Don’t be a Jew

Joseph and Mary, and Little Joe and Mary, and Grinker and I, sat around the table where most of the dinner had been laid out. Additional bits and pieces of the dinner would be brought out as needed shortly, but now it was time to pray.

So we held hands and bowed our heads, and Mary led a prayer to Jesus for the bounty we were about to receive and stuff, and we all said Amen and were about to dig in, when Mary interrupted with a tone of voice and a hand signal that made everyone stop with their forks in mid air.

“We have a new tradition we’d like you to participate in,” she said. Her husband glanced at her with an obvious lack of understanding. I guessed he had forgotten about the new tradition and was going to keep his mouth shut for the moment.

“We now read a special bible passage at every dinner, to reinforce the children’s learning.” As she said this, she reached behind her and pulled a bible off a side table, and opened it to a previously marked page.

“Rich, I wonder if you would read this aloud for us?”

What can you do? Hey, even to this day, as a practicing atheist with an activist agenda, I’ll read bits and pieces of the bible at whichever Jewish holiday it is that my in laws do that at. Nobody thinks anything of it. Surely, there was a bit of irony here, in that they picked Grinker, who is Jewish, to read from the New Testament, but whatever. What harm could that be, right?

“Oh, OK,” Grinker said after he took the book. “No problem.”

And so Grinker read the text, and a few sentences in it became clear that this was one of those bible passages that had a lot to say about the Jews. The Jews were bad, the Jews could not be trusted, the Jews needed to convert, and so on and so forth. I don’t remember the passage, it was probably from Matthew or maybe one of those especially anti-Semitic bits from John. When it was over, Grinker was, to me, visibly disturbed by having been asked to read this, and possibly even disturbed that such offensive rambling was even part of a ‘religious’ text that he was undoubtedly unfamiliar with. But he kept a smile on his face and this was not brought up again. Joseph himself looked rather embarrassed as well. It was now obvious to us that Mary had created this ruse of a bible reading after saying grace. She lied, and she offended a guest. She was dissing the Jew, or at least, dissing his presumed religion. A victory, I suppose, would have been if Grinker asked to be baptized at the next possible opportunity.

It is true that there was a great deal of variation across the missionaries in their beliefs as well as their practices. Those who were less radical about the religion and more involved in the work they were doing, however, had to keep up the front of being devout. This was, essentially, a cult and they had to maintain a certain level of adherence to doctrine. It is always the case, internationally, that pilots are treated differently. They do not follow the same rules as other people, they are left more on their own, yet when they break certain rules they are punished more severely. For instance, a pilot who is caught bringing any kind of materiel, no matter how innocuous, across a border without proper papers, may lose his licence or at least his job. This was the case with a pilot who would bring VHS tapes of recent movies from town to town in Zaire and back to Belgium, rotating them among a group of people who shared ownership in them. So it was also true with the missionary pilots. They kept more to themselves, and although they would always pray before takeoff (and sometimes during the flight) they were more pragmatic and appeared less religious than the other missionaries.

The Africans who partook in the mission life, living on these compounds, also varied in their level of indoctrination. One man that I ended up working with quite a bit had been a long time resident of one of the mission stations, and had the status of “teacher.” But on the side he was a trader in black market goods, and had served as a mercenary as well as being a soldier in Idi Amin’s army. These were all things that got him in trouble with the mission once they discovered them. He was required to move off station, though his wife and children could remain if they wanted to.

For every white missionary on a mission station, there are probably several dozen Africans, but judging from what I’ve seen in the more remote stations that were not really full communities, or the urban stations that were satellites to the larger extended ‘villages,’ the ratio of African to Foreigner needed to sustain the middle class lifestyle the missionaries enjoyed was perhaps as low as six to one. The duties of the African workers included cooking (though “madam” was the actual cook, there were many cooking related tasks to carry out, including of course cooking for the staff), cleaning, maintaining equipment like the generators, serving as a guard, rebuilding roofs, teaching Madam, Master and the children a local language, and so on.

I do not know many details of the system, but I got the impression that these workers were being observed and to some extent tested on a regular basis, and if as individuals showed themselves to be literate, devout, and well behaved, they would be asked (allowed?) to do “pastoral work.” This meant going among the masses visiting the sick, reading bible passages to people, and so on.

