How Churches Contribute to Anti-Semitism

The shooter in the synagogue in Poway, California, in April turned out to be a member of an Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  The church released a statement: “We are wounded to the core that such an evil could have gone out from our community.  Such hatred has no place in any part of our beliefs and practices, for we seek to shape our whole lives according to the love and gospel of Jesus Christ.”

“Wounded to the core” is a good start, but where is the word of repentance?  Where is the self-examination that leads to change and different outcomes?  Churches do not often think about how they encourage anti-Semitism.

Harassment of Jews is increasing worldwide.  The U.K. has recorded its highest number of anti-Semitic attacks in each of the last three years.  In the U.S. more than half of religious hate crimes are aimed at Jews, even though Jews represent less than 2% of the population.

The church has contributed a particularly ugly strain of anti-Semitism.  In the twelfth century, Christians came up with the horrible idea of blood libel.  This lie was that Jews murdered Christian children to use their blood for ritual purposes.  On as many as a hundred occasions Christians massacred Jews in response to the disappearance of a child.

Martin Luther, who may be the most important figure in the last 500 years of Christian history, was anti-Semitic.  He wrote a treatise, The Jews and Their Lies, which includes the line “we are at fault in not slaying them.”  Historians tend to say that Luther was great except for his anti-Semitism—which is embarrassing for the historians.  You cannot be great and anti-Semitic.

A line can be drawn from Martin Luther’s influence to the Holocaust.  Centuries of Christian anti-Semitism made Hitler possible.  In 1936, the Baptist World Alliance met in Berlin under the banner of the swastika and received greetings from Hitler.  Baptists returned to the United States to report on the wonderful things happening in Germany.

The Catholic Church played a role in the rise of Nazism.  John Cornwall’s biography of Pius 12 was titled Hitler’s Pope.  The church has not just been on the wrong side of history, but on the wrong side of Christianity.

Most churches do not think they are anti-Semitic, but allow small attacks on Judaism that make larger attacks more likely.  Churches should ask, “Would an anti-Semitic person be uncomfortable in our congregation?” because every person in the church should know that anti-Semitism is antithetical to Christianity.

The names “Old Testament” and “New Testament” are themselves unfair, but some Christian preachers suggest the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament, that the Old Testament God is angry while the New Testament God is merciful.  This is not true to Judaism or Christianity.

Christians often fail to recognize that the Gospels describe arguments within Judaism and not arguments between Judaism and Christianity—which did not yet exist.  Jesus is often set in opposition to first century Judaism as though Jesus was the only one who valued women or worked for the oppressed.  Jesus learned to value women and care for the poor from his Jewish context.  When Jesus said, “Love God” and “Love your neighbor,” he was quoting the Hebrew Scriptures.  Putting down Judaism to make Jesus look good makes no sense.

Christians need to see what is at stake.  Anti-Semitism is by definition a repudiation of Christianity as well as of Judaism, and an enemy of pluralism and democracy.  Religious intolerance breeds greater intolerance.

A Christian youth minister takes her middle schoolers to a service at a Jewish synagogue.  Afterwards a fourteen-year-old says, “They do what we do.  They sing.  They read the Bible.  They pray.  They stole our stuff.”

Churches can start with the simple step of remembering that Jesus was Jewish.  Christians should encourage an appreciation for Judaism, because the best Christian values are Jewish.

On most Sundays a few Jewish people worship with Plymouth Church.  You might think that would not change anything, but it does.  I show a greater respect for our Jewish heritage, quote more Jewish scholars, and speak out more often on incidents of anti-Semitism.  I have learned that I need to preach as though there are always Jewish people present.  Congregations need to listen as though there are always Jewish people present.

Last month I preached at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue on a Friday evening and Rabbi Serge Lippe preached at our church on a Sunday morning.  We did this because we need to learn more about and from each other.  I need this to be more Christian.

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Hungering for a Christian response to Mississippi’s veggie burger ban

Right now someone in Mississippi typing on the keyboard an announcement about the church cookout is being forced to take a controversial stand. Does the church follow the new state law or continue to serve “veggie burgers”?

