Rev. Craig Jan-McMahon
First Congregational UCC
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Snap Judgement Podcast: The Rabbi and the KKK
To be a son or daughter of God is to participate in the divine nature by reflecting God’s unconditional love for all people made in God’s image.
“I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” ― Dorothy Day
“Love in action is harsh and dreadful when compared to love in dreams.” ― Dorothy Day
Most Vexing of All
A Rabbi and his wife Julie moved from New York to Lincoln, Nebraska.
One Sunday morning, while they were unpacking, they received a call from an unknown person who said, “You’ll be sorry you ever moved into that house Jew-boy,” and hung up.
“Love your enemies,” Jesus says. “Pray for those who persecute you.”
Is there any commandment more vexing than this one? I mean really; come on!
Dorothy Day, Catholic social justice advocate, said “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”
The Rabbi called the police, who soon came to the house to take a report, and who told the Rabbi that the person who made the call was probably Larry Trap, a notorious white supremacist and hateful person. The police proceeded to give the Rabbi some troubling advice. “Make sure your kids don’t go back and forth to school using the same pattern.”
A couple of days later, a package arrived in the mail with 50 or 60 pieces of racist brochures. There was one memorable picture of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King with a gunsight imposed over his forehead and the caption, “Our Dream Came True.” The package included a business card for the Ku Klux Klan with a message scrawled on the back, “The Ku Klux Klan is watching you, Scum.”
Lex Talionis, “The Law of retaliation,” is the heart of the law and root principle of equality, of our glorious justice system; as Socrates says, justice is giving each person his due, or as is said in Leviticus and doubtless was well known by the Rabbi:
“.. a man who injures his countryman – as he has done, so it shall be done to him [namely,] fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Just as he has injured a person, so it shall be done to him.” (Lev. 24:19–21).
Justice, is about restraint: because I am a good and decent person, I will demand nothing more from you than you have taken from me: retaliation is assumed; or, to put it more diplomatically, reciprocity is the goal or better still: equality.
Justice rightly understood means that a person with little money is treated equally in the eyes of the law to the person of extraordinary wealth.
When lady justice, blindfolded, holds the scales of justice, then equality is the outcome; when she peers from under her blindfold to see race or class or religion or sexual orientation or gender identity–to see anything at all, the the outcome is injustice
The Rabbi got Larry Traps phone number, and started calling him once a week, on Thursdays at about 3:00, just before he began bar mitzvah lessons at 3:30.
“Larry, there’s a lot of love out there, and you’re not getting any of it.”
“Larry, why do you love the Nazis so much? They would have killed you first, since you are disabled.” Larry Trap was a double amputee, resulting from advanced diabetes from an early age. He lived his life in a wheelchair.
The love of enemies commandment is preceded by two examples of enemy love that have come to serve as examples of the subversive nature of enemy love, examples which transform enemy love into power and strength.
To be struck on the right check by a righthanded person means being backhanded and thus subjugated; consequently, to turn the other check requires the aggressor to use a forehand as with an equal foe; to turn the other cheek elevates the victim to foe.
Roman soldiers by law could require any person to carry their armor for a mile–to carry his armor for an extra mile is a sign of strength that denies subjugation. “You demand that I carry your armor for a mile, but I choose to carry it two,” thus not only does the victim escape subjugation, but he exposes the soldier to prosecution for breaking the one-mile-only rule.
During the civil rights era nonviolence was taught to protesters and was used to good effect; the hateful power of racism was revealed as brutal and weak; we look back in awe at the strength and power of nonviolence.
Underlying this political strategy, however, is a deeper commitment to enemy love, which is not about strength and subversion but is rather the heart of Jesus teaching and of the law in Deuteronomy:
Love your enemies, Jesus says, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
Deuteronomy says, You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.
The heart and soul of faith is the belief that we are called to represent God in the world. To be children of God means to represent the unconditional love of God for all people, both to the just and to the unjust. Labeling others as enemies does not free us from this our most sacred and most vexing commitment, and while we may devise political strategies to subvert oppressive power, the principle underlying our actions is our sacred commitment to be children of God by representing the divine love of our creator to all of creation, friend and foe alike.
