How Not To Disagree

My friend Rabbi Norman Cohen, senior rabbi at Bet Shalom Temple in Minnetonka, was kind enough to share with me a copy of his Rosh Hashanah sermon (which is now available on the Bet Shalom website here). In it, he made an appeal that has often been on my lips and the lips of others:

Demonizing and personal attacks have no place in civil debate. It diminishes the strength of legitimate arguments. It is time for more compassion and respect, especially toward those with whom we disagree.

Rabbi Cohen gave the example of Hillel and Shammai, who “disagreed on nearly everything.” They debated hard and strong with each other, “[b]ut when the day was done, they were ‘friends.’ They were each passionate about their opinion, but found a way to respect their opponent.”

He then said something very sobering. Referring to the Hebrew expression Sinat hinam (baseless hatred) he quoted another rabbi, Rabbi Danny Gordis, who has been the victim of personal press bashing. Rabbi Gordis referenced the destruction of the First Temple, destroyed by serious violations like murder and incest, and the destruction of the Second Temple, destroyed because of “baseless hatred.” He then asked the question: How is it that the First Temple was rebuilt after 70 years after being destroyed by the more serious violations, but the second was never rebuilt? Rabbi Gordis continued

The answer was that sinat hinam, baseless hatred, dismissive attitudes, and communal rancor are different. They are the sorts of actions for which we can always find explanations and justifications, and so, we never really confront the fact that we’ve sinned. This is why the Temple that was destroyed because of baseless hatred has never been rebuilt.

I think that last quoted piece from Rabbi Gordis is worth a lot of reflection.

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The Sin of Elitism

Jean Vanier (in From Brokenness to Community) writes that “elitism is the sickness of us all.” At first blush, I was taken back by the line when I came across it. I’m not an elitist was my immediate reaction, as I suspect it would be for many people reading the line.

His next line, however, opened my understanding. “Elitism is the sickness of us all. We all want to be on the winning team.” Whatever our reaction to his first sentence, I suspect few of us could deny the truth of the second sentence. Who doesn’t want to be one of the winners?

But, of course, once there is a winning team, there is a losing team, as to which the winning team is superior. Once there is an insider, there is a outsider who doesn’t belong. And so on. Hence, Vanier’s continuation of his thought. “Elitism is the sickness of us all. We all want to be on the winning team. That is the heart of apartheid and every form of racism.”

Vanier wrote those lines from the recognition of the “immense forces of darkness and hatred” within his own heart. And he recognized the need to acknowledge their existence, to not pretend none of that “garbage” exists within us. He continues, “The important thing is to become conscious of those forces in us and to work at being liberated from them and to discover that the worst enemy is inside our own hearts not outside.”

Reactions to The Death of A Terrorist

I’ve been sitting with a question raised by a number of people in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden – how should a Christian receive this news?

I understand the anger at Osama bin Laden over his role in the WTC bombings and other acts of terrorism. I experienced the reality of 9/11 living in NY, and I lost a family member and a friend in the bombing. I have also walked with other people that I loved, who also lost loved ones.

It may be (although I’m not sure I am capable of assessing this) that there is truth to the claim that it was necessary to kill bin Laden; one of my friends suggested it was a stragetic and symbolic necessity to do so.

But what I know I can’t understand is the glee I saw expressed in so many posts that have come across my Facebook newsfeed and in other places in the blogosphere since the news broke on Sunday. There was almost a blood lust in the reaction. The reactions I saw made me very uncomfortable. For, even if this killing were a necessity, I see nothing to rejoice at here.

Martin Luther King expressed it well:

I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

But even that doesn’t completely capture my feelings. Osama bin Laden did awful things. He spread terror and hatred. But he was still a child of God, still someone made in the image and likeness of God.

And so, although I’m not sure I can put better words to it than this, the line that has been with me almost from the moment I heard the news Sunday night was from John Donne: ‎”Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind.”

And I will pray for bin Laden’s soul as I pray for the souls of those whose death he caused..