Wednesday, July 27, 2005

On Wretched Mistakes

I certainly did not intend to write about Jim Tucker's blog twice in a row, but it's been something of a slow week, and something he posted on Tuesday struck me as quite puzzling. In particular, I was struck by this bit:
It's a wretched mistake for Americans to give uncritical support to the modern Israel because the ancient Israel holds a privileged place in the Scriptures.
He goes on to suggest that "the ancient Israel" of the Scriptures is now embodied by the Christian Church. I can only imagine what a Jew might have to say about that, but I think there's already plenty to say about the small passage quoted.

A number of interesting terms jump out of the text. It's one thing to say that it's a mistake to give uncritical support to something, but to characterize the mistake of giving uncritical support as "wretched" calls out for analysis. The Oxford English Dictionary says that "wretched" means "distinguished by base, vile, or unworthy character or quality" and says that something that is "wretched" is also "contemptible". So a "wretched mistake" is a pretty bad mistake. Surely it's right to to frown upon "uncritical" support for anything, but when I come across students in my classroom who defend their views in an uncritical way, I don't usually think of them as wretches who are base, vile, or downright contemptible. I think that they are young and inexperienced and that they will eventually learn to be more critical.

On the other hand, when someone like John Kerry comes along, claiming to be a Catholic while at the same time saying that there is nothing at all wrong with endorsing policies that would make it much easier to get abortions, I don't hesitate for a moment to think that such a person is wretched, because that is a person who ought to know better, whether or not he does, in fact, know better. So perhaps Tucker thinks that the folks who are less critical than he in their support of the modern state of Israel ought to know better, whether or not they do, in fact, know better.

Ought to know what better? That they should be more critical of the modern state of Israel? Critical of what? Tucker doesn't say. He seems to think that the faults of the modern state of Israel are obvious enough that he doesn't need to say what they are. If you support the state of Israel, he appears to be saying, there is a good chance that you are doing so uncritically, since any critical person would hesitate to give them support, especially in light of the fact that, Hey, these folks aren't even the real Jews of Scripture anyway!

But what of that last bit? We're not supposed to give Israel "uncritical" support merely on the grounds that the Scriptures speak of them as the Chosen People of God. Granting for a moment that "uncritical" support is not an intellectually sound approach to geopolitical problems, surely there is an implication running through this text that one of the reasons why we need to be more critical in our support of Israel is because they are not the Chosen People of Scritpure, we> are. If they were the Chosen People of Scripture, we might be warranted in cutting them a little more slack.

This has got to be one of the most naive and dangerous views about the Middle East Problem that I have ever seen. Forget the Chosen People of Scripture argument--as laughable as that is it is at least roughly within the bounds of sanity. But to think that folks who support Israel do so "uncritically" because they don't, in the end, feel the same way about Israel that Jim Tucker appears to feel, is just plain bizarre. It seems to me that it is at least possible that the folks who support the state of Israel simply have different first principles than Jim Tucker, and that is why they come to different conclusions about what level of support is warranted.

So Tucker has conflated the truth that we are all Sons and Daughters of Abraham with the strangely familiar accusation that contemporary Jews aren't the Real Jews of Scripture. That accusation, of course, has been bandied about by plenty of folks for the last 150 years or so, if not longer, but it is distressing to find it in a 21st century Catholic writer.

In fact, it's more than distressing: it's wretched.

5 comments:

Tom said...

It seems to me that it is at least possible that the folks who support the state of Israel simply have different first principles than Jim Tucker, and that is why they come to different conclusions about what level of support is warranted.

In which case they do not give uncritical support to the modern Israel because the ancient Israel holds a privileged place in the Scriptures, and therefore Fr. Tucker's statement does not apply to them.

I understood his statement to mean that people ought to know better than to think the Bible implies a "the country now headed by Ariel Sharon, right or wrong" attitude. Setting aside the "wretched," I think that's a true statement even if the State of Israel that exists today were the same as the Biblical kingdom. Isaiah had some things to say about the Israel foreign policy of his day.

That said, I think there's more to the Catholic understanding of the Jews of today than is suggested in his post. I think the "absolute riddle" Cardinal Ratzinger spoke of has a theological component that is not fully resolved

Scott Carson said...

Well, Tom, one can only hope you're right about what you "understood his statement to mean". I suppose he can clarify it if he wants to.

