As July 4 approaches, let us keep in mind the two freedoms that should matter most to us: freedom of religion, and freedom from being governed by another religion.
Both are enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. And both are under constant attack from the Christian Right. Such bible-thumping preachers as John Hagee and his son Matthew all too often implore their followers to continue the “good fight” to make our “godless” society into the “Christian nation” its founders intended, ruled by “God’s Word” as they twistedly interpret it.
The older Hagee often says as much. America, he said in a sermon last December, “was founded by Christians on Christian principles according to the word of God” (and who deliberately created the separation of church and state Hagee hates). He added, “If our belief in God offends you, move.”
Hagee was addressing “all humanists and atheists,” and anyone else who objects to hearing Christmas carols and seeing nativity scenes in public spaces. I am neither an atheist nor a humanist, but I also object to such things (as I object to chanukiot in the public square). So, Hagee was also talking to me when he said in that sermon, “Planes are leaving every hour on the hour; get on one.”
The younger Hagee at times is scarier than his father. Just a couple of months ago, for example, he went on the televised “Hagee Hotline” to urge followers to be more proactive in seeing to it that “our faith is established in our culture.” He urged them to “become more aggressive in your beliefs,” and said, “there’s a value in spiritual violence.”
These are dangerous people. They fill malleable minds with all kinds of absurdities about “God’s Word,” although they lack any understanding of “God’s Word.” What makes them dangerous, however, is not what they say, but to how many people they say it to at the same time – tens of thousands of people via television, YouTube videos, Facebook pages, and the like.
Bible-thumpers are not new; they have been around since the founding of this Republic, and they congregate more in the South than the North.
The South was always more “Christian religious” than the North. Its churches for the most part defended slavery, and joined in the cheering following the Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford. A runaway slave was returned to his master and “God’s Word” was preserved. Hallelujah!
Only, “God’s Word” on the subject was ignored, not preserved. It is found in Deuteronomy 23:16-17: “You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him.”
One could argue that Dred Scott is ancient history, but that misses the bigger picture that Torah commandments paint. In this case, what is a runaway slave if not someone fleeing persecution, or because he or she fears for the lives of his or her family and him or herself? What is a runaway slave if not someone who wants a chance at a better life?
What is a runaway slave if not an illegal immigrant by another name?
Yet many on the Christian Right – most, perhaps, but not all – oppose anything that even comes close to immigration reform. They want no part of fast-tracking “illegals,” or allowing the children of “illegals” to attend schools, or treating “illegals” in emergency rooms.
Maimonides, the Rambam, had a much better understanding of “God’s Word.” To him, the “runaway slave” commandment was filled with responsibilities toward the fugitive. Not only must we “protect and defend those who seek our protection and not deliver them over to those from whom they have fled,” but we also are “under another obligation toward him: you must consider his interests, be beneficent toward him, and not pain his heart by speech.” (See Guide for the Perplexed, Book III, Chapter 59.)
“God’s Word” has much more to say on the subject, however, including an emphasis on how we are to treat the stranger, visitor, or long-time resident. It starts with Leviticus 19:34, which is a commandment to love the stranger. A contemporary commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, once explained the verse this way: “‘You shall love the ger [stranger], because you were gerim [strangers] in the land of Egypt.’ We were total strangers to the Egyptians, who therefore dehumanized us and enslaved us. We are enjoined to treat the ‘other’ or the stranger – clearly in this context the non-Jew – with love, rather than discrimination and persecution.”
In last week’s portion, the Torah emphasized several times that there had to be one law for us and for the stranger within our gates. “[I]t shall be a law for all time throughout the ages. You and the stranger shall be alike before the Lordâ€¦.” (See Numbers 15:14-16.)
“God’s Word” may be a tempting alternative to the way things are now in this country, but not the way the Christian Right interprets it. John Hagee especially is revered by Jewish organizations, governmental leaders in the State of Israel, and even individual Jews, because he heads the largest pro-Israel advocacy group in the world, Christians United For Israel.
It is a good thing he is so effective at it, because if he and the Christian Right ever got their way here, Israel would be the only place we could run to.