Text Study for Mark 12: 35-44 (Pt. 6), November 7, 2021

Speaking in the Shadows

In her book, Holy Envy, Barbara Brown Taylor remembers a letter she received from a Jewish psychiatrist after some ten years in pastoral ministry. The psychiatrist had been reading some of Taylor’s published sermons. While he appreciated much in those messages, he noted that Taylor was still using what he called “the language of contempt.”

Taylor was puzzled by this phrase and asked for clarification. The man noted that she used phrases such as “the burden of the law” or “the righteousness of the Pharisees.” While Taylor used these expressions with good intentions, she noted that she had not “the slightest idea how they sounded to Jewish ears.”

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Taylor’s dialogue partner noted that the phrases were imprecise and venomous, regardless of the intention. “In short,” Taylor writes, “he showed me how casually I appropriated the language of the New Testament without thinking about how the past twenty centuries affect its hearing today” (page 88). While I spent a previous post pointing out some of the ways in which we can read our text while straining out the venom, I felt a need to go back and audit this week’s work to see where else I have fallen short.

When I read the gospel accounts, and especially the Markan composition, I have to remind myself and my conversation partners that most of the fights in the Christian scriptures are no longer my fights. That’s true in the simple, historical sense that those fights have been settled (or at least they’re over). It’s also true in the complex, historical sense that I live in a far different time and place than did the first Jesus followers.

Taylor notes in her book that at least some of us Christians want to think and live as if there have not been twenty-one centuries between Jesus’ earthly ministry and our daily lives. Some of us want to think and act as if we can go directly from the text of Christians scriptures to interpretation and application in this moment. For those of us who live after pogroms and the Holocaust and the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue, that arrogant assumption is both wrong and deadly (for Jews, at least).

There’s the real danger that we will make those first-century fights into allegories of and proxies for our contemporary fights. I think Martin Luther did some of that when he made Jewish law the proxy for “The Law” in his theology. I think he did more of that when he made “the Jews” into proxies for the medieval papacy and the penitential system. The problem with that facile exchange is that real Jews paid the real price instead of the papacy.

We should be clear as preachers, and I should be clear as a commentator, that the scribes in the Markan composition do not represent a minority opinion among first-century Jews on the marks of the Messiah. As Taylor notes, Jesus “simply did not do what Jewish scripture said a messiah would do. He did not restore Jerusalem. He did not rebuild the Jerusalem temple. He did not usher in the age of peace on earth, so that wolves and lambs lay down together and no one learned war anymore” (page 84).

Most of us Christians, Taylor observes, expect Jesus to do these things when he returns, “but that is where Jews and Christians part ways. When Jesus’ followers began to worship him,” she concludes, “those who confessed faith in the one God waved good-bye to the those who saw God as three” (page 84). And, I remind myself, it wasn’t just the scribes who thought Jesus was off the track. That’s the majority position of the Twelve until after the crucifixion and resurrection.

What I am asking of myself is to be precise and specific whenever the potential for anti-Jewish “language of contempt” is a temptation (which is most Sundays in Christian preaching). The problem with the scribes in our text is not being “Jewish.” The problem is that some of them were greedy and as a result were violating the standards of their own teaching.

But, “Jew” and “greedy” have been combined a million times in the last two millennia. The image of the rich, greedy Jew has been used to underwrite horrific acts, policies, and regimes. We should note that this image never disappears. It goes underground for a while, only to re-emerge when useful to those who want to be the next incarnation of institutional Anti-Semitism. A brief survey of current right wing political literature and pronouncements in this country and around the world will demonstrate that the “greedy Jew” has returned as a trope to legitimate persecution and violence.

Thus, this is fraught territory for preaching and commenting. Clarity, specificity, and lots of caveats should be the order of the day. For example, when it comes to the marks of the Messiah, Jesus is the one skating on thin theological ice here. No one could have expected in advance that the Messiah would look like Jesus, crucified and raised.

While Jesus was on the margins of messianic interpretation, he was in many ways more conservative than his dialogue partners. Think about the number of times Jesus returns to an earlier and deeper level of the tradition to make his points. He’s not creating new categories or systems. He is going back to the meaning and intent behind the texts. The way that Jesus is “radical” is that he goes to the “root” (Latin = radix) of the issues in the text.

