Deborah Sokolove: In Fear and Trembling

A Sermon for Seekers Church
by Deborah Sokolove 

In Fear and Trembling

The readings from the Hebrew Bible for the last couple of Sundays have been eerily appropriate. The earth mourns, the heavens grow black and Jeremiah wishes for his head to be a spring of water, his eyes a fountain of tears, so that he might mourn day and night for the slain of his poor people. In the wake of September 11, most of us have been right there with him, stunned, anguished and wanting only to sit and weep.

Today, the lectionary is in step with, at least, the American leadership, which is urging us to return to ordinary life, to buy, to sell and make our economy strong. For today, as we have heard, Jeremiah hears God tell him to buy his cousin’s field at Anathoth. He does as God tells him, giving the deed of purchase to his cousin in the presence of witnesses. The reason for this symbolic act, we are told, is that God has decreed, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

So, is the message a divine authorization for our consumer economy, an advertisement for shopping malls and stockbrokers, a heavenly stamp of approval on our addiction to stuff? It is probably not. It comes some 22 chapters after last week’s reading, chapter after chapter in which Jeremiah conveys God’s message of doom for a people who bow down to false idols, whose pride has made them unjust and lacking in compassion, whose prophets prophesy lies in God’s name. Jeremiah laments the ruin of his people, and his own anguish at being chosen to bring God’s word to people who will not listen.

Finally, in chapter 30, God relents. He tells Jeremiah, “Look, the days are coming when I will restore my people, Israel, and I will bring them back to the land which I gave to their ancestors.” God sees that in a time of oppression, of captivity, of exile, the people have repented. Therefore, God’s word through Jeremiah is one of hope, a promise that the time of trial will one day end.

That day is not yet here, neither for the children of Israel in the time of Jeremiah, nor, I fear, for us Americans right now. Next week’s reading is from Lamentations, but I will leave that to next week’s preacher.

What I feel compelled to say today may seem in many ways out of step and out of time. They may seem like words not needed in a community like Seekers. Nonetheless, I need to speak now because I believe there is a danger among us that is as equally real as the terrible events of September 11; and as equally real as the terrible reality that all over the US, people who are — or who only might be, or who somehow look like — Arabs or Muslims have become the subject of hateful, bigoted words and even actions.

The danger that I speak of is subtle and hard to explain. Therefore, I ask you to bear with me as I struggle with a subject about which I have kept silent in this community for, what I realize now, has been far too long. I do realize that for those who are dealing with the immediacy of shock and grief, this is a subject they cannot yet address. I, myself, would have preferred to leave it alone as I struggled with my own feelings about the events of September 11. However, some comments made through email to all Seekers, and to me privately, have pushed me into understanding that my silence has been taken as agreement with positions and beliefs that are, in fact, incredibly painful to me.

If the danger of which I speak had only to do with my own private pain, this would not be the right time or place. However, it is not just my private pain. I, however reluctantly and unwillingly, speak of a danger that I sense to a people that has lived in danger for most of its history, a people who I still in many ways claim as my own. I am also speaking of danger to this community, the danger that Christians of good will and of commitment “to end war both public and private,” may fall unwittingly into a trap of hatred and scapegoating, the ancient trap of Jew-hating.

It is not fashionable these days, either in the United States in general, or in Seekers in particular, to wrestle with the issue of anti-Semitism. Those days are over, it is thought. We have good friends — relatives, even — who are Jewish, we do not discriminate against Jewish people about where they can live, what kind of jobs they can hold, what schools they may attend, what organizations they may join. Jewish people are, like many other Whites, people of privilege, financially successful, secure in their place in society, largely invisible, as undifferentiated from mainstream America as Methodists, Presbyterians or Baptists.

