Tuesday, April 30, 2019
Tuesday, April 30, 2019
Synagogue shooting in Poway, California: Understanding the evil of Anti-Semitism and the history of Chabad Judaism
The deadly shooting that took place in a synagogue in Poway, California, on Saturday is another reminder of the fact that violence lurks so close to the surface. We are often surprised, of course horrified, when that violence does break forth, but as we look through the annals of human history, the reality is, that we can be only so surprised. A part of the darkness of the attack that took place in the synagogue was the very apparent Anti-Semitism that was a driver behind the shootings that left one person dead and three injured, including the rabbi. That Anti-Semitism is one of the ugliest stains on human civilization, and it goes back centuries.
As you think about Anti-Semitism, you would think, you would like to think that the horrors of the 20th century, most especially the genocide of Jews in the holocaust of the Third Reich, that that would have been sufficient to excise the stain, the instinct, the driving energy from Anti-Semitism forever. But that is not the case. And we are looking at the fact that Anti-Semitism has shown its murderous face once again in this Chabad synagogue in Poway, California, this past Saturday.
At the same time, in these early decades of the 21st century, we are seeing a resurgence of anti-Semitic energy in politics, especially in Western democracies. We are seeing that the same pattern show up again and again and again. In the case of the attack in the synagogue in Poway, it appears that the ambitions to kill more on the part of the shooter were at least stymied by the fact that there was a malfunction in the gun that led to the young man, now believed to be 19, running out of the synagogue. He eventually turned himself in to law enforcement authorities.
In the days since the attack, the news media had been pointing to the fact that something has to be explained to most Americans, most non-Jewish Americans, and that is, what is this particular branch of Judaism that is represented in the synagogue that was attacked. It is known as a Chabad synagogue, but what is Chabad?
Jaweed Kaleem, writing for the Los Angeles Times, offers a story that actually gets right to the question in the headline. San Diego synagogue shooting cast spotlight on rapidly growing Orthodox Jewish Chabad movement. Now, here's where we need to step back for a moment and recognize that the growing element in Judaism, the only growing element in Judaism is within orthodoxy. That's not entirely surprising. It's true outside of Judaism. It is only those who operate basically out of a more conservative worldview that have high birth rates. As you look across the world, it's really evident that the more liberal, and the more secular a society becomes, the lower its birth rate.
Within Judaism, you could look at the fact that the more liberal branches, most especially reformed Judaism, in which many of the adherence or not even theistic, the birth rate is incredibly low, and the intermarriage rate of Jewish people marrying non Jewish people is very high.
The opposite is true with an orthodoxy. The intermarriage rate is virtually nonexistent because you are no longer considered orthodox if you intermarry, and furthermore, the birth rate is very high. In New York City, for instance, the Jewish community's demographics are changing demonstrably because even as the mainstream had been far more liberal just a few decades ago, that birth rate has gone down, the intermarriage rate has gone up. At the same time, the more Orthodox communities just in New York City have had a far higher cohesion rate, a far higher birth rate. The same thing is true in Israel.
Chabad may be fairly recent in the imagination of most Americans looking at American Judaism, but it's not all that new. It goes back to the 17th century and a part of Russia that is now Ukraine. But it really only came to the United States with so many Jewish people fleeing the Holocaust, and New York became in many ways New York City, the epicenter of the movement.
Christians looking at the identification of this synagogue, as a Chabad synagogue will want to know that this is important to the story. There's more here than is going to meet the eye in most headlines. One of the things we need to recognize is that Chabad is a fast growing movement within Judaism and that it is representing orthodoxy, Hasidic Judaism in this case, and it is also driven by an ambition to try to help Jews that have become disconnected from the Jewish tradition to reconnect. When you think about Chabad Judaism in the United States, sometimes known Chabad Lubavitch Judaism, you might think of being in New York City and seeing Hasidic members of the Jewish community. Especially men dressed in black with the hats and the four locks, they stand out from the community. They even stand out from more assimilated members of the Jewish tradition and the Jewish community. What are they saying?
