This is part eight of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
There is some Presbyterian push-back on my divestment commentary. Do I, as a Jew, have a right to comment on Corporate Christianity? Some of the comments reference Jewish wealth. In the old parlance, Jewish money. It’s a slippery slope, for sure, but of course have at it. See how you can address the question. Karl Marx wrote about Jewish finance. He did so within the broader issue of political change. The Jewish finance class was a pillar of an unjust state. Christianity had the enabling state religion part. Marx was equally critical of that pillar.
The more serious comments have to do with putting our money where our mouths are. Can’t I understand the need for financial security, pension funds and the like? Besides, boat loads of money can be used for good. Economic leverage, political change. If we aren’t players in the larger scheme of things, we lose our power to help those on the margins. Perhaps.
Without having an answer, I am trying to think freely. I don’t excuse myself from the dilemmas I can’t solve. Yet the 7 billion dollar portfolio – again if I heard it right – still startles me. Especially when you balance it off the lilies of the field. I am not a Christian and don’t want to be. I have been around Christians who have never had pensions or have given them up. There is something about these Christians that I take seriously. Many years ago I spent a year with Dorothy Day at the Catholic Worker house in New York City. She lived among the pensionless. She didn’t have a pension.
When you are on the other side of power, even the power that seeks to rescue you, it must be difficult to understand the reluctance to give up everything to be of service to our neighbor. You can only feel this fully if you are in that position. Perhaps we’ve all been in that position in some aspect of our lives. I certainly have.
If I were a Palestinian listening to the Presbyterian votes on my fate – with the wonderful voting pad and colorful graphics showing the percentage of the votes cast – I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for others to come to my aid, even those with the best of intentions. Then to be betrayed by parts of your own Palestinian community, as is sometimes the case. Well, it must be somewhat like the Jews of Europe waiting on the world to act. Waiting on Jewish leadership to act. Often betrayed from within.
Remaining on the Presbyterian portfolio for another minute or two, what also struck me was how little control the Presbyterians had over their own finances. It seems that touching the portfolio is almost like tampering with the Gospels; it’s safely packed away so the whims of the Christians assembled can’t do anything rash. Like giving it all away. Or placing it all where justice is. As in any corporation, the foundational funds are out of anyone’s controls except the delegated financial managers. Their responsibility is to a different bottom line than what Jesus purportedly preached.
When religion goes corporate it should be analyzed in that way. Academically, the field is called the Sociology of Religion. The Sociology of Religion takes an atheological look at how religion functions. There are no sacred cows. I don’t believe that how religion functions is everything we need to know about religion but without it we are stuck in pieties. Prayers as another people’s fate is decided.
Having said all this, I note how far parts of Christianity have advanced. How far ahead they’ve pulled ahead of Jewish denominations! Or perhaps Christian and Jewish denominations are the same, split at the core, balancing money and commitment. When you’re elites, you’re elites. Few are willing to go the whole way. So Christians and Jews are in the same corporate boat. Like the home I passed with the American and Israeli flag flying. Missing is the Wall Street flag which, thank God, Jews and Christians can now fly together.
Yes, and now to the issue of “Jewish money.” Some ask how I can criticize Corporate Christianity when there is so much Jewish money floating around the world, doing what money does, especially funding politicians of all stripes who will do their bidding in America and Israel. Too much money held by any institution or person is corrupting, Christian or Jewish. So go at it!
As we know, the notion of “Jewish money” has a long slippery-slope reality in history. Jews who don’t know their place are legion and often they rub non-Jews the wrong way. Yet another slippery-slope in the historical arena. Maybe that’s why the Presbyterian divestment folks voiced their love for Israel – because the Jewish thing in Christianity isn’t really resolved?
Christianity has never had a real relationship with Jews or Judaism. We’ve either been devils or angels, either/or. Which we aren’t – devils or angels. Obviously. Loved or hated, Jews remain an unresolved issue for Christians. However, I do give many Christians tremendous kudos for trying. Why not admit that Christians are ambivalent about Jews? Then we can continue to work our relationship out in honest ways.
Jews are ambivalent about Christians, too. We should admit that. After this long, dark and entangled history, ambivalent is a pretty good start on a new era.
So no free rides for Christians in their new justice garbs! And no free rides for Jews as we shed our justice garbs!
Other than the Presbyterian engagement/push back, the silence is deafening. But it’s time to get over that. Any word now would be too late. It would only be a rear-guard action to deflect the necessary next step. As when Michael Lerner finally accepted that Oslo was dead after condemning anyone who didn’t support it. At any rate, Progressive Jews are over. Even the Progressive Jew within us. It doesn’t die easily, since that kind of Jewishness can have its cake and eat it too. It can accept our new found status in America, benefit from riding high in the economic sphere and spread the good word about us Jews being the great welcomers of all minorities and the best purveyors of justice in the history of the world. All the while, we can sponsor Jewish Renewal retreats that incorporate every Native American and Asian spiritual tradition – and you name it – into Jewish ritual. As if it is ours.
I’m not exempting myself, the Zen-sitter in training. I’ve been sitting for many decades but at least I’ve kept it private. I sit by myself. And I realize that I am a Jew sitting Zen, rather than a Zen practitioner. I don’t believe that Jewish ritual remains Jewish when it has become something else. Of course, most Jewish traditions also from somewhere else, they’re not home grown historically speaking. Mixing and matching isn’t something new.