My parents, and others of their generation, worked hard to foster this illusion. They wanted nothing more than to be thought of as “good Americans,” and they wanted their children to blend in, to do well in school, to have good jobs and to do good works – in other words, to become in most ways just like everybody else. They, and their children, succeeded too well. Today, no official government form gives a space for “Jewish” as an ethnic identity. We are White, just like almost everyone else in Seekers. And, most of the time, that is just fine with me.

I say, most of the time, but not right now. It is not fine with me when I see bright danger in the road ahead, a danger that few others seem to see or to acknowledge. I see it because many Jewish people of my parents’ generation gave another message to their children, along with the one that said, “Be good, get along, play fair.” The other message was “never take our good fortune for granted – remember the lessons of the past.” In religious classes and in after-school programs, in sermons and in stories, and in conversation over the dinner table, they taught us the long, sad history of our people. They taught us of slavery under Pharaoh, of exile among the Babylonians, of destruction after destruction and persecution after persecution. They taught us about the blood libel – the belief that was once widespread in Christian communities that Jewish people use the blood of Christian children to bake the Passover matzo – and the pogroms that swept through Jewish villages, Easter season after Easter season, for centuries. They taught us about the Inquisition in Spain, how our people were made to accept Christianity or be killed, and they taught us how brave Spanish Jews continued to practice elements of their religion in secret, despite the danger. They taught us about the Russian Tsars who tried to eliminate our people by conscripting young Jewish boys into the army, forbidding them to practice their religion or to even visit their homes and families for ten or twenty years. They taught us about the Shoah – the Holocaust – that unspeakable horror that destroyed half of the Jewish people living in the world at that time. They taught us that the German Jews who died in the camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka were cultured, prosperous, respectable citizens who thought they were secure in a civilized society that honored learning, poetry, art and music. Moreover, they taught us about the signs throughout the American South, the ones that said, “No Jews or Niggers allowed,” about restrictive housing covenants in “good” neighborhoods, about quotas in college admissions and certain professions, about cross burnings and the KKK.

For me, these are not ancient history. These are not something that happened to somebody else in some other place. I was taught to understand these things as if they had happened to me; as if I, myself, had been a slave in Egypt; as if I, myself, had hidden from the Spanish Inquisition; as if I, myself, had been raped and murdered by Christian neighbors inflamed by the anti-Jewish rhetoric of the Imprecations recited on Good Friday; as if I, myself, had escaped from Hitler’s killing machine; as if I, myself, had been on the refugee ship that was turned away from port after port, turned away even from America and back to certain death at the hands of the Nazis; and as if I, myself, were the target of the hateful anti-Jewish caricatures that still were part of American culture when I was growing up.

These were not history lessons. These were my family stories. My father’s father escaped from Russia with the Tsar’s agents at his back. My father was refused a commission in the United States Navy because he was Jewish. As a little girl, my mother’s mother hid in the cellar during a pogrom, afraid her Polish Christian neighbors would find and kill her. All but two of my mother’s aunts and uncles and cousins vanished in the Shoah. I saw the tattoos on the arms of those two brothers who survived and eventually made their way to America; I heard their stories.

This is my story, my history, a reality I share with those who were brought up within the Jewish community. My decision to follow Christ does not erase it. If anything, my exile from the Jewish community because of my faith in Christ makes me more sensitive than ever to the ignorance most non-Jews have about our reality, our history and our fear. We were taught to fear that anti-Semitism is lurking just beneath the surface of even the most civilized and friendly Christians. Although I grew up in a largely Jewish neighborhood, I was taught to wear my Star of David necklace hidden inside my shirt, “just in case.” It was a precious secret, but not to be shared with outsiders. Just like African-Americans who see slight and prejudice where none was intended, Jewish people who were educated as I was see danger that is invisible to others.