There's a theological message behind the clothing. Sometimes you see older men and young men together. Those are boys who are being trained in the Hasidic schools. Why do they stand out by their dress? It is to mark them as members of this Jewish community to make very clear even by how they dress, and how they walk, and how they operate that they are identifying with their theological identity. That's something evangelicals need to note. We don't have a particular dress. There's no way that we can stand out in this way. But we do understand the power of making a very public statements simply by being seen that this is an adherent of this particular branch of Judaism. This is an assignment of orthodoxy and it is a symbol of taking the faith seriously.
Decades ago there was a lot of attention to Chabad Lubavitch Judaism in the United States because of the leadership of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. He took over the movement in 1951. And what made him most interesting as the seventh of the Chabad Rebbe is that, he was often claimed to be the Jewish Messiah. He didn't exactly say that he wasn't, and he never exactly claimed to be such. But nonetheless, he had many followers who consider themselves messianic in the sense that they believed that the seventh Chabad Rebbe was actually the messiah promised to the Jewish people.
Now after the rabbi died in 1994, a great deal of that expectation began to recede into the background. And over the course of the last 20 plus years, Chabad Lubavitch Judaism has moved far more into the Orthodox mainstream. That kind of messianic issue is really no longer, very much openly discussed, but it is interesting to know that it gave a great deal of the energy to the movement in the United States, especially during the 1970s and 80s and 90s. Evangelical Christians paying attention to this part of the background cannot help but be interested in that messianic dimension of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, or at least large parts of it in the United States.
Here's where we need to know: that that messianic understanding, that messianic claim began to lose power and credibility when the rabbi died. Thus those who are the hard line adherence of that messianic strain suggests that the rabbi never actually died, even though the movement acknowledges he died in 1994, and that he will one day, perhaps soon, mysteriously reappear. Christians looking at this very controversy, recognize that it is fundamentally true that the Messiah cannot die and stay dead. That is why Christians just celebrated this very reality in that Sunday that so many recognize as resurrection Sunday rightfully understanding the fact that we are saved precisely because Jesus Christ not only died for our sins but was raised from the dead.
What I want Evangelical Christians to understand is that all of these theological issues are right there fairly close to the surface beneath the headlines, but most of the mainstream media will not know to go there.
How the statement from the parents of the synagogue shooting suspect reveals the danger of curiosity in the information age
But finally today on this headline, I want to look to a story from the Associated Press. The headline is this, 'Parents say synagogue suspect is part of a history of evil.’ The AP reports, the parents of a 19-year-old college students suspected of attacking a southern California synagogue said that they are shocked and saddened that “he is now part of the history of evil that has been perpetrated on Jewish people for centuries.” On principle, I'm not going to mention the name of the suspected shooter, but the AP says that his parents said that they raised him and his five siblings in a family faith and community that rejected hate. It is known that the father of the young man arrested is the president of a conservative Presbyterian congregation there near San Diego. The parents said in their release, "Our son's actions were informed by people we do not know and ideas we do not hold."
The parents continued, "How our son was attracted to such darkness is a terrifying mystery to us, that we are confident that law enforcement will uncover many details of the path he took to this evil and despicable act.” The Associated Press then tells us that the young man's parents are cooperating with investigators and they acknowledge that their own sadness “pales in comparison to the grief and anguish our son has caused for so many innocent people.”
This is an absolutely heartbreaking statement made by parents who are understandably heartbroken, but we need to look a little more closely at their words. In one very important part, they said that their son's actions “were informed by people we do not know and ideas we do not hold.” You have to look at the fact that this young man had clearly come under influences, powerful influences, evil influences, influences that motivated him to murder and attempted murder, and even his own parents were unaware of what was going on in the heart and mind of their own son.
