Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Why Christians Should Accept Me as an American Citizen

Whatever one might say about there being a First Amendment defending freedom of religion, to be able to enjoy any such rights in practice one is going to have to convince other people to go along with these principles and include you within them. As such one needs to be capable of articulating a case to others.

I stand before the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) establishment of the United States and ask for acceptance. I might not accept Jesus as my personal savior or believe in any Trinity, but I am a Bible-believing monotheist Jew. While I may not be a follower of the Christian religion, I am still culturally very Christian. I have studied Latin, read the New Testament and the works of many Christian thinkers. I even enjoy listening to Christian pop rock. While my academic work is technically speaking about Judaism, in practice it has largely been an education in Christianity and the different ways in which it has related to Judaism. While I do not deny that there are Christians with Jewish blood on their hands and am not about to ignore a history of some truly horrific things being done to Jews in the name of Christianity, I have a lot of respect for the Christian intellectual tradition. This even applies to people who were genuinely hostile to Jews such as Martin Luther. This is to say nothing of Christians like C. S. Lewis, who is a major influence on how I relate to God, and Augustine, my model for how to live in and even embrace a State not built around my faith. Unlike many Jews, I am not bothered by Christian symbols and images. I do not spit while passing churches. I can look at paintings of the crucifixion and even the Passion film as works of art, without getting caught up in whether Jews are being blamed for killing Jesus. I have even, on occasion, attended church services. My Judaism is one that consciously gives Christianity legitimacy and allows me to be a citizens with Christians. I practice a similar code of morality. I am looking to engage in a heterosexual monogamous relationship. (Not that I am about to butt into the lives of anyone pursuing any alternative relationships in the privacy of their own homes.) I do not use drugs nor do I drink to excess. I am honest in my business dealings with everyone, whether they are Jewish or not. If you are going to accept non-Christians into your country, I am the sort you can hope to deal with.

In addition to my Christian values, I strongly identify with the American narrative. This goes for the Pilgrims, who saw themselves as the new Children of Israel building their godly society in the new "Promised Land," to the American Revolution, a model of moderate force backed by a formal government used to defend liberty. Furthermore, the early United States offered a moderate version of the Enlightenment that was not out for war with religion and even capable of embracing it. It is from this perspective that I confront this country's very real flaws, particularly our history of slavery and racism. For me, following the American Christian abolitionist and civil rights traditions, slavery and racism are what idolatry was for the biblical Nation of Israel; a sin that challenged the very core of what we stood for and offering a narrative of salvation. Make no mistake, this country has paid a heavy price in blood for the sins of slavery and racism, but, as with King David repenting from his sin with Bethesda, the fact that a freedom loving country like the United States could struggle with intolerance offers hope to others that they do not have to be damned for their own intolerance.

Today the United States offers the best hope for the world for many of the values I hold dear. The United States, for all of its very real flaws, offers an alternative to theocracy on the one hand and anti-religious secularism on the other. Our political tradition offers the necessary level of government to allow for liberty without turning toward the tyranny of the State-run economy. If the United States were to disappear, I doubt that these values would have much hope flourishing throughout the rest of the world, leaving us to choose between the tyrannies of the left and the right, religious and secular.

As it should be clear from this, I am probably more of a Christian than the majority of people who claim to be. I also actively embrace being an American. This is the country that offered a home to my grandfather, an orphan of the Holocaust, and my grandmother, who fled Hungary during the 1956 Revolution. This is my country and I am not about to forget that; I am not about to simply use the privilege of citizenship to enrich myself with government handouts. It is right for other people, even WASPs whose family history in this country goes back much further than mine, to take me at my word and accept me as an equal citizen.

Now compare this to other individuals from minority backgrounds, who take the attitude that "they did not land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on them." However justified there historical grievances might be, why should anyone listening to such a listing of grievances trust the plaintiff enough to turn around and offer tolerance and even citizenship. "You Americans are a bunch of racist imperialist baby killers and I want in. Trust me; I mean you no harm and would never think to abuse equal citizenship."


Abacaxi Mamao said...