For example, the care for widows, orphans, and sojourners is a central tenet of the Tanakh (the “Old Testament” for us Gentiles). This is not a new invention. Jesus is not breaking new theological ground here.

In addition, whatever the Temple system was, that’s not my fight. My fight is with oppressive, extractive, and exploitative systems in the here and now. It’s a lot more comfortable to focus on “the Temple,” because I don’t have a dog in that fight. If I focus on the here and now systems, there’s a problem. In those systems I’m much more a scribe than a widow.

We do business at a local bank. My spouse works for another large banking corporation. My ELCA retirement plan dollars are invested in the stock market and depend on that market for income. I have a daily vested interest in the success of those institutions. Then I read a paper on how private banks and the private banking system have continued to practice discrimination against a variety of minority groups because diversity, equity, and inclusion are seen as conflicting with their real bottom lines (See Packin and Nippani article). Well, that’s a problem — for me.

Even the language of the scribes as “villains,” which works so well in performance criticism terms, is loaded language in our preaching. Sigh. Perhaps it’s too much to ask for people to see the textual “villains” without transferring those feelings to the descendants of the “villains.” I probably need to leave that imagery on the sidelines.

Does the Markan account itself argue here that the Temple “deserved” destruction? Perhaps it does. If so, that is an after the fact argument, since the Temple was dust and ashes by the time the Markan account is put into writing. Perhaps this is simply hindsight bias (“you see, we knew it all along!”). The problem is that this argument slides far too easily into one that says Jews deserve destruction because of their “resistance” to Jesus. We get that already in Matthew 27 – “his blood be upon us and upon our children.”

The writer of Matthew’s gospel has much for which to answer on that count. But no one was required to put that into practice or to read it as blanket permission to kill Jews. That blood is upon us Christians and upon our ancestors. We can pray and preach in such ways that it might not be upon our children and grandchildren as well.

Barbara Brown Taylor describes these dangerous descriptions as “the shadow language in the New Testament.” I went to public worship recently for the first time in eighteen months. It was Reformation Sunday, and my ears were tuned to this shadow language. The images of Jewish ignorance, Christian triumph, and ecclesiastical success raked my ears like fingernails on the proverbial chalkboard. How many times have I done that to my listeners? Dozens. Hundreds. I don’t know.

Taylor notes that “the language of contempt is not the only shadow language in the New Testament. There is also the one that uses the rhetoric of men first,” she continues, “followed by silenced women and obedient slaves. There is another that divides reality into opposed pairs, pitting church against world, spirit against flesh, light against dark. There is even one,” she notes, “that glorifies suffering for suffering’s sake, leading some Christians to hurt themselves – or others—for reasons that have nothing to do with the gospel” (pages 104-105).

I write this blog mostly for the benefit of some dedicated lay preachers who are doing their best to be faithful in their proclamation. I’m glad the rest of you come along for the read. I’d like to make that task simpler, but then I would fail them. “The purpose of staying on the lookout for languages like these,” Taylor concludes, “is to prevent them from becoming uncontested parts of the Christian worldview” (page 105).

There is no harder work than looking at how I see, listening to how I hear, and auditing how I speak. It’s not really something I can do for myself with anything approaching reliability. That’s one of the reasons why preaching is a communal activity at its best, not a solo effort. Trusting Jesus, as Taylor reminds us, does not lead to owning God. Let’s help one another refrain from making that property claim.

Now, there’s a word for our time…

References and Resources

Beavis, Mary Ann. “Women as Models of Faith in Mark,” https://www.academia.edu/13080771/Women_as_Models_of_Faith_in_Mark.

Brobst-Renaud, Amanda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-6.

Cruz, Samuel. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-5.

Dewey, Joanna. “Women in the Gospel of Mark.” https://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/26-1_mark/26-1_dewey.pdf.

FLEDDERMANN, HARRY. “A Warning about the Scribes (Mark 12:37b-40).” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 1, Catholic Biblical Association, 1982, pp. 52–67, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43716182.

Kiel, Micah. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-2.

Langknecht, Henry. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-3.

MALBON, ELIZABETH STRUTHERS. “The Poor Widow in Mark and Her Poor Rich Readers.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 4, Catholic Biblical Association, 1991, pp. 589–604, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43718348.

