine of original sin that was posited by the early Christians in order to explain the need for the crucifixion. Judaism teaches that the presence of human beings on the earth is very good -- tov meod--and that human beings are endowed with free will, which means that each person must make choices and it is the nature of those choices that determine whether he is good or evil. This is a religious expression of individual responsibility. This idea evolved over time within the Israelite religion, and became normative in very early Rabbinic Judaism.

In his response to Cone, while discussing the Christian doctrine of the cross, Beck begins by saying:

"This is kind of complex, because Jesus did identify with the victims. But Jesus was not a victim. He was a conqueror...Jesus conquered death. He wasn't victimized. He chose to give his life....If he was a victim, and this theology was true, then Jesus would've come back from the dead and made the Jews pay for what they did. That's an abomination." (The Glenn Beck Show, Tuesday, July 13, 2010--at approximately 6 minutes into the segment. Emphasis mine).

Here is a video of this crucial statement. It is in its own context, and can be understood just from this clip:

The last few words of this statement indicate not what liberation theology says about Jesus and the Jews, but what Glenn Beck appears to believe about the crucifixion of Jesus and the Jews: that "the Jews" were indeed responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. For him, it is not a matter of the responsibility of some people or some Jews, but it is the responsibility of "the Jews." The use of the collective noun "the Jews" is an assignment of collective responsibility. Beck did not continue this line of reasoning, but rather went on to discuss the difference between Black Liberation Theology and normative Christian theology regarding the blood atonement of Jesus' death. His offhand remark about what "they [the Jews] did" was never clarified. And although at this point it is possible to imagine that since this was not Beck's main point, he did not choose his words carefully, that is not how many Jews took it.

To many, many Jews--the liberal, the conservative, the libertarian--the remark made it difficult if not impossible to listen any further to what Beck had to say. I am one of them. The reason for this? History.

The charge of Deicide--the crime of killing a god--was first leveled at Jews by the fathers of the early Church, and was made more explicit following Constantine. The code of Justinian imposed legal handicaps and penalties for this "crime" collectively on the Jews of the Roman empire nearly five centuries after the death of Jesus, which indicates that these Christian theologians and leaders thought that the collective responsibility is borne by Jews across the generations. Augustine wrote that Jews must be made miserable forever for this "crime." The Anti-Defamation League of B'nei B'rith (ADL) characterizes the charge of deicide as one of the four big lies about Jews that have caused the most persecution of our people down through the centuries. Good Friday was generally 'Bad Friday" for the Jews of Europe, as Christians of various denominations attended church and learned every year that the Jews are eternally responsible for the suffering and death of Jesus. The Catholic Church approved the following prayer for the "perfidious Jews" as part of the Tridentine Good Friday Service until 1955:

"Let us pray also for the perfidious Jews: that Almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts; so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord. ('Amen' is not responded, nor is said 'Let us pray', or 'Let us kneel', or 'Arise', but immediately is said:) Almighty and eternal God, who dost not exclude from thy mercy even Jewish faithlessness: hear our prayers, which we offer for the blindness of that people; that acknowledging the light of thy Truth, which is Christ, they may be delivered from their darkness."

Such prayers, as well as the reading of the Passion, in which "the Jews" call for the death of Jesus, were not likely to inspire in the hearts of the Christian faithful any charity for their Jewish neighbors, and in fact many instances of the destruction of Jewish life and property occurred following Good Friday services across Christian Europe over the centuries.

Knowing this history in all the gory details means that Jews really hear what is being said even in passing, and apply to it all of the background that is the persistence of memory.
American Christians, who are generally ignorant of this history because it did not happen here--thanks to the wisdom of our Founders--do not hear it, they do not get it.

And Beck does not get it either. On his Friday radio program, Beck reacted to the accusations in the press and on blogs that he had made an antisemitic remark by reiterating the issue of liberation theology's doctrine of the atonement, saying that according to that heresy, Jesus' death did nothing salvific and that the empty tomb means nothing, because it is the "oppressed" who are the collective messiah, and their actions to take back from the "oppressors" what is theirs by force is what achieves salvation. ( BTW: Beck is NOT wrong here. This is an accurate summary of liberation theology). Then he goes on to say:

Beck: "What does the press report? That I said that Jesus had to come back and 'get them Jews.'
No! I'm saying that in a perverted world, in a perverted gospel that's exactly--'Glenn Beck says that the Jews killed Jesus! It was the Romans that killed Jesus!' Pat? . . ."

