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Stepping Into Someone Else’s Shoes

Rachel MikvaWorship with the Center for Jewish, Christian and Islamic Studies

Rabbi Rachel Mikva

It happened when Brian Clarke played his band’s original song, “In My Father’s House” --  I decided we needed them to come and worship with us at CTS.  I’m not a big fan of patriarchal references to God, but the spirit of this song was so enveloping with its “many voices,” it was impossible to remain unmoved.  The lyrics transform John 14:2 from a promise of heaven to the faithful to an embrace of pluralism and peace here on earth.  It seemed just right for the service led by our Center for Jewish, Christian and Islamic Studies (JCIS).  JCIS directs programs to deepen engagement between and knowledge about all the faith traditions of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar.

So Congo SWB came and graced us with a beautiful service.  We designed a certain amount of tension between the music and the spoken text.  The music was (for the most part) very hopeful, simple in its faith that love, sharing, etc. can conquer all.  The spoken text was a counterpoint, one that set sharp edges to the precarious path toward that goal, complicating the story.

From the sermon: “It is easy to sing about love -- even inspiring in the hands of Congo SWB.  But it is hard to practice it wisely.  I fight more with the people I love than with people I don’t like at all.  I have been loved “to death” by Christian missionaries who want to save my soul, and by congregants who just wanted more of me than I could give.  Love without justice for the marginalized and oppressed is just as perverse as the piety without justice for the marginalized and oppressed, the piety Isaiah denounces as missing the point (e.g., Chapter 58).  We all grasp the problem of cheap grace and effortless love.

“I’m self-conscious when I poo-poo the whole love thing around here.  I don’t want to offend anyone (challenge, yes, but not offend).  But there is also all this historical baggage accumulated by centuries of Christian criticism that Judaism is a religion of law (a mistranslation of Torah, which means teaching), and Christianity a religion of love.  It even gets applied to the depiction of God in the respective testaments (although the Hebrew Bible’s God is also eager to forgive, and the New Testament’s refrain of eternal damnation does not seem to be that loving a response to human failings).  I don’t want to encourage this unwarranted comparison… but I’ve got a problem with love.

“My question about love is one I learned from rabbinic tradition.  How can you command a feeling?  The text doesn’t suggest loving the stranger; it commands it.  What do we do if we just can’t summon the feeling?  What if they’re not just strangers; what if they’re strange?  What if I had a bad day?  What if we rub each other the wrong way?   The rabbis translate the command to love into the actions a (wisely) loving person would undertake:  feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, comfort the bereaved.… We might add: reform the tax code and the immigration laws, get people jobs, respect their spiritual and intellectual freedom, defend their civil rights….”

We try to enable the unique voices of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to challenge our perspective and broaden our thinking.  Before the song by Caedmon’s Call, “Share the Well,” however, Alli Baker offered this original poem lamenting how poorly our society has heard even the teachings that are common to us all.

Isaiah 99

JCI Worship Service

Cry loudly, prophets,
Occupy their attention.
Don’t hold back,
Raise your voice in contention
- like their fasts.

Oh, you didn’t think I saw that?

They’re empty,
Like your bellies without food.

They’re broken,
Like your laborers backs.
They’re false,
Like your profits and mortgages,
now in default.

They’re wicked
Like your pursed lips and clenched fists
As you pass the poor.

Oh wait, you still want more?
...pieces of the pie?
...of the well run dry?
Or how about the field?

Leviticus says,
You shouldn't take more
than the harvest does yield.

Otherwise, it isn’t fair.
Didn’t your parents teach you to share?

Share the wealth!
Share the well!
Share with your sisters and brothers
who dwell... with me.

Together, we say:
Here I am, to testify!
Here I am, to occupy!

Wall Street...with ahadith
Sayings from the prophet Mohammad,
peace be upon him.

One time I heard him say
If the Zakat you do not pay
Surely your wealth will come to choke you.

It will be like a poisonous snake
That slithers in stealth
Coiling around you, whispering,
“I am your treasure, I am your wealth.”

Like an idol made of precious medal
From the gold around your neck
melted and molded into a calf they call greed
What more do you need?

“A job!” They say.

But that would only occupy your time.
Instead, why dont you follow the crumbs
to the end of the unemployment line
Oh, I'm sorry, did you want to protest?
Then, here’s your sign!
"What once was yours,"
the 1% say, "now is mine."

So I am going to tell you this one more time…

Here I am, to testify!
Here I am, to occupy! ...with the 99.

If you really want to know my ways
Then you cannot pray the prayer
that Jesus taught you pray,
with words like...

“Lord, give us this day our 401k”

But instead, divide your bread
Before you bow your head
And give thanks to a God
That occupies...Holiness.

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