Baptismal Expectations — Now!
I was visiting my oldest son Bill and his partner Darlene when I heard the awful news of the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I felt gut-punched and burst into tears. With so much hatred in the world, with the “othering” of all God’s vulnerable — Jews, blacks, women, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ — reaching new heights of murderous invective and hate as the wave of neo-Fascism arising throughout the western democracies, this attack in Squirrel Hill struck me exceedingly close to home. I am an ex-American from Western Pennsylvania, roughly an hour by auto to Pittsburgh, yet the emotions involve a deeper gut-wrenching connection than the thirty-mile jaunt by car to that city. In the years of graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh (1970-1975) my wife and two boys lived in the Greenfield neighbourhood, immediately bordering Squirrel Hill, within easy walking distance. We would often walk and browse the shops in that lovely neighborhood, enjoy kosher baked goods, hearing yiddish that we could not understand but always welcomed by residents Jew and Gentile alike. Our landlord Ezra Stein, a practicing Jew, was gentle, kindly and fair with his rental charge. I remember fondly how he quickly repaired a broken pipe, working to get the job done quickly so that our newborn Brad could be warmed as soon as possible upon his arrival from the hospital. My academic mentor was Dr. Seymour Drescher, renowned scholar on abolition of the slave trade(s), who, with his wife Ruth, also practice their Jewish faith. Since that time we have become friends and colleagues. Add to that my doctoral thesis, the relationship between French Catholicism and the right-wing, horribly anti-Semitic Action Française, brought me deeply in touch with the so-called “Christian” legacy of anti-Judaism from the medieval pogroms to Hitler’s Final Solution. During my research in France I met Joel Blatt, another brother of Jewish background, and we remain in touch to this very day. So I cry out in outrage and have shed many tears against this murderous rampage in Squirrel Hill, beyond principle alone. It has grinded my very viscera.
Yes, I celebrate not only those Jewish brothers and sisters of Squirrel Hill who, instead of seeking even “appropriate” retribution have marshalled their forces collectively, in that locus and in my own Waterloo Region, along with Muslims, LBGTQ folk, a grand variety of faiths, including us “Christians”, to cry out NO MORE” to simple “eye for eye & tooth for tooth” but like the prophets of old have railed against evil (such as the hate fascism of Donald Trump, et. al., including his minions in our own land). Yet even louder have they embodied a massive solidarity in vigils that say, our collective voice of non-violent courage will stand tall against such fascist rebirth.
Chiefly though I call out to my fellow “followers” of the “Way” to remember the demands of their baptism to embody that ancient formula (Galatians 3:28) — “There is no longer Jew or Greek (Gentile), …slave or free,… male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” This text does not squash these separate identities into some kind of neutral category, but rather affirms that the character of each is embraced with fullness and acceptance, something that those vigils in my two countries (the U.S. and Canada) affirmed loudly. Yet vigils are not enough! We must daily find ways to roll back the encroaching fascism exploding in our midst, liberated into open violence by “hate” regimes, whether in France, Germany, the United States and Canada. We must, as my dear friend Rabbi David Levy chanted in Hebrew over against the attack on the poor in those Days of Action over two decades ago (Isaiah 58:6-7a): “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice,… to let the oppressed go free…? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your houses?”, embody this daily. Our baptism is our pledge to stand tall and massively against any and all attacks on all who are “othered” and victimized in our society.
The Squirrel Hill violence reminds us yet again of the long history of our marginalized and murdered Jewish sisters and brothers. The Hitler ovens are not just past history. They lurk as hidden beasts, beginning to pounce again. And, of course, we who are Lutheran bear a heavier load of need to repentance, which means much more than the easy escape of a cheap confession of guilt. That Greek word of metanoia means “to turn one’s life around.” So, in our baptism we promise to embody this radical stance against “the Powers” and for the vulnerable. And, lest we forget, the one in whose name we were watered is Yeshua bar Miriam & Joseph, a Jew!
Photo cropped from Oz Cole-Arnal and Nadine, © 2015 by Laurel L. Russwurm, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Only (CC BY) 2.0 license.