The Resignation of Bruce Shipman

Last week, The Rev. Bruce Shipman resigned as the Episcopal Chaplain at Yale. He had written a letter to the New York Times about the connection between Israeli actions and the recent anti-Semitic violence in Europe, and quickly received the approbation of numerous pundits. Since then, he has been vilified as an anti-Semite, with mainly a single letter as evidence, his background and previous views exposed and critiqued before the press. Others even accused him of raising the specter of the holocaust and describing him and his words as vile and sickening. Even more, he hates Jews.

Really? This is dialogue? Did I read the same letter?

The argument is that Fr. Shipman was blaming the victim. Perhaps. This accusation implies that victims cannot also be perpetrators. In the context of war, the argument is a good way of justifying that the Palestinians caused their own problems (blaming the victim, indeed). In this way, Israel abdicates its own responsibility for conducting a war, offering the comfort to her supporters that the obliteration of Gaza was necessary and unavoidable. They just had to do it.

This view, however, ignores the possibility that in any conflict, the dynamic includes multiple partners. Might it be that no individual or single institution is singularly responsible; we all have dirty hands? This alternate perspective, of course, disappears when we’re talking about good vs evil, and because our side – by nature – is always on the side of good.

When did we all become such Manicheans?

The argument that Israel is responsible for increased occurrences anti-Semitism requires some excavation. Perviously, Norman Finklestein argued such in his book The Holocaust Industry, where he posited that the “shakedown” of Swiss banks and the institutional diminishment of other genocides might have increased European resentment towards those organizations seeking reparations. I’m not sure how to evaluate such claims, but what’s plausible that is that money, opportunism and moral righteousness make an appealing, and appalling trifecta.

For some, this is construed as reaffirming anti-Semitic stereotypes; but for some of us, opportunism is universal behavior. To claim that such accusations are anti-Semitic becomes a slight-of-hand, a get out of jail free card that directs away from  crime itself. The power to accuse someone of anti-Semitism ensures an impenetrable armor of righteousness. It makes it harder for some to gather justice when the accusation doesn’t actually fit the behavior.

Let us be clear: anti-Semitism, like all hatred of minority communities, should be swiftly condemned. In Shipman’s case, contra the headline of the American Interest, he was referring to institutional actors (the patrons, like the United States of America itself) who do influence policy, not all the Jews themselves. I’d be a little more precise: Israel should not be blamed for anti-Semitism, but be unsurprised by blowback. Both Hamas and Israel might want to consider the long term consequences of their violence. Israel’s previous support of Hamas and ambivalence toward Fatah, and their success in occupying the West Bank have had repercussions. And I’m not the sort who compares Israel to the Reich, nor do I think that Israel is creating an apartheid state. But it’s evident that living in Palestine isn’t kittens and rainbows, and Israel bears a greater responsibility for the conditions on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza.

The other question is practical: Do American Jewish Institutions do have an impact on Israel, or on our own relationship with Israel?  It seems to me that if Israel has an impact on the decisions of the United States, a realist position identifies those institutions that have credibility in Israel. My own institutions do not; but I know of plenty of Jewish institutions that have stronger relationships. I work with some them in a variety of ways to keep our dialogue going and identify ways to create peace. I would say, even, they DO feel responsible already.

Unfortunately, there is an unintended consequence of his resignation. It implies the anti-Semitic belief in a Jewish conspiracy to overwhelm honest public conversations about Israel. It makes Shipman’s critics look like powerful, abusive, easily frightened bullies. Who’s really scared of an academic Episcopal cleric? No person who knows Fr. Shipman would accuse him of having a single anti-Semitic bone in his body. And yet, the opposition has gone on to gang up on him (crucify?) for his imprecision and error. What is unfortunate is that these are the sorts of critics who seem motivated by the view that peace between Israel and Palestine is a zero sum game. One side’s victims can be known and acknowledged; the others deserve their fate.

Shipman never advocated violence against Israel, or its elimination. He is not a militant supporter of Hamas. He has toured the holy land with Jews and Arabs. After he wrote the letter, he met with Professor Maurice Samuels, director of the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism.  Is that the action of someone who is a vile Jew hater? No. Because he isn’t, in spite of the claims of his critics. Misinformed? Possibly. Tone deaf? Surely. Wrong? Who knows?

Shipman should have stayed, if only to illustrate that honest, hard conversations in the academy are necessary. Let him be called names; let him be engaged; let his error be corrected.

But let the conversation continue.

On the Killing of Chris Stevens

Yesterday Chris Stevens, Ambassador to Libya, was killed by armed men, fundamentalists offended by a video produced here in the United States.  It was a horrible act, one that deserves condemnation.