How many churches will have the courage to throw a shroom burger on the grill? How many congregations will be torn apart by this divisive issue?

Mississippi lawmakers recently ended their long, statewide nightmare by banning the marketing of “veggie burgers.” They say the law will put an end to the unfortunate incidents that have ruined the lives of carnivorous consumers who have accidentally tasted tofu. Their argument centers on the thought-provoking question: Why do the makers of these “burgers” become vegan if the first thing they do is make them look and taste like meat?

Lawsuits from vegetarian-friendly groups are trying to overturn the restrictions on the use of meat-related terms for plant-based foods. The lawsuit denounces “meat label censorship” and claims, “The ban serves only to create consumer confusion where none previously existed.”

It is no longer enough for a label to say “100% vegan.” The law, which was passed in March and took effect on July 1, protects meat products (like hamburgers) from being mistaken for plant-based alternatives (like veggie burgers) by barring the use of the term “burger” to refer to veggie burgers. Perpetrators can go to prison – taken away in a patty wagon – for printing the words “veggie burger.”

Prisoner 1: “I robbed a bank. What are you in for?”
Carl Jr.: “I called a burger a Veg-It Thickburger.”

You might wonder if this is a real problem. Is the phrase “veggie burger” unclear? Haven’t we been calling them veggie, vegan and tofu burgers for decades?

Are people going to grocery stores, picking up veggie burgers without reading the label, throwing them on the grill, and biting into them before realizing they are eating vegan fare? God forbid a Mississippi resident should unwittingly taste a plant-based burger thinking they are eating highly processed meat filled with cancer causing nitrates. No one wants to be tricked into a healthier option.

This is complicated. What happens when food scientists come up with cell-based meat products which are identical to meat from animals but grown from stem cells in a factory? Will Jon Hamm and Kevin Bacon have to change their names? Did they consider going further and saying the term “burger” can only be applied to a grilled patty sandwich made in the traditional method within the Hamburg region of Germany? What about calling it a “plantwich” or “planturger”? Or, as a nod to presidential spelling, “hamberder”?

burgerDo people who buy a burger labeled “veggie burger” thinking it comes from a cow have a right to feel misled? Are reasonable consumers deceived by “meatless steaks” and “vegan jerky?” This law raises difficult questions for legislators concerned that hamburgers are not ham, hot dogs are not dogs, circus peanuts are not peanuts, Buffalo wings are not buffalo, and refried beans are not fried twice. What about almond milk?

A cynical person might think the meat industry wants to stifle competition. The Mississippi Cattlemen’s Association, which pushed for the new law, seems to have more political influence than vegans in Mississippi. The state is run by the party of small government, but being a vegetarian is as un-American as reducing gun violence.

Churches afraid to bite into the veggie burger issue could divert attention by pointing out a long list of problems bigger than lentil burgers that Mississippi lawmakers might have addressed. The state is ranked near the bottom in terms of poverty, high school graduation rates, infant mortality, racial conflict and obesity (which makes the new law ironic as well as silly). Arguing over what to call a plant-based burger should not be a legislative priority.

The church should see this as an opportunity to be courageous. Christians could protect the marginalized by defending “meatless meatballs,” “vegan bacon” and “beefless burgers.” How amazing would it be if Mississippi prisons were overrun with church people who put “veggie burgers” on the Wednesday night supper menu? How surprising would it be if a church put “Vegetarians are welcome” on the marquee?

Or maybe this story is a total nothingburger. Can I say that?

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Trump is Lying, and We Have to Keep Listening

We cannot live in community if lies carry the same weight as truth, if bad words are allowed to destroy good ones.  We cannot get used to the President’s lies.  We cannot accept alternative facts.  We cannot stop insisting on honesty.

Lots of people who have the Ten Commandments hanging on their wall are tempted to ignore the ninth one, but we have to keep paying attention.  Presidents have been dishonest for a long time, but it has always been our job to hold them accountable.  Our work is harder now, because no president of either party has had so little regard for reality.  Presidents need to get in trouble when they lie.

