Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Calling Out Anti-Semitic Labeling in Research

This piece is a departure for me and for this blog.

This is the first time I have used this blog to post a critique and a call for change by another organization.

But the seriousness of the offense in the work I address here is such that, for me at least (and here I speak ONLY for myself as a baptized Christian who is also an elder in The United Methodist Church), not in my official capacities in any way, I find a need to speak out more broadly.

So this disclaimer: I speak here for myself as a baptized United Methodist Christian. I do not speak on behalf of The United Methodist Church, or my employer, The General Board of Discipleship, or The Consultation on Common Texts, which I serve as Secretary.


The work I am addressing is this: http://www.barna.org/faith-spirituality/619-are-christians-more-like-jesus-or-more-like-the-pharisees

What I am sharing here is my letter in response to this article, sent to Barna Group through the Contact Us page of their website, which is here: http://www.barna.org/contact. I encourage you, if you share my concerns, or if you don't, to let them know your response to this article and research as well.

A bit of background about why I find this article and the labels it uses so terribly offensive and problematic.

First, I was raised as a Southern Baptist while I grew up in a neighborhood that was over 90% Jewish. The casual way in which this article and the research uses the term "Pharisaical" is something I was raised with as well. I don't know how typical it was of evangelicals then, but it was certainly "normal practice" in the tradition in which I was raised. So I used this rhetoric myself growing up, and I used it personally and repeatedly against my neighbors and classmates, many of whom were descendents of persons who had survived or fled the Holocausts in Europe and Russia. Looking back and knowing what I came to know later, I would now call my use of these terms the way I used them a participation in the continuing persecution of these Jewish people. I have repented. I seek to keep repenting.

Second, what I came to learn in college, where I was not surrounded by the anti-Semitic readings of my childhood and youth, was the importance of the work of the Pharisees and what they were actually up to for the most part. I also became aware that the theology of Jesus as revealed in the gospels drew heavily on Pharisee theology. This helped me see that the characterizations I had learned to apply to "all Pharisees" and indeed to the Jewish people more generally (including my neighbors and some of my closest friends) were without historical warrant. And they were not only historically false, but perversely so.

More recently, I have been the addressee of a petition on Change.org calling for the Consultation on Common Texts (of which I am Secretary) to consider changing the Revised Common Lectionary readings, particularly but not only for Good Friday, where John's passion is read, to avoid the profoundly negative stereotyping of "the Jews" (oi Judaioi in Greek) that historically has led to all kinds of violence against Jewish people throughout Christian history, and particularly for several centuries in the West on Good Friday.

We have discussed this petition now as the Consultation, and our conclusion (so far-- we're keeping the conversation alive among us) is the core issue is one of translation and interpretation of these scriptures-- something that each of our member churches has taken up to some degree in the past, but that all of us are urged and reminded to stay vigilant about and perhaps work more diligently on going forward.

This whole situation-- the petition, the folks who have signed it, spending time with the author of the petition (retired Episcopal priest, Susan Auchincloss) at our meeting in Toronto, and our ongoing conversations across the Consultation-- have renewed in me, personally, my baptismal commitment to "resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves," including the way our current resolution on Yom HaShoah, citing an earlier resolution on Jewish-Christian relations, calls United Methodists at every level to take seriously our "profound obligation to correct historical and theological teachings that have led to false and pejorative perceptions of Judaism and contributed to persecution and hatred of Jews."

I believe this article and the way this research is framed are chief examples of such "historical and theological teachings that lead to false and pejorative perceptions of Judaism."

Hence my letter to Barna (included below).

And hence this blog post.

May we all find ways to live with honesty, integrity and respect toward all other persons, and to resist and correct false witness against them as it occurs.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor



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Colleagues,

I am writing to "call you out" on the labeling used in your recent survey seeking to contrast "Christlike" with "Pharisaical" behavior.

http://www.barna.org/faith-spirituality/619-are-christians-more-like-jesus-or-more-like-the-pharisees

The use of the term Pharisaical or even "like the Pharisees" in your article and the research behind it is deeply offensive and historically problematic on at least two fronts.

First, it mischaracterizes the nature of the work of the Pharisees as a whole by taking specific confrontations Jesus is recorded to have had with SOME Pharisees in the gospels and applying them, at least implicitly, to this branch of first century Judaism as a whole. Jesus himself may have been a Pharisee, based on his theological commitments, many of which are shared with them (resurrection, angels, demons, Satan, hell, judgment, new creation, and apocalyptic eschatology). Overall, the historical evidence is the Pharisees were generally far more about the "spirit" of the law than "nailing down every detail," and it was actually the Pharisee version of Judaism that triumphed over the Sadducee version to become the basis of post-temple Judaism, and so of the Talmud and most forms of post-exilic Judaism in the world today.

This brings me to the second point. The rhetoric of anti-Pharisaism employed in your research and this article is in the same vein as the anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic rhetoric which has plagued Christian theology and practice for centuries, and allowed Christians not only to be complicit in but often approving of pogroms, segregation, persecution, exile, torture and genocide of the Jewish people.

It is time for such historically inaccurate and rhetorically dangerous use of such terms to stop. And it is up to Christians, including your organization, to repent where you have participated in such actions and put a stop to them.

I write as an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church, which has pledged in its Book of Resolutions to fulfill our "profound obligation to correct historical and theological teachings that have led to false and pejorative perceptions of Judaism and contributed to persecution and hatred of Jews."

I encourage you to retract this study and this article, and if you choose to re-issue it, to do so with labels that do not generalize about Jewish sects, but rather particularize what I think all of us to day-- Jews and Christians alike-- would agree are problematic behaviors that do not reflect the glory or the will of the Lord our God, who in both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures is everywhere acknowledged as "full of compassion and steadfast love."

Peace in Christ,

The Rev. Taylor W. Burton-Edwards
Elder, The United Methodist Church

4 comments:

David the Elder said...

Thanks for posting this. I wish that we could also get the folks down the hall from you at the Upper Room to take the "Pharisee" reference out of one of the Walk to Emmaus talk outlines.

journeyman37 said...

David,

I will look into this. Send me more specifics about the reference you are describing via email (worship@gbod.org) and I will ask what may be done.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

cbmadison52 said...

Taylor,

You are, of course, correct. There are huge tensions in the New Testament texts between the emerging church and synagogue, which resulted in attitudes which eventually led to the Holocaust. There are still some Christians who continue to label Jews "Christ killers," which is plainly wrong, but persists in some circles. The descendents of the Pharisees became the Jews who survived the captivities and who brought a wealth of teachings to us. Sadly, most persons in the church do not know this. I support your stance.

Rev. Chris Madison, M.Div., Ordained Elder, Indiana Conference, United Methodist Church

Morgan Guyton said...

Hmm... There's a need though for a signifier to capture those persons who exhibit the behavior Jesus described in Matthew 23 because a whole lot of Christians today are exactly like that. I see Pharisee as an invented archetype that Matthew is using for polemical purposes as opposed to an accurate historical description of a group of people. Jesus was presumably a Pharisee himself. I'm not sure I can wipe that word out of our vernacular. I would rather footnote it and say that what we're talking about is an archetype which has nothing to do with actual rabbinical Judaism. If we're going to edit Biblical language to avoid anti-Semitism, then what defense do we have for keeping Father, Son, and Holy Spirit when feminists have just as strong a claim that the masculinizing of God contributes to domestic violence?