Judeochristianity Jewish star Christian cross

Pandemic of Hate

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

I live in a neighborhood, just off Union Square, that was devastated by the riots following George Floyd’s death. Several local businesses were vandalized, including my corner drugstore. In my small, inadequate way I tried to offer support to the people who serve me. But right now, as I write these words, outside my door windows are being smashed.

The reports I have seen and heard all say that most of the demonstrators were peaceful. There have been organized bands of infiltrators trying to capitalize on a tragic situation. Unfortunately, we do not yet know who they are. Some of them may even be agents provocateurs, whose mission would be to discredit protest against the excesses of this Administration and the intractable persistence of racist sentiment. We do not yet know, but cannot discount the possibility as we hear the President trying to exploit the situation for political gain as he does what he’s best at: dividing people.

This civil unrest occurring in the midst of a pandemic is no coincidence. We’ve been suffering a pandemic long before the virus hit. A pandemic of hate.

Ever since the last presidential campaign the social climate has become unbearably toxic. We have been bombarded repeatedly with sentiments of hatred of the stranger and the immigrant, dehumanization of people who do not belong to dominant groups, whether racially, religiously, or in sexual orientation. Immigrants fleeing here for their lives are called “rapists,” “murderers,” and “animals.” Neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville are “fine people,” but immigrants from Africa and Haiti come from “shithole countries.” COVID-19 is a “Chinese virus” (while Chinese Americans suffer bias attacks). Barack Obama was really born in Kenya, until he wasn’t. This President hates and envies Obama so much that he will stop at nothing to deprive millions of people of health care they desperately need, only because their health plans have Obama’s name on them. And now the President draws from this country’s history of racism to express how he intends to handle dissent, talking about “shooting” protesters and unleashing “vicious dogs.” Is he unaware of this history, or is he using it to score political points with his base?

The last moments of George Floyd

The American people have been subjected to a steady barrage of this over the past four years. Incendiary rhetoric like this inevitably spills over into action. The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented an explosion in hate crimes since the 2016 presidential election. We have been encouraged to see fellow countrymen and women as enemies, and to distrust and hate each other. It has even reached the point where some people thought it would be acceptable to execute a person in public because of his race. George Floyd’s dying wish to be allowed to breathe, to have his humanity respected, should tear at our hearts. But the President has seized on this tragedy to divide this country even further. That is how a would-be dictator clings to power.

As I write this we face the specter of the President of the United States deploying the American military for use against American citizens, and using tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades to break up a peaceful demonstration - a clear violation of the First Amendment right of the people peaceably to assemble. Americans are used to watching such scenes on television taking place in foreign countries ruled by autocrats. Who ever thought we would see that here at home? Will anyone seriously talk about “American Exceptionalism” now?

The name of this web site, “Judeochristianity,” refers to a perspective on Judaism and Christianity that tries to see the continuity between them. One core idea connecting the two is the Hebrew Bible’s repeated commandment to “love the stranger” and Jesus’s taking that mandate to its ultimate fulfillment: love the one who is different in creed or in race or ethnicity, love the outcast, love the marginalized, love the disabled, the sick, the one who cannot love you back, love even your enemy.

As a country, we have given lip service to these ideals but have not practiced them. There is a direct line from the first slave who was kidnapped and brought to these shores against his will, to the conflict we are experiencing now. Black people were and are still defined as “other” because it served both the economic interests and the sense of identity of white people. This definition of a separate but unequal identity had to be maintained, even through violence if necessary. It is not difficult to dismiss or even justify violence against one who is no part of you and less than you. The racially charged murders of black people now being daily recalled, all the names from Emmett Till to George Floyd, should be remembered and understood against this background.

This is especially important now because the Trump Administration has been exploiting this identity difference to divide people and consolidate power. To satisfy a base still beholden to its segregationist past, it is as if this country’s leadership would turn back time to the days before the Civil Rights movement. So we find ourselves fighting battles some of us naïvely thought belonged to a previous generation. The polarization afflicting our nation may give one the impression that the Civil War never ended. It may be more than just an impression.

And so, while racial violence in this country is hardly anything new, I still cannot escape the feeling that its current escalation, culminating in the murder of George Floyd, has been greatly fueled by nearly four years of inculcation in exactly the opposite of Christ’s teaching, coming from the White House and supported by too many of our Christian churches. How could years of propagation of this presidential poison, fully supported by the President’s party, not be expected to end in an explosion? Yet Trump blames the people who are crying out for justice, while he slams the governors and calls them “jerks” for being too easy on them. You cannot pour gasoline on a fire and yell at the fire department for taking too long to put it out.

If Trump is reelected, the flaming hatred that has flourished under him will be our starting point. He will continue to poke at the people’s sore points until society finally breaks. The civil unrest we witness at this time is the legacy of Trump’s persistent and concentrated strategy to divide and conquer the American people. He draws courage from a Republican Party of cowards, so afraid of his tweets that they refuse to stand up to him when they know he is wrong. And especially culpable in the self-destructive course our country has been pursuing is the dominant religion in this country, conservative Evangelical Christianity. Trump has pandered to the conservative Evangelical thirst for power, and its delusion of being a persecuted religious minority in America, to firmly entrench himself. Too many Christian churches have allowed this form of Christianity, totally unfaithful to the spirit and teachings of Jesus, to co-opt the name. Too many have failed to speak out at a very critical time in our history, when both lives and the future of this country are at stake. What are they afraid of? Offending people who support what is unacceptable?

Trump waving Bible

After Trump used his troops to clear peaceful protesters out of his way so he could grandstand in front of a church, waving a Bible that was not his own, somebody set an example. Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, whose church Trump desecrated, made the following statement:

Let me be clear. The President just used a Bible, the most sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and one of the churches of my diocese without permission as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our churches stand for.... He sanctioned the use of tear gas by police officers in riot gear to clear the church yard. I am outraged. The President did not pray when he came to St. John’s. Nor... did he acknowledge the agony of our country right now. And in particular, that of the people of color in our nation, who wonder if anyone ever - anyone in public power will ever acknowledge their sacred worth, and who are rightfully demanding an end to 400 years of systemic racism and white supremacy in our country. (Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde to Anderson Cooper, June 1, 2020)

Especially while some Evangelical leaders have designated Trump as “chosen by God,” it is about time a respected Christian leader called out Trump’s brand of “Christianity” for what it is. Trump cannot be allowed to define American Christianity, and conservative Evangelical Christianity has proven itself unworthy of the name. A rediscovery of the message of Jesus and the Hebrew Prophets could go far in healing the divisions that Trump has exacerbated. Together they represent the twin ideals of justice and love. The greatest insight of the Bible is that one cannot exist without the other. It is time for religious reform.

June 2020