Powery, Emerson. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-4.

Taylor, Barbara Brown. Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. HarperOne, 2019.

WRIGHT, ADDISON G. “The Widow’s Mites: Praise or Lament?—A Matter of Context.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 2, Catholic Biblical Association, 1982, pp. 256–65, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43709756.

Text Study for Mark 12:35-44 (Pt. 3); November 7, 2021

Flashing Lights Ahead

We Christian preachers must never lose sight of the anti-Judaism that permeates our western history, our American social and political culture, and our various denomination traditions. This is especially acute for those of us in the Lutheran tribe with our connections to Martin Luther’s virulent anti-Semitism (especially but not limited to his later writings) and our connections to the evil engineers of the Holocaust. Therefore, whenever a text has the potential to lead us in anti-Jewish directions, we have to exercise great caution and issue intentional correctives.

I was reminded this morning that a helpful re-balancing of the discussion so far is available on youtube.com. I would encourage you to take an hour and watch Amy-Jill Levine’s 2012 address entitled “From Donation to Diatribe: How Anti-Jewish Interpretation Cashes Out.” You can find that video at https://youtu.be/lksnynNv6UU.

Levine notes that the interpretations of our text break down into two broad types: the widow as moral exemplar vs. the widow as exploited by the “temple domination system.” The latter interpretation is a political critique. Levine notes that the second type of interpretation was really launched by Addison’s Wright’s article, discussed in a previous post. That article was a sort of watershed moment for the interpretation of this text.

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A number of the workingpreacher.org commentaries, for example, pick up on this emphasis. “While many interpretations present the widow’s offering as an example of discipleship in keeping with loving God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength,” Amanda Brobst-Renaud observes, recent commentators have questioned whether the widow’s action is an illustration of systemic injustice or the devouring of widow’s houses.”

 “This gospel lesson is not about the individual behavior of one scribe,” Samuel Cruz writes, “but about the misinformed and immoral ideology that informed such behavior. Jesus confronts the beliefs and values of his day,” Cruz continues, “that maintained an oppressive system in much more authentic and powerful ways than the Colonial Roman empire could…”

The poor widow “gave it all,” Emerson Powery notes. “Jesus’ observation about the ‘poor widow’ who sacrificed the only economic resources she had left was a natural progression from Jesus’ critique of scribal abuse of the widows’ homes. In the Greek text, this passage flows syntactically from the other one without any evident linguistic break. In light of the context of conflict between Jesus and the temple leaders,” Powery continues, “this story was more likely a condemnation, rather than a commendation; that is, it highlighted the ways the ‘treasury’ (of the scribes) consumed the means of the poor.”

Levine notes that it is, especially in this interpretation, easy to change this text from a window opening us to Jesus into a mirror reflecting our own situations and agendas. This is not on the face of it inappropriate. But it is not the default interpretation either. Yet, it is a powerful way to read the text.

“Jesus was assassinated because he dared to unravel the ideology that maintained the elites in power. I can’t help but wonder what the consequences for the church might be,” Samuel Cruz writes, “if it, like Jesus, turned the values and ideologies of oppression upside down and elevated the values of the kingdom to prominence. If instead of preaching from the perspective of the upper strata of society, it began to reflect and preach from the perspective of the widow, the orphan, the migrant, and the poor. Perhaps the church would no longer be asked to do invocations for political rallies, and maybe powerful politicians will no longer attend our gatherings. I would follow Jesus in exalting the spiritual riches of the widow while letting the rich and powerful keep their scraps.”

Henry Langknecht adds additional texture to this perspective. “First of all, depending on your context and the specific nature of the hypocrisy in the community you serve, it would be powerful to preach into the first part of the gospel lesson. We’d like to identify ourselves with the widow of verses 41-44, but most of us North American Christians are the scribes of verses 38-40. Even when we live simply, we enjoy products and infrastructures whose provision devours the lives of the poor in the world. And no length of prayers can hide us and our love of what we have and what we’ve accomplished.”