Pat Gray: (giggling) "Well, technically the Romans--"

Beck: "Yes!"

Pat Gray: "--carried out the will of the Great Sanhedrin--the Jews--wanted him executed--"

Beck: "Now does that make me--all of a sudden--anti-Jewish?"

Pat Gray: "No!"

Beck: "That's what they're gonna say!"

Pat Gray: "That's ridiculous ...It's ridiculous that ..."

Beck: "That's what they're gonna say . . .There's no one more pro-Israel and more pro-Jew than I am! I can't take it anymore! The lies! The bearing of false witness. Here's the truth. From Barack Obama, from Jim Wallace, from Van Jones--I'm going to play audio for you today that should shake you to your core. THIS IS the reason why they are doing these things. . .we found their manifesto and I swear to you this is the real thing. This is their plan . . . but above that is this perversion of religion, this perversion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ . . .that's what it is--that there's collective salvation and they'll FORCE you into it. I'll give you that in just a second . . .

(Transcribed by me).

It is clear here that Glenn Beck believes that those accusing him of anti-semitism are doing so because he has attacked the social gospel, liberation theology and collective salvation. And this is true of some of the people attacking him. They are latching onto the statement "the Jews wanted him [Jesus] executed" and "Jesus would've come back from the dead and made the Jews pay for what they did" in order to focus their readers/viewers attention on these collective phrases--"the Jews", "the Jews", "what they did"--rather than on the larger argument that Glenn is making, which is that the doctrine of collective salvation perverts the individual nature of salvation according to normative Christianity. Glenn therefore continues this discussion by getting an evangelical preacher of some note to preach the normative version later on the same program.

BUT . . . that is not what many Jews who hear this are objecting to at all. Speaking for myself as a Jew (with the understanding that a great many Jews would say the same), I could not care less about the Christian doctrine of salvation by the blood atonement of Jesus. I do get that liberation theology is collectivist--and therefore evil--but I also hear those ugly accusations of collective responsibility for the death of Jesus hurled at my people. I hear: "what they [the Jews] did" and "the Jews wanted him executed." And I know from the bloody history of Christian Europe exactly where those charges lead.

When Glenn Beck argues that the Nazis and the Communists preached collective salvation and collective responsibility, he is being accurate. And when he argues that collectivism leads to the deaths of millions he is absolutely right. Because collectivists teach that there is some universal common "good" that trumps the good defined by each individual, they thereby justify forcing the individual to sacrifice for the "good of the collective." Beck condemns collectivism when it comes from the left, from the social gospel and from James Cone. But out of the other side of his mouth, he is unconsciously assigning collective responsiblity to a whole people over two millennia. Apparently, collectivism is not evil when used in the service of Christianity.
And this is the problem with much of the "religious right." They don't even hear the words they are using--words that are painfully obvious to a Jewish ear--words that preach their own brand of collectivism.

It is clear from this that Glenn Beck's worldview is founded on mixed premises. The assignment of collective responsibility and collective punishment is wrong when black liberationists want to take his property in order to "save" him, but when assigning collective responsibility to "the Jews" for the death of Jesus, it must be right--and he cannot be an antisemite--because this is what his religion has taught him from the cradle. He is so unconscious of this glaring contradiction that he cannot question it, nor can he apply his avowed principle--that collectivism is evil--universally to his conclusions. Many of the people on the left, or in the liberationist churches, have the same philosophical problem he has, though they are arguing from the opposite horn of the dilemma. That dilemma is created by the unquestioning adherence to a religious doctrine that has been handed down by tradition--an ugly tradition that has created even uglier results--crusades, pograms, holocaust.

