Doubled Sacred Space

Sacredness is a tricky concept, made more complicated when a single place or story, concept or ritual is prominent in more than one belief system. Throughout history, conflict around sacred visions has led to much violence. An example is unfolding today in the U.S. capital.

For months now, the District has been home to an informal memorial to individuals killed by police, as well as related artwork and signage in support of Black Lives Matter. Names and pictures of those lost had been posted with loving care over the last five months, and many thousands made pilgrimages, some regularly, over the months.

The weekend of Nov. 13-16, protesters with the #MillionMAGAMarch and related demonstrations destroyed the memorial, while actively disparaging those it honors. This was accomplished with the acquiescence, and sometimes assistance, of DC’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). And this destruction, and MPD’s participation, has been met with silence on the part of DC leaders….and, so far, most of our faith communities as well.

The memorial is under reconstruction….meanwhile, here is (STILL DRAFT) background of the fence, pictures of what happened over Nov. 13-16, and a call to attention and action.

Multiple Folds on BLM Plaza

Conflict over sacred space appears in the story of Abraham, in the Hebrew Bible, seeking a tomb for his deceased wife, Sarah (Gen 23:1ff). The spot he chooses is “Me’arat Ha-machpelah.” Me’arah is a cave (or den). The root — כפל [kaphal] — in Hebrew means “fold” or “double.” Traditional etymology suggests that the cave’s name reflects the burying of couples (Biblically, Sarah and Abraham; Isaac and Rebecca; Jacob and Leah, with Rachel buried elsewhere; Talmud and later text includes Adam and Eve) or that it was composed of two chambers, either side-by-side or an upper and a lower. The doubling, or folding, also appears in other aspects of this story and sheds some light on the BLM memorial conflict.

In the process of negotiating, Abraham declares himself “גר־וְתוֹשב [ger-v’toshav] — “stranger” and “resident” — which is a kind of folding in this one individual’s status. Likewise, DC folks might be residents, on the one hand, and simultaneously strangers in public spaces where we are excluded from full representation; some visitors here for the MAGA events, on the other hand, might be strangers in DC neighborhoods, while simultaneously appearing to feel at home, even proprietary, in public spaces.

Abraham negotiates to purchase the cave and the surrounding land and trees. Eventually, the field and cave are confirmed as Abraham’s, “from the children of Heth.” This transfer results in a kind of double identity: It’s Abraham’s and it’s former Hittite property. A similar pattern shows up in many layers at BLM Plaza: On one level, it’s part of the L’Enfant plan for the U.S. government seat and it’s Anacostan/Piscataway land. On another, it’s District property and a response to the White House. It’s both a mayoral action and the people’s response to that action. The horizontal stripes are part of a DC flag and remnants of an equal sign, simultaneously a city-sanctioned design and a reminder of the guerilla “DEFUND THE POLICE” briefly equated with “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” (“BLACK LIVES MATTER = DEFUND THE POLICE,” lasted a single day before the city repainted.)

Another “doubling” can be seen in the dual nature of the historical Machpelah site (in the city of Hebron): known simultaneously as “Tomb of the Patriarchs” and as “Ibrahimi Mosque,” the site is recognized as sacred to both Jews and Muslims. In a somewhat similar vein, we see several “doublings” of meaning for BLM Plaza and Memorial Fence.

The yellow paint has one meaning for the movement for Black lives and another for DC’s mayor; trying to honor both at once results in serious conflict and insult to one vision or the other: On the one hand, consider again how the predominantly white Nov. 7 celebration was experienced as erasure by BLM supporters; on the other hand, protesters have faced months of police violence, suggesting that the mayor’s vision for BLM Plaza must be something quite different from BLM-led action.

Mayor Bowser has been sued for allowing a “cult for secular humanism” by plaintiffs who argue that the BLM Plaza “equates to endorsing a religion.” Brought by a small group, the suit represents a larger movement, in- and outside of DC, believing the yellow paint a provocation for those who “Back the Blue.” Other “Back the Blue” supporters declare no value in the lives memorialized on the fence, seek to actively erase anything associated with them, and join the current president in treating Black Lives Matter as “terrorists.” They are actively trying to reclaim the space for their vision of the United States.