I quote these observations at length because they raise critical questions for American Christians and American churches in our time and space. But as preachers and interpreters, we have to ask ourselves and one another two questions – questions that A.J. Levine pursues. Does the text before us actually say these things? And in saying such things do we fall headlong into the anti-Jewish cultural tropes and prejudices which have underwritten nearly two millennia of Christian Anti-Semitism?

In answer to the first question, despite what Wright and later commentators have written, Levine argues, the moral exemplar interpretation is the one best supported by an exegetical reading of the Markan composition. The widow gives all she has and thus is a foil to the rich man in chapter 10. The disciples protested in that chapter that they indeed left all behind, and they are commended by Jesus.

Thus, the widow is an example of someone who “gives her whole life” to the worship of God. In addition, as we have noted previously, the widow foreshadows the complete self-donation of Jesus on the cross. She prepares the listeners for that self-giving and challenges listeners to consider whether they ought to do the same in some way.

“The cruciform existence, or the life of discipleship, according to Mark, involves giving one’s life (Mark 8:34-37),” Amanda Brobst-Renaud writes in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “It is important, however, to keep front and center what consumes us. If we are consumed by honor, power, social media, beauty, or money, they will eat us alive, and they ultimately leave us empty. Emptiness devours us, and it promises a life it cannot give. Part of the task of preaching is to identify hunger for Good News when spiritual junk food is readily on offer. Invite people to taste and see: when you give your whole life to God, it becomes fuller than you imagined.”

Henry Langknecht urges us to focus on this example of self-giving as discipleship and not merely financial stewardship. “A sermon I do not need to hear is the one that entreats me to be more like the faithful widow,” Langknecht argues. “If we must hear a sermon focused on her giving and her gift, let her be a Christ figure rather than a faithful disciple figure. What makes that connection appealing is the difficulty (but rightness) of the forced analogy between her worthless coins and Jesus’ life which leads to the paradox that this worthless gift brings about the salvation of the world (cf. Philippians 2!).”

What’s wrong with Wright, according to Levine? First, she argues, the scribes don’t run the Temple and don’t represent “official Judaism” (whatever that meant in the first century). Second, Jewish tradition is the source of Jesus’ temple critique, not opposed to it. Third, if Jesus was opposed to her actions, why didn’t he stop her? He had no trouble interrupting Temple business earlier in the week.

Fourth, collaboration by Temple authorities and systems with the Romans is not well-supported in historical records. Making accommodations in order to survive is not the same as actively collaborating with the oppressors (although, I would observe, that distinction gets rather slippery rather quickly). Fifth, the Temple gets destroyed in the Jewish War. If it was headquarters for the collaborators, this makes little sense. Sixth, if the Temple was so bad, why did the first Christians worship there (see the Book of Acts, for example)?

Emerson Powery offers a more nuanced view of the Temple in his comments. “Of course, despite centuries of interpretation, Jesus did not criticize the Temple directly here. Rather, he challenged the leadership to practice more just ways. Furthermore,” Powery continues, “his observation about this widow fit the pattern of several prophets who preceded him, in which widows were associated with other vulnerable people, orphans and immigrants (cf. Jeremiah 7:6; Malachi 3:5).”

Levine urges us to separate the scribes from the Temple as such. The Markan composition makes it clear that the scribes are not a monolithic group. After all, we have just heard about the scribe who almost gets it. As much as I like the melodrama metaphor for the Markan composition, that metaphor leads to flat characters and good/evil dichotomies. Levine pleads for a complicated critique of the Temple. Thus, she speaks in approving terms of Malbon’s article and work mentioned in a previous post.

The Temple, in Mark and in the New Testament is both complicit and beloved, Levine argues. The widow is both an independent and faithful moral agent and a victim of extractive and oppressive systems. Wealth is both the greatest roadblock to faithfulness and a tool for loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Poverty is both a great evil (when imposed on people) and a way to clear the path to God (when chosen voluntarily).

“This can help frame 12:41-44,” writes Micah Kiel. “This text isn’t necessarily saying that everyone needs always to give everything. Instead, the widow has decided that her money, what little of it she had, belonged to God. This text, then, consistent with Mark’s overall agenda, is about perspective and reevaluation. Those things that are valued in the kingdom of God differ from that in wider society.”

When a text tempts us into unthinking anti-Jewish images, we should notice the flashing warning sign along the way: “Danger! Complications ahead!” And we (I) must continue to proceed with caution.