Most important is this: The Africans were taught a version of the religion that was the most strict of all. Different Americans, Brits, Australians and so on would come and go, with different levels of involvement in the religious aspects of the mission. Pilots were pilots who happened to be protestant. Electricians and other technicians were experts on needed services but not necessarily particularly religious. If the missionaries were the Pilgrims, the others were the crew on the Mayflower that made the voyage happen. But the interface between the community of missionaries and the African community was primarily Madam, and to a lesser extent Master (or “Bwana”) and at this interface only the strictest teachings were carried out. As a result, the Africans who carried out the pastoral work were the most conservative of all members of the communities, and when these individuals rose to prominence now and then, their conservatism had an influence.

About 15 years ago, the English Anglican church, which has missionized in this manner since the days of Livingstone, held the first international meeting in many years, and at that meeting the number of African born, African trained bishops who were of this highly conservative ilk was larger than any other faction of bishops. At that meeting, the bishops voted all sorts of policy changes and moved the Anglican church, worldwide, towards a position of modern conservatism that would be envied by the board of directors at Oral Roberts college.

The chickens. They came home. And roosted.

Comments

  1. #1 Erp
    June 27, 2009

    Actually it was 11 years ago (the Lambeth conferences are held every 10 years). The Lambeth conference last year was boycotted by a large number of the African bishops (notably Ugandan and Nigerian) on various grounds including that many US Episcopalian bishops were heretical (or worst). It is entirely possible the Anglican Communion is splitting; it might only be a matter of which side keeps the Archbishop of Canterbury and therefore the name ‘Anglican Communion’.

    The southern and central African bishops seem to be on average more liberal (or at least less concerned about American and Canadian church policies on women and gays), most notably now retired archbishop, Desmond Tutu.

  2. #2 Cthulhu
    June 27, 2009

    I love these little glimpses into a world I know little of.

  3. #3 David Lee
    June 27, 2009

    Now it all makes sense. Religions get crazier when isolated.

  4. #4 Brian X
    June 27, 2009

    You know, for some time it’s been pretty clear what’s been going on in postcolonial Africa — the people in charge of the worst countries were either the biggest thugs and suckups for or the craziest opponents of the colonials. I don’t think I’d ever quite twigged as to why, but this explains a lot.

  5. #5 David
    June 27, 2009

    Greg you are a fine storyteller, with good stories to tell. Thank you for this.

  6. #6 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    June 27, 2009

    And now these are the ones who are lying about condoms in the midst of an AIDS crisis.

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    June 27, 2009

    Erp:

    Thanks for the expansion and clarification. I was totally glossing the Anglican church situation. In fact, the situation in each country has to be examined separately. For instance, I’m pretty sure that missionaries have been relatively rare in Tanzania, but Malawi is essentially a missionary culture of the late 18th century remixed slightly and served up by almost everybody in the country. (Which makes this Madonna thing interesting in ways that the press has totally missed).

  8. #8 Erp
    June 27, 2009

    I’m not sure how common missionaries are in Tanzania; I do know my aunt spent 15 years or so (1950s and 60s) there as a doctor first in the colonial service and for a short time with the government of the newly independent country (my grandfather becoming ill forced her to return to Britain). She didn’t talk much about it and she died some years ago but she often worked in somewhat remote regions and there are some very nice thank-you notes from the locals from districts that she had been in. She was an atheist like most of the family (including me).

  9. Forget, please, “conservatism.” It has been, operationally, de facto, Godless and therefore irrelevant. Secular conservatism will not defeat secular liberalism because to God both are two atheistic peas-in-a-pod and thus predestined to failure. As Stonewall Jackson’s Chief of Staff R.L. Dabney said of such a humanistic belief more than 100 years ago:

    “[Secular conservatism] is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today .one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt bath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth.”

    Our country is collapsing because we have turned our back on God (Psalm 9:17) and refused to kiss His Son (Psalm 2).

    John Lofton, Editor, TheAmericanView.com
    Recovering Republican
    JLof@aol.com

    PS – And “Mr. Worldly Wiseman” Rush Limbaugh never made a bigger ass of himself than at CPAC where he told that blasphemous “joke” about himself and God.

  10. #10 Adrian Morgan
    June 27, 2009

    Re: “one of those especially anti-Semitic bits from John

    Honestly, I think it’s crazy talk to say that the Christian gospels are anti-Semitic. If I reported that the Israelis won the 400 metres at the Olympics, only a complete idiot would take me to mean that each individual Israeli participated in the race, and likewise only a complete idiot could read a Bible and interpret “the Jews said this”, “the Jews did that” as blanket references to all Jews.

    I don’t hold John or any other gospel writer responsible for not foreseeing the rise of such lunacy in later centuries.

