Sunday, June 22, 2008

Our Children are not God - ULC Chapel, Berkeley

Genesis 22:1-14
Romans 6:1b-11
Matt 10:24-39

Boy, the story from Genesis today is deeply disturbing, isn’t it? It shouldn’t be - this is not the first time in the Bible that death has been demanded. The whole population of the earth, minus Noah and his family, has already been drowned in forty days and nights of rain. By contrast, Isaac is just one person. But he is a child. And I think that’s what really gets us - that a child’s life hangs in the balance. We are deeply troubled, and perhaps even outraged, that not only does God demand the sacrifice of a child, but that Abraham, this child’s father, obeys without protest - odd, given that he protested the destruction of Sodom quite aggressively - and that Sarah, this child’s mother, is silent. Or silenced, however you want to interpret her absence. This story is deeply upsetting for the way in which Abraham is to end the life of his “only son,” the one whom he loves, by knife on a pile of wood for a burnt offering. It is terrible when Isaac addresses Abraham so trustingly as “Father,” only to have his father dissemble, and it is horrifying when Abraham has gone so far as to have the knife in his upraised hand before God intervenes. From beginning to end, this story flies against every survival-of-the-species instinct we have, and it is deeply upsetting.

Oh, and mind you, it’s not just the Genesis text that does this, either. The Matthew text is no better, with father set against son, mother against daughter, no peace but the sword, and “whoever loves father or mother … or son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” It’s not as graphic as the story of Isaac, but it’s just as bad. Once again we are faced with the death of children - perhaps grown children, perhaps not, and we are told that those of us who would try to love our children the way that seems natural - as the most important thing in our life, are being less the people that God wants us to be.

So what are we to make of these readings? How are we to interpret God’s commands, and Abraham’s swift reaction? How are we to understand these words of Jesus that seem to contradict his message of love? Well, when it comes to the Genesis reading, we could say that these are patriarchal texts that are meant to reinforce the male authority of both religion and family, which is why Sarah is left out of the picture. Or we could say that this is one of those rare examples in the Bible that is meant to show us the frailty and weakness of Abraham and is a model of “how not to parent” more than anything else. We could argue that the text in Matthew is a later addition, and that Jesus never actually said that. Or we could say that the author of Matthew was writing during a time of persecution, and so his Jesus takes on the tone of times.

I’m going to propose, though, that we take Jesus’ words and Abraham’s story at face value. That this morning we keep the interpretations simple, that we trust that this is like many other stories, though not all, that are trying to teach by example, and that what it says is what it means. I am going to propose that both of these readings are about the First Commandment - You shall have no other gods before me.

So, let’s look at that First Commandment, and in particular, Luther’s explanation of it in the Small Catechism. “You shall have no other gods before me. What does this mean? That you shall fear, love, and trust only God.” You shall fear, love, and trust only God. What Luther is saying is that the things we fear, the things we love, and the things we trust become our Gods. The things that we think about constantly, the things that we worry about, the things that we put all our efforts towards making happen, the things that we will do anything for, all these things become our Gods. What would you do to protect the things, and the people, you love? What would you do to prevent from happening the things that you fear? How far would you go? Would you break the commandments? Violate God’s covenant of love? Put aside God completely in order to “do what you have to do?”

To be honest, I don’t know always know the right answer to those questions. Call me crazy, but sometimes I think about what might happen if someone broke into my house with a gun and threatened to shoot my family. I can’t say for certain what I would do, and it’s one reason among a very many that I’m glad I don’t have a gun in the house. I am glad that I have not had to test whether or not I am putting my child before God. I suspect it’s coming pretty close, though. We have an online photo account with pictures of my son that we started when we was born, where we can put up pictures of him for our extended family who is all over the country. After two years, I noticed that we have almost 2,000 pictures up of him, and almost 20,000 “views” or hits on those pictures. A family member’s entire Grade Five class sent him birthday cards. We have hours - days - of video footage of him, that I make into DVDs and send to the family. With all the time and energy we spend on him, if that’s not loving someone more than God, I don’t know what is.

But it’s more than just love. It’s fear, too. For some reason, what children really highlight for us is the fear of death. Their death, and our death. Perhaps it’s the extreme vulnerability of children that reminds us of our own indefensibility against death. Illnesses treat them harder; they are less likely to survive accidents. The thought of my child’s death, of any child’s death actually, paralyzes me. I have to be careful what I read in the news, or what TV show I stop on when I’m flipping through the channels. Anything that deals with the death of a child is enough to ruin my whole night. That whole earthquake thing in China, with all of those one-child-per-family families losing their one child - ugh, I can’t even think about it. I fear it, death. To be honest, I think I actually do fear it more than I fear God.

And I wonder if Abraham was in the same boat as me. Internet-technology aside, how could he not love Isaac, and how could he not fear his death, to the point of idolatry? This was Isaac, after all, his only son with Sarah, his heir, the one who would carry his name and his blood through to the nations after him. Isaac’s death would mean the death of Abraham’s line, the death of God’s promise, the death of everything he had worked for when he left Ur. Abraham had already let his love for Isaac bind him to Sarah’s behaviour towards Hagar, behaviour that resulted in Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham’s first son, being driven out into the desert, where they would have died if God had not stepped in. Flatly stated, it was love for Isaac that allowed Sarah, with Abraham as an encouraging accessory, to attempt murder. There weren’t any “Ten Commandments” at that point, but God’s followers still knew that killing another person was wrong. Abraham was, as parents are wont to do, putting his son above God.

But the truth is that children are not meant to be the be-all and end-all of our existence. As counter-intuitive and counter-survivalist as it might sound, children are not our life. They do not provide an out when it comes to our own death. Only God is capable of that. As Paul reminds us over and over again throughout Romans, God, through Christ, brings us through death to new life. God created us in the very beginning, and God raises us again to new life at the very end. Our children, however much we love them, cannot do that. They are the created, not the Creator.

Which is a good thing. A very good thing. It means, at the very least, that we do not need to fear the death of our children. I remember when I was pregnant, I had just passed the 26 week mark in my pregnancy, and I was talking to a colleague on the phone telling her how relieved I was that it was past 26 weeks. You see, doctors don’t resuscitate babies born before 26 weeks, because there is just too little chance of survival. I remember saying to my friend, “Now I know my baby will have a chance.” And I remember my friend, whose son was born at the 28 week mark, gently reminding me that my baby was not mine, but God’s, and that when she was going through the agonizing process of having her son in intensive care for three months following his birth, and living through the following years of developmental delays, both temporary and permanent, she always reminded herself that her son was not hers, but God’s. And she is right. Our children are not our own, they are God’s. And that means that their lives, and their deaths, are in the hands of God, just like ours are. There are no better arms to care for them, no one more loving, more capable, or better at caring for our children than God.

You see the First Commandment isn’t there to threaten us. It isn’t there to say, “Love God, or else.” And God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac I don’t believe was a threat. God wasn’t saying, “You love Isaac too much so now I have to take him away.” Jesus’ words in Matthew, well - I’m still working on those. But in the first two cases, they aren’t threats, but reminders and comforts. We fear, love, and trust God because who else is better at taking care of us? Only God is able, and willing, to bring us back from death. God’s entire message to Abraham, including Isaac’s replacement with a sacrificial ram - let’s not forget that part - was that God was going to protect Isaac, and do a better job of it than Abraham could. God is not malicious - God knows what it is to lose a child - but God does want to remind us that in the face of death, our children’s and our own, it is God who will bring us new life. We have seen God do it with Abraham and Isaac, we see God do with Jesus Christ, and we will see God do it with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Preposterous Promises - University Lutheran Chapel

Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:23

“These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: Proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” Now, Matthew doesn’t say as much, but the implication is that it isn’t just the twelve who are called to do this work, but all of Christ’s disciples - us, too. We, too, are called, privileged to be invited to take part in bringing closer the kingdom of heaven. Christ sends us out to proclaim the good news, to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons.

And this is the point at which we say, yeah, yeah, whatever. I mean seriously - it’s one thing to go around being a generally good and nice person, to smile politely as we walk by the homeless people on the street, to do our bit for the environment and recycle and compost, and it’s another thing entirely to believe that we are given the power to cure the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons. It’s another thing completely to believe that Jesus has given us the power, and is expecting us, to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is more of a reality on earth than it was before, and to believe that we are being called to make it so. To believe that Christians are being given the ability to bring such new life to the world, to believe that the church of Christ’s followers are able to be a presence of real healing in this suffering world - well, forgive me, but to me it sounds preposterous.

Because what we’re talking about here, what seems to be suggested to us, is a wholescale, global renewal of the church that returns it to its roots among the apostles. We’re talking about returning to the embodiment of the body of Christ that was presented to us in Acts: to selling our assets and putting the proceeds into a common pot, to operating soup kitchens for all of the poor who need it, to casting out demons, powers, and principalities - but on a scale much larger than it was two thousand years ago. We’re talking about the re-birth of the Christian church. It’s preposterous.