Let's just state the obvious, that is horrifying. It's absolutely frightening to parents in general, but to Christian parents particularly. This is just one of those realities that stares us in the face as a genuine horror beyond our control, but we have to note something else. The parents say that they do not know how their son was in their words, “attracted to such darkness.” They described this as “a terrifying mystery to us.” But let's just also acknowledge that when we are looking at the internet, the worldwide web, we're looking at the entire digital world just about every toxic idea and worldview and political theory, just about every sinful form of thought, every conspiracy theory and every lie, can make its way right onto the computer or the smartphone of just about anyone including that young person in your house.
As we think about this, let's just ponder one additional thought on this issue. When you are looking at this kind of ideological or worldview infection taking place in the heart and mind of a young man, you need to ask the question, how did it begin? I'm going to suggest that it very well might have began with what just about anyone would call curiosity. Here's where we need to understand just how dangerous curiosity can be. In times before, that kind of curiosity probably wouldn't have existed because there wouldn't have been the knowledge of all of these oral views and ideologies and conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic theories out there, but now they are there. And furthermore, when you are looking at this kind of curiosity, it would have been virtually impossible for a teenager in decades past to have gained much access, if any, to even understanding what these purveyors of hate are selling.
That's not the case anymore. Now it can begin with just the slightest curiosity. Here's where we understand that in a fallen world, the way sin works, it can begin with curiosity, but curiosity about sin almost never ever ends in curiosity. There is no good place for that curiosity to go.
The inerrancy of Scripture is rejected in the USA Today because of the moral revolution: Why Christians must believe that Scripture alone is the final authority for the church
But next, we turn to an editorial that has run at USA Today. It's by Oliver Thomas. He's a repeated, if not regular, contributor there to USA Today. He writes an article. Here's the headline: 'American churches must reject literalism and admit we got it wrong on gay people.’ Now the writers of articles like this do not write the headlines, but they are responsible for the article, and in this case, the headline does not misrepresent the article.
Thomas writes, "Churches will continue hemorrhaging members until we face the truth. Being a faithful Christian does not mean accepting everything the Bible teaches." Now that's a grabber of an opening sentence it's meant to be, and it's quite effective. It's provocative. It's meant to be. Churches he says, will continue hemorrhaging members until we faced the truth. Being a faithful Christian does not mean accepting everything the Bible teaches. Well, what does he mean? Well, he means in particular as the headline indicated, that the Church has to change its view on homosexuality, the entire LGBTQ array, and it has to do so wildly acknowledging that in his view, the church got it wrong.
How did the Church get it wrong? The interesting thing to notice is that he doesn't say that the church has misread the Bible. He says that the church and its historic judgment on homosexuality simply got it wrong because the Bible got it wrong. He writes that a sad thing is happening in America. "The church is killing itself. A great revelation has occurred that is bringing joy and happiness to millions, but it is being met with resistance and retrenchment from many of my colleagues inside the church." Notice again the language. A great revelation. Really interesting, a great revelation. This is a revelation claim. This is a claim of revealed truth, but it's not truth revealed by a holy god through his word. It is rather a revelation that is come by sociological experience.
It's an astounding claim that it's a form of revelation that has led the majority of Americans now at least to favor in some way, same sex marriage, and furthermore, to normalize the LGBTQ Revolution. He goes on to say, "The revelation is, the LGBTQ people are just like the rest of us." He goes on making the case, citing mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. He writes about the United Methodist, clearly concerned that they're going the wrong way on this issue. He says that the big problem is what he describes as the corner we've painted ourselves into. The “ourselves” here means the Christian Church.
Here's the corner he says we have painted ourselves into, "The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it." Well, there you go. “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” I heard that growing up. That is indeed what I believe. That's what the believing church has believed about the Scripture. But it's not simply a pat answer to complicated questions, it's a statement of Sola Scriptura. The fact that Scripture and Scripture alone is the sole final authority for the church. But Oliver Thomas goes on to write, "The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures did not float down from heaven perfect and without error. They were written by men and those men made mistakes." Now, that's an amazingly straight forward statement. There's no hedging. There's no equivocation is simply says the Bible contains error.
