Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #152. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Feb. 28, 2020; in print Mar. 1

 “Love is the greatest force in the universe.” This phrase, in a recently discovered handwritten note from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is quoted by Times Writers Group columnist and my friend Peter Donohue in the Feb. 18 Times.

King’s note goes on: “It [love] is the heartbeat of the moral cosmos. He who loves is a participant in the being of God.”

I am grateful to Donohue for calling our attention to this, and for his insistence that all the “external acts of Dr. King were rooted in a deep spiritual conviction and an essential belief in Jesus Christ.” The “Rev.” is an indispensable part of King’s name.

But embedded in Donohue’s otherwise admirable column is a claim that must be challenged, one that is part of a larger misperception of a sort that is wreaking havoc right here in Central Minnesota.

Donohue says that King’s “is the identical message of Jesus Christ delivered in a slightly different way. This message that both men left us places love as the dominant commandment, the all-important force. Jesus brought the new commandment, love of God and neighbor as opposed to a list of don’ts or thou shall nots. Both men lived an example of what to do; not what not to do – the benchmark of the Old Testament.”

There’s the problem – a sharp distinction between Old Testament and New, between Moses and Jesus, between Jews and Christians. Drawing this line has been around a long time; in the second century the church ruled out of bounds a doctrine that was adhered to by many – that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures and the God of the Christians are sworn enemies.

For far too long the Christian tradition has belittled the Jewish, often to the extent of murder. In recent decades churches, including Donohue’s Roman Catholic, have reversed course, declaring officially that God’s covenant with the Jews is permanent – they are as close to God as they need to get.

As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says on its website, “the Church believes that the Jewish Covenant is still valid and that Jews are still called to fidelity to that Covenant.”

This should have been clear from the beginning.

What Donohue calls “the new commandment” – love of God and neighbor – Jesus took right out of the Hebrew Bible (which for him was the Word of God; there wasn’t a New Testament), Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19. Don’t forget, too, that Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

“A list of don’ts or thou shall nots” is no more the “benchmark” of the Old Testament than of the New. Jesus and Paul prescribe plenty of don’ts. Moses and the prophets time and again say what the people should do. The echoes between testaments in the illuminations of the recently completed St. John’s Bible are visual testimony to the harmony, as are the photos that show Dr. King and his dear friend Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel linked arm in arm.

Why is it important to make this point?

Because religion these days is so combustible, around the world and right here in the St. Cloud area.

Claims are made about “others” – claims that are often provoked and amplified in the highest reaches of our country – claims that these “others” are a threat, that they are motivated by religious conviction to commit heinous acts.

Up until the middle of the last century, some Christian liturgies denounced the “perfidious Jews,” and anti-Semitism is demonstrably on the rise today.

Around here right now, however, the most serious damage is being perpetrated by persons who are caricaturing and demeaning Islam.

With the president’s tacit endorsement, local folks and outsiders they invite in imply that any Muslim is probably a terrorist, bent on destruction and inflamed by theology. These critics of Islam portray a pitched battle between God and Allah (overlooking the fact that Allah is simply the Arabic word for God), echoing the outdated and good-riddanced conflict between Jesus and Moses.

Anti-Muslim crusaders show up at – and attempt to disrupt – events where interreligious understanding is being promoted. They say things like “Her son was killed by a Muslim, so how can you tell her we should welcome such people?”

Well, there are plenty of people whose relatives have been killed by Christians, so how can we tell them they should welcome Christians? Christians have no monopoly on good behavior.

I don’t for a minute think Peter Donohue has a prejudiced cell in his body, but I want him, and all of us, to be alert to the mischief lurking in distinctions we too easily draw that make “us” look good and “them“ bad. Words matter.