How Much Are We Defined By Negation?

There is an article in the conservative magazine Commentary where a selection of right-wing Jews wondered why all Jews were not right-wing. As a whole it’s fairly dull bit of navel-gazing by people who presumed that they were self-evidently right about what their co-religionists should think about politics. One observation did stand out to me though, and that was Michael Medved’s hypothesis that Jews don’t vote Republican because the Republican party is seen as the “Christian” political party – and one of the things that binds modern Jews is a rejection of Christianity.

“Imagine a dialogue between Woody Allen and a youthful, idealistic emissary of the Hasidic Chabad movement—who might well be the proud father of nine religiously devout children. Both the movie director and the Lubavitcher may be publicly identified as Jews, but they share nothing in terms of religious belief, political outlook, family values, or, for that matter, taste in movies. The one area where they find common ground—and differ (together) from the majority of their fellow citizens—is their dismissal of New Testament theology, with its messianic claims for Jesus.

Anyone who doubts that rejection of Jesus has replaced acceptance of Torah (or commitment to Israel) as the eekur sach—the essential element—of American Jewish identity should pause to consider an uncomfortable question. What is the one political or religious position that makes a Jew utterly unwelcome in the organized community? We accept atheist Jews, Buddhist Jews, pro-Palestinian Jews, Communist Jews, homosexual Jews, and even sanction Hindu-Jewish meditation societies. ‘Jews for Jesus,’ however, or ‘Messianic Jews’ face resistance and exclusion everywhere.”

Medved’s analysis reeks of oversimplification as a explanation for why American Jews vote the way that they do, but it also reveals something that we tend to overlook – the extent to which many of our identities are as much about what we are not as they are about what we are.

What about Protestants? Here I can construct another negative definition, we don’t follow the Pope. We can have all manners of theology, we can baptize people as babies or only as adults, we can have episcopal church structures or not, but whatever else we do, we don’t follow the Pope. As Protestants and Catholics move closer together on a whole range of theological, political and social topics how much will negation be a force in resisting a reconciliation with Latin Christianity? Does rejecting papal authority become the raison d’etre for Protestants even as many of them applaud much of what Benedict XVI says. As more has been revealed about how complicit Joseph Ratzinger was in the cover-up of child abuse, I find this a sufficient reason why I could never support an organization that has virtually no mechanism (or at least none that would ever see practical implementation) for removing this sinister man from being the head of the church. Whatever else the Catholic church says or does, until the Pope is taken down a notch in terms of powers and respect, I have to reject a system that cannot deal with incompetent or wicked leaders.

So I am Protestant because I reject a system that cannot or will not remove an evil man from a position as powerful and influential as that of Pontiff. A system that does not realize that even God’s chosen representatives, even the special world-historical cases (Peter comes to mind here) are not beyond error is one that fails to understand human nature – even on matters theological (again, Peter). To be fair here, governance of churches is a still a fraught problem in many Protestant cases, we probably don’t have a better solution to offer our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. I am all too aware of the cases of evil Protestant leaders who abuse their position as badly as the Medici Popes did the papacy. Roman Catholics, if you are reading this, I am not saying we are doing a better job, merely that I find a structural flaw that I cannot overlook. Thus I have to say “no” to Rome, perhaps on this topic more than I say yes to any particular strain of Protestantism.