Something happened yesterday that resurrected ancient memories from my youth when Jews were one of the many that had been banished into the vast category of “them.” I’m in a book club at the local Episcopalian Church which meets weekly and reads non-fiction books which always touch on spiritual themes. One of the group members has often referenced the Jewish religion in our discussions and yesterday it suddenly dawned on me that she is of the Jewish faith. I’m not for sure why that surprised me as this church, and this reading group, is very eclectic and views faith from many different perspectives. And I have worked with and socialized with many persons of the Jewish faith and have never had any discomfort with them. I think that what happened is that on this occasion a memory from my preteen years in Bible camp was resurrected and for a moment I silently re-lived the first experience of encountering first a Jew.
Bible camp is part of fundamentalist Christian youth culture and often the high light of their summer. It consists of sermons twice a day, a morning devotional, bible studies, and plenty of games and recreation. On this particular occasion when we were being informally oriented to the schedule, I overhead someone say of a lovely young girl standing near-by, “She is a Jew.” This was not said disparagingly but it definitely conveyed the attitude of, “She is one of ‘them.’” In the following few days I often encountered her in various groups and recognized her immediately and felt in my heart deep angst and sorrow about her “fate” in life. I was not angry or rude, nor was anyone else in my memory, but I was deeply concerned that this nice young girl “didn’t believe in Jesus” and subscribed to a faith that had “killed our Lord and Savior.” I think that my distress was probably my first experience of the phenomena of “otherness” and it was troubling. And this illustrates how my faith was bathing me in a spirit of ex-clusiveness.
As I relived this moment from my youth yesterday in the book club, I pondered over the experience and wandered what it must have been like for that young lady in a group of young people in which she was radically “other.” And I also wondered, “What in the hell were her parents doing allowing her to be there.?” She sat through the hell fire and brimstone sermons, suffered through the altar call, and certainly at some point someone tried to lead her to Jesus.
As I’ve shared recently I am fascinated with the “distinction-drawer” that operates in all of us and with this flash back I got to see an early manifestation in my young heart of this ego contrivance at work. And it illustrates how I learned to use my Christian faith to bifurcate reality into “us” and “them” and take great delight in knowing that “us” had it exclusively right. Living in the Western world I was presented with a binary world and it is very difficult to ever question basic premises like that. But as poet Adrienne Rich eloquently noted, “Until we see the assumptions in which we are drenched, we cannot begin to know ourselves.”