It's that time of year again -- that time when nothing that's irritating shows signs of going away.
It's the endless expiration of the Midwestern winter (even though tomorrow is Opening Day), the sado-voyeuristic pleasure found by the financial press in the mess of our markets, the slow-motion, anarchic implosion of the Iraq War, and the logorrhea of the presidential campaign.
This latter is defined lately by the hand- and neck-wringing over the issue of race. The issue of religion is tucked neatly within that of race, and like a pair of Russian nesting dolls, perhaps they're concealing smaller but no less remarkable issues further down.
Those who would castigate Obama for his relationship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright are somehow overlooking the fact that the pulpit has been used in every religion, throughout that religion's history, to set boundaries between one community and another. What Reverend Wright said from his pulpit -- Cliff Notes: 'May God wreak vengeance on [fill in the blank]: oppressors, unbelievers, evil, those different from us' -- has been said from lecterns in churches, synagogues, mosques -- probably in every religious edifice except Baha'i temples and Quaker meeting halls -- since the first pulpit was hewn or hammered together.
Belonging and belief create communities in part by reinforcing boundaries, and one of the ways boundaries are reinforced is through reminding parishioners of collective wounds and grievances -- making sure they never forget the wrongs done to them, and never lose the resolve to redress those wrongs. A preacher may urge transcendence or he may urge revenge, but either way, Scripture has his back, because transcendence and vengeance are simply two sides of the same currency. And written on that currency are the words:
We can be better than we are, and we are damn sure better than Them.
I wonder: if a Catholic were running for president today, would we be scrutinizing the utterances and policy pronouncements of Pope Benedict? Would the Easter baptism of a prominent Muslim, or Benedict's utterances on the evil and inhumanity of Islam, reflect on a candidate the way Wright's blandishments are dogging Obama?
What about the fact that Benedict has moved to restore the Latin or Tridentine Mass, with its prayers for the conversion of Jews?
There's a distinct and well-documented relationship between proselytizing and demonizing the Other (as Professor Larry Hoffman said to our Wexner group, "To know who you are is to know who you're not"). There are more than two ways to strengthen a faith community, but among the most prominent are winning converts and erecting barriers between your community and those that cannot or will not be a part of it. In this way, Jeremiah Wright and Pope Benedict aren't so different.
Open any book of Jewish prayer and ritual and you'll see (with a little help) that Judaism remembers its grievances and sees vengeance as a critical component of redemption. Jews affirm belief through memory, and the Siddur, or prayer book, includes prayers that leverage the victimization of Jews as a way to strengthen conviction and community. The Siddur was not created at the stroke of a pen, but evolved over time and is revealed in archaeological layers. In 200 CE, for example, when post-Temple Jewish liturgy was still in its early stages, Jewish prayer was highly extemporaneous and relied heavily on oral transmission, not unlike today's pulpit-pounding preachers.
The first blessing of the central Amidah prayer, for example, is, according to Professor Hoffman, a polemic against Gnosticism written in a primarily Gnostic environment. (The blessing praises God as "creator of all," whereas Gnosticism holds there is a Creator of Light and a Creator of Darkness that are at war with each other.) The twelfth blessing urges the punishment of heretics; the thirteenth prays for reward of the righteous. All the middle blessings of the Amidah, according to Reuven Kimelman of Brandeis, can be seen as a counter-messianic manifesto, written at a time when several different strains of Judaism (among them the messianic and their less wild-eyed brethren) were equally prevalent and defining themselves in opposition to each other.
The Passover Haggadah, the most widely read Jewish text of all, and which we're about to open at the Seder table, contains this passage, just after we open the door for the Prophet Elijah, whose coming is said to herald the Messianic Age:
Pour out your wrath upon the heathen who will not acknowledge Thee, and upon the kingdoms who invoke not Thy name, for they have devoured Jacob, and laid waste his dwelling.
What seems, taken on its own, to be a blood-thirsty call for the slaying of non-believers is actually a 12th-century cry for justice -- a response to the wholesale destruction of European Jewish communities during the Crusades of 1096.
(Of course, plenty of Jewish text also supports healing and reconciliation: the Wexner Foundation just sent all its participants a book that builds on Judaism's rational and pacific strains to build bridges between denominations, faiths and worlds. It's You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Building Faith Without Fanaticism, by Brad Hirschfield. It jumps to the top of my reading list.)
It's not just religious communities that define themselves by calling upon God to aid their cause by punishing others. How about this ringing phrase from Benjamin Franklin:
Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.
Reverend Wright, in condemning the tyranny of racism, is hewing close to this sentiment. His cry to God is, or should be, immediately and intimately familiar to any person, of any faith, who prays.
And so, as this election season drags on, we should remember that all our faiths and all our communities cry out for justice, and that those cries, born of centuries of pain and privation, are sometimes harsh.