After a while, Larry Trap figured out it was the Rabbi who was calling him. Finally, one day, he answered the phone, and he started yelling and screaming, “Why are you calling me and harassing me?” and a lot of other things which cannot be said from this pulpit.
“I don’t want to hassle you Larry,” the Rabbi said. “I just want to talk to you.”
“What do you want to talk about?”
“I heard you are disabled. I thought you might like a ride to the grocery store.”
Dead silence. “I’ve got that covered. Don’t call me anymore.”
Nevertheless, the Rabbi persisted, calling once a week on Thursday at 3:00. Finally, on a Saturday evening the Rabbi’s phone rang.
“Is this the Rabbi?”
“Yes it is. Is this Larry Trap?”
“Yes it is.”
“What can I do for you?”
“I want to get out of what I am doing, and I don’t know how.”
“Would you like to talk about it?” the Rabbi asked.
“Then I’ll come over. I know where you live.”
So, the Rabbi hung up and called a friend and told him if you don’t hear from me by midnight, call the police.
The Rabbi and his wife drove to the house, and knocked on the door, and Larry Trap open the door with a MAC 10 automatic weapon in his lap, a shotgun hanging off the corner of the wheelchair, and a pistol in his lap.
The Rabbi thought, “O my God, we’re dead,” but instead Larry Trap reached out, took his hand, and burst into tears.
He began taking rings with swastikas off his finger and handing them to the Rabbi. “Take these things away; they have caused me nothing but trouble all of my life.”
They talked and talked about what Larry had been doing, why he wanted to get out of it, and his childhood upbringing.
You know this story? Yes? The brutal and terrifying childhood with an erratic, racist, tyrannical father . . . etc, etc, etc.
Larry Trap was a relatively young man, but he was beginning to have kidney failure.
The Rabbi and his wife began to think about Larry, alone and failing. They talked about inviting him to come live with them.
I wonder if we understand the true power of faith and the profound limitation of our own power of reason.
Fear is self-justifying; there will always be airtight reasons against loving our enemies; but what a small world and anxious world we would live in if there weren’t people of faith pushing against the narrow boundaries of fear that separate and divide the human family; and what danger and peril would we find ourselves in if we failed to do our very best to treat all people as if they are worthy of God’s unconditional love, ourselves included.
And so the Rabbi and his wife agreed, and moved Larry Trap into what had been their daughter’s bedroom. He began to live his life there, but he needed significant care, so Julie gave up her job in order to take care of him.
During that time, Larry Trap started bugging the Rabbi about wanting to become Jewish; the Rabbi tried to dissuade him. “Well, Larry, come on. You grew up Catholic. Why don’t you start going to your own church?”. The Rabbi tried to palm him off on his Christian-Pastor friends.
“No,” Larry said. “I had a miracle in my life, and it came from Judaism.”
“No, Larry,” said the Rabbi. “It came from you.”
Eventually, they did have a conversion ceremony for Larry Trap in the synagogue, which he had been attending, and he lived the rest of his life in the Rabbi’s house, until one morning at about 3:00 am, he died.
He lived in the Rabbi’s house for about 9 months. Said the Rabbi, “It was like he went through the cycle of birth again, and he died a better man than he lived.”
His funeral took place at the Temple, filled with mourners; Larry had done a lot of hard work in those 9 months to try to make amends with people. was on the phone constantly calling people and apologizing and telling people he was sorry he hurt them. He spoke several times at the local high schools against racism and he became a better kind of celebrity than he had been before.
The Rabbi felt like a member of his family had died
I cannot stand here before you and promise you that if you love your enemies that you will have a Larry Trap story to tell, but I can promise you that if we do not love our enemies, there will be no such stories to tell, and what is more, I can promise you that the narrow lines that divide us will become chasms and small differences will break us apart.
But perhaps more to the point, it is a small, mean world indeed if we live and act only according to our own sense of reason, if we love only those who are easy to love and who love us in return.
Jesus dares us to aim higher, to live foolishly, to believe that our lives amount to something more than we can make of them ourselves or that we can see in advance or any of us can reasonably expect. It is a small, mean world indeed, and a life hardly worth living, if we lower our sights to our own private sense of justice, but faith gives us a life worthy of the living, and makes possible miracles of love like Mr. Larry Trap.