“The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures,” as he describes the Old and New Testaments, “didn't float down from heaven perfect and without error.” By the way, Christians don't believe that the Scripture is floated down either, rather, as Peter tells us, the Holy Spirit moved men of old to write exactly what the Holy Spirit wanted them to write, and the Scripture makes it very clear that no word descriptor, no prophecy has come merely from men, but from God. The Apostle Paul speaks of all Scripture being inspired by God. And even as he was writing then about what we know is the Old Testament, it is very clear that it was true about the new testament as the church even within the New Testament began clearly to recognize, there is the undiluted claim made by historic Christianity that the entire Scripture, all 66 books and every single word is the word of God. Every word inspired, every word fully inspired.
Furthermore, the Church has rightly believed that the men who were used of God to write the Scriptures were protected from error. But here you have in this statement from Oliver Thomas, "They were written by men and those men made mistakes." Again, there's no equivocation. This is an incredibly straightforward statement, but you'll notice that the precipitating issue here is the revolution in morality. That's the issue that leads Oliver Thomas to say the church has got to get over, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” The church has to come to understand that those who wrote the Scriptures, the men who wrote the Scriptures made mistakes, and we are just going to have to acknowledge the mistakes as mistakes because we have a new more “authoritative revelation.”
And that's actually the word that he uses. A new more authoritative revelation that is given to us now by the powers that be in our society telling us that we have to normalize LGBTQ and beyond. And we're going to simply have to say that the Bible was wrong on these issues and thus the church was wrong to trust the Bible and let's just move on.
Oliver Thomas points to the two issues that liberal Christians so often point to as evidence of the fact that we've got to get over the Bible. One of them has to do with the Bible's teachings concerning slavery and the other is the Bible's teachings concerning women. They are both sided by Oliver Thomas as examples of what the church has learned simply to overcome by rejecting the authority of Scripture and going with the authorities given to us by society. But the treatment of slavery in this case is just not responsible. It doesn't reflect the actual teachings of Scripture, and doesn't raise the big questions as to what we're talking about when the Bible's talking about slavery. That's too big to take in an article of this size, but it is really interesting that when he talks about getting over what the Bible says about women, he's actually affirming a point that I have made over and over again in the opposite direction.
If you will train yourself and allow yourself to reject the biblical texts that deal with women in the church, then you're going to be rather duty bound by your own logic and by the morality of our post Christian age to extend that very same understanding of Scripture to the questions raised by the LGBTQ array. If you don't, you are simply going to be embarrassed as being willing to overcome Scripture on issue A, but not issue B. Once you begin to abandon the authority of Scripture, it's going to be A, it's going to be B, it's going to be, C, it's going to be D and whatever else will come in the future.
On the issue of women in the Church, Thomas writes, "While the Apostle Paul again exhorted women to submit to their husbands and keep silent in church reason and experience taught otherwise. Despite Catholic and evangelical resistance, more and more of today's churches are elevating women to positions of leadership and authority."
Again you'll notice the word “revelation” doesn't show up here is in a new revelation, but rather we are told that reason and experience taught us to overcome what the Bible says. But then he continues, "Churches will continue hemorrhaging members and money at an alarming rate until we muster the courage to face the truth, we got it wrong on gays and lesbians." Then he says, "This shouldn't alarm or surprise us. We have learned some things that the ancients, including Moses and Paul simply did not know.” Now, that's an argument we've heard before when we're talking about sexual orientation and such issues, Moses and Paul simply didn't know we can have sympathy on them because they don't know what we know. Thus, we can overcome what they said because we know better.
Now, of course, this is where evangelical Christians have to say wait just a minute. When we're looking at the writings of Moses in Scripture, when we're looking at the writings and teachings of the Apostle Paul in Scripture, we can't really just say what Moses said, and what Paul said, because we actually believe that is what God said through Moses and what God said through Paul. But going on with his argument, he takes it even further. Just listen to this, "Not even Jesus who was fully human and therefore limited to what first century humans knew could know about cancer, schizophrenia, atomic energy, and a million other things the centuries have taught us."