References and Resources

Brobst-Renaud, Amanda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-6.

Cruz, Samuel. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-5.

FLEDDERMANN, HARRY. “A Warning about the Scribes (Mark 12:37b-40).” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 1, Catholic Biblical Association, 1982, pp. 52–67, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43716182.

Kiel, Micah. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-2.

Langknecht, Henry. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-3.

MALBON, ELIZABETH STRUTHERS. “The Poor Widow in Mark and Her Poor Rich Readers.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 4, Catholic Biblical Association, 1991, pp. 589–604, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43718348.

Powery, Emerson. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-4.

WRIGHT, ADDISON G. “The Widow’s Mites: Praise or Lament?—A Matter of Context.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 2, Catholic Biblical Association, 1982, pp. 256–65, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43709756.

Throwback Thursday Books: Hitler’s Willing Executioners

The white supremacist crowd at the insurrection and attempted lynching at the United States capitol on January 6, 2021, displayed a variety of anti-Semitic symbols and slogans. Those included the “Camp Auschwitz” t-shirt worn prominently and proudly by one of the terrorists. We could also see the 6MWE acronym – “Six million wasn’t enough” – on shirts and placards. These disgusting demonstrations illustrate once again the clear connection between white supremacy and anti-Semitism. These moral and spiritual cancers grow from the same tissue and offer mutual nourishment one to the other.

These images were troubling but not surprising. I had already planned this Throwback Thursday Book Review prior to January 6. That event simply confirmed my intuition. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, is an exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) examination of the role of nondescript German people in the extermination of six million Jews and millions of other victims regarded as burdensome and/or less than human. Since I first read this book in 1998, I have returned to it often as an interpretive tool and a cautionary tale regarding the capacity for evil in every human heart.

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Goldhagen studies three topics in his work: who carried out the Holocaust, the worldview of German anti-Semitism that made this national crime an individual possibility, and the reality of German society during the Nazi period. He summarizes the third subject in these words.

The Holocaust was the defining aspect of Nazism, but not only of Nazism. It was also the defining feature of German society during its Nazi period. No significant aspect of German society was untouched by anti-Jewish policy; from the economy, to society, to politics, to culture, from cattle farmers, to merchants, to the organization of small towns, to lawyers, doctors, physicists, and professors. No analysis of German society, no understanding or characterization of it, can be made without placing the persecution and extermination of the Jews at its center. (page 8).

The Holocaust was not perpetrated by a small subset of German society. The persecution, hunting, torture, enslavement, and murder of Jews was not a contradiction of the larger German culture. It was not carried out by a criminal element, by a complement of fanatic true believers. It was not a heavy lift intellectually, morally, theologically, legally, or politically. The Holocaust portrays the “banality of evil” as Hannah Arendt put it. But it is more than that, as Goldhagen reports. The Holocaust was not merely banal. It was, in the German context, normal and even the expected result of five hundred years of anti-Semitic vitriol.

As I have re-read the book in the last few weeks, I have been reminded of and burdened by the parallels and interconnections between German anti-Semitism and American white male supremacy. Let me hasten to add that anti-Semitism is not, of course, an exclusively German phenomenon. It is a potent force wherever western Christianity has made an imprint. But it took particular hold in German society to horrific effect (a reality that fills me with periodic shame as a German-American).

That being said, I wondered what would lead a large number of people on January 6 to find an insurrection and attempted lynching to be a credible, reasonable, and coherent set of actions, worthy of extended reflection and planning.

There is no escape into a facile and false “bad apple” theory, either for the Holocaust or for the January 6 sedition. It is not helpful to regard either the perpetrators of the Holocaust or the perpetrators of the insurrection as deranged or demonic (although those characteristics are factors for some of the participants). Rather, we must ask ourselves what it is in a given setting that renders hatred as a reasonable response and murder as the acceptable outcome.

We are still spilling ink on trying to understand the nature of the so-called Trump voters and followers. I am as disgusted by that over-focus as many others. However, I think it is worthwhile to spend enough time on the topic to debunk the self-serving and self-excusing myths that provide cover for the criminals. Goldhagen offers a similar description in his book.