For me, for those who grew up like me in middle-class Jewish families in the 50s and 60s, the newly formed State of Israel was to be the end of that fear. After 2000 years of homelessness and oppression, the Jewish people finally had a home of their own. After 2000 years of being thrown out of country after country, of being promised civil rights by one ruler only to have them snatched away by the next, of having to depend on the often non-existent good will of the local ruler for the protection that they were forbidden to exercise on their own behalf, Jews were finally free to live as full citizens, and to defend themselves if attacked. Zionism was born of the despair of Jews who realized that no one was going to come to their aid in those awful days of Nazi power. For those still in the US or Europe, the State of Israel was insurance that if things went so horribly wrong again, they would have some place to go. In that one, tiny corner of the world, my people no longer had to cower in fear.

Except of course, that was not entirely true. The land that the Jewish people claimed as theirs was not empty. Herders, farmers and businessmen whose families had been there for as long as anybody could remember inhabited it. A few were Christian or Druze, but the majority was Muslim Arabs. We now know these people as Palestinians. Understandably, they were not eager to make way for European Jewish refugees, to give up part of their land to strangers who insisted that it belonged to them. Therefore, instead of accepting the Partition Agreement of 1948, they declared war and promised to push the Jewish State into the sea. Equally understandably, the newly empowered Israelis fought back.

It is not my intent here to go into the intricacies of who did what to whom after that, and who is the worst offender. It is certainly not my intent to justify or excuse the actions of the Israeli government with regard to the Palestinians. When I lived in Israel from 1969 to 1974, I was appalled at the way that Palestinians were treated, and aghast to find myself – as I had been in the US – a member of the oppressor class. Nevertheless, given the long, sad history of the Jewish people, and the immediate memory of the Shoah, I was not and am not surprised that some Israelis have a hard time distinguishing between the Arabs who said they would throw them into the sea and all the others who have pointed weapons at them. Those who have been abused often become abusers themselves. Moreover, the violence escalates on both sides, in a horrifying dance of mutual incomprehension, mutual distrust, mutual hatred, mutual killing.

This has always been a hard time of year for me at Seekers. As we come into the season of Recommitment, I am always aware that I am in exile from my people. I see the Jewish men dressed in their sober suits, the women in dresses just a little too warm for the weather, walking along Massachusetts Avenue on their way to Yom Kippur services, and part of me longs to be among them, as I was for so many years. And I remember.

I remember the morning I woke up to find a crater next door where yesterday was a field of wild flowers. I remember the wail of air raid sirens cutting into the Yom Kippur quiet on a crisp, clear day in early autumn, as the Arab nations surrounding Israel made a surprise attack on a people at prayer. I remember sitting in the dark, rocking my three-week-old son, afraid to light so much as a candle lest enemy warplanes see it and drop bombs on our heads. I remember watching peace-loving men dressed in fatigues, carrying rifles in one hand and pushing baby carriages with the other. I remember waiting for months, at home with three small children, for my husband to return from the northern border. He did come home, but many of our neighbors did not. Many that did return came back missing legs or arms, or wounded in some less visible way. I remember listening to the lists of the missing and the dead, praying that I would not hear any names that I recognized, knowing that I would. The terror of September 11 is one I recognize well.

The danger that I fear, however, is not that of more terrorism, of more war, of more pain and death – although I fear that, also. But the more frightening danger that I see is that good, peace-loving, justice-seeking people, Christian and non-Christian, will be drawn by their compassion towards the Palestinian plight into taking sides in the fight between my people and our Palestinian cousins, and thereby adding one more awful chapter to the long, sad story of my people. I have seen that happen already, elsewhere. More than twenty years ago, another community that I loved really did allow their passion against the oppressive policies of the Israeli government to turn into anti-Jewish slogans. That time, I said nothing, feeling powerless to speak against what seemed to be a consensus to which I could not consent. I left in silence, sick at heart, feeling betrayed by a community that expected me to betray my own people.

Ever since, I have been very wary when talk turns to Israel. Although I am as critical of the provocative and oppressive tactics of certain Israeli leaders as I am of some equally wrong-headed American ones, I usually keep those opinions to myself. It is one thing to be critical within the family, so to speak; it is another to give outsiders ammunition. On the other hand, I do not want to defend actions and policies that are abhorrent to me, nor do I want to get into arguments about who is more at fault.

