Recently, a Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation in northern Michigan selected Rabbi Chava Bahle to serve as their new leader. While other rabbis have worked in UU congregations before, this is apparently the first time a rabbi will lead a UU community. I knew that Rabbi Chava has been on the forefront of clergy working with interfaith families. And as the Jewish author of a book from a UU publisher, I was particularly interested in hearing about Rabbi Chava’s journey so far, and her thoughts on leading a UU community.
Susan Katz Miller:I know your selection did not come out of the blue. Tell us about your history with this particular UU congregation.
Rabbi Chava Bahle: For both the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Grand Traverse (UUCGT) and for me, this was a relationship-based process. They were not seeking a rabbi “in general.” I have lived in northern Michigan for just over 20 years. Rev. Emmy Lou Belcher, the UUCGT’s first minister, is my dear friend. I got to know her community and its deep commitment to social justice and interfaith welcoming. I would often “guest preach” when Rev. Belcher and her successors were away or on vacation. The local Jewish congregation I founded and the UUCGT often worked side by side on issues of social justice. Over the 20 years of guest preaching and partnering in social justice work, the UUCGT and I formed an ongoing bond with each other.
Of course, you don't need to be a Unitarian Universalist to appreciate Eboo Patel's writing: Reza Aslan said that, "Acts of Faith is more than a book, it is an awakening of the mind. It should be required reading for all Americans." And former president Bill Clinton called it "a beautifully written story of discovery and hope." Since its publication in 2007, this book has been selected as a school-wide read at numerous colleges, and Eboo Patel was selected by Barack Obama for the Advisory Council in his Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
The death or defeat of an enemy brings on a difficult moral conundrum: how to resolve our baser instincts or feelings of having achieved "justice" for a wrong with the principles of our religious and ethical traditions. Beacon Broadside asked several of our authors for their responses to the death of Osama bin Laden, and what they feel is required of them by their respective faiths. Yesterday, we posted the answers of Eboo Patel, Susan Campbell, and Dan McKanan. Today, we share the responses of Jay Michaelson, Rev. Marilyn Sewell, and Christopher Stedman.
Jay Michaelson is the author of the forthcoming book God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality. He is the founding director of Nehirim, the leading national provider of community programming for LGBT Jews and their allies. In 2009, Michaelson was included on the "Forward 50" list of the fifty most influential Jewish leaders in America.
The Jewish tradition is crystal clear that one is never to celebrate the downfall of one's enemies, even though the human tendency is to do so. We see this pattern again and again.
For example, Proverbs 24:17 reads, “If your enemy falls, do not exult; If he trips, let your heart not rejoice.” Note that Proverbs 11:10 says that, “When the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy," but that does not mean there should be such shouts. The two verses together suggest that while it is human nature to rejoice when our enemy suffers, we are called upon to do better.
Another example is at the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea. At the time, the Children of Israel sang the famous Song of the Sea, whose lyrics explicitly rejoice in the death of the Egyptians (Exodus 15:4). But in The Talmud (Megilla 10b, Sanhedrin 39b), a story is told that God rebukes the angels for singing along. “My creatures are drowning in the sea and you want to sing," God says. Once again: it is human nature to rejoice, but we are called upon to do better.
Jews around the world recently concluded the Passover Seder. This entire ritual celebrates the Exodus from Egypt, and part of that story is indeed the demise of the Egyptians. Yet when the ten plagues are recounted, the tradition is to spill a drop of wine for each one. Our joy is incomplete when others suffer.
Yes, it is human to fist-pump in the air when a murderer like Osama Bin Ladin is killed. But such vulgar displays of our basest emotions is precisely what religion is meant to curb.
Author photo by Sebastian Collett.
The Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell is Minister Emerita of the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, and is the subject of the documentary film, "Raw Faith." She is the author of several books, and edited four volumes for Beacon Press, including Breaking Free: Women of Spirit at Midlife and Beyond.
I find myself deeply disturbed by the death and collective responses to the death of Osama bin Laden. When I say "disturbed," I don't mean merely intellectually, but psychologically, spiritually, and even physically. I have found myself drained of energy, withdrawn. And I've had to ask myself why. Shouldn't I be happy, gratified that a monster of evil is now gone from the face of the earth? I note the celebrating crowds on television, in New York and Washington, DC, and understand their very human response, but I'm not there.
I think my disturbance comes from having to contend with conflicting values that all have their measure of truth--and yet none has the whole truth. And so I'm trying to reconcile these disparate values.
With the rest of the nation, I have witnessed the overwhelming grief of the families of the 9/11 victims. I have seen the pictures of the dead, read their stories. I have heard the goodbye messages of spouses, the children left without a father, the way victims jumped to their deaths, some holding the hand of a friend. I understand why the survivors want justice, and whatever closure they can find, and so they welcome the news of bin Laden's death.
I also understand the significance for our nation, in bin Laden's death. He has been not only the perpetrator of much suffering and death, but he had become the symbol of our impotence in failing to rid the world of terrorism. He has been thumbing his nose at us for ten years, making us fear what might happen next. The President's main job is to protect his people, and so Obama had to pursue Osama bin Laden and kill him.
