Praising the Lord while Anti-Semitic Attacks Abound
At the time I write this, I awoke to the news of the stabbing of 5 people at the home of a Rabbi in Harlem, NY. Members of the Rabbi’s community had gathered in his home to celebrate Hanukkah, but just within an hour, a man with a large knife described as “a machete” forced his way into the suburban house with the intent to kill or maim those present. The Hasidic Jews responded quickly and managed to throw several pieces of furniture at the attacker to subdue him until the police arrive. Nevertheless, two of the five victims suffered a severe injury, and one remains in critical care. This attack comes right on the heels of another attack in Jersey at a Kosher Market place. This gunman claimed six lives, and shortly after was identified as a member of an anti-Semitic hate group.
It was the twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth who famously said that when preparing to preach, you ought to “have a bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.” He then continued, “Read both. But interpret the newspaper from your Bible.” In my experience, pastors and theologians quote the last half of Barth’s suggestion far less; conveniently, this second half of Barth’s advice seems to this writer the most challenging part to follow.
How can God’s people read the headlines “5 Wounded in Stabbing at Rabbi’s Home in N.Y. Suburb” or “Suspect in Jersey City shooting targeted kosher market” from a Psalm that begins with “Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem!” and then continues to speak of God’s strength and faithfulness? I am sure there are many ways to answer this question. Christians and Jews have been praising God in times of suffering for millenniums now. However, in the context of a divided country whose internal terrorist and hate groups are growing bolder, I find two angles most helpful.
The first is through the lens of promise. This Psalm reminds Israel of their special place in God’s plane (v.19-20), and that their covenant means that God will protect them. It tells us that God is strong during times such as these and that God’s love and care trumps hate and violence. The Psalm also promises a peace that, while not present currently, will one day come. There is solace in these promises; however, there is also the danger of the words feeling empty. In my view, finding either comfort or emptiness in these verses is permissible, for both responses connect us with those Christians and Jews who, throughout God’s salvific history, have read this Psalm during times of turmoil and felt similarly. Feeling God’s presence or absence is part of our tradition. Moreover, while the Bible offers us hope in this case, we cannot set aside the newspaper that, on this morning at the very least, does not provide comfort.
The second way to read this text is through the theme of empowerment and defiance. If nothing else, God’s people are resilient. And God’s strength is with them. Even when God’s presence is not felt, God’s people are powerful and will not be silenced, nor will we be bullied into hiding. Choosing this way of reading the text gives me a sense of power. The Psalm read in this way makes me feel righteous anger and energizes me to speak out against the sort of hatred we’ve witnessed this past month.
In closing, I want the evoke the late Angela Davis on this mournful Monday morning. Davis, a leader of the Black Power movement, would often talk about how it is no longer good enough to be “not racist”; instead, white people “must be anti-racist.” What she means by this is that we each have an individual duty to denounce racism. For example, if you don’t use racial slurs but fail to callout and reprimand someone for making a racist joke or comment, you are still contributing to systematic racism, because you are not challenging the racist norms of society. Davis’s insight applies to this situation too. As people of God, we must actively denounce any anti-Semitic speech ideas, jokes, or acts. This resistance to oppression applies to other non-Jewish minorities as well (we ought to be ant-hate in all of its forms). We must fight against those who hate, and we must do it loudly, for our God is strong and gives us the strength to do so.