Not economic hardship, not the coercive means of a totalitarian state, not social psychological pressure, not invariable psychological propensities, but ideas about Jews that were pervasive in Germany, and had been for decades, induced ordinary Germans to kill unarmed, defenseless Jewish men, women, and children by the thousands, systematically and without pity. (page 9).

We could write a similar analysis of those who stormed the United States capitol two weeks ago. It is clear that they were not suffering from economic hardship. No one held a gun to their heads, forcing them into criminal behavior. Instead, the foundations of white male supremacy and its evil twin, anti-Semitism, made this behavior normal and even required.

In his book, Goldhagen lays out with chilling clarity the fundamental role anti-Semitism played in German culture, self-understanding, intellectual assumptions, political life, and religious rules. This hatred of Jews was bone-deep for the Germans, just as white male supremacy is bone-deep for historic white American culture.

Many of us were surprised that the insurrectionists expected to carry out their coup and then return to their homes, families, jobs, churches, and neighborhoods without consequence or comment. We should not have been surprised.

Goldhagen describes how the ordinary Germans of Police Battalion 101, for example, brought their wives with them to the killing fields of Poland. Some of their spouses witnessed and offered approval for the wholesale and gruesome slaughter of hundreds and thousands of Jewish men, women, and children, often in the most inhuman and degrading of methods. After work, they went bowling, attended the theater, had picnics, and discussed great literature.

“Simply put,” Goldhagen writes, “the perpetrators, having consulted their own convictions and morality and having judged the mass annihilation of Jews to be right, did not want to say ‘no’” (page 14). If they had wanted to say “no,” they could have done so with no penalty. Goldhagen demonstrates with extensive documentation that when ordinary Germans demurred from the slaughter, they were able to do so with no adverse outcomes.

With almost no exceptions, however, those refusals were not based on moral scruples. Rather, the reluctance was typically tied to a bit of squeamishness that passed after a while. The command structure allowed perpetrators to opt out if they wished because the commanders wanted to protect their good Germans from the negative effects of committing thousands of murders. But hardly anyone passed on the opportunity. Nor did they moderate the cruelty and torture they inflicted on their victims. Rather they participated willingly and often celebrated the salutary results of their slaughter.

I was struck by the celebratory atmosphere of the insurrectionists as they cheered, took selfies, collected souvenirs, and congratulated each other – all while looking to commit mayhem, assault, and murder. The similarities between those images and the images of ordinary Germans as they hunted, tortured, and murdered thousands of Jewish men, women, and children were haunting and terrifying.

What went into the cultural worldview that fueled the gleeful participation of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust? Jews were regarded as a race of subhumans who could be used and abused, tortured and murdered, without scruple or consequence. They were of less value and importance than bugs to be squashed under a boot heel. But there was far more than dehumanization at work. Jews were regarded as the root of all evil in German society. They were thieves and thugs, parasites and pariahs, a malign infection in the body politic that could not be tolerated. “The Jews are our misfortune,” was a German byword of this perspective.

Given that understanding, the only reasonable response to the infection was eradication. The Nazi program, completely consistent with five centuries of cultural development (including, I am ashamed to say, the hateful words of Martin Luther), was “radical eliminationism.” This was carried out, not merely in the ovens and crematoria of the camps, but in the daily activities of ordinary Germans who were sure they served the greater good with their murderous efficiency.

Is there an analogous set of cultural assumptions at work in America? It is called white male supremacy, and it is four centuries in the making so far. Otherwise rational and intelligent people believe the QAnon mythology. They study the Turner diaries (and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion for good measure). Timothy McVeigh put a truck bomb in front of the Murrah office building, and we can draw a straight line from that terrorism to the events of January 6 (and back to Emmett Till). White male supremacy, underneath all the obfuscation, is also ultimately a radically eliminationist program.

Some of us would like to think that anti-Semitism and white male supremacy are the aberrations, and that tolerance is the norm. But let us not be so naïve. Tolerance is the innovation in human culture. White supremacy is the historic norm in American culture, and a movement toward civil rights is the innovation. Remember that just yesterday, our outgoing secretary of state asserted that multiculturalism is not who America is. Offensive as that assertion is, he is right in a disturbing way. Multiculturalism is who America can be, but only through ongoing and specific policy decisions, cultural changes, and personal repentance.