  11. #11 Erp
    June 27, 2009

    You don’t disagree that the lunacy has arisen and certain parts of the gospels are often used to attack Jews (barring those who have converted to Christianity). Greg’s post had a classic example of this type of attack or why else do you think the missionary had a Jewish guest read that particular bit?

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    June 27, 2009

    Adrian: I didn’t say what you said I said. I made reference to specific anti-semetic references. I was not generalizing but rather referring to specific things that are recorded in the bible that can be looked up and evaluated.

    Now, there are two things you can call me on but you blew your chance. One is obvious, is an outstanding issue, and I chose to ignore it for the sake of keeping it simple. I used the term “anti-semetic” as it is often used in reference to anti-Jewish statements in the bible. This is appropriate because that is what anti-Semetic means, in English. And we are speaking English.

    However, some have tried to make the argument that the proper term is Anti-Jewish because that is actually what these statements were. Had you called me on that, I would have agreed, pointed out the anti-semetic/anti-Jewish conflation in modern English, and that’d be it.

    The other thing is the verity of all of it. There is almost nothing in the New Testament that is believably associated with anything anybody says it is associated with. It could all be a bunch of low level science fiction for all we know.

  13. #13 Stephanie Z
    June 27, 2009

    I heard that Jesus told somebody that SF didn’t pay enough and that the real way to make money was to start a religion.

    Or maybe that was Hubbard. Same dif.

  14. #14 Adrian Morgan
    June 27, 2009

    Greg, I did not accuse you personally of anything much, beyond not thinking about what you were writing just there. My target, the complete idiots I referred to, were people such as those missionaries.

    I think you erred in saying that the Christian gospels contain anti-Semitic references. I think you wrote that without thinking about what you were (probably inadvertently) implying, which is that the dead guys who wrote the gospels somehow bear responsibility for the anti-Jewish prejudice of some of their readers.

    Being anti-semitic, in English, means taking the view that Jews as a group are less deserving than other human beings. References to groups of Jews doing bad things, such as may be found throughout the Christian gospels, are not anti-Semitic because they do not insinuate that Jews in general are party to such behaviour.

  15. #15 José
    June 27, 2009

    @Adrian

    Honestly, I think it’s crazy talk to say that the Christian gospels are anti-Semitic….I don’t hold John or any other gospel writer responsible for not foreseeing the rise of such lunacy in later centuries.

    If the Gospels had all been written at the time Jesus had actually lived, I might agree. But they were written long after Jesus was dead by groups trying to distinguish themselves as more righteous than traditional Jews.

    If you read the Gospels the order they were written, you can actually see the portrayal of traditional Jews getting progressively worse. Just look at the different versions of Jesus appearing before Pontius Pilate. In the earliest written Gospel (Mark), Pilate is portrayed as kinduv a dick who’s just following procedure. By the last written Gospel (John), Pilate has morphed into a tragic hero doing everything he can to keep the bloodthirsty throngs from murdering an innocent man, ultimately refusing to sentence Jesus to die. The Gospel writers set the stage for the lunacy in later centuries.

  16. #16 José
    June 27, 2009

    I have no idea how to use blockquotes here.

  17. #17 JohnnieCanuck
    June 28, 2009

    Enclose both blockquote and /blockquote with the less-than and greater-than symbols (shifted comma and period). Other systems use [ and ] the same way.

    Be careful using the less than symbol in ordinary text. Things will sometimes disappear.

    1 < 2 > 3 There is a 2 inside the brackets between the 1 and 3.

  18. #18 MadScientist
    June 28, 2009

    @StephanieZ: When you say you heard that Jesus told someone that SF didn’t pay enough, I thought you were going to suggest that if there were a Religious Gay Fund in San Francisco, the mormons wouldn’t have won the votes in California to deny homosexuals the civil rights they clamor for.

  19. #19 travc
    June 28, 2009

    Again, a fascinating snapshot.

    I’ve had some interesting conversations about Francophone vs Anglophone Africa, but I’ve never thought about the differences between places based on their missionary legacy (or lack thereof). My personal knowledge is second hand, but from the primary sources at least.

    Tanzania is regarded as quite a good place to do work (scientific field work). The British colonial history left a cultural legacy with some real positives from my POV (certainly negatives too of course). Competence/merit are often valued over mere rank or seniority. Honest work is valued and there is an “honor” angle to actually doing what you said you would. Also, superficial social/custom differences seem to be more of a matter of amusement than offensive.