I certainly agree that "there's more to the Catholic understanding of Jews today than is suggested in his post"! I'm particularly interested in Ratzinger's claim (articulated most recently, I think, in God in the World) that the Jews (by which he does not mean the Christian Church) remain God's Chosen People in a very particular way. They still represent something, they are still, in some sense, Imagines Dei in the world, and it is part of our Christian obligation, in my opinion, to recognize them as such. I honestly don't see how one could do that if one believes that we are now the historical continuation of the People. I don't know where that sort of belief leaves today's Jews in the grand scheme of things, and I find it troubling.

Scott Carson said...

I almost forgot:

In which case they do not give uncritical support to the modern Israel because the ancient Israel holds a privileged place in the Scriptures, and therefore Fr. Tucker's statement does not apply to them.

I'm not so sure this follows. I think perhaps it would be nice if it did follow, but it seems unlikely to me that the class of persons we are supposed to be talking about is some hypothetical group that gives literally no thought at all to why they support Israel. That, as far as I can see, is the only group to which the comment, as you interpret it, could apply, but I can see no (empirical) reason whatever to believe that there are any such people. My experience has been that what is usually meant by "uncritical support" is something along the lines of "when I ask them what their reasons are, they can't give me any", but one man's uncritical belief is another man's proof. It seems to me that in the real world everybody has some sort of reason for what they believe, and there are two possibilities when we don't like their reasons. We might think that they're like my students: they're still learning and hence they don't know how to give good reason. You don't call such persons "wretched", nor ought you to think that they are, if you are a decent person. The other possibility is that you consider such persons to be such as I consider John Kerry, but a dogmatic teaching about abortion is one thing, prudential considerations about the state of Israel and how it ought to behave in the face of murderous attempts by its enemies to destroy it is another. Reasonable people can disagree about that, and it is simply begging the question to toss out reasons we don't like and say that our oppenent is simply being "uncritical".

The "Sharon's Israel Right or Wrong" person might exist, but it would be interesting to see just how many people really put it that: Yes, my only reason for supporting Israel is because, well, Sharon's Israel, Right or Wrong! Unless you can actually find a significant number of such persons, you're just shooting fish in a barrel when you complain about "uncritical support" of Israel. It seems to me that what's really behind such complaints is a difference as to first (political) principles, and it is a little obnoxious for someone to pretend as though his own political principles are the only critical ones.

But then, who am I to complain about obnoxious people?

Tom said...

I honestly don't see how one could do that if one believes that we are now the historical continuation of the People. I don't know where that sort of belief leaves today's Jews in the grand scheme of things, and I find it troubling.

Well, where are today's Jews in the grand scheme of things?

But if the Church is in no sense the historical continuation of the People in the sense Fr. Tucker suggests -- inheritors of the promise of Abraham, sprouting from the stump of Jesse, and so forth -- then the Church's understanding of herself has been fundamentally wrong from the get-go.

I suppose there's a "both/and" involved in this, but I don't know the best way to express it.

Yes, my only reason for supporting Israel is because, well, Sharon's Israel, Right or Wrong!

No, it would be, "Yes, my only reason for supporting Sharon's Israel, Right or Wrong, is what the Bible says about Israel."

Whether such people actually exist, I couldn't say.

Scott Carson said...

Tom

I do agree that the Christian Community is a continuation of the People of Abraham. I don't think there's any doubt about that. I suppose that, if you wanted to, you could even argue that our liturgies are the fulfillment of the Temple worship. But the question I was worrying about is not whether the Church is a continuation of anything, but whether it has supplanted something else, which is what I took Fr. Tucker to be not merely suggesting, but openly declaring. But I don't think it follows that because the Church is a continuation of the People of God that today's Jews are any less the People of God than the Jews prior to the coming of Jesus were. Perhaps that's what you meant by "both/and"--if so, I agree. We are simply People of God in different senses of the term.

Is there a primary meaning for the expression "People of God" that only the Christian Church can embody? Possibly (without excluding other possible meanings)--I honestly can't say, at least not without a lot more training in theology than I can claim to have. Maybe that's what Fr. Tucker had in mind and, if so, I'll just have to take his word for it.

Thanks for helping me to see, perhaps, a little more clearly on this issue.