Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Tony Judt is an extraordinary man who has written an extraordinary book.  Educated at Cambridge and the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, he is the preeminent historian of post-war Europe and has taught at Cambridge, Oxford, Berkeley, and, now, New York University.  A Labor Zionist in his youth, who served in the Israeli Defense Forces in the '67 War, he has been one of the harshest critics of recent Israeli policies.
He is also dying.  He doesn't name the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease) that has left him completely paralyzed, referring to his predicament only obliquely in the book's acknowledgements as "the unusual circumstances in which this book was written."
And, my, what a book he has written!  Ill Fares the Land (New York: Penquin, 2010, $25.95) cuts to the problematic core of today's America.  Must reading for new generations of Americans who have no memories of the New Deal and the Great Society and those of us who do, it is intellectually compelling and morally profound – a call to action for those who believe in a common good, in community and solidarity, and in redeeming our fading ideals in a time of greed and incivility.  It is written with the honesty, the moral clarity, and urgency of a dying man who loves his country and believes in collective action to save its soul.  
Judt derives his title from a 1770 Oliver Goldsmith poem – "Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, Where wealth accumulates, and men decay" – an abbreviated statement of our problem that he expounds upon in the first dozen and one lines of the book:
"Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.
The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears 'natural' today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric which accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.
We cannot go on living like this…."
No we cannot.  In the 235 pages that follow, Judt makes clear why not and what we can – and must – do about it.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


