Like most of you, I’m sure, I found scant comfort in the days following the Newtown massacre in watching video-journalists endlessly dissect the incident on television or in reading the uncountable number of newspaper and magazine articles that purported to explain how this unimaginable horror could actually have happened. But I did find some solace in watching the video of the interfaith memorial service attended by President Obama that took place in the auditorium of Newtown High School a few days after that most horrific of days. It was a moment of coming together for a nation that felt unsure how to respond to senseless, random act of terror that, even for a nation as inured to gun violence as the incidents of these last few years have made us, seemed at the time almost unbearable even to contemplate, let alone possible to explain rationally. That service was an opportunity for a shell-shocked nation to affirm the possibility that the solution to senseless violence could possibly lie, not in the promulgation of ever-more-complicated laws governing gun ownership (or not solely in such laws, although it certainly seems like a good plan to put in place new, tighter rules designed to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, potential criminals, and mentally-ill persons), but in the propagation of faith. I have all sorts of mixed emotions about Second Amendment issues, but that idea—that in embracing the commonality of faith that binds together people striving to live together in an upright, decent, kind world lie the first steps toward a solution to our problem with gun violence—that idea resonates powerfully with me. Could the way to stop the killing be as simple as getting people to embrace the commandment not to kill?
Newtown is a small town. The population is only just over 27,000, about the same as Glen Cove or Plainview. When we talk about the town’s clergy, therefore, we are talking about a few people. Nevertheless, represented at the service were somehow all the major faith groups in our nation. As most of my readers will probably recall, the Jewish community was ably represented by Rabbi Shaul Praver of Congregation Adath Israel in Newtown. The Christian community was represented by a wide range of clergymen and women representing the Roman Catholic Church and a wide variety of Protestant denominations. There were spokespeople representing the Muslim and Baha’i communities in Newtown as well. As noted, President Obama was present, but so was Connecticut governor, Dannel P. Molloy, and Newtown’s First Selectman, a kind of mayor, E. Patricia Llodra.
It was a moving service. Rabbi Praver read the forty-sixth psalm, an ode to faith in the face of disaster that speaks of God as a refuge in times of trouble and as an ever-present source of strength to people in crisis. Others read passages from other sacred books. Some read prayers composed specifically for the occasion. The president spoke, I thought, eloquently and movingly. I came away from viewing the service feeling encouraged and reminded of the way religion can be a powerful force for good in American society.
Not everybody was as pleased as I, however. The Reverend Bob Morris, a local Lutheran minister, was sharply reprimanded by the president of his own denomination, the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church, for participating in the service and in so doing possibly inadvertently to have suggested that there might be something worthy and meaningful in religions other than his own or, apparently even worse, that the distinctions between the religions represented were less crucial than the values they share and the articles of faith they hold in common. Chastened, or at least feeling obliged publicly to appear chastened, the Reverend Morris duly apologized…although only for offending members of his church and not specifically for participating in the service. I’m sure there are lots of ways to construe that demand for an apology and the apology itself, but it seems to me that together they say clearly that nothing—apparently including the wish to comfort the parents of murdered children—should reasonably ever trump a Lutheran clergyperson’s obligation never to offend the members of his church by appearing even indirectly to endorse the reasonableness of belonging to other churches, let alone of embracing other religions and the dogmas they espouse.
This whole strange pas-de-deux yielded a remarkable firestorm of criticism directed mostly against the Lutheran Church, which was accused of being intolerant, arrogant, and narrow-minded. Stung by the sharpness of the criticism, the church then issued a statement the other day apologizing for demanding the apology in the first place and noting that the church, after all, does respect people of “deep religious conviction.” Probably wisely, the statement said nothing about the worth of the deeply-held religious convictions those religious people deeply hold.
For most, the whole incident has been a huge embarrassment. The last thing anyone needed to do in the wake of Newtown was to sow the seeds of intolerance or interfaith acrimony; the Lutheran Church, while continuing to affirm its conviction that there is inherently something base and wrong in appearing even casually to show respect to the spiritual paths of others, at least seems now to realize that refusing to participate in the Newtown service would have looked terrible and sent a bizarre, meanspirited message to the world in an hour when all Americans were calling out for solace, not narrow-mindedness. For many, the fact that just eleven and a half years ago the same synod of the same church suspended a pastor for participating in a post 9/11 interfaith service in New York made the whole imbroglio this time ‘round even more upsetting.