I have never wanted to speak on behalf of the Jewish community, either here at Seekers or in my work life at the Seminary, because as a Christian I am no longer a part of that community in any real way. However, I grew up within a family, a community, a tribe that taught me about the dangers of complacency, about staying wary, and about keeping memory alive. It is there, also, that I learned that it was my task to stand up for the underdog, just as Moses had killed the Egyptian overseer. It is there that I learned to hate bigotry in all its forms, because I had been a slave in Egypt. It is there I learned that the God of Israel is the God of the entire universe, and that all people of good will are beloved of God.

As I listen to the official spokespersons for the Jewish community, rabbis and other thoughtful, caring leaders, I hear what you hear: words of compassion, of suspending judgment, of reaching out to all who are in need. These words are genuine, heartfelt and familiar to me from earliest memory. What I do not hear, but I know it as surely as I breathe, is that those members of the Jewish community who remember their history also share a deep, visceral, largely unspoken fear. They fear not only this week’s terrors and disasters, but that some day, some way, the hard choices that face us as a nation will be blamed on the Jews. Just the other day, I received an email from my cousin, with whom I have not spoken in a long, long time. He just wanted to let me know that he is OK, and to make sure that I was, too. In the midst of other news about his part of the family, he voiced the same fear. We, who have long memories, know that it has happened already, in too many places, at too many times. I am standing here today to ask you, my beloved sisters and brothers in Christ, to help keep it from happening again.

In this immediate crisis, it probably seems strange, presumptuous even, to ask that you take on another cause, another concern. Nevertheless, I am asking exactly that. I am asking you — as you continue to care about the families of those who died in New York, at the Pentagon, and in a field in Pennsylvania; as you continue to care about the welfare of the Afghan people, the Palestinian people, and oppressed people everywhere; as you continue to care about those who have no home, no feed, no medical care here in Washington, across our nation, and around the world; as you continue to care about the natural environment and attempt to live more simply, more lightly upon the earth; as you continue to do your own part toward peace and justice — to also remember that our Christian faith has a special relationship with the Jewish people, and that that relationship has largely been one that has not been good news to the Jews.

I have been asked if I see a way that Seekers and other Christians can engage in the peace process in a way that considers this reality. My immediate response was one of despair – if I knew the way, I would be doing it. However, as I sit with this question, I realize that the answer begins with careful listening, with compassion on all sides. Everyone in the Middle East has lived with so much pain for so long, that even acknowledging that pain is a start. I read in a recent news story that Palestinian school children are not taught the history of the Jews in the world, and so they naturally assume that the violence and oppression is simply racist. Likewise, Israeli school children are not taught the history of the Palestinians, and so do not understand why they are so hurt and angry. If I have learned anything at all from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it is that warlike responses do not work. Violence only escalates, until there are too many dead on both sides for anyone to think clearly.

Jesus has taught us the way – “if someone strikes you on the cheek, give him the other cheek also.” “If someone compels you to walk one mile, walk another mile also.” Compassion breeds compassion, eventually. Just as saying to an individual who is angry with us, “Yes, I see that you are hurt” can sometimes de-fuse the situation, perhaps it would help if the US – and the Israelis – said something like that to the Palestinians, and to all those others who think we are the bullies of the world. Not apologizing, but acknowledging their pain. This may sound naive and simplistic, but we already know that bombs and guns only bring more violence, more terror, more war. If we, as a community, could begin to hear the stories of all the aggrieved, and share those stories with others, that could be a start toward healing.

I pray that this community, this small part of the grace-filled, earthen vessel that is, after all, the living Body of Christ, will turn away from the temptation of taking sides in the name of compassion. I pray that we can be a true voice of healing among the nations as we, and they, build and plant in hope and in peace.

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