For Christians, April 11 is the first Sunday after Easter.  But, in the Holy Land, the calendar reminds us, it is also Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom HaSho'ah…a time to recall in sorrow man's capacity for evil.  At noon, the sounds of sirens will mix with those of church bells around Jerusalem.  And, as the confusing cacaphony subsides, a now-old cry - "Never again!" – will echo through suddenly silent streets and alleys…leaving us to wonder:  What we to make of those words?  What are we to do with them?
In Fatal Embrace, Mark Braverman draws our attention to the Holocaust and to the "parallel crises" that face us in its wake – as Jews and as Christians.  The Jewish crisis, he says, is the struggle to untangle the exclusivist narrative of a chosen people from the universal moral/ethical message of the prophets.  The Christian crisis entails the struggle to rid the church of millennia of anti-Jewish bias in its teachings.
"What anti-Jewish bias?" some ask.  Consider today's Gospel.  Why were "the doors of the house where the disciples had met… locked?"  They were locked "for fear of the Jews;" not the Romans…the Jews.  And why were the Jews to be feared?  Consider our reading today from Acts.  The Apostles had begun preaching in the name of Jesus around Jerusalem and in the Temple itself.   It got them arrested…here a second time.  And in his questioning of them, the high priest's voice rises to anger pitch: "We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man's blood on us."
That is the infamous "blood libel" that, from the beginning, gave rise to anti-Semitism.  It was, we were told again and again, the Jews who killed Christ.  His blood was on their hands and, for that, they were to be dispersed and despised for all time. 
That libel festered as a darkness in the heart of European Christianity over the centuries.  For years, I lived in its shadow…in Munich, just a few miles from Dachau and a few more from Oberammergau, where every Lent John's Passion was played out by hooked-nosed actors shouting "Crucify him!  Crucify him!"…and in Krakow, just an hour's drive from Auschwitz where such anti-Semitism culminated in the Holocaust.  
The uniqueness of the Holocaust lies not just in the magnitude of the crime, the horror of which has indelibly stamped a sense of insecurity and victimhood on the souls of Jews, but also in the nature of the discontinuity – the break – it represents in the Christian experience of anti-Semitism.  The subsequent sense of guilt among Western Christians has been profound.
In neither instance – the fear or the guilt – have the consequences always been healthy.  They have given rise to the "parallel crises" that Braverman contends cloud our vision of current realities in the Holy Land and prevent frank discussion of the day-to-day injustices inflicted upon Palestinians there.  They are, he adds, crises that must be addressed within our separate traditions – the theme of justice voiced by the prophets and of love embodied by Jesus.  That, he says, may take longer for Jews than Christians.  But, he adds, "Don't wait for us.  You work on your problem.  We'll work on ours."
So what is the Christian problem in this regard?  It is that the have not really addressed – not historically nor theologically – the anti-Judaism in John and Acts and Paul; it is also how, over the centuries, that failure – that sin of omission – warped into the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust. 
Since the Holocaust, christians have swept the facts of early church history under the rug, preferring instead new theological stratagems designed to stress the continuities between Judaism and Christianity, between the Old Testament and the New – stratagems that, in their guilt-ridden enthusiasm, blur the discontinuities and reduce Jesus to but one in a long list of Jewish prophets.  Anti-Semitism has been replaced by fawning philo-Semitism.  Jews – and by extension, Israel – can do no wrong.
That, Braverman says, does Jews no favors.  Instead, he says, it "thwarts Jewish renewal by insulating us from the painful process of self-reflection about the effects of particularlism and exceptionalism." 
And it does Christians no favors.  Instead, it enables us to avoid facing and dealing with our real guilt.  We have locked the Holocaust in the hermetically sealed box of another time and place.  And we have fobbed off the consequences onto another people – the Palestinians – who had nothing to do with the crime. 
It didn't happen here.  It didn't happen on our watch.  We twenty-first-century Californians had nothing to do with it.  Like Pilate, we can wash our hands of the whole affair.  The Germans did it.  And they did it more than sixty years ago. 
"Not so fast, not so easy," warns Zygmunt Bauman, a Polish Jew and sociologist.  In Modernity and the Holocaust, he writes;
…the exercise in focusing on the Germaness of the crime as on that aspect in which the explanation of the crime must lie is simultaneously an exercise in exonerating everyone else, and particularly everything else.  The implication that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were a wound or a malady of our civilization – rather than its horrifying, yet legitimate product results not only in the moral comfort of self-exculpation, but also in the dire threat of moral and political disarmament.  It all happened 'out there' – in another time, another country.  The more 'they' are to blame, the more the rest of 'us' are safe, and the less we have to do to defend this safety.  Once the allocation of guilt is implied to be equivalent to the location of causes, the innocence and sanity of the way of life of which we are so proud need not be cast in doubt.
Those of you who attended the Taize service Good Friday evening may have noticed that there were tears behind my eyes, as we sang "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord."  Those tears were there, because I cannot escape the theology of that hymn or the truth of Bauman's wisdom.
It wasn't just the Jews – or the Romans – who killed Jesus.  We all did.  We were all there.
And it wasn't just the Germans of a certain era who had the capacity to kill six million Jews.  In our hearts of darkness, we are all capable of similar crimes.  Need I mention the genocide in which millions of Native Americans were killed, the centuries-long crime of slavery, the concentration camps in which we confined our Japanese Americans, or the hatred so many of us harbor for the Muslims in our midst.
Only when we confront the universality of evil and embrace the redemptive theology that proceeds from the resurrected Jesus, will we be able to deal in a healthy way with the guilt that is our Christian Holocaust problem.   
And only when we accept that Jesus – the Christ – is far more than just the product of his Jewishness, but rather its fulfillment…the New Adam who represents the break in human history through which the exclusive God of the Jews becomes the God of all…only then will we be able to help Jews deal with their Holocaust problem in a healthy way – to break the bonds of exclusivity and to embrace the universality of the one God we all worship.
In that instance, we – all God's children – can say with new understanding, new fervor – "Never Again!"  Never again for any of God's children – not Jews…in Israel, not Christians in Darfur or El Salvador, not Buddhists in Cambodia, not Hindus in Mumbai, and not Palestinians, be they Muslims in Gaza or Christians in Bethlehem.


I had intended Holy Saturday to be a day of rest and reflection.  It was instead disturbed by an open carry gun rally in Vallejo's waterfront park - an event chronicled on video at (What does a deacon do?  Check out the last five minutes) and commented on below.
Easter Sunday turned out to be very special, not so much because of the pleasant service, the kids, the new faces, and the potluck at Christ the Lord, but because of the moving Open Cathedral in the cold and drenching rain – our third Easter, our second anniversary of faithfulness in the Tenderloin.  We were all wet and chilled to the bone, but it was really "Church!"  There were new faces there, too, and old ones…our regulars.  Souls were touched and moved and John Patrick, a congregant, wrote on the back of a paper plate:
                                          More Than Just About A Bunny
                                    Here we collect and gather this day
                                    As we find a connection to fulfil what we say
                                    Perhaps we pray for the spirit of Christ
who has risen again
                                    Provided we enjoy and share this Easter
with family and friend
                                    You can depend upon the season to be
inclement or even sunny
                                    Eager to worship and equip those in need…
And maybe see the Easter Bunny
                                    And its funny and fair all the unconditional love
                                    So aware of the children of God who are here
                                    Thankful and pure
                                    A sandwich can be the cure
                                    Everyone will stay within this open circle
                                                so strong
                                    Realizing it's not surprising
                                                that I could write them a song.
Nancy Pennekamp, the other deacon at the service, took some photos.  Here's one:

On Monday I slept late.
Happy Easter, Happy Passover, Happy Spring.