The Ambassador, by all accounts, represented the best of our foreign service.  He did not get his job because of his contributions to the administration.  He was a career diplomat, someone who served the country through the challenging work of diplomacy.  It’s not an easy job, but it is crucial.  We do not appreciate these sorts of men and women enough.   A good diplomat often earns the respect of the country they serve.  Chris Stevens did.

Good diplomats are truly the first line of defense against aggression.

The initiating cause was a hate-video written for the incendiary purposes of terrifying non-Muslims and insulting the faithful.    They’re excuse:  to inform.  It’s like crying “fire” in a crowded movie theater in order to see if the exit signs work.  The authors are now in hiding – as they should be.  They are cowards.

We are fortunate to live in a country with free speech.  But in an interconnected world what we say gets heard in the rest of the world.    We should be prepared when what we say takes a knife into the hearts of others.

But we need not lose heart.  Plenty of Muslims in the world understand that this is not the American Government.  They also, however, have opportunists who benefit from harnessing violence.  And so the cycle of hate continues.

We need not agree with glib statements that religion causes violence.  In many places throughout the world in history religions have existed together.  But when people in power are themselves fearful and society is anxious, it’s easy to light a match under the feet of the worried and watch the world burn to distract attention upon themselves.

We are one of the few countries where religious tolerance, with some exceptions, is part of our DNA.  Yes, although the Mormons, Amish, Catholics, Atheists and Jews have all experienced hardships, by and large they were each able to carve out places in our public life.  That we have been able to do this is in part because of our beginnings.  John Locke, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson showed no intellectual favoritism; and this was shared by many of their countrymen.

So what we do matters.  It matters that we have protestants and Roman Catholics living side by side.  It matters that Hindus go to Indian restaurants owned by Muslims.  It matters that Jewish institutions finance interfaith works here in Westchester.  Because it reminds the world that different religions can live in peace.

But opportunists know how to fan the flames.  And that’s who we’re talking about.  Opportunists made the video.  Opportunists stormed the embassy.  Most Americans would find the video, itself, scandalous; and few Libyans would support the murder of innocents.  Even now, they are protesting the murders.

The world watches.  If we permit interfaith hatred, it illustrates to other countries that diversity of faith is a threat to social order.  But when we visit and trust our neighbors, we show a better way.  When anyone in our country encourages Islamophobia, we should be clear:  those are not our values.   It was appropriate for the president to say that America does not seek to insult people of different faiths – because it’s true.  Even George Bush called Islam a “noble religion.” “Nobility” aside, insulting others won’t bring peace.  Showing how we live together might.

We can demonstrate a different way.

About Egypt

As we watch the events in Egypt unfold, it’s useful to consider the following:

1) Egypt is a Sunni country, which means it considers religious authority differently than countries like, for example, Iran.

2) Egypt has a long history of secularism.

3) Egypt is the largest, by population, Arab country.  Consequently, there are a diversity of active groups and actors.  The Muslim Brotherhood is not the only active political group in Egypt, and there is a diversity even within that organization.    Our fears are generally projections.

4) There is a deep, public, awareness of a historic Christian presence.  Even Egyptian Muslims are aware that Christianity has an ancient provenance there.

5) Egypt has ties to the west that date back to ancient Greece; some have argued that Egypt deeply influenced Greek culture.  More recently, tourism is an important part of the Egyptian economy.

6) The revolt was not simply about politics, but perhaps about food.  Wheat has doubled in price, causing enormous hunger all over the world.  This may be enough to begin revolts, perhaps all over the world.

Lord, have mercy

On the Twin Towers

Sent via my enewsletter the week of the anniversary of 9/11/01.

It’s the eighth anniversary of the attack on the twin towers. That morning, I called people who I knew worked in the area, and after doing what I could, began to drive up to Rochester to be with my father, who died the next day.

Several new people came to church that Sunday. One family is now an active member of the the church. I wasn’t there, but in my absence, the Rev. Allen Shin preached that Sunday. As the spirit would have it, he had been downtown at Trinity Church, shepherding young children with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was there to give a talk.

It was a rough time. Some were heartbroken, angry, defensive, righteous, eager for a fight, determined to administer justice. All these sensibilities are real and appropriate. One parishioner said, “we should bomb them,” although she was unclear about who “they” were. Others simply wrestled with trying to figure out, why would this happen to us?

What the archbishop argued for was “breathing space.” At the time it seemed ridiculous. The archbishop noted that as the mob was about to stone the adulteress, he just sat in the ground, writing. Perhaps all Jesus was doing, was giving the demons time to walk away. Saying “I love you” offers space. Sometimes all we need is some time, spacious time, to gather ourselves, and think clearly.

Peter Stienfels once wrote about the Archbishop’s reflections upon a conversation with a rabbi after the war in Lebanon: “The rabbi,” Archbishop Williams told his audience, “made no political points. But he said that when in the Bible God tells Moses to take off his shoes in the divine presence, the Jewish sages had interpreted this to mean that we couldn’t meet God if we were protected against the uneven and unyielding and perhaps stony or thorny ground.”