Embracing the other in love is the innovation. And it is when we are most human.

“The inescapable truth,” Goldhagen concludes, “is that, regarding Jews, German political culture had evolved to the point where an enormous number of ordinary, representative Germans became—and most of the rest of their fellow Germans were fit to be—Hitler’s willing executioners” (p. 454). The book is a painful analysis, a cautionary tale, and a contemporary lens. I rejoice that some measure of anti-racist, anti-supremacist, anti-eliminationist progress is being made today. Tomorrow there will be just as much work to do.

Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The Common Sense of White Male Supremacy

I want to refer you to a January 14 article by Elana Schor for the Associated Press and carried by Religion News Service: “Anti-Semitism seen in Capitol attack raises alarms.” In the article Schor reports on the presence of anti-Semitic activists, symbols and expressions in the lynch mob that invaded the Capitol building on January 6, 2021. She notes that “the Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the Network Contagion Research Institute released a report that identified at least half a dozen neo-Nazi or white supremacist groups involved in the insurrection.”

As I noted the presence of these groups, symbols and expressions of anti-Semitic hatred and violence during the January 6 attack, I knew that I needed to return to a seminal book for deeper understanding. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, details how ordinary Germans supported and participated in the Holocaust by choice rather than coercion. I will walk through that book in detail in my next “Throwback Thursday Books” post. For now, I want to look at just one aspect of Goldhagen’s work.

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From the beginning of the nineteenth century,” he writes, “antisemitism was ubiquitous in Germany. It was its ‘common sense’” (page 77). It is easy to forget that reality, if one ever knew it at all (although we Lutherans should never, ever forget it and our part in that). Antisemitism was a central organizing principle of German social and political life from the Middle Ages to the middle of the twentieth century. It morphed, as Goldhagen describes, from an assimilationist perspective to an “eliminationist” program in large part following the “emancipation” of Jews in Germany after 1848.

Assimilation was a sort of cultural elimination, since the idea was that Jews would gradually become European Christians and thus evaporate. “Built into emancipation itself—an emancipation that proceeded upon a cultural model of Jews derived from hostile Christianity—was the belief that Jews would disappear,” Goldhagen writes, “since Jews refused to do so, the false promises of emancipation created all but a structural guarantee that antisemitism would develop new virulence…” (page 78). When Jews refused to disappear “naturally,” the next step was to make them disappear systematically.

Elimination was just what it sounds like – programmatic extermination. This is what Goldhagen describes as the “common sense” of nineteenth and twentieth century German culture. It was unnecessary for the Nazis to invent German antisemitism or to infuse it with a genocidal impulse. It was only necessary for Hitler to energize and enact the common sense which was already there.

The intersection of Goldhagen’s book and the Capitol insurrection raises several terrifying thoughts for me.

The first is that antisemitism does not come and go. It hibernates. Goldhagen notes that the explicitly anti-Semitic political parties in Germany in the late 1800’s ceased to exist, not because antisemitism was rejected, but rather because it became a part of the mainstream political platforms. Thus, the fringe parties were no longer necessary. “Again, this meant not that antisemitism was dissipating,” Goldhagen notes, “but that it was merely less articulated and therefore partly disappeared from view. It would erupt again with great force only a few years hence” (page 76).

Who needs fringe political parties in our system when virulent racism walks into the halls of local, state and federal government on a daily basis?

Goldhagen’s work reminds me that antisemitism, like white male supremacy, is a dual process phenomenon. The “emancipation” of Jews (a stunning connection to America in the same period) was met with a virulent revival of antisemitic rhetoric, behavior, literature, politics, and violence. Modest moves toward toleration were met with the full development of eliminationist theory and practice. The primary reason that a full-blown genocide did not occur sooner was that Germans were distracted by the run-up to World War I.

Antisemitism was a dormant fuel needing only the right conditions to burst into full flame. Those conditions in Germany were the economic and social collapse following the First World War, and the rise of Nazi grievance culture in response to the defeat and devastation.

All that was needed was a bunch of angry white men who were sure they had been robbed of what was rightfully theirs. All it took was a culture certain that they were entitled to dominate and to root out the Other who stood in their way. All it took was an Other who could be blamed for all that was wrong in individual lives and in the lives of the aggrieved collective.