It’s as preposterous as God proposing to Abraham and Sarah that they should have a biological son at the age of one hundred. Imagine - one-hundred year-old Sarah, with whom it has ceased to be “after the manner of woman,” not only conceiving, but carrying a child to term, surviving the terrifying danger of child-birth, and breast-feeding this child for three years or so. She, and Abraham, were old and withered and probably expecting to die sooner than anything, and here they were, being called and given the power to bring forth new life into the world. And not just any new life, but one single son who would give Abraham his “multitude of nations” and from whom nations and rulers would come, and through whom, as we heard last week, “all the nations of the earth would be blessed.” Is it any wonder Sarah laughed? Is it any wonder she expressed some doubt as to the likeliness of this happening?

The two situations, ours and Abraham and Sarah’s, are actually not that dissimilar. Our presence in the world is minimal, just as Abraham and Sarah’s was in the land of Canaan. The idea that one as-yet-unborn boy should bring about multitudes is as unlikely as the idea that we, so small in number, should have a hand in bringing the kingdom of heaven to this secular world. We are, to a certain extent, foreigners in an alien land, us faithful in this country. Nominal Christians notwithstanding, less than 30% of Americans are regular church-goers, and that number continues to decline. ( It is preposterous to think that so much should come from so little.

The Christian Church, too, could be considered old and withered. There was a time when the Church did wonderful things, and produced many good fruits, but that came to an end very quickly and we could rightfully be called barren. We have had terrible relations with the Jews, trying to wipe them out on more than one occasion. We have proclaimed the good news that the kingdom of heaven has come near through forced or coerced conversions - not actually “good news” for anybody. We have attacked heathens and pagans and imposed our “Gospel” on them for their own good. We have treated our own Christian brothers and sisters appallingly when it comes to issues of justice. Even today, we as the Church in America avert our eyes and only whisper very quiet protests when it comes to issues of universal health care, social infrastructures for the poor and needy, when it comes to challenging the powers and principalities of the global systems that enslave and devastate at least two-thirds of the world’s population.

So, given that the extremity of our situations makes God’s propositions so outlandish, is it any wonder that we react to God’s promises the same way Sarah and Abraham did? To laugh, or worse than that, to ignore God’s promises altogether? Given the history of the Christian church, given the Church’s current passivity and its entanglement in the status quo, it is not surprising that when we hear the call to proclaim the good news, to heal the sick and bring new life, we instead try to rationalize away the power to change the world, or underestimate the effect that the Church can have, or pretend that Jesus is not, in fact, calling us to do the preposterous things he asked his apostles to do. We go merrily along our way, laughing at those who do believe, at best calling them naive, at worst calling them dangerously idealistic.

And yet, God makes these promises all the same. And, no less than that, keeps them. Sarah may have laughed at the idea of bringing a newborn son into the world at her age, but that didn’t stop God from making it happen. Isaac was born, and did flourish, and fathered Jacob and Esau, who fathered over twelve sons including Joseph who was Pharoah’s right-hand man. And these twelve sons became the twelve tribes of Israel, from whom David and Solomon came. The people of Israel established the standards of justice to which we still subscribe: you shall not murder, or steal, or commit adultery or incest, or leave the widows and orphans to starve - standards that have certainly been a blessing to the nations. From these people, from Abraham and Sarah, has come the Christian Saviour, and since him, doctors and scientists like Einstein, Neils Bohr, Jonas Salk, musicians and artists like Mendelssohn, Chagall, Modigliani, great thinkers like Spinoza and Derrida, people who have made the world a better place and have indeed brought the kingdom of heaven closer. Despite circumstances that would normally have made such things impossible, God fulfilled God’s preposterous promises to Sarah and Abraham and used them to bless the world.

And so, despite our impossible circumstance, despite our minority status and our passive faith, despite our deplorable history and our dim-looking future, we can count on God fulfilling those other preposterous promises - that we would be empowered to go out and proclaim the good news, to bring the kingdom of heaven closer, to heal the sick, and bring new life, and cast out demons. We can believe that God will use us to rebirth the Church on earth, in order to make the world a better place and to be a blessing to it. That’s not to say that it won’t be hard - I’m sure Sarah’s pregnancy and labour was no walk in the park. And that’s not to say that there won’t be setbacks along the way - the Jewish people have certainly suffered, and continue to suffer, as they carry out their work as a light to the nations. God does not promise an easy path, but God does promise to bless the world, and invites you to be a part of that, to take part in this new birth. So, doubt all you want, laugh like Sarah did, but the kingdom of heaven is coming ever more near, and God is using you to make the preposterous come to pass. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Faith of Abram - Proper 5 - University Lutheran Chapel

Genesis 12:1-9
Romans 4:13-25
Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

Well, Abram took quite a leap of faith now, didn’t he? I mean, look at his situation. There he is, living in the countryside, maybe looking after some sheep or something, living off the land with his family. Things are pretty comfortable for him - he’s married, his parents are nearby, his aunts and uncles and cousins are all around. It seem like a pretty good life. Than, all of a sudden, this god that maybe he’s heard of before, tells him to up and leave everything and go off to some far away land that he may have heard of but has certainly never visited. And then this god makes some outlandish promises to him, like how this god will bless all the families on earth because of Abram. All the families on earth - all of them? And this god says that all the land in this new place will go to Abram’s children. Abram doesn’t even have children - he’s seventy-five!! And what does Abram do? He does it!

Abram does what this god says - he leaves behind his parents and brothers and sisters and everything he knows - at an age when he should be in retirement, no less - and sets off for this unknown place. It’s crazy! But he does it. For some reason that we don’t really understand, Abram defies all logic and puts aside all reason, leaves everything he has, and follows God without question. Now God fulfills all that has been promised to him - God gives Abram children and grandchildren, the whole land of Canaan, and makes him the father of nations, but that’s not the point for this sermon. The point is that Abram didn’t know that God would do this when he left. Abram really took a leap of faith. If only we had that kind of faith.

I think that’s one of the most common secret fears of Christians - that we don’t have enough faith. Or that our faith isn’t strong enough, or it’s not the right kind of faith, or it’s not public enough. After all, Lutherans are a fairly unobtrusive bunch when it comes to displays of faith. We don’t speak in tongues, heal people with our touch, or fall down in the aisles in the middle of the service. In fact, we rarely even clap along with the hymns. I know that I don’t say grace in restaurants, I don’t sign my emails with “God bless,” and I would be too embarrassed to put a bumper sticker on my car that says, “Jesus loves you.” I’m very private when it comes to my faith. And sometimes that bothers me. Even before I became a pastor, I wished that I could be more public about my faith. That I could just walk up to strangers and tell them about Jesus. That I could argue with the Jehovah’s Witnesses who always seem to come to my door in particular. I sometimes think that my faith isn’t strong enough for God - that sometimes I’m not a very “good” Christian. At these times, I compare myself to Abram. After all, in Romans, Paul writes that “No distrust made Abraham waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what God has promised.” I gotta tell you - there’s no way I have faith like that! And if, as Paul says, our salvation is dependent on faith, then I’m doomed! My faith just isn’t going to stand up to the test! Compared to some believers I know, my faith is nothing.

In the reading from Matthew today, we see Matthew portray the Pharisees as making a similar assessment regarding the faith of the followers of Jesus - that their faith is nothing. According to Matthew, for the Pharisees, material success was connected to spiritual success. Matthew was basically accusing the Pharisees of having a wealth-and-health kind of theology, which, I have to note, was probably based more on Matthew’s hatred of the Pharisees than on what they were actually like at the time. In any case, the Pharisees, as interpreted by Matthew, believed that if somebody was poor, or physically deformed, or suffered from a long-term illness, it was because these people didn’t have enough faith in God. And so Matthew’s “Pharisees” couldn’t understand why Jesus would want to spend time with people like taxpayers, or lepers, or even prostitutes - people who were not only unsuccessful in their earthly lives, but apparently complete failures in their spiritual lives, as well. Why would Jesus, who professed to have such an intimate relationship with God, hang out with people who appeared to have abandoned God?

Well, Jesus tells his opponents very clearly that he is not interested in those who are successful. He has come specifically to be with those people who haven’t got it together. He has come to be not with the so-called righteous and faithful, but with the sinners and doubters. And we see, throughout the gospel of Matthew, that Jesus specifically reaches out to those people who seem less than worthy of his love, who seem to be complete failures when it comes to God - to the lepers, and the sick, and those burdened with demons. We see Jesus’ actions prove that he did not come to call the righteous, but those the world considers unfit - to those who serve money, like the tax-collectors, to the sinners. Jesus did not come to call the faithful, but those who seem to have no faith.