You write:

> Now compare this to other individuals from
> minority backgrounds, who take the attitude that
> "they did not land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth
> Rock landed on them." However justified there
> historical grievances might be, why should anyone
> listening to such a listing of grievances trust the
> plaintiff enough to turn around and offer tolerance
> and even citizenship. "You Americans are a bunch
> of racist imperialist baby killers and I want in.
> Trust me; I mean you no harm and would never
> think to abuse equal citizenship."

I hope I misunderstand this paragraph, since at first read, it seems to me to be patently ridiculous and offensive on (at least) several levels.

1. Most individuals in the US "of minority backgrounds" already have citizenship and do not need it from you or any other American. They are as American as you or any WASP.

2. Most individuals in the US "of minority backgrounds" who I have met, at least, or had opportunity to hear from in less personal forums, do not have the attitude that "Plymouth Rock landed on them." I am not even sure what that means.

3. If you're only speaking of non-citizen peoples who are of minority backgrounds and live in the US, then you are even less likely--much less likely--to encounter any "list of grievances." Most immigrants come to the US for economic opportunity or to escape from persecution--as your ancestors and mine did--and are extremely pleased and grateful to be here.

4. I am not sure in whose voice the line "You Americans are a bunch of racist imperialist baby killers" is supposed to be. Is this what you think racial or ethnic minorities in the US think?

(Somewhat) respectfully yours,
Abacaxi Mamao

Izgad said...

I am hardly suggesting that all members of minority groups, or even most of them, take this attitude. I am describing a position and its consequences. How widespread it is is another issue. Obviously the vast majority of people in this country (WASP or not-WASP) are citizens.

As has been a running theme throughout my posts on this issue, I do not view citizenship as a onetime deal. Regardless of one’s legal standing as a citizen, for this citizenship to be worth anything it has to constantly be confirmed by others as having value. Every day I make a decision to trust people I do not know and who are very different from me instead of forming a mob and killing them so I can sleep “safe” at night.

The Plymouth Rock line is a reference to Malcolm X, who in his earlier more radical phase most certainly did not accept the legitimacy and authority of the United States government. All civil rights arguments that come from his school of “civil rights” thought are, by definition, contradictions in term.

Abacaxi Mamao said...

Okay. I guess I can't be expected to understand one stand-alone post, but know that some/most/many readers of your blog are not going to read through a series before forming judgements about your words. Such is the way of modern soundbite-based world we inhabit.

So, what you're saying is that anyone who has a list of grievances (even, as you say, justified grievances) against the American government or people should have their citizenship stripped from them? Since citizenship is an ongoing covenantal deal of some sort? You have to be happy about the US and your place in it to be either valued as an equal citizen or offered citizenship (or retain your citizenship, should you already possess it)?

Izgad said...

I recognize the problem; I am trying to work through some complex issues in my own mind and that means often working outside of simple sound bites. Throughout the post there are links to the other posts that deal with this point of citizenship.

You raise the right question; that is a paradox I am trying to work through. We are attempting to bring people into the system with good reason not to trust the system. Now in order to do this we need to trust them when they tell us that they trust us. But we know that they have good reason not to trust us so why should we trust them when they say they trust us.

I am not trying to argue against civil rights. On the contrary, I would argue that I am a true supporter in that I take the issue seriously enough to not simply shout “tolerance” as a magical incantation and expect a tolerant society to appear. Having a society full of people of different races and creeds living as equals together without resorting to Hobbesian warfare is not a simple matter.

There are two other concepts that you have to keep in mind in this discourse, legitimacy versus disagreement and trust. I do not reject all disagreement, what is a problem are the types of arguments that do just reject a position, but a person or even the entire system. You can say whatever you want about American policy as long as you accept that the United States government is your sovereign and you are bound to obey all legal laws. For example Dr. King could denounce segregation precisely because he accepted the overall legitimacy of the American government. Rather than weakening the government Dr. King was giving it a chance to strengthen itself by correcting its sin of tolerating segregation. Another major part of how society works is that we all trust each other to keep with the law. For example I need to trust my black neighbor that he does not follow any really really extreme black nationalist creeds that call for him to murder me and seize my property as reparations for slavery. The moment I seriously suspect that this is the case then I have no choice but to kill him before he kills me.