That’s all it took then…and now.

“It is thus incontestable that the fundamentals of Nazi antisemitism, the antisemitic brew that spawned Nazi thinking about the Jews, had deep roots in Germany, was part of the cultural cognitive model of German society, and was integral to German political culture,” Goldhagen concludes, “It is incontestable that racial antisemitism was the salient form of antisemitism in Germany and that it was broadly part of the public conversation of German society” (pages 74-75). It was not only common sense. To suggest any other way of looking at the world was to be a radical, a subversive, a communist(!), and an enemy of the Volk and the state.

We should be clear that this continues to be common sense for a number of our neighbors. Varieties and degrees of antisemitism participate in our Christian worship services weekly. Not only is antisemitism its own form of cultural cancer, but it also fits neatly into the larger framework of white male supremacy on display among us.

What leads a large number of people to find the violence of January 6 to be a credible, reasonable, and coherent set of actions, worthy of extended reflection and planning?

While there is plenty of the deranged, demented, and demonic in that crowd, that’s not sufficient for our understanding. For most Americans for most of our history, white male supremacy has been “common sense.” Hard as that might be for some of us white men to absorb, it is true. Identifying, resisting, and seeking to dismantle that common sense is the innovation. Suggesting that no one is entitled to power, privilege, and position simply based on gender and skin tone is the novelty. Common sense may slip below the surface at times, but all it takes is a combination of change and demagoguery for it to explode into potency.

We can diagnose this for antisemitism, in part, because everything old is new again. According to Schor’s report, “Eric Ward, executive director of the progressive anti-discrimination group Western States Center, linked the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon, adherents of which were at the forefront of the insurrection, to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the infamous 20th-century screed that falsely claimed Jews were colluding to take over the world.” This is the basis for a deranged white man attacking a New Jersey pizza parlor in search of Hillary Clinton and her ring of pedophiliacs a few years ago.

In much the same way, the white male supremacists at the heart of the January 6 lynch mob rely on the Turner Diaries as their bible and handbook for their own eliminationist fantasies. The Turner Diaries and related documents lead in the end to a worldwide campaign to eliminate every nonwhite human being from the planet in order to achieve “peace.” Goldhagen’s work provides the chilling German parallel. “Modern German anti-Semites,” he writes, “unlike their medieval forebears, could say that there would be no peace on earth until the Jews were destroyed” (page 77).

As a Christian, I must ask myself and my fellow Jesus followers, what do we regard as “common sense”? That takes work and help from outsiders, since most common sense is about as visible to us as the air we breathe. Jewish interpreters of Scripture help us to see that many of our founding documents and certainly our interpretations of them are profoundly antisemitic. There are some New Testament texts that I can no longer read in public worship for that reason and others which require extended explanation and caution if they are to be used.

That reticence is regarded by some Christians as heterodox, but I read somewhere that “you shall know them by their fruits.”

The natural and rightful hegemony of white, male Christianity is regarded as common sense. It’s obvious on the face of things that we continue to regard white male supremacy in and out of the church as “common sense.” Just try to challenge the assumptions of that view in most white Christian congregations, and the proof will be quick in appearing. In the best of times, we white Christians will talk about anything else – even politics, sex, or money – rather than to talk about racism and antiracism. In most places we can’t even call this conversation “antiracist” because that’s too confrontational.

Of course, during The Pandemic we have the perfect distraction to keep us from thinking about what it would mean to be Dr. King’s “Beloved Community.” We have the ideal excuse to focus obsessively on a whole series of white-privilege problems and to ignore a host of underlying issues. We assure ourselves that God is merely “with us” in our difficulties and ignore the possibility that God might be longing for us to repent and grow as a result of our struggles.

We treat the necessary connection between whiteness and Christianity as common sense. We treat the capitalist invisible hand of the market as common sense. We treat the potential for armed violence in order to stand our ground as common sense. We treat the right to take what we want from others and from the earth as common sense. Is it any wonder that moves toward justice, peace, sustainability, and equity are treated as subversive and “communist”?

I’ll have more on Goldhagen’s book in my post next Thursday. But this was too much on my heart and mind to wait for that.