Saturday, January 12, 2013

Abraham, Revisionism and "Privilege Distress"

I've been reading an amazing book:  Abraham by Bruce Feiler.  As the book jacket describes it, "Abraham stands as the shared ancestor of Jews, Christians and Muslims. . . Bruce Feiler set out on a personal quest to better understand our common patriarch."  The book explores how each of these three related world faiths views its father Abraham-- where they are similar, where different, what parts of his life they stress, and why.  Feiler is Jewish, but he treats each of the three faiths with fairness and insight, uncovering commonalities and revealing along the way the shared humanity of three kinds of believers in one God.

The biggest eyeopener in this book, for me, was a trend Feiler uncovered in each of the three faiths: Abraham lived prior to Judaism, Christianity or Islam, but each group, at certain points in history, has done what it could to claim him for its own, to the exclusion of the other two.  Jewish interpreters  painted him as knowing and observing Torah long before it was even written.  Muslim interpreters claimed that Ishmael was actually the favored son and Isaac a mere interloper.  Christian interpreters claimed that Abraham knew by special revelation the gospel of Christ.  As Feiler puts it:

Abraham has been transformed so wildly by his own self-proclaimed descendants that he bears little resemblance to the portrait now left to fade in the Bible.  The biblical story itself. . . manages to convey a more general message of God's grace than. . . the portraits Abraham's supposed spiritual inheritors were busily creating. p. 154-155.

Revisionism. We humans are prone to it.  We look at history, a piece of writing or a set of facts, and we ignore what we don't want to see and overemphasize what we do want to see, in order to make our viewpoint stronger and opposing ones weaker.  Bruce Feiler interviewed Rev. Petra Heldt, head of the Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity in Jerusalem, and came to this understanding:

"If you look at history," she told me, "each religion, at different times, for different reasons, tried to establish itself as the dominant religion.  Claiming Abraham for yourself is just one way to establish your authority." This power grab usually occurs at historical turning points, she noted.  For Jews it was after the Second Temple was destroyed and they had to buttress their sagging identity.  For Christians it was after the fall of Rome in the fourth and fifth centuries, when they lost their political protection.  "It's a psychological need triggered by political circumstances.  You use your culture to establish your triumphalism because your political power may be waning.  You want to show that you've always been there.  Abraham is a great way to prove that." p. 156.

This idea rang a bell.  I immediately thought of a similar pattern that's occurring here in the United States today:  the insistence by the Christian Right that America was founded as a Christian nation. The Shades of Grace website has good examples of this argument, providing selected quotes from the Founding Fathers intended to prove that the United States has belonged to Christians and Christianity from its inception.  But a quote such as this one from John Adams:

The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity. I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God.

-- should be balanced by what he wrote in the Treaty of Tripoli when he was President:

As the government of the United States of America is not on any sense founded on the Christian Religion, - as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of of Musselmen (Muslims), - and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

It seems to me, when these two quotes are taken together (along with many others), that many of the Founding Fathers believed Christian principles lay behind the founding of the United States, but they did not consider the Christian religion to be America's national religion.  In fact, there has always been a tension in my country of birth between its ideal of providing a haven to people of all faiths, and its historical tendency to privilege Christianity (this due largely, I think, to the dominance of European whites in its leadership from its inception).  As David Lose put it in The Huffington Post:

[T]he United States has always been home to a multitude of faith traditions and, indeed, was imagined from the beginning to be a religious haven. . . [But] those who support the notion of a "Christian America" can convincingly argue that the de facto stance of this country has been to privilege the belief of, if not simply Christianity, at least what's often called "the Judeo-Christian tradition" because of its central place in this nation's evolution.

In fact, the more pluralistic the United States now becomes, and the more it gives a voice and a place to religious and non-religious minorities, the louder the voices seem to grow that want to make it clear that Christianity is the dominant religion in America-- the one that has "always been there," just as Feiler's book describes in the Middle East's struggles over ownership of Abraham.  "This is a Christian nation" is a way of saying, "We Christians are America; it has always belonged to us, and we can take it back."

What is the proper response to this?  Do we mock and ridicule those who want to shore up their power and influence in this way?  Does an us-against-them mentality (even in response to that mentality in others) do any good? Is just saying "they're wrong"-- even if they factually are-- helping the situation?  Bruce Feiler, exploring the roots of Abraham in the turbulent Middle East, sees another way.

I needed to believe that loving God, that being prepared to sacrifice for that belief, and that [also] believing in peace had not somehow become incomprehensible. . . We can, like Abraham, leave behind our native places-- our comfortable, even doctrinaire traditions-- and set out for an unknown location, whose dimensions may be known only to God but whose mandate is to be a place where God's blessing is promised to all. p. 215-216.  Emphasis added.

