Eben Harrell: Religion continues to best humanism | AspenTimes.com

Eben Harrell: Religion continues to best humanism

I was raised Jewish. I know I am Jewish because once in Scotland, a man in a liquor store examined my Hasidic features and said loudly, “You’re an arrogant people.” This experience more than any other defines my Jewishness.

On Saturday, Dr. David Elcott, a representative of the American Jewish Committee, gave a lecture entitled “Mel Gibson’s Passion meets 21st Century Judaism.” The thrust of his argument was that Jewish identity exists in large part because of resistance to persecution, but that Jews shouldn’t be overly worried about this movie. An individually financed film about the death of Christ is a long way from issuing gold stars.

“You are Jews in Aspen,” Elcott said. “There’s probably enough power in this room to change the world. How many of you here would trade places with a black or a Latino?”

I agree with Elcott that a Jewish identity based on shared victimization is troubling, but I’m also sympathetic to the angry, scared Jews who attended the meeting to voice their concerns.

The “Oh it’s not so bad” attitude has led the

Jews into big trouble before, and I think Jews are still haunted by the fact that across occupied Europe and in the concentration camps themselves there was hardly any organized resistance against Nazi persecution.

Elcott lectured as a guest of the Young Jewish Leadership

Group of Aspen, a new social group in the valley. They are the new generation of Jews; most are reform, many are atheists.

For this new generation, I couldn’t help but be saddened. Isn’t it time we stop identifying ourselves by religion? Isn’t it about time we get over this whole “religion” thing completely? We’ve tried it for thousands of years, and look at the hatred, bloodshed and misery wrought in its name.

In his speech, Elcott recounted discussing the film with Catholic priests and Protestant ministers. Surprisingly, his main concern was shared by many Christians ” that Gibson indulges in an “either with Him or against Him” presentation of the Crucifixion in which all nonbelievers are sinners.

It’s the foundation of modern humanism to allow for differing interpretations, to be skeptical of any absolute claim on truth. We cherish our liberal arts universities because they teach students to question and interpret texts. What, after all, is a fundamentalist if not a bad reader?

I couldn’t help but smile about these priests apologizing for Gibson’s movie, saying that it doesn’t allow room for alternative faiths. Religion by its nature makes an absolute claim on truth. Organized religion is based on scripture, which is the word of God. Is there really room for argument in that?

For priests to complain that Gibson’s portrayal is too rigid is a cop-out that borders on hypocrisy. If you are a Christian (or a Jew or a Muslim) and you’re also a good, humane person, you’ve got a cross to bear. That cross is the weight of scripture, the weight of living under a system that holds no room for anyone of different faiths, except to condescend to them (“one day, you too will feel the glory of the lord”) or banish them to hell.

In our pluralist society we address this problem by keeping religion in a form of quarantine ” we separate church and state, we ask people to pray privately ” as if keeping beliefs private makes those beliefs any less repugnant, as if remaining silent about the fact that God says all nonbelievers are sinners somehow makes it OK.

In regard to Gibson’s Christian movie in particular, but of all religions in general, I have this to say: Jesus died because he held a differing religious belief. He also said he died for our sins. What if our worst sin is religion?

[Eben Harrell is a staff writer at The Aspen Times. His e-mail is eharrell@aspentimes.com]