But why? Why would God want such faulty believers? Why would God want followers who are at the bottom of the religious totem pole? Who don’t seem to have any faith? Well, as Paul puts it so nicely in Romans, “If it is adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void… For this reason, salvation depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace.” In other words, how can God save us if we think we already saving ourselves? How can God give us real faith, true faith, if we think we already have it? How would we recognize that grace comes to us as a gift, if we think we already deserve it? We would be relying on what we do, and on what we believe, to get us to God. And that never works, because we can never believe enough. (You know, I think Paul must have been a Lutheran.) In any case, Paul is reminding us that salvation comes from God alone, not from us, not from what we do.

And thank God for that. Because if we had to rely on our own faith, we would be floundering. But, fortunately, God gives us the faith we need. We know, because God gave Abram the same faith. I mean, I really think there’s no way Abram could have responded so quickly and so unquestioningly to God’s call without some doubts or misgivings. Abram was not perfect; he was human like us. And so he must have had a human’s faith, which is never steady, gets distracted by inconsequentials, and tends to falter quite a bit. Abram had our faith. And yet the story tells us that Abram went, as the Lord told him.” And Paul says that Abraham’s faith was counted to him as righteousness. But there is only one faith that is so strong that it can be counted as righteousness, and that is the faith of God. The faith that Abram had was given to him by God. That’s what enabled him to accomplish such an incredible journey, that’s what allowed him to follow God with complete trust and obedience. That’s what made his faith perfect.

And this same faith, the faith of Abram, is the faith that you are given. Now that’s not to say that you won’t have times of doubt, times when struggle with your faith. So did Abraham, on several occasions. When that happens though, it doesn’t mean that God has abandoned you, or that God has taken God’s faith away from you. God’s faith is forever, and so is God’s commitment to you.

The faith that you have is the faith God has given you. If you are quiet in your faith, that’s the gift God gave you. If you’re outgoing in your faith, that’s God’s gift, too. You don’t need to compare yourself to other Christians, to judge your faith by Billy Graham’s or Mother Theresa’s or Abraham’s. Your faith is a gift given to you in baptism, through the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit doesn’t give weak gifts. Martin Luther said it best, in his explanation to the third article of the Creed, when he said, “I believe that by my own faith or understanding I cannot believe in Jesus Christ or come to him, but that the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith.” Your faith is the faith of God, and it is something. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Love on God's Arms

Isaiah 49:8-16a; Matthew 6:24-34 - University Lutheran Chapel

So, I have the word “Love” written on my arm this morning, as some of you may have noticed. As far as I know, there are over 250,000, if not more, people running around Canada and the U.S. this week who will have “Love” written on their arms. The people have passed the word around amongst themselves, through online social-networking, and by word-of-mouth, and they’re all taking a big fat pen and writing this tiny little four-letter word on their arms.

The reason is to draw attention to the problem of teen suicide. And so that’s what I’m going to do very briefly this morning. Now, I need to begin by being very clear that I am not a professional when it comes to this issue. I have no professional training, I am only someone who cares deeply for teenagers and what they go through. I house-sat for a woman whose teenage daughter was on anti-depressants and tried to kill herself. I had a co-worker whose step-son killed himself at the age of twenty, and I remember as a young teenager one particular time when I wanted to die (although, you can’t go to heaven if you kill yourself, or so I believed, and so I never did anything), but - again - I have no professional experience with this. I hesitate to even talk about it this morning, because it is probably something that has deeply touched various individuals in this congregation, and I feel a bit as if I’m bumbling around, but I think it’s better to risk saying something than to risk saying nothing at all.

Because the risks of teen suicide are too great. Just to give you some brief fact: It is the third-highest cause of death among young people. Suicides are higher among teenage boys than girls, although girls attempt it three times as often. Native American teenagers have a depressingly high rate of suicide, as do African-Americans and Hispanic teenagers. I’m sure most of you are aware that teens who identify as bi- or homosexual are at a higher risk for suicide than those who identify as hetero. Teens who talk about killing themselves are, contrary to popular understanding, very likely to attempt it, and a significant number of them are the victims of some kind of abuse. They may be popular, smart, athletic, and seem happy-go-lucky, but they may also be the complete opposite.. In 2004, the latest year I could find numbers for, 1,700 American teenagers killed themselves. Factor in to that the fact that one out of five teenagers actually thinks about killing themselves, and we are faced with a heart-wrenching picture of this country’s youth, youth who carry so much despair in their hearts that the only thing they can think about is ending it by ending their life.

So why do I bring up such a depressing topic this morning? I could have chosen to talk about not serving two masters at once, or what happens when you love wealth, or how we shouldn’t worry because God takes cares of birds and flower. But the thing is that, as Christians, we are called to enter into the pain and suffering of those around us. We are called to stand with those who are marginalized in our society, and - don’t let popular culture fool you - teenagers are marginalized today. Teen pregnancies, teen drug use, teen sex parties, teen vandalism and theft - teenagers get blamed for all of society’s moral failings and never receive any praise. They stand to inherit a seriously messed-up world and don’t get any credit for being able to handle that responsibility. They are discriminated against en masse - have you ever noticed those “No more than three students at a time” signs in stores? They are marginalized and powerless and so, as Christians, we are called to side with them. We are called to enter into real conversation with the teenagers we meet, to listen uncritically to their complaints, to listen without judgement (that’s Paul from this morning), without judgement to their stories, and to listen without flinching to their pain. It isn’t always easy, I’ll grant you, because sometimes their complaints are about us, and their stories paint us in a bad light, and their pain, we come to realize, is caused by us, but nevertheless, the Holy Spirit is calling us to be there for this country’s teenagers, and to lighten their loads in whatever way we can, even if it means more pain for us.

We can do it because Christ has done it for us. Christ, in becoming human, came to understand what it means to suffer, doing so voluntarily in order to ease our pain. He entered into this world, and through that move, has entered into our lives, into your lives, taking into himself the pain and suffering that you have experienced throughout your life time. Christ didn’t flinch from doing it, or hold back because things were too intense. He walked alongside of those who were in pain, those who were dying, those who were marginalized. He has walked alongside of you in those moments when you have wondered what there is worth living for. He walked until he reached the cross, and Christ walked all the way to the place of the dead, not so that we would follow him to that ultimate point, but so that we wouldn’t have to.

And he did it, not because he had to, not because it was the “right” thing to do, although it was, but because of this word on my arm - because of love. Christ loves those teenagers. Christ loves you. No matter how unloved you feel, no matter how unloveable, no matter what you have done in life, or what has been done to you, Christ loves you. Even at the very bottom of the bottom, when we think about ending life, Christ’s love is there, too. Your pain doesn’t stop Christ from loving you, your suffering doesn’t stop his love, nothing can.

Even before Jesus, God has loved you. We hear it this morning, in the reading from Isaiah, when God says, “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.” Now the writing on my arm will fade, but inscribing in Isaiah’s time was something far more permanent. Inscribing was how you got words into stone, not just writing with ink, but hacking and chiseling away at it. Ink rubs off very quickly from the palms of the hands. Tattoos, even, don’t last very long there at all - usually only a couple of days. But inscribing, that will last a good long time. And so God has marked you permanently on the palms of God’s hands, as a sign of love, to be constantly with God, involved in all the works of God’s hand. So you do not fade from God’s hands. And teenagers, with all of their imperfections and annoyances - yes, teenagers can be annoying, just like two-year-old toddlers and eighty-year-old seniors can all be annoying in their own way - but with all of that, teenagers, especially are written, inscribed, carved into the palms of God’s hands.

Love is written on God’s palms. Love is written on Christ’s arms, those arms stretched out on the cross at Calvary. To tell you that you matter to God, to reassure you that you are loved by God. And maybe, if you should happen to cross paths with some young soul who is immersed in pain and despair, you might pass that message of love on. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A Letter to Bishop Pryse

This letter to the bishop was prompted by the letters that can be found here: Eastern Synod Website

May 14, 2008

Dear Bishop Pryse,

Peace to you and the blessing of the Holy Spirit in this week following Pentecost!

I am writing to you concerning the letter that I and those on the roster of the Eastern Synod received this past week. The Eastern Synod continues to be my official home, and I continue to think of you as my bishop, so matters that occur there, although kilometers away, affect me deeply.

As someone who has a deep respect for the policies and due process of the church and as someone who has argued strongly for the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the ELCIC, I appreciate the difficulty and sensitivity with which you are approaching Holy Cross, Newmarket’s call to Lionel Ketola. Your argument that the policies of the constitution cannot be ignored for risk of the unity of the church is well-made and demonstrates the responsibilities which you, as bishop, must honour.

