November 22, 2019 admin

Language of Contempt?

I’m often anxious after giving a sermon. What troubles me is: Have I said things which hurt others? This is not because I’m worried people may disagree with what I’ve said. It’s on account of a deeper issue: Have I spoken anything which directly or implicitly degrades other people because of who they are: white, or black, or male, or female, or not-Jewish, or indeed Jewish, or gay, or of other faith, or of none, or single, or married, or bereaved? Have I degraded the universal divine image which resides in every human being?

Because that’s a wrong; and from hustings, pulpit, parliament or temple, from any place of power, it’s an influential form of wrongdoing.

Since childhood, I’ve been struck by the prayer asking God to protect us ‘from the evil hours which distract the world’. What are those ‘hours’? Hours, I fear, in which racism, bigotry and hatred fill public discourse, inciting, and forming the prelude to, violence.

This week I signed a draft statement by the RA (The Rabbinical Assembly, to which most Masorti rabbis belong) condemning Stephen Miller, senior advisor to President Trump, for promoting white supremacist ideology and race hate. Based on documents released by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Hatewatch (what a term!) wrote that it could find no examples of Miller writing ‘sympathetically or even in neutral tones about any person who is nonwhite or foreign-born.’ The RA statement says that:

Both history and contemporary experience make us (as Jews) especially sensitive to any efforts that classify fellow human beings as “other.” We are all made in the image of God and worthy of dignity and respect.

These words should be taken to heart, including by leaders in Israel who make comments understood as provoking fear and hatred against Israel’s Arab citizens in sharp contradiction to the ideals set out in Israel’s wise and profoundly Jewish Declaration of Independence:

[The State of Israel] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…

Closer to home, I’ve listened to more than one parliamentary candidate, from more than one party, telling me with personal pain about the race-based bigotry and hate-filled comments they both witness and receive as they campaign. This is wrong.

The US, the UK and Israel: these are three countries I admire and care about. There’s much I could say about places further from my heart…

We must not let the language of contempt go unchallenged. Disagreement, argument, impassioned debate, – yes. But bullying, bigotry and hatred, – no. They do not belong in genuine discourse; in the end they crush it. Those who suffer most are minorities, the ‘othered’, often women, writers, anyone too inconvenient in pursuit of truth, and, in the end, the whole of society.

That is why I welcome the Church of England’s report God’s Unfailing Word, which sharply challenges Christian teachings which have over centuries provided ‘a fertile seed-bed for murderous anti-Semitism’. The Archbishop of Canterbury, whom I’ve personally heard speak in the strongest terms against anti-Semitism wherever it is found in British life, acknowledged that

it is a shameful truth that, through its theological teachings, the church, which should have offered an antidote, compounded the spread of this virus.

The report may not be perfect, but it is highly significant and timely. It is a courageous example of how we must all examine our conscience and our language: Are my words cruel? Do they damage the dignity of being human?

We need to ask that question not just from the viewpoint of those who are ‘like us’, but precisely from the perspective of those cast as ‘other’.

However strong our beliefs, may our words offer healing not hate.


Get in touch...