For many years, I was very involved in interfaith work. It isn’t as simple as it sounds. Our Jewish tradition has built-in respect for non-Jews who live moral, decent lives in accordance with the basic ethical principles that tradition imagines God to have shared with all humanity after the flood in Noah’s day. But far less easy to square with our modern inclination to grant to others the respect we demand and expect for ourselves are the laws in our tradition that condemn without compromise any religion that promotes believe in a multiplicity of gods, or that promotes the notion that the use of plastic imagery in worship is acceptable. Well known too are the long, complicated deliberations in the writings of the medieval regarding the question of how Jews should relate to Christianity or to Islam. More recently, but paradoxically less well known, are the writings of contemporary rabbis attempting to say clearly how modern Jewish people should relate to religions like Buddhism that are so unlike Judaism, and in so many different and decisive ways, that it is difficult even to decide if the strictures that govern attitudes towards other faiths should even be considered relevant to the discussion. And, of course, layered over all of the above is the fact that so many of the groups in question have been so unremittingly hostile to Judaism that it seems odd to spend time worrying about the precise way we should relate to them at all.
The Christian world has grappled with these issues for a long time. It was, for example, third century Saint Cyprian of Carthage who first used the expression extra ecclesiam nulla salus to encapsulate the dogmatic notion that there could be no concept of salvation outside of the Christian Church, a notion that has continued to be affirmed over the centuries as Catholic dogma. Within the Protestant world, the solo christus doctrine, according to which redemption can never be sought in the context of a direct relationship between an individual and God—the very relationship that Jews recognize as the ultimate goal of all worthy spiritual endeavor and the only plausible setting for personal redemption—retains its currency among many denominations. To understand that kind of theological nullification of Judaism as benign takes more charity than I can muster. Nor is the idea unrelated to the history of anti-Judaism within the Christian Church. Indeed, the notion that the real reason for deploring anti-Semitism is so that Jewish people will eventually agree to abandon Judaism is stated unambiguously even today on the website of the Lutheran Church. (Readers viewing this electronically can see the statement by clicking here, then selecting “denominations” and then “other denominations.”)
It’s taken me a long time to work through these notions. For those unfamiliar with these ideas, Rosemary Ruether’s great book, Faith and Fratricide, will be especially worth reading to gain a sense of the way they developed within the world of Christian thought over the centuries.) That there are apparently those in the Lutheran Church who found the willingness of one of their own pastors to appear in public with the clergy of other faiths unacceptable means that these exclusionary doctrines are alive and well…at least in the minds of some. In the end, though, we Jews have elements of theological chauvinism in our own tradition too, elements that have only lately been highlighted with an eye to eliminating from Jewish teaching the notion that the election of Israel to live in an eternal covenantal relationship with God precludes the possibility of other nations and cultures paving their own paths forward to spiritual fulfillment. We are hardly, therefore, in a position to cast the first stone…but what we can and should do is to signal our willingness to work through these matters with representatives of other religions and, if it were only possible, to create an atmosphere in which no one is ever called on the carpet for appearing to have shown undue respect to members of other faiths.
Finding the courage to affirm our commitment to our own spiritual path without feeling concomitantly obliged to look down on others who have chosen to pursue their journeys along alternate paths requires a certain level of self-assuredness that many lack. Indeed, I wonder if those who are the least able to respect the religious traditions of others—and specifically not because they begrudgingly admit that we are all possessed of the same civil right to worship as we please but because they truly accept the worth of those alternate traditions—suffer most of all from a lack of confidence in the strength and worth of their own spiritual path. If that is correct—and it seems to me plausible that it might be—then the solution is not to insult as narrow-minded those who found the Reverend Morris’s participation in that memorial service in Newtown objectionable, but to invite them to consider the possibility that precisely in the affirmation of the worth of their own tradition lies the strength, real even when dormant, to see the image of God reflected clearly in the faces of all men and women who seek spiritual fulfillment through the medium of religious belief and religious observance.