Monday, April 5, 2010


Yes, that massive display of weaponry on Vallejo's waterfront last Saturday by an open carry group based in Martinez was appalling.  It was, as intended, an insult to Vallejo and a provocation to its people.  It was, in every way, appalling.
How else to describe a hundred armed men strutting their stuff in a public park where kids were playing football and riding their skateboards and moms were pushing their strollers on a sunny holiday weekend.  When I pointed this out to an armed man from Pittsburg, I was told "Kids have to learn."  What, I asked do they have to learn?  To fear, to take the law into their own hands, to be ready to kill?
How else to describe the inappropriateness of such in-your-face behavior on the holiest weekend on the Christian calendar; of a pistol-packing "Christian minister" from Benicia - barely old enough to shave - spouting talking points about Jesus the tough guy; of  someone else in the crowd saying that, had he had a gun, Jesus would not have had to die on the cross…that, had he had a gun, "things would be different."  They sure would!
How else to describe the danger of putting guns into the hands of people who, as demonstrated in the hundreds of anonymous foul-mouthed postings on the Times-Herald's website, are full of anger, fear, and hatred.  Among them, I fear, there are some who may be emotionally unstable.  We've seen the fearful results around the country.  We don't need to play with such fire in Vallejo.  We've suffered enough.
I found appalling not only the behavior of these fearful, angry men (and the 3-4 women among them), but also the "hear no evil, see no evil" behavior of our city officials and  agencies.
Why, for example, did the Greater Vallejo Recreation District approve a permit for such a provocation?  This by an agency whose mission statement touts its commitment "to increasing the amount of fun and recreation in your daily life" and its goal "to build community and enhance quality of life."  How did such a public display of weaponry "build community" in Vallejo or "enhance the quality of [our] life?'  
Why was the "only concern" of the Vallejo Police Department, according to the Times-Herald, that the "unloaded guns" of the group might be "taken from them?"  Did they not note the statement of a member of the group that, in the event of such an incident, the "picknickers" would not "just stand still?"  Were they satisfied that, in such an event, the armed men in our park "would not necessarily resort to loading their weapons and shooting at potential robbers."  "Not necessarily?"  Not necessarily!
Where were the uniformed police to inspect the weapons of these people to ensure that they were indeed unloaded?  Is our Police Department not aware that section (e) of the California open carry statute reads as follows:     
"In order to determine whether or not a firearm is loaded for the purpose of enforcing this section, peace officers are authorized to examine any firearm carried by anyone on his or her person or in a vehicle while in any public place or on any public street in an incorporated city or prohibited area of an unincorporated territory. Refusal to allow a peace officer to inspect a firearm pursuant to this section constitutes probable cause for arrest for violation of this section."
Did they care?  Did they care that those of us in the park who disagreed with the armed open carry advocates felt threatened, having no assurance – save their word – that all their weapons were unloaded?
Or was there a plain clothes officer in the crowd, as the unmarked black muscle car suggested?  Were that the case and the plain clothes officer tried to take someone's gun, might the officer be mistaken for a "robber," precipitating perhaps a shootout among the children and fishermen on the waterfront?  Must the average citizen live with such uncertainty.   
Finally – and most appalling of all – was the total silence of the clergy of our city's churches.  Where – in God's name – were you?  Will you be there next month when the open carry group promises to return?  Will you speak out in the meantime to head off another such provocation?  And that's what they seek – to provoke an incident.  They don't take their guns to Danville, Walnut Creek, or Orinda.  No, they target instead Richmond, Vallejo, and, next week, San Francisco's Castro.
Let's not play into their hands or roll over next time they apply for a permit.  Are we, as some of our ministers insist, a "City of God" that cares about its children?  Or are we a city of violence and vigilantes?  Do we have any pride or backbone?  Do we care about our reputation or will we remain content to let others smear us as the "Armpit of the Bay?"
And that $600?  Send it back to Brad Huffman as quickly as possible.  It's blood money.  We're not for sale!  Not that cheaply!