Nevertheless, I must extend my full support for the congregation of Holy Cross and for my colleagues who will be vesting for and participating in Lionel’s ordination. Were it not for financial and family constraints, I would be in attendance myself, for two reasons.

The first is that civil disobedience, or “faithful disobedience” as the people of Holy Cross understand it, is an important part of our growth and theological development as a church. It is historically demonstrated in the precedent set by Peter, when he baptized Gentiles into the Christian faith in Caesarea. (Acts 10) Faithful disobedience was also practiced by Martin Luther, when he proclaimed while still a Roman Catholic that all baptized believers were priests before God. (To The Christian Nobility, 1520) History has proven these two moments of disobedience to be acts of blessings for the millions of faithful who followed. These two saints-of-saints, while disobedient to the policies of their religious institutions, were nonetheless faithful to the call of the Gospel, a call I believe is being issued to and by Holy Cross.

The second reason I wish myself able to attend is that I do not believe that the unity of the church is either as fragile or as essential as many seem to think. The privileging of unity above all other concerns has troubled me since the issue was raised at the Eastern Synod Assembly in 2004 for many reasons, not the least of which is that the “unity of the church” does not mean the unity of the ELCIC, or the Eastern Synod, or even the Toronto Conference. History has shown that the unity of the larger church of Christ can tolerate a vast range of opinions on a variety of issues, and that the Holy Spirit continues to hold us together in the one body of Christ, working through and even blessing that diversity. Should the “irregular” ordination of Lionel disrupt the unity of the ELCIC, we must rest assured that it will not fracture the unity of the larger church, an impossibility since those first days of Pentecost.

That being said, my further concern is that the call to be faithful to “unity” not replace the call to be faithful to the Gospel. Luther exhorts us, in his explanation to the First Commandment, to have no other God but God. His interpretation is that “we are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.” I must question whether those who value unity so highly might not be violating Luther’s understanding of God’s first command to us. I acknowledge that Holy Cross’s actions may leave some people feeling without a spiritual church home - a heart-wrenching feeling, certainly - but the call to be faithful to the gospel, and to love and trust God above all things, must take precedence. Unity is not our God.

Bishop Pryse, I believe that you were called for leadership in the Eastern Synod and that you have been given gifts to fulfill your vocation. I consider it a privilege to call you my bishop. In this spirit, I respectfully urge you, as you seek to fulfill your administrative responsibilities faithfully, to continue to give heed to the Holy Spirit as you consider the disciplinary options before you. I exhort you to extend as much grace in the actions you take as God has extended to you and to all sinners, trusting in God above all things.

The steadfast promise of God’s will towards us, the new life granted to us through Jesus Christ, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit be with you.

In Christ,
Kayko Driedger Hesslein

cc: Holy Cross, Newmarket
ELCIC National Bishop

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Pentecost 2008 - University Lutheran Chapel

So, here we are, in the last days, with the Spirit of Pentecost being poured out upon all flesh. Our sons and daughters are prophesying, our young are seeing visions and our old are dreaming dreams. And in this congregation, in this city, and even in this Synod, what they are prophesying about, visioning and dreaming about, is justice. Whether it’s justice for LGBT people, justice for refugees and immigrants, justice for the victims of war, or justice for the poor and marginalized, the Holy Spirit is certainly stirring in this day and age, moving us to make God’s reign a reality.

I know it doesn’t always seem like it. It’s very easy to take in all of the things that are going on in the world and to get depressed by it all. LGBT people are not able to expect the same rights and respect as heterosexuals, being denied marriage in this country, even being denied the right to live in others. Refugees and immigrants around the world are in no country treated in a just manner, being viewed instead as some kind of plague and drain on a country’s resources, and treated accordingly. War, well war continues to create and foster all kinds of injustice on both the winners and the losers, and the war machine seems as if it’s too large and complex to even begin to stop. The poor and marginalized are subjected to injustices every day, not the least of which is a denial of their rights and a removal of the power to decide the course of their own lives. The systems of injustice in which we live are so complex that any attempt to rectify things seems not only hopelessly complicated, but hopelessly fruitless as well.

Especially for the individual. Justice work can be incredibly exhausting for people, for individuals, and eventually that annoying, frustrating, but ultimately understandable question arises: But what can one person really do? It’s a valid question - one person really can’t do very much in the larger scheme of things. Yes, there are those heroes, like Nelson Mandela, and Gandhi, and others whose personal commitment actually changed the course of history and brought justice to hundreds of thousands. But those people are exceptions. Most of us actually find ourselves legitimately unable to change what seems like a never-ending fight for the rights of others. The hours are long, the obstacles keep popping up one after another - it might be okay if we were dealing with other individuals, but when we’re dealing with a system, it can often feel like we are bashing our heads against brick walls trying to move anything forward. It’s exhausting and it’s lonely.

But it is not meant to be. That is, we are not meant to struggle individually and alone in our work of realizing God’s reign, and doing so might even by a drawback. Now, I realize that sounds a bit contradictory to American ears that are used to hearing constant messages relating to the empowerment of the individual. Self-help books, do-it-yourself websites - these are popular ways of strengthening one’s individual capabilities. Privatized health insurance, 401Ks to supplement Social Security - these are other ways that this country shows its value for the individual over the group. But even putting aside the secular world, as Lutherans we are at the forefront of valuing the individual over the group. Lutherans are the ones who first made the point that God’s relationship is with us as individuals. Luther’s Small Catechism makes it clear that Jesus has redeemed me, that the Holy Spirit gives faith to me. Even the Apostle’s Creed is about what I believe. It isn’t until we get to the Nicene Creed that we hear the corporate we. There is a definite sense of the individual in our religious and secular cultures - and I would go so far as to say that it is hindering the work the Holy Spirit is trying to do in the world.

And I say this because what I see in our Scripture readings for this morning is an emphasis on the larger group. In 1 Corinthians we heard that “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” God gives God’s gifts for the good of all people. Not so that we can go out and be Christian heros, so that we can single-handedly save the Church, or transform society or fix the world. In fact, the way God sends those gifts, it’s not even possible for one person to go out and do those things on their own. It takes all of the gifts of God combined to start bringing the reign of God to reality, because not a single one of us gets every single one of those gifts. Some of us get one, others get another, others get something completely different. Paul used the image of a body, with some being eyes, and some ears, and some even being the “clothed members.” Only by working together, with the eyes and the legs and all the parts each doing their bit, can the body actually make something happen. So it is only with all these various gifts actually working together that we can actually make something happen.

We see this particularly in our first reading, too, in the Pentecost story. Now, I don’t know how familiar you are with the scholarly treatment of this passage, but there are some scholars who see the Pentecost story as a literary reversal of the Tower of Babel story. You remember Babel, right, in Genesis 11? A bunch of people decide to build a tower so high that they can reach the heavens, and they’re almost at the top when God says, “Oops, that’s high enough!” and changes their common language into a bunch of different ones so that they can’t understand each other and can’t continue on with their common goal. They’re forced to work alone, and so they can’t accomplish anything. Well, some scholars believe that in the Pentecost story, we see God reversing the effects of Babel. God takes a bunch of people who can’t understand one another, and who are at odds in their mission to serve the world, and unites them in the one common language of the Spirit, whereupon they are finally able to come together and begin serving the poor and carrying out the mission that Christ has sent them to do. So what we have here, like we had in 1 Corinthians, is a clear indication that when God sends the Spirit, it’s to a group of people. It’s not to individuals, so they can go off and do their own thing, it’s to the group of people, so that they can work together for God’s reign.

And this is a blessing, this Holy Spirit’s privileging of the group over the individual. It is a blessing because, while God doesn’t remove responsibility for the way we use our own individual gifts, God does remove from each of us the crushing responsibility of the bigger picture. The burden of trying to bring about justice at every turn, of carrying the pain of the world on our own, only human shoulders, is claimed by God, so that rather than being overwhelmed to the point of paralysis by the work that has to be done, we can stand with one another and take the necessary steps together, blessed by what the Holy Spirit has given to us as a group. Some are given the gift of helping us to worship. Some are given the gift of teaching. Some are given the usually-considered-unglamourous gift of administration. Some are even given the gift, like Thomas at the end of John, of skepticism. Every Christian is given a gift of the Spirit, every one here has something particular to contribute to enabling the reign of God to come about, even if that gift is to just show up faithfully Sunday after Sunday and worship with everyone else. Every gift works with every other one, and the Holy Spirit blesses the results.

