Collective Pride and Collective Shame

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Ethnic pride has always seemed a little strange to me. One’s ethnicity is simply a question of birth, and having been born into a particular group is obviously not an accomplishment. Most of us readily reject collective guilt but have no problem with collective pride. As comedian Doug Stanhope said, “Nationalism does nothing but teach you to hate people you never met, and to take pride in accomplishments you had no part in.”

When Fox News political commentator Bill O’Reilly pointed out to Donald Trump that Putin is a killer, Trump responded, “You think our country is so innocent?” Everyone was outraged at the moral equivalence, but it was in fact one of the more sensible things Trump has said. American leaders may not have journalists and opposition figures murdered, but American policy abroad—Latin America, Vietnam, Iraq—has often been murderous.

Christians will soon be celebrating Easter, a religious holiday of resurrection and hope. But post-Holocaust Christian theologians have been at pains to acknowledge that embedded in the Easter story is the charge of deicide directed at Jews. In Eastern Europe, Good Friday services were sometimes accompanied by anti-Semitic sermons that resulted in murderous pogroms against Jewish communities. The phrase “perfidious Jews,” which had appeared in the Good Friday liturgy, was removed by Pope John XXIII only in 1959.

Jews will soon celebrate Passover, a story of liberation from oppression and the foundation story of the Jewish people. But in his essay “The cry of the Canaanites” Rabbi Brant Rosen reminds us that the liberation is followed by a divinely mandated genocide in the Israelite invasion of Canaan:

“But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Per’izzites, the Hivites and the Jeb’usites, as the LORD your God has commanded;  that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices which they have done in the service of their gods, and so to sin against the LORD your God”—Deut. 20:16-18

The genocide in Canaan is largely mythical, but like the complicity in Jesus’ crucifixion attributed to the Jews in the New Testament, it has had and continues to have real consequences. The conquest tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures has been used to justify the dispossession of indigenous peoples. Today, fanatical Jewish settlers in the West Bank draw on such texts to justify their oppression and dispossession of the Palestinians.

Collective pride should always be tempered by a bit of realism and collective shame.

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