Which brings me to the next point. I have little doubt that the Seals were ordered to kill Bin Laden, whether or not he was armed, whether or not he surrendered. Taking bin Laden prisoner would have invited an international media circus for a trial that might have lasted years--and further provoked all kinds of national and international conflict. We weren't going to let that happen. He was going to be killed and then buried at sea. He was shot first in the chest, I would guess, as would be the normative first shot, and then shot in the head, to assure the death. I also understand the necessity of this decision, and if in fact I am correct, I do not fault Obama for proceeding in this way.
On the other hand, I am a minister and a wife and a mother. I abhor violence. In particular, gun violence disturbs me, for I have personally lost family members to gun violence, as have so many others in our gun-crazy country.
And then I imagine the scene in the compound that night. I imagine the fear that everyone in that compound must have felt as the Seals attacked. I expect Osama bin Laden knew he was going to die. One of his wives watched him shot to death, another identified the body. A number of his children were present in compound. What did the wives and children experience?
Still another dimension to this whole scene is that of the warriors. The Seals carried out what appears to have been an almost flawless plan in dangerous circumstances: their courage and skill are admired by all. And yet the man who killed bin Laden and whoever killed the three others will have to live with the memory of that night: the fear in the eyes of those who were killed or wounded, the gaping wounds, the blood pouring out--all this, and the knowledge that they they took a human life. This is what we ask of our warriors. To do these horrific deeds for us. We don't want to see the pictures. Obama spared us from that.
So what it comes down to, for me, is this: the terrible grayness of morality. The evil that we're all drawn into. The violence that is a part of our lives. The fallenness of us all. There are no good guys and bad guys, except in relative terms. We can only try to see as clearly as we can and act with as much integrity as we can. The Kingdom of God is not as yet at hand. Heaven help us.
Christopher Stedman is the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and the Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He is at work on a memoir to be published by Beacon Press.
Last Sunday night, I was preparing to go to bed early for the first time in months when I made the mistake of checking Twitter. I’m no longer a Christian so I do not begin and end each day in prayer like I once did, and it’s probably fair to say that Twitter has become a replacement ritual.
And there it was: Osama bin Laden had been located. Osama bin Laden had been captured. Osama bin Laden had been killed.
My twitter feed erupted with emotions. Cheers, jeers; even tears. But mostly cheers.
I understand the impulse to celebrate such news, but the tenor of some of what I’ve heard and seen troubles me in the same way I was bothered by those burning American flags in the Middle East nearly ten years ago. As a Humanist, I struggle to understand the “eye for an eye” mentality. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a forefather of modern Humanism: “That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping we are becoming.” Today I worry about what America is becoming.
In times of trouble, I often reflect on the unifying words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.” he wrote. “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”
I am concerned when I see people celebrating death; when I hear word that thousands of my fellow Bostonians flocked to Boston Commons Sunday night for what was essentially a pep rally. Again, I understand the desire to mark this occasion, but I wish we could muster the same enthusiasm to celebrate the importance of life – to unite in the face of domestic intolerance, not just that which lurks in evil lairs overseas.
The death or defeat of an enemy brings on a difficult moral conundrum: how to resolve our baser instincts or feelings of having achieved "justice" for a wrong with the principles of our religious and ethical traditions. Beacon Broadside asked several of our authors for their responses to the death of Osama bin Laden, and what they feel is required of them by their respective faiths. Today, we have the answers of Eboo Patel, Susan Campbell, and Dan McKanan. Tomorrow, we will post responses from Rev. Marilyn Sewell, Christopher Stedman, and Jay Michaelson. (UPDATE: read part 2 here.)
I read about the assassination of Osama bin Laden as a Muslim with a strong Niebhurian streak. This is to say: we have to be clear-eyed in the recognition of evil, we have to put a stop to it if we have the ability and we have to seek peace in multiple creative ways. Niebhur believed this with regards to America's battle against Nazism, the Prophet did this with regards to the Quraysh tribe of Mecca, who were intent on destroying the fledgling Muslim community.
As has been said about Bonhoeffer, the Christian pacifist who plotted to assassinate Hitler: when you see a crazy man driving a car into a group of children, you have to stop the man.
America did that when it came to Hitler, Milosovic, and now bin Laden. In this case, it happened with targeted precision such that very few others perished in the actual operation. There is little doubt there will be more life (meaning, literally, fewer people being killed) in the future as result of this death.
I love my country, I love my flag, and I find absolutely nothing in the teachings of Jesus that supports the assassination of the terrorist Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden had, by all accounts, moved to the periphery, and we've been mesmerized by the developments in our Arab spring, where countless citizens were taking to the streets in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Syria, in Yemen, to say that bin Laden was precisely the kind of leader they don't want.
And then we shot him.
Jesus talked about vengeance when He tweaked the notion of taking an eye for an eye. He told followers to match their enemies' evil with prayer and love. The most unthinkable evil (bin Laden) calls us to love.
And that's immeasurably hard, according respect to someone we just don't respect, giving fairness and decency to someone who's responsible for the death of so many.