Now I want to end by saying that I’m not forgetting that for this particular congregation, it just so happens to be a sabbatical year. So what is this church, this gathered group with all its individuals and various gifts, supposed to do? Ah, well, that’s the question that I don’t quite have the answer to. But if I had to, I would hazard a guess that for this congregation, which is particularly gifted with the passion and strength for justice work, with bringing about the reign of God for all people, for this congregation it might be important to actively pursue that sabbath rest. For one, it allows other congregations to exercise what gifts they might have in this area, gifts that they might have overlooked because someone else was taking care of things. But for another, this deliberate movement towards doing nothing is a good way to make sure that we are not, in fact, acting as an individual congregation, believing that the future of justice lies in our individual work. It is a good way to step back and to trust that in the group, in the larger body of the Church of Christ, the Spirit is continuing to move and continuing to ensure that God’s mission is being carried through. Then, when the year is done, we can return, refreshed for God’s work, using our gifts so that others may rest. This is also the work of the body of Christ - this is the way we, by the help of the Holy Spirit, brings God’s reign of justice to life. This, too, is Pentecost. Amen.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Easter 4 - University Lutheran Chapel

Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

Well, today is Sheep Sunday. I know that our bulletin says that it’s “Good Shepherd Sunday,” but for some reason, it’s always stuck in my mind as Sheep Sunday. I think it’s because while I have no problem thinking of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, I tend to get hung up a bit on thinking of myself as a sheep. In all honesty, I don’t want to be a sheep. I mean, yes, they’re cute, and fluffy, and they provide wool for us, and can be a source of food. My son currently loves sheep, he has a Little Lamb book, and five little toy sheep that he makes hug and kiss each other - it’s very cute. But sheep, well, I don’t want to call them dumb, because they are clever in their own way, but sheep aren’t very independent. I guess that’s the best way to put it. Sheep stay in groups - they flock together. They don’t like to be alone - apparently sheep get very anxious if there are less than four other sheep around. When sheep get separated from their flock, they lie down and bleat until the shepherd comes and gets them. They stick together and they do what all the other sheep do - there’s actually a documented case of a sheep who ran off a cliff in eastern Turkey in 2006, and all 1,500 of the rest of the herd followed it, with almost a third of them dying. They don’t really think for themselves, and that’s why I don’t want to be a sheep.

I don’t think I’m alone in that. I think in this country independence and free will and thinking for one’s self are all pretty highly valued. I would guess that the majority of us don’t actually want to be sheep. We don’t want to have our decisions made by others; we actually want to maintain some kind of control over our lives. People who belong to groups that do encourage a kind of sheep mentality - cults, gangs, fanatics of a particular creed or a religion - don’t get a lot of respect from the average North American. We don’t understand it, and we don’t want to be a part of it. We would rather be our own shepherd.

Which makes Sheep Sunday, or Shepherd Sunday, kind of difficult for us to relate to. Our psalm for today, our Gospel reading, and several of our hymns all talk about us as sheep, about our heavenly Shepherd protecting us from our enemies, and watching over us, and leading us in and out and to where the food is. So how are we supposed to reconcile an upbringing and a culture that tells us that mature, responsible adults take care of themselves with biblical texts that assumes that we are actually the opposite: in need of someone to bring us to where we can eat, in need of someone to tell us where to walk, and incapable of protecting ourselves from our enemies?

Well, the reconciliation starts with an acknowledgment of the fact that there are enemies out there that we simply cannot overcome on our own. Illness - that’s one of them. Sometimes, no matter how well we take care of ourselves - eating lots of fruits and vegetables, only having organic food, exercising, taking vitamins - sometimes despite these things we just get sick. We get a cold. We get the flu. More serious, more fatal - we get cancer, HIV/AIDS, or we get in accidents, or hit by disasters. And these are things against which we cannot prevail. Like sheep who have no natural defences and can’t protect themselves against predators like wolves or coyotes, we can’t truly protect ourselves from those forces that would take our life. We may, possibly, keep them at bay, but we can’t honestly say that we ever truly beat them.

That’s because lurking behind these illnesses and accidents is the really big enemy - the one that nobody can do anything about - death. From the beginning of time, death has been the one, great, unstoppable enemy of humankind. We can’t stop it, we can’t avoid it, we can’t get around it. It doesn’t matter how powerful we are, or how independent, we simply cannot protect ourselves, or those we love, from this enemy. It has nothing to do with maturity, or responsibility, capability or free will - death is that one great predator, if you will, that we, created beings, cannot defend ourselves against.

And this is the source of a great deal of distress, mostly because when the reality of death actually hits us, we realize that we cannot, no matter how hard we try, take care of ourselves as well as we think. We cannot actually protect ourselves. We are, really, more like sheep - frightened, confused, wanting to drop to the floor and bleat pathetically until someone rescues us. In the face of death, we huddle together, we don’t wander off on our own, and we willingly give up our independence to anyone who can protect us from this most implacable enemy. It turns out that when confronted by death, we are not, actually, very good at being our own shepherds after all.

How fortunate, then, that we are not our own shepherds. How blessed we are that the living God, as we sang today, the living God is our Shepherd. This God not only created us but continues to watch over us, too. A shepherd’s job is 24/7 - remember the shepherds in the fields watching their flocks at night in the nativity story? They were there because shepherds watch over their sheep unceasingly, and that is how God watches over us. And our Shepherd-God doesn’t just watch. As we heard in the Gospel reading, God, incarnate in Jesus Christ, calls us, and leads us out of danger, protects us from the thieves and bandits that would steal our lives. Later on in this passage, Jesus says that he, the good Shepherd, lays down his life for the sheep. In Psalm 23, our divine Shepherd walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, and keeps us safe in the presence of our enemies. Our Shepherd does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Now that’s not to say that we will not get sick, and we will not die. It might seem like something of a contradiction to say that Christ protects us from death and that even so we will die. We will all die, and so, in the short term, it seems that our enemy has won. But in the long term, it’s the opposite. Christ our Shepherd protects us from the permanent consequences of death, from the complete obliteration of our being, from the eternal loss of the very essence that makes us who we are. Yes, we will one day die, just as Christ, too, died. We will be alone when it happens, as one’s own dying is an experience that cannot be truly shared, and it will overcome us. But it will not hold on to us. Christ, whose sheep we have become in baptism, who has experienced death, and has been brought to new life, will walk with us through death, and God will bring us to new life. Your being will not be completely obliterated. That essence that makes you who you are will not be eternally lost. You will be reunited with the flock and see your fellow sheep again.

Now, to be clear, just because God is our Shepherd and we are God’s sheep does not mean that we are dumb, dependent, lacking-in-all-will sheep. I’m not saying that because we are Christ’s sheep that God controls our lives, that we have no free will, that we don’t make the decisions that do shape the course of our lives. I’m not saying that we have been reduced to immature or irresponsible people. As God’s sheep, we are still who we are, created with free will and independence, running our own lives to the extent that we can. God does not require us to abdicate all reason and intellect, or to mill about in groups playing follow-the-leader. Christ’s flock includes rebellious sheep, independent sheep. Our divine Shepherd has a far-reaching arm that protects even those sheep who like to wander out into left field, who like to walk their own paths. Christ, as it says in the Gospel of John a couple of verses after we left off, Christ has flocks we don’t even know about, sheep he cares for that don’t belong to the same particular flock that we do. The Shepherd calls us, and we are his, and he protects us from our enemies regardless of what we think or how independent we are.

So it turns out that despite my initial reluctance, maybe it’s not so bad to be a sheep. Maybe it’s not so bad to acknowledge that when it comes to certain things, I actually don’t have any control; to recognize that there are certain enemies out there that I can’t actually overcome. And it’s probably a good thing - actually, it’s definitely a good thing - to realize that if we have to have a Shepherd, if we have to surrender control of our lives to someone, at least that one is God, our gracious Creator. So let us rejoice that today is Good Shepherd Sunday, and we are God’s sheep. Thanks be to God, Amen.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

First Paper for the GTU

is posted below. I got a good mark on it, so I'm putting it here. After reading it, you will notice that I have committed a lot of these prejudices in my last five years' worth of sermons, and I am struggling over that. Rewriting them is obviously out of the question, but any time I preach them again, I will certainly be removing the supersessionist/anti-Jewish elements. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this paper, or that it at least gives you some food for thought.

Christian Feminist Theology and Anti-Judaism, December 2007


The feminist revolution has furnished one more occasion for the projection of Christian failure onto Judaism. It ought to provide the opportunity for transcending ancient differences in the common battle against sexism.
Judith Plaskow1

Christian churches today acknowledge the sin of the Holocaust and endeavor to avoid anti-Judaism in their theology. In recent years, the Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant churches have issued church-wide statements to this effect,2 laying the foundation for a reconciliation between Jews and Christians. Despite these formal steps, anti-Judaism continues to be present in Christian theology. The purpose of this bibliographic essay is not to explore why this is so, but to underscore that Christian feminist theology is not nor has been exempt from this prejudice and to highlight the contributions of Jewish and Christian feminist theologians in exposing and expunging it.