I agree with Beck that collectivism is wrong; the difference between us is that I know that it is evil because it always removes the rights and responsiblilities of individuals, and it removes choice and consequence from human interaction. It ignores the very nature of the human being as an autonomous individual. The use of the concept of collective salvation must always create the role of the annointed--whether they are called "the oppressed", "the proletariat" or "the Christians"--and with it, the role of the damned--whether they be the "oppressors", the "bourgeoise", or "the Jews"--and these assignments are always made on the basis of the class variable--that is what group the person 'belongs to', not by the free association of individuals, but by the arbritrary association of birth. The notion of collective salvation must always come with the notions of collective responsiblity and collective punishment. Whether it is claimed in the name of a god or government, collectivism is always evil.

Beck preaches principles. Here is the principle that he is not applying consistently. That each human being is an individual who by his very nature has the right to life, liberty, and property. That each individual has the ability and the obligation of free will--that he can and must choose between right and wrong--and that each individual is responsible for the outcomes of those choices.

As I have said above, I believe from what Beck has said that he is unconscious of the contradiction between his political and religious beliefs. He appears to be unaware that he denies collective salvation as preached by liberation theology while simultaneously assigning collective responsibility to "the Jews." He does not even hear what he is saying, he does not catch it because it is so "obvious" to him, and he does not really know the bloody history of that particular collectivist notion.

I therefore wish for him the realization of the quote he loves from Jefferson:
"Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear."
Edited once for typos, incomplete cut-pastes, and clarity.


Brianna said...

I actually watched the same episode, and I didn't get this interpretation from it at all. I assumed that the reason Beck said

"If he was a victim, and this theology was true, then Jesus would've come back from the dead and made the Jews pay for what they did. That's an abomination."

was because he was talking about a collectivist theology. Not that he believes it himself, or even that he was taught that, but because the people he was talking about were taught that mentality, were taught that way of thinking. Because if you believe in collective salvation, if you believe that Jesus stood for the victim, then it's not that far a stretch for a group that believes this to view the Jews as the victimizers of Jesus, since they were given the chance to set Jesus free by Pilate and refused (no, I don't believe that. Pilate condemned him, the Romans put him to death, and even if you can blame the Jews who were in the crowd that day, it doesn't mean you can blame any other Jew for it). And since that idea is, as you yourself noted, quite common throughout European history including the Nazi regime, it unfortunately wouldn't be that much of a stretch for people who follow a collectivist theology to pick up that idea, even if they do live in the United States where such ideas are, thank God, relatively rare.

I agree that it could be interpreted either way, and that his radio follow up does not definitely clear up the issue. Personally, I think his comment of

"No! I'm saying that in a perverted world, in a perverted gospel that's exactly..."

would actually hint that he was indeed speaking of what he viewed as a logical conclusion of the collectivist theology he was reporting on, rather than anything he was taught or that he believed himself. But it is hard to be definitely certain.

As an aside, you mentioned that Beck "does not know the bloody history of that particular collectivist notion," I must admit that I highly doubt you're right about that. If I knew that the Nazis accused the Jews of killing Jesus back in my days of ignorant bliss about what was going on with the world today (only one year ago?) and that the excuse had been used throughout history in order to justify targeting Jews, then I'm willing to bet that with all the studying he's done of collectivist ideology, Beck is perfectly aware of just how often that particular bit of nastiness has been used to justify evil, murder and oppression. Again, can't be absolutely positive, but I am reasonably sure.

Now, speaking more generally, I agree with your assessment of Beck in the first part of your blog entry. He seems to grasp the importance of ideology, why individualism is good and collectivism evil, he has an essentially libertarian mindset w.r.t. government, and these things allow him to connect the dots very well. But when he goes on to say that the country, "needs to return to God," or that "this country is God's country..." he loses me. I still watch, because he does a lot of good stuff, but if I could change one thing about Beck it'd be to make him tone the God stuff down.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...


Unfortunately, I wrote a longer reply here than was acceptable to blogger. So I will reply in another blog post because I think this is worth more of a discussion.

Brianna said...

Cool. I'm just glad that the comment came through alright. I got an error screen at some point and was afraid it hadn't come through and I'd have to write it again.

Anonymous said...

Mixed premises is right. Frankly, I doubt Mr. Beck could understand your essay.