But that, nevertheless, is the rule. I think those crowds celebrating bin Laden's death outside the White House that night were clinging to the idea that his death would somehow balance the scales. It hasn't and it won't. Killing -- and burying him at sea -- stole our opportunity to bring him to trial, and let him defend himself -- with complete transparency in our judicial system, not a military tribunal. It robbed from us an opportunity to reaffirm that these are our values -- and to remind the world that we are bigger than a terrorist act. By treating bin Laden far better than he ever thought to treat those he killed on 9/11, we could have told the world that even our most despised enemy can expect fairness and decency. We could have told everyone that we are bigger than that.
Or, rather, I wish we were.
Author photo by Marc Yves Regis.
Dan McKanan is the author of Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition. He is the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer at Harvard Divinity School.
The tenets of Unitarian Universalism do not require me to respond in any specific way to the death of an enemy. Instead, Unitarian Universalism—as would be the case for most other faiths—offers me a rich array of resources for developing an authentic individual response. These resources include the Unitarian Universalist Principles—which are commonly affirmed by Unitarian Universalist congregations but not doctrinally binding on individual Unitarian Universalists—as well as the collective stories of those who have preceded us in the faith.
Two of the Principles shape my own response to the death of Osama bin Laden, as well as the deaths of enemies in general. The first principle, which affirms “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” suggests that my response to the killing of an enemy should be one of prophetic protest. “Not in my name!” I say to all those who celebrate bin Laden’s death as retribution for the murders he perpetrated on September 11. If all people, those who kill and those who are killed, have inherent dignity, then mourning and reconciliation are better responses to violence than retaliation.
The question, of course, is not specifically about the killing of enemies but more broadly about the death of enemies. What would my response be if bin Laden had died of natural causes at the end of a long life? In that case, I think, the appropriate response would be simple mourning. Indeed, in one sense the death of an enemy is more an occasion for lamentation than the death of a beloved grandparent. My thinking here is shaped by the seventh Unitarian Universalist principle, “respect for the interdependent web of existence.” If all life is interwoven, then every enmity is a rip in the shared web—and the death of an enemy means we have lost our best opportunity to weave the broken threads back together. We often use the phrase “celebration of life” to describe the funerals of our friends, and when those friends have lived full lives those funerals often have a truly celebratory feel. That is as it should be. But even if bin Laden had lived to be a hundred, his death would have been an occasion for sackcloth and ashes if he had remained unrepentant, and thus unreconciled with all those he harmed.
In reaching beyond the UU principles toward the shared stories of faith, I turn especially toward the story of Jesus, because I identify as a UU Christian, just as other Unitarian Universalists may claim Jewish, Buddhist, pagan, or humanist identities. Like other Christians, I find in Jesus’ story reason to hope that death does not have the last word. Some would express this hope in dogmatic claims about resurrection and eternal life; I prefer to speak more tentatively about the experiences of Jesus and his friends. In the face of the death-dealing powers of empire, Jesus lived a full, rich life. Even after the empire killed him, his friends experienced him as still alive in their circle. When they gathered to break bread and tell stories, they felt he was there with them. Curiously, Christians have seldom reflected on what this experience might teach us about the death of our enemies.
I have no way of knowing for sure, but I suspect that some of Osama bin Laden’s disciples and admirers are currently having an experience not unlike that of Jesus’ disciples between Easter and Pentecost. In the midst of their mourning, they may have felt bin Laden’s spirit still moving among them, still inspiring fervent love for their faith and fervent hate for those of us they regard as enemies. Many of us may regard this analogy between bin Laden and Jesus as monstrous. But perhaps what remains alive of bin Laden’s spirit is not so much his hate as his fervent faith. In his own life, that fervor was terribly twisted; as it is carried by his followers, it still has the potential to be untwisted. If death does not have the last word, our mourning of bin Laden’s death should lead us to redoubled efforts to reconcile with his friends.
The people of the United States, of course, have ample opportunities to pursue such reconciliation. Many of bin Laden’s most devoted followers remain imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. (Many who never had much to do with him are also held there, but here I want to focus on those who are truly enemies—those who committed horrible violence out of twisted love for bin Laden or for Islam.) For ten years we have treated these traumatized and idealistic young people as if they were not part of the interdependent web, as if their suffering could not hurt us, as if they had no gifts to share with the world. Bin Laden’s death can be a time for us to open our ears to their voices and our hearts to their truth. I am not suggesting that we “forgive” them without talking to them, but simply that we start treating them as human beings rather than enemy combatants. Some of them may be more than ready for reconciliation. Others may not—but even for those, a bit of kindness may open up a long path toward repentance.
As I write these words, I am conscious that many of us may feel more visceral enmity toward those who have harmed us personally, or even toward our political rivals, than we do toward bin Laden. It is easy for me to preach about what the U.S. should do in Guantanamo; much harder to pursue genuine reconciliation with my own most intimate enemies. When I mourn bin Laden’s death, I mourn those enmities as well. And, since all life is interwoven, it is likely that reconciliation with those intimate enemies will create more chances for reconciliation with bin Laden and his friends.