    In contrast, the fracophone countries seem much less, well, British I guess. Status is basically the most important thing, and that comes with rank (degrees, honors, or whatever even if they aren’t actually relevant or even honestly earned) and mere seniority. In a village, the normal way to get work done is to convince (pay) the chief and use his authority (which often involves an implicit or even explicit threat of retribution if people don’t actually do what they promise.) It isn’t just the villages either… the scientists and doctors we’ve worked with are stuck in the same rank based system (some willing, some chafing under it with their actual talents going unrewarded.)

    Caveat: exceptions are the rule of course.

    I wonder what folks assessment of places with a ‘missionary’ vs a more secular (civic colonial) culture are?

  20. #20 David Marjanović
    June 28, 2009

    Our country is collapsing because we have turned our back on God (Psalm 9:17) and refused to kiss His Son (Psalm 2).

    So? Why hasn’t my country collapsed, then?

    Why haven’t at the very least the atheistic Czechs succeeded in turning their country into another Somalia?

    I had no idea conservatives were postmodernist reality-deniers these days…

  21. #21 Greg Laden
    June 28, 2009

    Adrian: The degree of actual anti-Jewish feeling among the Jews who were supposed to have been followers of christ, and the nature of the actual things they said, is all up for interpretation. I think you are right about what you say, and now I’m getting your point more clearly and pretty much agree with it. Most of the remarks that I know of are part of a larger 300 year long conversation in which people where quite vehemently disagreeing with each other and disliking each other to the point of killing each other now and then. You could not really be “antisemetic” in those days in any way that you could be now, except near the very end of this period or over subsequent centuries.

    But as Jose points out, the gospels are probably where we see the ultimate formation of early antisemitism.

  22. #22 maureen Brian
    June 28, 2009

    Adrian,

    There are bits in the New Testament which are regularly used to tease (ha!ha!) to bully and generally to give a hard time to Jews – this is a fact.

    These actions do depend upon the precise sect and its practices. They also depend on which of the multiple translations they choose and, remember, no-one at all knows what the original said.

    It is not necessary to proclaim a political philosophy such as Hitler’s in order to speak and behave in an anti-semitic manner – as any Jew would tell you if you troubled to ask!

  23. #23 Isaac
    June 28, 2009

    One of the main traditions of evangelicals in those days was to find Jews and convert them. It was something I ran into all the time.

  24. #24 isaac
    June 28, 2009

    sorry, ‘those days’ = the time of the OP was written, not the times the NT was written.

  25. #25 Adrian Morgan
    June 28, 2009

    Greg, I’m sorry if I over-reacted a bit, but that’d be because cynicism (as in the habit of attributing the worst possible motives by default) bugs me, and I tend to react to perceived examples of it from the gut. :-)

    Jose’s points are interesting, though without further evidence I take them with a grain of salt.

  26. #26 Jeff Eyges
    June 28, 2009

    The chickens. They came home. And roosted.

    Greg, perhaps more than you realize. African groups are now establishing churches and missionary organizations in the US for the purpose of converting liberal and non-Christians. If the rise of evangelicals into the middle class had offered us the hope of any relief from their insanity, the African churches are now there to pick up the slack.

  27. #27 Eamon
    June 28, 2009

    Travc@19

    Tanzania is regarded as quite a good place to do work (scientific field work). The British colonial history left a cultural legacy with some real positives from my POV (certainly negatives too of course).

    Zanzibar being one of them?

  28. #28 catgirl
    June 29, 2009

    and likewise only a complete idiot could read a Bible and interpret “the Jews said this”, “the Jews did that” as blanket references to all Jews.

    Unfortunately, a lot of complete idiots read the Bible.

  29. #29 tk
    June 29, 2009

    More!

  30. #30 Kippah
    June 30, 2009

    Thank you for the great post!

  31. #31 Scotlyn
    December 22, 2009

    Reason for late joining – your Christmas from Hell post pointed to a post that pointed here.

    The chickens. They came home. And roosted.

    Having grown up as an MK (and having had to do the “dress up and smile for the church folk” thing when my parents were carrying out the special kind of begging/speaking tour required every few years in order to maintain our modest lifestyle), the most surreal thing that ever happened to me was when my grown-up atheist self was door-stepped by a Bible-wielding, deadly serious, Nigerian JW missionary.

    It will be even more surreal, however, when the next Nigerian I meet turns out to be doing the field work for a thesis on “Kinship in crisis: geographical mobility and stress on family networks in a European culture.”