Now you might tell me that most Americans are not paranoid enough to spend their days wondering whether their neighbors are planning to murder them in their beds. This just goes to show you how well our system is working. I can assure you that for people in Rwanda and Bosnia this is a very serious issue and it will continue to get in the way of their forming functional and liberal governments. My interest is figuring out why the United States is not like Rwanda and Bosnia and make sure it stays that way.

Anonymous said...

I am truly mystified by why are even concerned with why Christians should accept you as an American citizen. The basis of the American polity is that it is secular. The serious Christians who are concerned with the directions American society is going in are not trying to create a Christian republic, but argue that the government was created as a secular polity in order to allow each group to live according to its faith. Thus, they argue that this orientation was violated by recent government actions that limit the their ability to propagate their way of life and impose a secular orientation. Their criticism is particularly strong in the case of court decisions that require tolerance of things that these Christians believe are wrong because they go against what they view as natural law, such as abortion and homosexuality. See for instance, RJ Neuhaus, THE END OF DEMOCRACY? THE JUDICIAL USURPATION OF POLITICS.

Izgad said...


As I point out in the beginning of the post, there is much more at stake here than pointing out that we are citizens protected by the law of the First Amendment; other people have to be convinced that we can be trusted to carry out our side of the bargain. Our liberal Christian might in theory support a secular State that tolerates Jews, but this tolerance is not going to go very far if he believes that I intend to use this tolerance to promote my private Jewish agenda at his expense. So what convinces our Christian to trust us? The practical implications of this issue today are in how we deal with Islam. Remember it is not paranoia or prejudice if they really are out to get you.

In a sense, the recent court cases that challenge the personal autonomy of religious people, for example the Christian law society case, are a variation of this same issue. I, as a religious person, have been operating within this secular society on the premise that we had a bargain. I do not try to enforce my beliefs on other people and in turn I will be able to live my religious lifestyle without outside interference. The moment I suspect that others are not living by this deal, that secular people believe that they can get away interfering in my life without any fear of retaliation, the deal is off and the edifice of law and order we have created collapses into Hobbesian warfare.

Anonymous said...

One of the hallmarks of the Jewish existence in the diaspora is that Jew have no interest in converting or otherwise taking over the larger society. So I can believe, for instance, that Christianity is the worst form of idolatry, but still have every intention of living in a society of Christians, without affecting their lives in any way.

The serious Christian groups have accepted this and they realize that they are not threatened by Jews. They may believe that Jews will not reach heaven and Jews may believe that they are idolaters, but neither wants to interfere with the other's lifestyle. However, you are correct to say that they are threatened by secularists who insist on interfering with the lifestyles of others on the basis of their belief in nondiscrimination. The recent Supreme Court decision is the Christian law society case is an example of an intrusion on the rights of both Christians and Jews to organize on their own.

Izgad said...

One of the ironies of Jewish history was that it was precisely under “intolerant” pre-modern governments, which did not give Jews rights, that Jews were free to hate Christians to their hearts content. As long as Jews were outside of society as a tolerated semi independent polity, it did not matter what Jews thought of Christians. All that mattered was that Jews benefited society and that they did not actively murder Christian children to use their blood for Passover. Come the modern age and we now have to trust Jews to guard our backs in the army and in the political sphere. Now it is relevant if my Jewish neighbor believes that Jesus was a bastard the son of a whore. Because of this it is in the early modern period, once we start to move away from the kehilla system in the West, that we see the rise of Jewish apologetic literature like the work of Menasha Ben Israel and Moses Mendelssohn, written for Christians, not to convert Christians to Judaism, but simply to explain to Christians what Judaism was about and that Jews were basically decent moral people who could be tolerated.

Anonymous said...

I disagree. The early modern period was quite different from now. Perhaps, it is because Christians perceive themselves as under siege from the secularists that they can now view Jews as allies, notwithstanding the fact that they may each have views that are unacceptable to the other. They are smart enough to know that they both don't want the secularists dictating to them whom they can admit to their fellowship or what they can teach in their schools.