Trump lies about the tremendous size of his electoral victory, the amazing number of people at his inauguration, and the huge number of times he has been on the cover of Time.  He lies about health care, voter fraud, wiretapping, his tax returns, trade deficits, vetting for immigrants, terror attacks in Sweden, and a non-existent apology from The New York Times.  He lies about things that are easily checked—like a non-existent phone call from Mexico’s president calling to praise Trump’s immigration policy.

If Donald Trump had been our first president, he would claim the cherry tree is still standing while holding an ax and eating cherries.  Kellyanne Conway would roll her eyes and back him up.

We cannot say, “That’s Trump being Trump.”  We cannot believe that truth does not matter, because truth is bigger than the presidency.

Conventional wisdom is that the lies are hurting Trump and his policies, but the truth is that lies set everyone’s pants on fire.  Trump may have been elected president not in spite of his lies, but because of them.  His presidency may be the result of our lack of integrity.

We have to understand that justice depends on people telling the truth.  Lies are matches that destroy forests that have been growing for decades.  Lies turn harmony into hatred.  Lies makes us forget how good honesty is.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “There is no God higher than truth.”  Lying hurts everyone by distancing us from the higher truth.  When our leaders love partisan politics more than truth, the whole country loses its way.

We need to be indignant when the President lies.  We cannot let untruths pass unchallenged without damage to our souls.  We need to defend truth, because truth is our best defense.

The words we hear affect our hearts—even when we wish they did not.  We are what we hear.  We need leaders who know how to bless us with what they say.  We need words that heal.  We need words that make us better.

We need to make America honest again.

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Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, and Adam Sandler

Years ago when attendance had gotten small, Plymouth Church brought in a consultant who said, “You can either be a museum or a church.”   The consultant had been going to the wrong museums.  A good church is like a good children’s museum—a place to learn, explore, and discover.

On Monday night I met with eighteen members of our church’s history ministry.  They know how good a museum can be.  Plymouth’s tour guides are better than the ones who wander down Orange Street.

I have interrupted five tours in front of the church.  One thing those guides do well is fit the tour to whatever tourists have paid the thirty bucks.  When the tour was filled with teenagers, the guide talked about Adam Sandler making a movie here.  When the tour was an African American choir, the guide described the Fisk University Choir singing here in 1871.  When the tour was a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the guide pointed to 74 Hicks Street where Charles Taze Russell’s cousin lived.  (Who knew?)

We share an amazing history, so touch Plymouth Rock and give thanks.  Sit in pew 89 and wonder what Abraham Lincoln prayed when he sat there.  Turn off the lights in the basement and imagine what it feels like to run for your life.  Visit the Senior Minister’s office and think of Branch Rickey praying there until he decided that God wanted him to ask Jackie Robinson to integrate baseball.

Some of our heritage is complicated.  The sculptor of the statues in Beecher Garden, Gutzon Borglum, was in the Klan.  Our founding pastor was a gifted minister who fought courageously against slavery.  His adultery trial sold a lot of newspapers and ended in a hung jury.  Look at the portrait of Henry Ward Beecher in the arcade and ask yourself if he is attractive.  Mark Twain wrote:  “Mr. Beecher is a remarkably handsome man when he is in the full tide of sermonizing, and his face is lit up with animation, but he is as homely as a singed cat when he isn’t doing anything.”

The list of people who have been in our building is surprising—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Hillary Clinton, Sonia Sotomayor, Elliott Spitzer, Colin Kaepernick, Norah Jones, and Sarah Jessica Parker.

A couple of years ago our Senior Minister Search Committee was asked to fill out a form that asked for the three biggest moments in the church’s history.  They picked Henry Ward Beecher’s tenure as the first pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching an early version of his “I Have a Dream” sermon at Plymouth, and the church recommitting itself to Jesus Christ in 2004.  Plymouth’s resurgence is part of the story.