Historically, Jews have crossed boundaries. Crossing boundaries has been necessary if only to make sure that the various Jewish establishments didn’t have the final say on what it means to be Jewish. The Jewish Renewal movement is just another example of how Jews survive the Jewish establishment and also create a Jewish way that is relevant to the time in which we live. So hats off the Jewish Renewal movement of a (still) previous time!
In this mixing and matching of cultures and spiritual traditions, Jewish Renewal folks felt that they were honoring other peoples. No doubt they were honorable in their intentions. In practice, however, they usurped these traditions for Jewish use. The Jewish spiritual well had run dry. It’s like Christian renewal movements after the Holocaust (re)appropriating their Jewishness to save them from their Holocaust credibility death knell. Some Christians now speak so lovingly about Jews and about Israel that as a Jew I can’t find myself anywhere in their (parallel) Jewish universe. I suppose this is the reason that many of the Presbyterians who spoke on behalf of divestment prefaced their comments by saying how much they loved Israel.
“Loving” Israel – that’s a remnant of the interfaith ecumenical deal. That divestment is supposed to break. Sort of. If Christians ever let go of their love for Israel – whatever love can possibly mean in relation to state – would they be back where they started, that is, with a fully shattered Christianity? In other words, would Christian credibility be verified only within their multi-billion dollar portfolios ?
To escape the barren confines of the Jewish establishment, the Jewish Renewal movement went native. Interestingly, they didn’t go Jewish indigenous. Jewish native. The unadorned, unritualized prophetic. Why did they go out when they could have gone deeper within?
When affluent and powerful cultures go native they expropriate the traditions they find so enhancing. Whatever their intentions, they ride roughshod over the native culture. The Jewish Renewal movement went colonial. They went colonial trying to escape the increasingly colonial attitudes of the Jewish establishment in Israel and America.
Colonial attitudes are found on the right and on the left. They are used to bury Others. They are used to rescue Others. Colonialism is used to distance us from Others and to bring the Other within. Regardless, Others are at our disposal. Colonial attitudes project outward because there seems to be little or nothing left within the culture that appropriates Others for its use.
As I’ve mentioned, there’s a new book coming soon – watch for it! – by the French author, Victoria Fontan, who is still traveling in the Congo. Her working title – Decolonizing Peace. Her theory – that the academic field of Peace Studies and peace and development agencies around the world, including the United Nations, are so thoroughly imbued with a colonial mentality that most of their work is thinly disguised Western missionary work.
Who does that missionary work benefit? That’s another billion(s) dollar question. Fontan’s answer: the West. Plus elites in non-Western societies. Anyway, the book is an indictment of “development” work in its various guises. Devastating stuff.
Right now Fontan is looking for a woman she met and spent time with during her last visit. The woman experienced the most harrowing reality of sexual violence most of us only read about in the newspapers. Real stuff. No pension plan.
Fontan draws on her experience with other Congolese women and features her other travels off the researchers beaten track as well. And, yes, as an inheritor of that French Republican tradition – also imbued with its own colonialism, of course – she doesn’t pull any punches.
I’ve already recalled her critique of the United Nations, and my favorites bear repeating in case the reader skipped over the passages as a lark. The first is United Nation troops being supplied with trafficked girls and boys. The companies involved, the truckers paid, the night club owners welcoming, there’s an entire matrix that hides the sex trade in broad daylight. It’s akin to the occupation of Palestine, every corporate entity in Israel seeks the business that comes with occupation. More or less, like any occupation – or war – corporate portfolios fatten.
It’s is a feat to behold. The double life there is amazing. Trafficked sex is for the night time. During the day the soldiers protect the populations. Another favorite of mine is the story of a prominent female diplomat sleeping with a local leader to resolve a dispute. He even waved her panties the following day to show how the resolution kept his dignity!
So Fontan sets out to decolonize Peace Studies and development work around the globe. Bon chance, Victoria! And, of course, since she admits to being a product of the colonial mentality, she is trying to decolonize herself. Not an easy task, even for an heir of the French Revolution.
But returning to the Jewish scene, how thoroughly imbued with colonial mentalities we Jews are – on both sides of the Empire Divide. We can laugh – and should laugh – at Netanyahu’s invocation of Thomas Jefferson. But have you ever read Michael Lerner on how Palestinians must guarantee Israel’s security? Or how Palestinians have to demonstrate to Jews how they have reformed their retrograde culture? My personal favorite is the demilitarized Palestinian state in a region armed to the teeth. To the query of who will protect the borders of the demilitarized Palestinian state, Lerner’s answer – you guessed it – the IDF!
If we wonder whether Netanyahu understands the implications of his July 4th invocation of Thomas Jefferson, how, then, can Lerner invoke Israel as the defenders of Palestine with a straight face? Indeed he does, which is a huge part of the problem. And even more, aside from my mostly unread writing, I have never read or heard this incredible assertion ever mentioned as a colonial sensibility right out of the annals of the White Man’s Burden.
The Jewish White Man’s Burden?
This is how acceptable colonial sensibilities are in the Jewish world. Not a peep from Jews of Conscience on this issue who admittedly might be so fed up with Lerner and Tikkun that they don’t want to hear his name. But, understanding that, the question still remains as to how deep the colonial is in Jewish identity, recognizing it and, depending on our explorations, what is to be done about it? It might be that the colonial is so embedded in Jewish identity that there is no way to get it out of our colonial mindset. If that is the case, which it might very well be, if we can’t jettison the entire worldview, then what we are going to do with our colonial Jewish identity?
Do you remember the song, “How Deep is Your Love?” Well the refrain on the colonial level might be – very.