This paper is structured as a narrative chronology of feminist theologians’ writings that have addressed and shaped the argument against anti-Judaism. It will show that early works identifying the presence of anti-Judaism in feminist writings were not themselves explicitly influenced by feminism, but that it did not take long for writers to use specifically feminist lenses in examining the problem. This essay will demonstrate that, while not always explicitly stated as such, feminist theory, which seeks to criticize systems, assumptions, and prejudices, has provided and continues to provide the tools for feminists to expose Christian anti-Judaism and to begin the process of avoiding it.

The intended audience of this survey is the english-speaking Christian who is engaged in or has an appreciation for feminist theology, but who has not had much, if any, exposure to the problem of anti-Judaism. Therefore, a summary of each article will be included, in part to give some familiarity to the arguments, but also to emphasize that the presence of anti-Judaism in Christian feminist literature has, over the decades, shown few signs of lessening. It is important to be aware that the resources that have been selected are ones that are in circulation within the english-speaking Christian community. While there has been a great deal of literature written in german, arising out of post-holocaust theology, the limits of this essay restrict it to material that is available to the reader familiar with english.

Finally, before continuing any further, it is necessary to define three terms used frequently in this field: supersessionism, anti-Judaism, and anti-Semitism. Supersessionism is the belief that the Christians replace the Jews as God’s chosen and saved people. In this view, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment and/or replacement of God’s Abrahamic covenant, and his coming is often cited as the reason Jews, their covenant, and the “Law” are irrelevant and no longer applicable to Christians.3 Anti-Judaism is a more explicit form of supersessionism, exemplified by a religious and/or theological bias against Jews that denigrates or vilifies them as a faith group.4 Anti-Semitism is a term that is most often, though not always, used in a secular context, primarily referring to Jews as an ethnic and cultural group. The usage of the latter term is particularly problematic because it was claimed and made popular by Wilhelm Marr in 1879, a self-defined anti-Semite who urged hostility against the Jewish people because of their (supposed) economical and political influence.5 While there continues to be ongoing discussions about terminology and the relationships of the terms to one another, this paper is not the place to explore that. Instead, despite the appearance of inconsistency that might arise, this paper will refer to the particular terminology that the authors use in their own writings.

Women Raise the Issue - the 1970s
This survey must begin with Rosemary Radford Reuther’s groundbreaking work, Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism6 (1974). While Reuther, a Christian, never claimed her work to be specifically feminist in methodology and neither did she reference feminism in any of her arguments, this book was the first major contemporary attempt at highlighting the problem and history of anti-Semitism in Christianity. Every scholar familiar with anti-Judaism in Christian circles is familiar with her work, and so it must be included here. Reuther’s thesis, based on historical and textual criticism, argued that the roots of anti-Semitism extend to the very beginnings of the Christian church, are concretized in the writings of the New Testament canon, and have been entwined with Christian theology ever since. For Reuther, the two theological doctrines of christology and covenantal theology have been the most problematic for Christianity because of the ways in which anti-Judaism contribute to their very foundation. Only by addressing these fundamental doctrines can Christianity hope to recover from anti-Judaism.

While Reuther’s work was well-received, and continues to be read by students and scholars alike, it was Judith Plaskow’s critical essay in CrossCurrents four years later that focussed attention on anti-Judaism in specifically feminist Christian writings. Plaskow, a Jew, wrote “Christian Feminism and Anti-Judaism”7 (1978) in order to criticize Christian feminist writers for the ways in which their “sloppy scholarship” (Plaskow 1978, 308) in New Testament studies on Jesus contributed to anti-Judaism. Using contemporary biblical and historical scholarship, Plaskow critiqued the polemical (mis)representations that Jewish groups and later Talmudic interpretations were simultaneously contemporary with and antagonistic towards Jesus, and accused Christian feminist scholars of unfairly representing Jewish attitudes towards women in order to make Christianity, and Jesus, look good.

Specifying and Engaging the Perpetrators - the 1980s
Plaskow continued to be the one of the few voices of protest through the 1980s, as Christian feminism addressed issues other than anti-Judaism. Although Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her8 addressed the dangers of anti-Judaism in feminist writings about Jesus, as raised by Plaskow in 1978, it went no further. While Plaskow applauded Schüssler Fiorenza’s work for fairly representing the diversity of Jewish opinion held during Jesus’ time and for locating Jesus within the Jewish community, she was not wholly convinced that Schüssler Fiorenza’s methodology would be applied consistently. Holding up the feminist practice of unveiling the ambiguity that often lies in texts, Plaskow encouraged Schüssler Fiorenza to apply that practice to biblical scholarship. Plaskow hoped that by doing so, scholars might become aware of the ways in which the stories of Jesus that liberate women can sometimes be used to oppress Jews.9

An important shift in the tone of Plaskow’s 1984 review reflects some of the changes that feminism was going through at the time, specifically the move from describing groups in monolithic terms to recognizing the diversity of individuals within groups. Moving from her 1978 position that all Christian feminists were guilty of anti-Judaism, Plaskow began to nuance her argument to say that only some Christians were implicated. Simultaneously, she sought to keep women involved in Jewish-Christian discussions by framing her criticisms in the context of everyone being “engaged in a common project, never reading other women out of that project because of the disagreements with them” (Plaskow 1984, 101).

Focusing the Self-Critical Gaze - the 1990s
The 1990s ushered in a renewed focus on anti-Judaism, led by Susannah Heschel. In “Anti-Judaism in Christian Feminist Theology”10 (1990), Heschel identified the shared goal of Jewish and Christian feminists as one of recovering religion from its patriarchal roots. While she applauded this goal, she took Christian feminists to task for the ways in which they were pursuing this. Specifically, she condemned those Christian feminists who connect Nazism, patriarchy, and the Israelite religion. While Heschel found it horrifying that the cause of all patriarchy should be ascribed solely to the Israelite religion and the way their men murdered the Goddess, what was even more troubling was the way in which the Israelite patriarchy was being described as the foundation of Nazi ideology, thus implicating Israelite men in the attempted elimination of their descendants, Heschel’s own people. In the midst of these atrocities, the specific sin of the Christian feminist was to form these connections for the purpose of holding up Jesus Christ as the only one able to free women from such wicked, patriarchal domination (the implication being that Christianity was therefore the only religion where women would be safe from the power of men). Heschel, in an attempt to guide feminists to a more appropriate path for achieving the Jewish-Christian goal of eliminating patriarchy, offered what was a reflection of post-second-wave feminism’s contribution to overcoming any form of prejudice: “If there is any single most important point promoted by feminism, it is to cease the projection of evil onto others” (Heschel 1990, 97).

The following year, both Heschel and Plaskow continued to press their point. Turning to more feminist-based arguments, they each encouraged Christian theologians to broaden their critical gaze to include not just those who were perpetrating injustice by objectifying women, but to include themselves as people who were perpetrating injustice by objectifying Jews. Drawing on feminism’s development of repersonalizing the “Other,” both women recommended similar solutions to the problem.

Heschel, in “Feminism and Jewish-Christian Dialogue”11 (1991), recommended that Christian feminists begin to acknowledge the patriarchalism that existed with Christianity itself as a way of putting an end to anti-Judaism. Drawing a parallel between the exclusion of females and “society’s patriarchy and misogyny” and the exclusion of Jews and anti-Judaism and anti-semitism, Heschel encouraged both Christian and Jewish feminists to personalize the “Other” for the purposes of the mutual reclamation of women to the community’s relationship with God (Heschel 1991, 240).

Plaskow used the same feminist ideal of mutuality to emphasize the value of encouraging diversity as a basis for overcoming not only patriarchy but anti-Judaism. In “Feminist Anti-Judaism and the Christian God,”12 (1991) she reiterated her criticism of Christian feminists’ inaccurate descriptions of rabbinic and Talmudic Judaism that served to glorify Christ by denigrating the very people to whom he belonged. Her solution, though, was different here than in her past works. In addition to urging Christian feminists to become knowledgeable about Jewish past and present, she encouraged them to do so within the context of Judaism itself. That is, she called them to engage in the particularly feminist practice of allowing groups to define themselves (instead of being defined by an outsider), to “foster [an] awareness of Judaism as defined by Jews” (Plaskow 1991, 107).

Around the time of Heschel’s and Plaskow’s publications, Christian feminist theologians were beginning to raise concerns about their own tendencies towards anti-Judaism. But while the Jewish feminist voices were coming out of America, the Christian feminist voices were speaking primarily from Germany. Leonore Siegele-Wenschkewitz and Katherina von Kellenbach, two German Christians, received the most exposure in English circles, and it is to their work that this survey now turns.

