Point of Reference
by Fred Price
The near hysterical statements made by both parties vying for the White House this year make me fear for our country, as their ranting leaves virtually no room for accommodation, compromise or civility; not only during the campaign season but afterward as well. Besides which, it creates doubt in the minds of our allies and adversaries alike as to our reliability and integrity in foreign affairs. More importantly, it tears at the fabric of who we are; a diverse, disparate citizenry that has to be willing to talk things out and compromise enough to address the needs of the greatest number of people possible.
Ironically, I recently read a book by Rabbi Evan Moffic(1) that in part deals allegorically with this same idea; highlighting an ancient rabbinic parable to illustrate the self-destructive tendencies of people believing themselves so thoroughly right as to be beyond question, and thus unable/unwilling to make any concession to those with a different point of view. This “earthly story with a heavenly meaning”, was not meant to be taken as literal history, but intended to be studied for its more subtle points. And it does indeed strike at the core of division perpetrated by the self-righteousness of everyone involved, emphasizing the harm/ruin this can and does cause us personally and corporately.
It all starts with a party at the house of a man named Kamza, who invites everyone in town to attend – except a man he considers an “adversary” named Bar Kamza. Their names are strikingly similar and hint at a tribal/clan affiliation if not familial association. (The bar situated between a first and last name signifying “son of” in some cultures, as in Simon bar Jonah – or Simon son of Jonah,)
Civility, humility and hospitality are prized characteristics among Middle Eastern people, expressed even when not wholeheartedly felt; sometimes in exaggerated fashion. As such, Bar Kamza is thoroughly humiliated by his exclusion from the festivities, so much so that he begs for an invitation. When he is refused, Bar Kamza offers to pay the caterer. Nope. In desperation, he then offers to pay for half the food, entertainment and flowers; and receives the same obstinate answer. Finally, Bar Kamza’s frustration and anger leads him to strike back, not only at Kamza but at the rabbis in attendance who were responsible for mediating differences of opinion and moderating responses – helping maintain the civility and unity of a community and everyone else who got a coveted invitation to attend. Thus destroying not only the peace of the community, but the community itself.
Bar Kamza’s disappointment and frustration with his community – which he saw as rejecting his efforts at inclusion – led him to a drastic, ill-thought-out, form of retaliation. Surreptitiously “blemishing” a sacrificial offering, supposedly made in honor of the Roman Emperor to whom Israel was subject to, brought down the wrath of Rome on Jerusalem and its temple; which were destroyed and the people hauled off to exile. (Which did indeed occur in 70 A.D.)
Again, this parable is not meant to strictly depict history, one particularly egregious characterization would never happen – a sacrificial offering made in the temple of the Most High God to a Roman Emperor. (Which was a bone of contention between the Romans and Jews, as Rome wanted/demanded this ultimate homage be paid to their deified “ruler of the world”. Which the Jews steadfastly refused to do.) It is, however, meant to expose the divisions within the Jewish community during the first century and the terrible consequences they themselves had a hand in inflicting on themselves as their ideals became less evenly applied and their ability to reason together became foreign to their “politics”; fracturing their sense of unity and ability to respond with one voice and will. (Sound familiar?)
Two people, whose names suggest a familial, tribal, national connection – could not/ would not find a way to peaceably co-exist. Kamza’s disrespect for Bar Kamza was so complete, he refused to accommodate him in any way to avoid stigmatizing embarrassment and promote inclusion. Bar Kazma’s disappointment and anger is likewise so intense, he is willing to see everyone exposed to danger to settle a grudge. (Masked as righting a wrong. Equivalent to burning down one’s home town to avenge oneself on those perceived as barring him from community.) The term mindless arrogance – or stupidity – comes to my mind in describing both sides – then and now.
That community’s divisions and lack of wise leadership led to its destruction and serves as a warning for us yet today. If we can’t/won’t find a way to be civil, to disagree in an agreeable manner, to stop demonizing people who don’t at times see things the same way we do – we risk self-destruction through the dissolution of the bonds that bind us together as Americans.
This is not, however, a call for us to give up on what we believe, it is rather warning against allowing party politics to be our sole means of identification; relationships with any and all who identify as something other than “us” considered tantamount to betrayal. We are, or should be, Americans first and foremost. (The Judeo-Christian ideals of compassion, deference, humility and civility promoting and enhancing our sense of being one people.) Because in the end, we will all either stand or fall together.
1. What Every Christian Needs to Know About Judaism, Abingdon Press
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Fred Price - married (49 years), father of two grown children, grandfather of six.
Fred retired earlier this year after 42 years as a factory worker. He has always had a heart for young people and the challenges they face today. Over the years Fred has taught Discipleship Groups for High School and college students.
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