We do not have to choose between being a museum and a church.  We think about what God has done to remind us that God is still at work.

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A Long List of Things Your Senior Minister Wants

Roy Oswald writes about churches selecting a new Senior Minister: “No matter how much work has been done in terms of self-study, goal setting, and job description, the selection of a new pastor is not a rational decision.  The decision is deeply intuitive with a good deal of blindness connected with it.”

Love may be blind, but we are together for better or worse, so I want you to know what my goals are, recognizing that I have only been on the job for three weeks.  I plan to get more rational.

I want to ride the subway without repeatedly looking at the map to make sure the train is still headed in the right direction.

I want to go a day without consulting my gps.

I want to honk my horn like a New Yorker.

I want to go into a grocery store and think, “That’s a reasonable price for a pound of ground beef.”

I want to look at a restaurant menu without sticker shock, “How can a Coca-Cola here be three times as good as a Coca-Cola in Georgia?”

I want to go to a Mets-Braves game without secretly rooting for Atlanta.

I want to convince myself that climbing stairs counts like a trip to the gym.

I want to feel at home at Plymouth.  I want to know names—including the 22 Davids listed in the church directory.

I want to learn our history as a way of visioning the future.  I thank God for Henry Ward Beecher, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Jr., David Fisher, and Al Bunis.  I want to be grateful for where we have been as well as where we are going.

I want to learn how we tell our story.  Plymouth is a gift to our community. You and I have friends and neighbors who need this church.  We need to let them know we are here for them.

I want to understand how we learn the Christian story together.  The best Christian education is not just learning content, but becoming more like Christ.  How do we do that at Plymouth?

I want to help people find friends.  I want to know which groups will be the best family for which newcomers.

I want to know about the ways we care for the hurting.  Our ministries help us become the people God wants us to be.

I want to continue to feel God’s presence when I walk into the sanctuary.

I want to have a part in our worship growing deeper.  I love our worship, and have no desire to change things for change’s sake.  The goal is to strengthen our worship so that we can more fully give ourselves to God.

I want to be a good person as well as a good senior minister.  I want to set up patterns for well-being and growth: prayer, exercise, and study.

I want to give guidance, support, and care to the leadership and staff of Plymouth.

I want to understand the structure of the church’s ministry, to ascertain what organizational needs we have.

Eventually I want someone to introduce me by saying, “This is our Senior Minister.  He’s not that new.”

Carol and I came to Plymouth to be part of the family.  I want to hear your stories, and I want to share my story.  I want to move past being acquaintances and become friends.  I want to be real church.

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Reflections on “On Common Ground” Women’s Retreat

What makes us unique? What do we share?

These were the two questions Jane Huber set before 45 women on Saturday, January 30th during the Annual Women’s Retreat. This year, the theme was “On Common Ground.” Had super storm Jonas not come through, it would have been the weekend after the Church’s Anti-Human Trafficking event however, instead it almost divinely preceded the current challenge to our congregation.

To be honest, I’ve been struggling with my experience of the retreat, to no fault of Jane or any participant, but I think because I came in with too much of an ego mindset. I was identifying more with what I’d get out of it, rather than being open to what would happen. I was also therefore identifying with whether or not other people would enjoy it. That anxiety got translated into, “what did I get from it? What did others? And where would it lead me/them?”

Throughout the weekend, I found myself wondering: did I learn more about how to find Common Ground? If so, what did I learn? If not, does that mean I didn’t get the benefit of Jane’s amazingly well thought-out program?

In the first part of the morning, Jane had us look at a passage from Acts 17:22-31 in which Paul is able to get the attention of the Athenians and explain the concept of his God versus theirs. She asked us to look at where we saw Paul establishing common ground and who, or what, is Paul’s God. The passage ends with him using the words of the Athenians’ own poets to explain his concept of his (and our) God saying, “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being…For we too are his offspring.’” In other words, God is in each of us, not in a shrine.