Abraham negotiates in front of a gathering at the city’s gate. Do we have a “city gate” for considering the BLM Plaza conflict?

Abraham never has to argue for Sarah’s humanity. What does it say about DC and the nation, if we are silent while memorials are dismantled amid calls of “time to take out the trash”?


PS — this was written (and I thought, posted) a few days back; must have failed to hit “publish.” Sorry for delay.

For those so inclined “Protect the Fence” gofundme.

Babylon: Assimilation and Separation

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 4.2

While sojourning in Gerar (Gen 20), Abraham assumes there is “no fear of God in the place.” That’s what he tells King Abimelech, anyway:

וַיֹּאמֶר, אַבְרָהָם, כִּי אָמַרְתִּי רַק אֵין-יִרְאַת אֱלֹהִים, בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה;
And Abraham said: ‘Because I thought: Surely the fear of God is not in this place;…
— Gen 20:11

Believing the worst of Gerar, Abraham had introduced Sarah as his sister. (The perceived benefit of this move is the subject of much commentary but beside the point at the moment.) Abimelech, based on Abraham’s information, had taken Sarah into his home as wife. But God warned Abimelech of the situation in a dream. And once Abimelech sorted things out, “all the wombs of his household,” which had closed in consequence of Abraham’s trick, healed.

“To his shame,” writes Rainer Albertz, “Abraham had to learn from Abimelech that a ‘Gentile nation’ could also be righteous” (Gen 20:4). Albertz suggests that entire narrative of Genesis 20 is meant to warn against “religious arrogance” and remind readers that, even in a foreign land, “there is also morality and piety” (Israel in Exile, p.265).

Reading the story of Gerar as a morality tale about the dangers of “religious prejudices,” helps make sense of an otherwise disturbing and puzzling text. It seems a powerful lesson any generation could use.

Whether Jews in Babylonian Captivity actually gleaned this lesson from existing Torah text — or from a “Patriarchal History” crafted during exile — is another question.

Lessons for Exiled People

Very old interpretations of Genesis 20 blame Abraham for thinking ill of Gerar. But Jewish scholarship actually dating midrashim about the dangers of religious prejudice to the Babylonian Captivity — again, that’s another question. (Comments, sources most welcome.)

Albertz goes even further than seeking interpretations of the text dating to the Captivity, though: He assigns Genesis 20 to an “exilic Patriarchal History.” He similarly assigns Genesis 21 and 22 to this document, arguing that these tales respond to the needs of a people in exile in these ways:

  • they affirm the value of other nations (e.g., Ishmael’s descendants);
  • the promote non-assimilation (Ishmael is cast out); and
  • they teach “trust in God even when God seemed to be…the most profound threat to Israel” (the Akedah). — Israel in Exile, p.264ff

The kind of scholarship in which Albertz and other, mostly Christian, scholars are engaged, is illuminating for #ExploringBabylon. But the documentary methodology itself is, at least at present, outside the main work of this project. Look for more from those who write about the Exile’s influence on Tanakh — and on contemporary lessons for communities in geographic flux — as this project progresses.

In a related avenue of study, Rev. Hugh R. Page, Jr. of Notre Dame examines ancient Hebrew poetry and its place in the Tanakh specifically from an Africana perspective. Ancient Hebrew poetry, he writes:

represents the earliest recorded musings of our biblical forebears on God, the universe, community, nature, humanity, and life’s ultimate meaning. Moreover, it offers a selective view of an Israelite ethos, born in crisis, that is dynamic, creative, pluriform, polyphonic, and transgressive. This is a community whose early challenges were not unlike those encountered by many Africana peoples today, particularly those dealing with the effects of social displacement and marginalization.
— Page, Israel’s Poetry of Resistance: Africana Perspectives on Early Hebrew Verse, p.ix (full citation and more)