Monday, November 15, 2021

A Place Where We Can Belong

As some of you know, I used to be a chaplain. I was teaching media courses at Emerson College in Boston at the time, and my job was to be a support person for the Jewish students. There was a Catholic chaplain, and a Protestant chaplain, and a Muslim chaplain, and I think there was a Hindu chaplain too. The regular Jewish chaplain needed a semester off due to illness, and since I had a counseling background (and since I was Jewish), I got asked to fill in. 

Our offices were near each other, and we all had a cordial relationship. In fact, there was nothing particularly remarkable about that semester...except for the fact that everyone who came to see me wasn't Jewish. No, it's not that they wanted to convert. In fact, most of the students who reached out didn't seem to care which denomination of chaplain was available-- they just needed someone to talk to, someone who had a spiritual background.  Fortunately, I've taught world religions, and I do understand the basic tenets of most faiths. I hope that I was able to comfort or encourage the students who came to see me. After all, it's the same God, even if each of our traditions recommends different pathways or uses different scriptures.

What brought this to mind is a rather unpleasant trend I've been noticing among some folks on the far right, both in Europe and in the US. There has been a troubling resurgence of anti-Jewish sentiments in Hungary, in Poland, in Lithuania, and elsewhere.  And we even saw examples of it here in 2017, in Charlottesville VA, when Neo-Nazis marched with their torches, chanting "Jews will not replace us"-- reflecting a false belief called "Replacement Theory" that teaches how Jews are allegedly bringing in millions of non-white immigrants, with the goal of changing the culture and destroying all that white Christians built. (Various permutations of this theory have been around for generations, but thanks to social media, bigots have a much easier time spreading it and finding like-minded individuals who will embrace hatred of Jews, or immigrants, or anyone considered "the other.")  

Last week, a conservative provocateur on social media tweeted that it was time for Jews to "assimilate," to prove they were like everyone else by embracing Christian holidays and ceasing to observe Jewish ones. Needless to say, a lot of us were not amused-- I mean, I'm as American as anyone else, thank you very much. I was born here, as were my parents; my father fought for this country, as did most of my male relatives. And if I celebrate Jewish holidays, I'm still an American.  In fact, one reason why my ancestors came here was because we are guaranteed freedom of religion. I don't need to "prove" that I love America by taking on someone else's religion. I am free to be an American, no matter what religious tradition I follow. Or so I was taught.

But then, several days ago, Michael Flynn, an ally and advisor to the former president, spoke at a rally staged by Christian conservatives in Texas, and he stated, to applause from his audience, that "If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God and one religion under God, right?"  Umm, no. Wrong. The Founding Fathers didn't ask for one official religion, and even if it's an applause line at certain events, asserting that America needs to establish Christianity and diminish all other faiths is not in the Constitution.

It's also not a belief I want to see again. I wasn't fond of that kind of bigotry when I was growing up in the 1950s, and it isn't a belief that has aged well. And yet, today, there are websites and videos that promote it, and evidently there are some people who think it's a great idea. I'm not one of them. I hope you're not either. America has long benefited from different beliefs and different perspectives. Agreed, finding common ground isn't always easy when it comes to certain theological issues; but just like when I was a chaplain, sometimes the goal should be giving people encouragement and helping them to find their own path. 

There's no right way to do that. But telling some of us we don't belong here, or that our beliefs are inferior (or unwanted), is not a helpful message.  In such a contentious world, having allies is very important: so, even if you're not Jewish, when you hear folks making bigoted remarks, or see them posting those kinds of claims on social media, I hope you'll let them know that you don't accept what they're saying. Maybe you and I don't agree on politics, or religion, or which sports team is the best. But surely we can agree on this: there should be no place for intolerance and religious prejudice in America. Not now. Not ever.