Siegele-Wenschkewitz, in “The Discussion of Anti-Judaism in Feminist Theology - A New Area of Jewish-Christian Dialogue”13 (1991), built on the work begun by Plaskow and Heschel of bringing together explicitly feminist theology and Jewish-Christian dialogue. Obviously rooted in post-holocaust theology, Siegele-Wenschkewitz applied the same methodologies used to uncover the oppression of women in the history of the church to expose the “oppressive heritage of anti-Judaism in christian theology and church past and present” (Siegele-Wenschkewitz 1991, 97). She encouraged feminist theologians, both Christians and Jews, to bring their critical and supportive methods to the task of Jewish-Christian dialogue so that sexism, religious prejudice, and even classism and racism might be avoided.

Her work was followed by Katherina von Kellenbach who, other than Reuther, has offered the only book-length contribution to the issue at hand. Anti-Judaism in Feminist Religious Writings14 (1994) differed from Faith and Fratricide, though, in that it is an explicitly feminist work. Beginning with the premise that “feminist theology is political theology” (von Kellenbach 1994, 16), von Kellenbach examined the similar ways in which women and Jews have been marginalized by different groups of people: through exclusionary dualisms, labeling and reducing the “Other”, and rendering the subject invisible. Describing this attitude as it results in anti-Judaism as a “teaching of contempt” (von Kellenbach 1994, Chapter II), she challenged three widely recognized theories that contain anti-Judaism (Judaism as superseded by Christianity, Judaism as solely and hopelessly patriarchal, and Judaism as suppressing and eliminating the Goddess) as contemptuous and flat-out inaccurate. In place of a teaching of contempt, von Kellenbach proposed a “teaching of respect” (von Kellenbach 1994, Chapter VIII), a term developed by Clark Williamson in A Guest in the House of Israel: Post-Holocaust Church Theology15 (1993). While Williamson is not a feminist per se, von Kellenbach connected his new teaching with the feminist methodology of respectful criticism. This “teaching of respect” maintains the legitimacy and dignity of the group under discussion while continuing to challenge its prejudices.

As the 1990s progressed, Jewish and Christian feminists began to work together in identifying and combatting anti-Judaism. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, obviously taking to heart Judith Plaskow’s suggestions to her in 1984, included Plaskow’s “Anti-Judaism in Feminist Christian Interpretation”16 in the first volume of Searching the Scriptures (1993). Briefly surveying the nature of the problem, an argument with which readers should by now be familiar, Plaskow then suggested the use of particularly feminist hermeneutical tools as a corrective. Specifically, Plaskow argued that, much as non-white feminists have addressed issues of race in white feminism through education and exposure of bigotry, anti-Judaism could be addressed by examining Christian “texts and social structures” for religious prejudices (Plaskow 1993, 124). Plaskow, again reflecting the trends in feminism at the time, foregrounded institutions and systems as being part of the problem of anti-Judaism, and insisted that they ought to be critically investigated by Jewish and Christian feminists alike.

In another instance of collaboration, the anthology A Feminist Companion to the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament17 (1996), edited by Athalya Brenner, took seriously Plaskow’s early charge of “sloppy scholarship” and the subsequent criticisms from other circles of misrepresentations of the people of Jesus’ times and sought to rectify that. Bringing together seventeen biblical and theological scholars, Jewish and Christian, the anthology presented more recent and more accurate scholarship regarding patriarchy and women in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Recognizing, though, that simply providing corrective interpretations was not enough, Athalya Brenner concluded her book with a fourth part, “Anti-Judaism and Its Feminist Interpretations?” Here, Siegele-Wenschkewitz equated anti-Judaism with anti-Semitism and cautioned German feminists to be aware that a “contextual” German feminist theology included the context of a history of anti-Semitism culminating in the National Socialist Party’s attempted genocide of the Jewish people in “In the Dangerous Currents of Old Prejudices How Predominant Thoughts Have Disastrous Effects and What Could Be Done to Counter Them” (Brenner 1996, 342-348). In a similar vein Edna Brocke, a Jew, in “Do the Origins Already Contain the Malady” (Ibid, 349-354), challenged Christian feminist theologians to search the histories of New Testament scholarship and the Western church for anti-Judaism in the same way that they did for patriarchy.

By the end of the 1990s, the problem of anti-Judaism in Christian feminist writings had garnered enough awareness that surveys of the relevant materials were possible. Although this essay is restricted to materials written in English, Marie-Theres Wacker’s essay, “Feminist Exegetical Hermeneutics,”18 in Feminist Interpretation: The Bible in Women’s Perspective (1998) provides an excellent, though very brief, bibliographic survey of both German and English resources addressing the issue. (The volume is translated into English, but the resources listed are mostly written in German.) As a way of countering anti-Judaism, Wacker introduced some basic resources for Jewish feminist theologians, from the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform traditions, something that had been missing from the field to that time.

Another survey, written five years later for a Christian clergy audience, focused on English literature. Sarah J. Meicher, in “The Problem of Anti-Judaism in Christian Feminist Biblical Interpretation: Some Pragmatic Suggestions,”19 gave practical advise for how a Christian feminist might avoid anti-Judaism in her study of biblical interpretation and directed the reader to the resources that have been surveyed above.

Complexities and Nuances - the 2000s
One might expect that after thirty years, Christian feminists would be well aware of the danger of anti-Judaism in their thinking. Sadly, that has not been the case, and the most recent round of publications on the subject attest to that. While Judith Plaskow was the voice most widely recognized as speaking against anti-Judaism in the 1970s and 1980s, in this decade, that dubious honor has fallen to Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish New Testament scholar. In “Lilies of the Field and Wandering Jews: Biblical Scholarship, Women’s Roles, and Social Location”20 (2000), Levine situates herself squarely within the field of feminist scholarship, admiring the beauty and variety of hermeneutical strategies blooming therein. She is not so overcome by the foliage, though, that she does not notice that the weeds of anti-Judaism are overtaking, in particular, the blooms of feminist social-location exegesis. Identifying very specific people and pieces, Levine focuses on the work of feminist liberation theologians and exposes the anti-Judaism that has been growing there since the 1990s. In a disappointing proof of history repeating itself, however, the examples of anti-Judaism that she provides fall into the same categories that have been used to define anti-Judaism since Judith Plaskow and Susannah Heschel began their critiques: the misrepresentation of Judaism as a monolithic group uniquely and categorically against women and Jesus, the denigrated Jews as a foil to the glorified Jesus, and the incompetent scholarship that turns the Jews of Jesus’ time into the Other. Levine’s solution to the problem is similar to Plaskow’s and Heschel’s - greater exposure to current biblical scholarship and to Judaism in general - but she also encourages “reading-with” strategies that include Jewish women in biblical interpretation. Her essay ends on a positive note, history’s repetition notwithstanding, as she lists the many feminist works that avoid anti-Judaism while remaining rooted in their social location.

At this point, it is necessary to note that while Levine’s subject matter is not new, the way in which she located herself as a North American, educated, middle-class Jew is. Using the third-wave feminist tool of self-location (rather than social-location), she not only opens to her audience her own biased involvement in the issue, but acknowledges that despite being the target of anti-Judaism, she is not in a place where she can criticize the theologies of “under-represented racial and ethnic minorities” (Levine 2000, 350) free from any taint or suspicion of racism. In the works of those fighting against anti-Judaism in Christian feminism, Levine’s approach is unique and worth adopting.

The most recent work in this field (and one might hopefully say the last) has also been the result of Levine’s leadership. In The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 20:1 (2004), Levine brought together Musimbi Kanyoro, Hisako Kinukawa, Kwok Pui-Lan, Adele Reinhartz, and Elaine Wainwright in a roundtable discussion on “Anti-Judaism and Postcolonial Biblical Interpretation.” Levine’s preliminary article, “The Disease of Postcolonial New Testament Studies and the Hermeneutics of Healing,”21 opened with the frank statement that “feminist postcolonial biblical scholars often re-create the dichotomizing rhetorics of the Bible and many of its interpreters. Specifically, these readers identify the evil of their own circumstance as an elitist Judaism, which both they and Jesus oppose” (Levine 2004, 91). Levine exposes the incongruity of postcolonial theologians adopting what is a colonial attitude, stating that anti-Judaism is a “Western export” (Ibid, 96) that was learned in the West and carried across the seas with other biblical scholarship. Her corrective, something we should by now be able to predict, is education about Judaism and responsible historical-critical work. While Levine acknowledges that the latter field of study is often problematic for those seeking to avoid colonialism’s influence or who find it irrelevant, she nevertheless insists that without it, myths and untruths about Jews and Judaism will continue to circulate. For Levine, postcolonialism’s rejection of the West’s oppressive ideologies includes rejecting the oppression of anti-Judaism.

The responses from the postcolonial Christian feminists involved are significant, reflecting where feminist theology is in the mid-2000s. Kwok Pui-Lan’s response22 acknowledges Levine’s concerns and emphasizes that anti-Judaism has historically been a Euro/American concern, not shared by third-world women. However, she reiterates Levine’s point that anti-Semitism is actually a postcolonial issue, and as such, third-world women have much to learn from and much to contribute to its dismantling. Her response, though brief, demonstrates the importance of postcolonial theory in understanding the complexities of anti-Semitism and its continued presence in feminist theology.