The rabbi considered this also true “when we meet the human beings who are made in God’s image,” Archbishop Williams said. “Those who are responsible for violence of any kind, even when they think it is in a just cause, need to take off their shoes and recognize what it is like when flesh and blood are hurt.”

“Terrorism, is the absolute negation of any such recognition,” What will defeat terrorism in the end “is ‘taking off our shoes,’ coming to terms with what we share as mortal beings who have immortal value.”

It is a tough message. In a politically polarized environment, our first task is to recognize in each other the image of God, that admits that we all have fears, frustrations and questions. Perhaps we have to stop participating in the madness that elevates the spectacle and drama of emotional conflict. Instead, we are called to stand on that stony and thorny ground.

We must not rely on the easy platitudes that reveal our defensiveness or demand war. It is to simply recognize the truth that we can each find ourselves pulled in the direction of violence.

Jesus merely says stop. And without looking at us, He waits, and draws in the sand. The demons then depart. And so we hope.

Notes on the Cultural Center

Over the last few months the construction of a cultural center has taken a lot of press time.  Abdul Rauf is going to found Cordoba house.  Abdul Rauf has served the US under the Bush Administration by going throughout the world telling how Muslims enjoy rights in this country.   Cordoba refers to a time in the Muslim world of great intellectual ferment, of an empire where religious differences were treated with some tolerance.

Trinity Church has, rightly, expressed support for the cultural center; Mayor Bloomberg gave an impassioned and brilliant speech expressing the importance of religious liberty.

Obama, Bloomberg and Nadler acknowledge that this is also an issue of property rights, that government officials should not use a heavy hand to cloak any sort of bigotry.

Of course, there is some bleating about and sensitivity and wisdom, but Krugman demonstrates the problem with that argument.

Second, the opposition seems to imply that Islam is a crucial aspect of terror and violence.  This is a complicated assertion.  Muslims, empirically speaking, have never had a monopoly on violence.   Both Muslims and Christians an ambivalence toward weakness.   A more precise question is:  what will this community center teach?

It’s useful to affirm that for some, the cultural center provides a lot of political fodder.  Those who oppose it benefit from stirring up passions and fears.  They strengthen their sway and authority by bravely protesting inconsequential projects, puffing themselves up as saviors and defenders of piety.

And I doubt that this is really about proximity to the World Trade Center.  All over the country people are opposing the construction of Mosques.  It’s fear, plain and simple.

Bashraat Peer wrote an article that describes, in detail, persons in the narrative.   Michael Kinsley writesIs there any reason to oppose the mosque that isn’t bigoted, or demagogic, or unconstitutional? None that I’ve heard or read.”

What is not understood is that by enabling tolerance, we represent a way of living together that is still new to some Muslim countries.   By seeking understanding, perhaps others will also seek to understand.

Forgiving the Man who Bombed Pan Am 103

Written as an enewsletter on August 20th, 2009

This week, Scotland freed Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the man convicted of bombing Pan Am flight 103. It was a horrible atrocity.

They freed him on the basis of a tradition called “compassionate release.” When a prisoner is near death, the British and the Scottish systems may release prisoners to their families. It isn’t unusual.

Plenty of people are upset. The enraged think this is about oil. They find compassion hard to fathom given the immensity of the crime. Others, however, think Al-Megrahi was a convenient scapegoat for a crime actually committed by the Iranians. But these are trivialities now. We are faced with the problem of mercy.

Mercy isn’t forgiveness. Al-Megrahi did not take responsibility for the crime. It isn’t reconciliation: nobody is having beers with him. He will not get his life back. He wasn’t declared innocent. He was simply shown mercy. He was given some dignity to be with his family.

It’s a hard pill to swallow.

The purpose of mercy is not to make us feel good. It may enrage us more. But it may be a way for us to step back and stop the cycle of violence. Mercy creates an implicit covanent. It offers a gift that need not be returned. It changes the dynamic from an eye for an eye, to one of peace.

Mercy is a difficult gift, especially when other alternatives are just as well.

Those of us who believe that “mercy” was justified must not judge those who shake their fists and demand vengeance. These are not merely expressions of fear or hatred, but a desire for righteousness.

Still, we remember the story: a man executed, but shown no mercy; all those around him are enraged; it temporarily brings peace. But when he is seen again, he does not return out of rage, but out of forgiveness. There is no need to hold on to vengeance or resentment. Peace has been won. Christ has ended the violence by showing mercy upon those who executed him wrongly.

When we say “mercy” it is because we’ve understood the cross. that sometimes we murder the innocent; we know the dangers of becoming consumed by our own rage. By saying “mercy” we say that the the violence ends here. God will have his justice, but until then, no more. It stops with us. May it now. Stop.