In Tom’s sermon the next day, just before the anti-trafficking event, he explained: “the core of our faith is to love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves. It’s not that we are to think poorly of ourselves, but that we are to think of others, and want for them the best out of life, just as we seek that for ourselves. In other words, true prophecy is characterized by being propelled as much for the love of others, as by the love of self.”

Taken together, this is a powerful new notion of God that I now have as a result of this retreat. I have already been learning that if God is in each of us, then knowing my uniqueness is a way of knowing God. But what I got from Jane on Saturday was that if knowing my uniqueness allows me to know what you and I share, then it is a compassionate way of learning how to love you and want for you, as I love and want for myself. And if I can get myself there, then I have expanded my visceral knowing of God. I imagine this is what it feels like as a parent, that your identity increases in each child. As your identify increases, so too does your connection.

As I find more common ground with others, can my connection to God increase?

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What Good is History?

Abolitionist
[ab-uh-lish-uh-nist]
noun
1. (especially prior to the Civil War) a person who advocated or supported the abolition of slavery in the U.S.

I’m a member of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights. After “church shopping” I joined Plymouth because of its stand on social justice issues. Plymouth is proud of its history. Founded in 1854, the congregation called as its first minister Henry Ward Beecher. They gave the famed abolitionist, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a platform – literally – to speak on.

In those turbulent years leading up to the Civil War and through the Emancipation Proclamation Plymouth would be packed on Sundays with close to 3,000 people, come to hear Beecher preach against slavery. Famous anti-slavery advocates spoke at Plymouth, including William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass. Plymouth held deep philosophical connections with the Underground Railroad — the secretive network of people who helped slaves escape to the North and Canada. Documentary evidence lends support to the belief that Plymouth was also a site of active participation, known as Brooklyn’s “Grand Central Depot.” Plymouth brought Abraham Lincoln to New York for his famous speech at Cooper Union, that launched Lincoln’s presidential campaign. Here, in Brooklyn Heights, is a place where people gathered who changed history, affecting the lives of millions.

But what benefit is this history?

Fours years ago Plymouth hosted a discussion on human trafficking. I went, hardly knowing what the term meant. Two years ago we revisited the topic. In partnership with the Brooklyn Historical Society we sponsored a round-table discussion moderated by now attorney general, Loretta Lynch. The more I educated myself on human trafficking – on modern day slavery – the more I unearthed facts, metrics, and numbers: There are more slaves in the world today than at the time of the Civil War. Slavery does not happen only overseas, but in the United States. Not just the United States, but all fifty states. In New York. In New York City. In Brooklyn. In my backyard.

The famous historian Marc Bloch, a Jew who joined the French resistance and was killed in Paris by the Gestapo, wrote that the purpose of history is to draw lines of connection from the present to the past, to better understand the impact of our actions, today. Historian George Santayana famously wrote “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

So how accurate is the definition of abolitionist (above)? Is being an abolitionist, working to abolish slavery, a thing of the past? No. Too much work needs to be done. The New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition launched a campaign in 2013, New York’s New Abolitionists, to raise awareness around human trafficking and modern-day slavery. It’s a brilliant campaign, drawing lines of connection from abolitionists past to abolitionists working hard to end slavery today: doctors, lawyers, survivors, people from every walk of life. What I’ve learned is that we can all be new abolitionists. Let us not be condemned to repeat history, but to effect change, today.

I invite you to come to Plymouth this Sunday: listen to Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson, meet and speak with folks from Restore, ECPAT-USA (End Child Prostitution and Trafficking) and Sanctuary for Families. See and hear the testimony of trafficking survivors given by the activist teen theater group Girl Be Heard. If you already know the story of human trafficking in New York City, come to learn what you can do to to end trafficking. And if you already volunteer, come to meet us, other like-minded folks. Join the crowd. Be an abolitionist. A new abolitionist. Because We Are the New Abolitionists. No one else. Us.

Beth Fleisher, chair
We Are the New Abolitionists
The Anti-trafficking Ministry of
Plymouth Church, Brooklyn

AHTevent_Plymouth_NEW DATE

 

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