So not even Jesus knew what we know now. We know better than Jesus. Now as a theologian, I also have to interject that when we are talking about Jesus being both truly human and truly divine, when we speak about his true humanity, that does not mean that as true God he did not know all, at least all except that which the Father had not yet told him, including the date upon which he would return. But otherwise you have a very clear claim. As you see in John 2 that Jesus knew everything. We're even told in John 2 that Jesus did not need to be told what was in man because he had made man.
That is to say that there's nothing about humanity that Jesus did not know, not because he learned it all the because he had made us all. Later as he's about to conclude, Oliver Thomas writes, "It's difficult to watch good people, and the churches are full of them, buy into the sincere but misguided notion that being a faithful Christian means accepting everything the Bible teaches." Biblical Christians understand there is a lot that is included in this responsibility to obey Scripture. It includes learning how to read Scripture, how to read Scripture according to the storyline of Scripture, creation, fall, redemption, new creation, how to read the Scripture in accordance with the fact that there's an Old and New Testament. There's a pattern of promise and fulfillment. How to understand the law as it was given by Moses and the new covenant in Christ, including the law that Christ also gives.
All of that is the responsibility of the church, but it's really clear that where you find a church, you find, as Martin Luther said, “the right preaching of the Word of God.” Where you do not find the Word of God honored, there is no church. That's an astounding statement. It's an astoundingly true statement. This isn't a new argument for Oliver Thomas. Back in 2010, also in USA Today, he wrote in much the same sense. He said, "Take the issue of gay rights for example, Lutherans, Episcopalians in the United Church of Christ have broken down the barriers for openly gay and lesbian clergy, Presbyterians and Methodists,” he said then again back in 2010, “are likely to follow suit. This willingness to reject the authority of Biblical passages condemning homosexuality as Protestant churches did with similar passages on slavery and the role of women, will appeal to a younger generation who see gay marriage as a non-issue and accept their gay and lesbian classmates for who they are, not what some Christians want them to be."
Now just to remember that's 2010, this is 2019 it's the same argument. It's always the same argument. There's nothing really in this argument from Oliver Thomas that's all that surprising, although it is incredibly disappointing. It's also incredibly revealing. This is one of those articles we simply have to take. We have to read it, we have to confront it. He means to start a conversation and it's exactly the conversation we need to have, although in exactly the opposite direction that he intends. It is by the way, the churches that have been hemorrhaging biblical authority that are also hemorrhaging members and that's something that's just not even honestly noted in this article.
Mainstream liberal Protestantism has followed this game plan now for over a century. How's that worked out for them? They are skeletons of their former selves.
But finally on this story, I can't help but to recognize how this underlines the importance of the conservative recovery of the Southern Baptist Convention over the last several decades. I knew Oliver Thomas more personally as Buzz, a very affable and friendly attorney who was the general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee on public affairs. And by the way, he was a very influential attorney, especially on the religious liberty issues in a lot of ways. He is to be credited with putting together the coalition that led to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act’s passage in Congress and being signed by President Bill Clinton back in 1993. But the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs was eventually defunded by the Southern Baptist Convention. That made it a very clear break with his organization, and one of the high water marks of that conservative recovery precisely because it did not represent the convictions of Southern Baptists on so many issues such as these.
What's really important is to recognize that had that conservative recovery, that reformation in the Southern Baptist Convention not happened, this is exactly the kind of argument that would now be made from the inside rather than the outside of the leadership of my own denomination.
That's not an ad hominem statement though. Thomas is a skilled attorney. He knows how to make, and he knows how to hear arguments, and making those arguments, he was never less than civil with me. This is not a personal issue. It is deeply theological, but it's unavoidably public given the article that he has just published at USA Today.