I was very interested to read this article on the "Weekly Sift" blog called The Distress of the Privileged.  It largely echoes the historical principle Rev. Heldt found in the conflict over Abraham: when a group's political power is waning-- even if as a result of a call to fairness in sharing power with other groups-- the group experiences that as a painful loss which it must try to remedy.  Ignoring the pain of others-- even of the privileged-- is unfair in itself, and counterproductive:

As the culture evolves, people who benefitted from the old ways invariably see themselves as victims of change. The world used to fit them like a glove, but it no longer does. Increasingly, they find themselves in unfamiliar situations that feel unfair or even unsafe. Their concerns used to take center stage, but now they must compete with the formerly invisible concerns of others.

If you are one of the newly-visible others, this all sounds whiny compared to the problems you face every day. It’s tempting to blast through such privileged resistance with anger and insult.

Tempting, but also, I think, a mistake. The privileged are still privileged enough to foment a counter-revolution, if their frustrated sense of entitlement hardens...

Confronting this distress is tricky, because neither acceptance nor rejection is quite right. The distress is usually very real, so rejecting it outright just marks you as closed-minded and unsympathetic. It never works to ask others for empathy without offering it back to them.

Doug Muder, the blog author, offers a different alternative to the scorn and contempt which is the most common response to the Christian Right by those it is challenging.  He says:

Ultimately, the privileged need to be won over. Their sense of justice needs to be engaged rather than beaten down. The ones who still want to be good people need to be offered hope that such an outcome is possible in this new world.

I used to be part of the Christian Right.  Many of my friends and fellow-church members still are.  And they are good people who believe in love-your-neighbor, and who do have valid things to say to and about the American political process. I don't think the answer is to shame them or treat them as the enemy, which they certainly are not.  These are people who help me when I'm in distress, who hug me when we meet, who laugh and cry and pray with me.  The answer is to do unto them as I would want done unto me-- to listen, to hear their real distress, and then to appeal to their sense of justice and their principles of Christian love.  It is possible, as Muder points out, for a privileged person like me to do this (I know, because I've been trying to do it):

[S]he could learn to be a good guy by the lights of this new society. It would be hard. [S]he’d have to give up some of [her] privileges. [S]he’d have to examine [her] habits to see which ones embody assumptions of supremacy. [S]he’d have to learn how to see the world through the eyes of others, rather than just assume that they will play their designated social roles.

Bruce Feiler ends his study of Abraham this way:

At the start of the twenty-first century, the idea that one religion was going to extinguish the others was deader than it had been in two thousand years-- and possibly ever. . . A new type of religious interaction was needed, involving not just swords, plowshares and the idea of triumph but conversation, interaction, and the idea of pluralism. . . Fourteen hundred years after the rise of Muhammad, two thousand years after the ascent of Christianity, twenty-five hundred years after the original of Judaism, and four thousand years after the birth of Abraham, the three monotheistic religions were inching towards a posture of open-- and equal-- deliberation.  This state of affairs set up a new question for the faiths to ponder: Can the children of Abraham actually coexist? p. 196, emphasis in original.

Feiler goes on to paint the last picture in the Bible from Abraham's life:

Finally, in Genesis 25, verse 7, Abraham dies . . . At Abraham's burial, his two most prominent sons, rivals since before they were born, estranged since childhood, scions of rival nations, come together for the first time since they were rent apart nearly three-quarters of a century earlier.  The text reports their union without comment.  "His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah. . . in the field that Abraham had bought from the Hittites."  

But the meaning of this moment cannot be diminished.  Abraham achieves in death what he could never achieve in life: a moment of reconciliation between his two sons, a peaceful, communal, side-by-side flicker of possibility in which they are not rivals, scions, warriors, adversaries, children, Jews, Christians, or Muslims.  They are brothers.  

The fact is that we're all human, and all prone to the weaknesses of humanity.  If some of us revise history in an attempt to strengthen our challenged assumption that our rightful place is in the center of power, this isn't anything that the rest of us aren't capable of doing, or have never done.  Jesus talked about forgiveness, about not judging one another. He talked about doing to others what we would want done to ourselves.  He talked about giving being greater than receiving.  

He talked about seeing one another as brothers and sisters, and that what we do to "the least of these" is what we do to Him. 

I think in the long run, these things will be the answer. 


Anonymous said...

Excellent article... thanks.

Cynthia said...

Kristen, this is a very good article. I believe that we must come together, accepting each other at "heart" value. You see, when you look at another person, no matter what their religious or political beliefs, through the eyes of Christ, it is impossible to hate or ridicule them. Christ is watching ALL of us.... Do we really love each other or is it all an act? We can break-down the church doors every Sunday and still not open our hearts to accepting and loving others. It is so easy to love the people that love us back. But, it is difficult to love those who have different beliefs, backgrounds and experiences than ourselves. It just takes so much effort to reach out, knowing that we may be rejected. But, Christ did it and so shall we, as we grow in His Word and strive to walk in His Path. This is easy to talk about but it soooo hard to do. I have friends from all walks of life...different cultures and political beliefs.... But, what holds us together is just plain and simple, LOVE. We choose to place LOVE on the altar of our lives. Love changes lives, minds, hearts and saves our souls. Many blessings to you! ~Cynthia

Jennifer said...

This is a very nuanced and insightful article.