Musimbi Kanyoro also echoes the Euro/American focus of debates on anti-Semitism in her response,23 but she questions the existence of anti-Semitism in African postcolonial feminist theology and states unequivocally that “anti-Semitism is not their fight” (Kanyoro 2004, 107). Using social-location theory, Kanyoro shifts the argument to highlight the concerns of African women, specifically HIV/AIDS (where she inadvertently proves Levine’s argument in an attempt to disprove it).24 She then suggests that the best way to address the issue of anti-Semitism would be to show “greater empathy for what non-Jews have suffered and suffer now” (Ibid, 110).

Hisako Kinukawa responds to Levine from her perspective as a privileged Japanese liberation theologian.25 Speaking autobiographically, and acknowledging her own social location, Kinukawa expresses her desire to be more critical of her sources and her own works in assessing them for anti-Judaism. Old habits die hard, though, and in her argument she refers to the “Judaism of Jesus’ time” (Kinukawa 2004, 117) in a negative and monolithic way, thereby lessening the power of her statement.

Elaine Wainwright’s and Adele Reinhartz’ responses26 are worthy of mention because they both highlight an important new contribution to the issue, that “recognition needs to be given to the anti-Judaizing of the Christian psyche” (Wainwright 2004, 125). The addition of sociology as a lens for interpreting the causes of this specific form of oppression, while not exclusively feminist, is helpful. Wainwright, in particular, uses a sociological analysis of class to assess the situation of anti-Judaism in non-academic circles, a group heretofore unexamined.

Levine’s concluding response27 gives proof to her opening argument of how pervasive anti-Judaism is by highlighting where it is at work in the previous respondents’ essays (as has been shown in the preceding paragraphs). Nevertheless, she recognizes and appreciates the complexities revealed as a result of examining the issue through the lenses of race, class, and third-world theology. She leaves her readers, and the readers of this survey, with the task of continuing to develop feminist theology uninfected by anti-Judaism.

Anti-Judaism continues to be a problem in Christian feminist writings. Fortunately, feminist methodologies continue to bring forth new ways to expose and eliminate it. In the 1970s, feminist theory was any work by or about women, and Reuther’s and Plaskow’s essays reflected that. As feminists developed more nuanced arguments in the 1980s, seeking to avoid the generalization of the Other of which they accused patriarchy, Plaskow and Heschel brought more specificity to their identification of who was perpetrating this oppression and how. The development of the feminist self-critical gaze in the 1990s enabled Christian women to identify their own participation in anti-Jewish rhetoric, and as we move through the first decade of the twenty-first century, we see postcolonial theory and third-world feminist theology contributing further nuance to the issue, bringing together oppressor and oppressed, excusing none but humanizing all. (It is interesting to note that in the field of feminist studies and anti-Judaism, the inappropriate application of gender studies, a foundational tool in feminist theory and theology, can too often be identified as the cause of anti-Judaism rhetoric. To date, I have not yet found any resources that use gender studies as a way of either exposing or eliminating anti-Judaism, although there is no inherent reason that this should be the case.)

It is difficult to look forward, to anticipate what the next wave of feminist theory will bring to the issue of anti-Judaism. This is due, predominantly, to the hope that anti-Judaism has no future in Christian theology. While it is outside the scope of this paper to address the (possibly insurmountable) theological complexities of anti-Judaism in Christianity, one can nevertheless be hopeful that more recent areas of feminist study, including queer theory (which has been missing from the debate), and a revival of some neglected, older areas of study, including race and class analysis, can put a definitive end to anti-Judaism in all writings, theological, feminist, and otherwise.

1. Plaskow, Judith. “Christian Feminism and Anti-Judaism.” Cross Currents 28:3 (1978): 309.
2. For more detailed information, including church documents, visit the website of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning, Boston College, specifically “Documents, Declarations, and Speeches” at<>
3 The most recent public example of this argument was made by Ann Coulter in an interview with Donnie Deutsch on his NBC show The Big Idea with Donnie Deutsch, Monday, October 8, 2007. Visit to view a video recording of the segment.
4 Heschel, Susannah. “Anti-Judaism/Anti-Semitism,” in Letty M Russel and J. Shannon Clarkson, eds., Dictionary of Feminist Theologies. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996. 12-13.
5 Lincoln Allison "anti-Semitism" The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics. Ed. Iain McLean and Alistair McMillan. Oxford University Press, 2003. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Graduate Theological Union.
6 November 2007
6 Reuther, Rosemary Radford. Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism. New York: The Seabury Press, 1974.
7 Plaskow, Judith. “Christian Feminism and Anti-Judaism.” Cross Currents 28:3 (1978):306-309.
8 Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York: Crossroads, 1985.
9 Plaskow, Judith. “Response: In Memory of Her Symposium” Anima 10:2 (1984): 98-102.
10 Heschel, Susannah. “Anti-Judaism in Christian Feminist Theology.” Tikkun 5. No 3. (1990): 25-28, 95-97.
11 ______. “Feminism and Jewish-Christian Dialogue.” Introduction to Jewish-Christian Relations. Shermis, Zannoni, eds. New York: Paulist Press, 1991. 227-246.
12 Plaskow, Judith. “Feminist Anti-Judaism and the Christian God.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 7:2 (1991): 99-107.
13 Siegele-Wenschkewitz, Leonore. “The Discussion of Anti-Judaism in Feminist Theology - A New Area of Jewish-Christian Dialogue.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 7:2 (1991): 95-98.
14 Von Kellenbach, Katharina. Anti-Judaism in Feminist Religious Writings. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1994.
15 Williamson, Clark. A Guest in the House of Israel: Post-Holocaust Church Theology. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993.
16 Plaskow, Judith. “Anti-Judaism in Feminist Christian Interpretation.” Searching the Scriptures. Volume One: A Feminist Introduction. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, ed. New York: Crossroad, 1993.
17 Brenner, Athalya ed. A Feminist Companion to the Hebrew Bible in the Testament. Series: The Feminist Companion to the Bible 10. Sheffield: Sheffield Press, 1996.
18 Wacker, Marie-Theres. “Feminist Exegetical Hermeneutics” in Feminist Interpretation: The Bible in Women’s Perspective, edited by Luise Schottroff, Silvia Schroer, and Marie-Theres Wacker, translated by Martin and Barbara Rumscheidt. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998: 55-62.
19 Meicher, Sarah J. “The Problem of Anti-Judaism in Christian Feminist Biblical Interpretation: Some Pragmatic Suggestions.” Cross Currents 53:1 (2003): 22-31.
20 Levine, Amy-Jill. “Lilies of the Field and Wandering Jews: Biblical Scholarship, Women’s Roles, and Social Location” in Transformative Encounters: Jesus and Women Re-Viewed, edited by Ingrid Rosa Kitzberger. Biblical Interpretation Series 43. Boston: Brill, 2000.
21 ___. “The Disease of Postcolonial New Testament Studies and the Hermeneutics of Healing.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 20:1 (2004): 91-99.
22 Kwok, Pui-Lan. “Response to The Disease of Postcolonial New Testament Studies and the Hermeneutics of Healing.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 20:1 (2004): 9-106.
23 Kanyoro, Musimbi. “Response to The Disease of Postcolonial New Testament Studies and the Hermeneutics of Healing.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 20:1 (2004): 106-111.
24 Kanyoro wrote, “Many people in Africa are explaining AIDS as witchcraft or a curse from God. Which God is this? For Christians, it is the God who is most aligned to things African and who is introduced to Africa through the Bible, specifically the Old Testament… The God of the Bible healed people from pestilence and other things that would otherwise harm them. This reasoning should not be understood as anti-Semitism. In fact, this is a case where regard is high for Judaism; therefore it is actually a pro-Semitic stance.” (Ibid, 110). As Levine points out in her response [see citation note 21 below], the equating of Judaism with the people of the Old Testament is part of the problem of anti-Judaism
.25 Kinukawa, Hisako. “Response to The Disease of Postcolonial New Testament Studies and the Hermeneutics of Healing.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 20:1 (2004): 115-118.
26 Reinhartz, Adele. “Response to The Disease of Postcolonial New Testament Studies and the Hermeneutics of Healing.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 20:1 (2004): 111-115.
Wainwright, Elaine. “Response to The Disease of Postcolonial New Testament Studies and the Hermeneutics of Healing.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 20:1 (2004): 119-125.
27 Levine, Amy-Jill. “Response to The Disease of Postcolonial New Testament Studies and the Hermeneutics of Healing.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 20:1 (2004): 125-132.