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Sabbath Day – Marc Ellis and Academic Freedom

December 1, 2011

While August is in school today, I am reading the newest book by Marc Ellis, Encountering the Jewish Future with Wiesel, Buber, Heschel, Arendt, and Levinas.

After eleven years of being inspired, challenged and provoked by Marc’s books, I finally had the chance to hear him speak and to thank him for his courage, commitment, and hope. While attending the meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Francisco, I attended a panel discussion called “The Persistence of the Prophetic: Honoring and Engaging the Work of Marc Ellis.” Participating were Cornel West, Gary Dorrien, Davina Lopez, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and others.

I first encountered Marc’s voice through his book Ending Auschwitz: The Future of Jewish and Christian Life. It shook me up. The title of the book alluded to, and was a response to, Richard Rubenstein’s After Auschwitz: History, Theology, and Contemporary Judaism, a book that helped define our understanding of the Holocaust, anti-semitism, and Jewish empowerment. Marc challenged my understanding of Jewish-Christian relations and Jewish-Christian dialogue. In particular, Marc brought me deeper into Jewish history (leading me to enter a doctoral program with the intention of studying the contours of Jewish-Chistian self-definition in the middle ages) while insisting that Jewish-Christian dialogue cannot be founded on a silence about Palestine, Palestinian history, the Palestinian people and Palestinian suffering. I first encountered the term Nakba, the word used to describe the ‘catastrophe’ encountered by Palestinians at the founding of the State of Israel, in his book Unholy Alliance: Religion and Atrocity in Our Time. Why didn’t I learn this history in seminary? 

I have returned again and again to Prof. Ellis’ work to remind myself that at the heart of both Judaism and Christianity is a prophetic spirit that insists that spirituality be practiced and that the prophetic community must have a commitment to the world and to the vexing questions of our time. This includes, this must include, the struggle of the Palestinian people. (In another recent book, Marc told the sad story of Robert McAfee Brown. Bob Brown was the first to teach me about prophetic Christianity, but was apparently never able to see or hear the Palestinian call for justice – viewing it always as a ‘problem’ that Israel must deal with.)

I am also reading Marc today because the school where he has been teaching for something like 18 years, Baylor University, is threatening his academic freedom. Marc is a challenging, and not always welcome, voice in Jewish-Christian relations. Baylor is a Christian-Baptist school in Waco, Texas. But while this has been a mutually beneficial relationship for many years, the new administration, under President Kenn Starr, seems to be moving a different direction. Cornel West and Rosemary Radford Ruether (recently joined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu) have launched a campaign to protect Prof. Ellis’ academic freedom, and change.org is hosting a petition in support.  The petition, and more information, can be found here. It only takes a minute.

I am grateful for Marc’s witness, and I am praying today for other prophetic voices for peace in the middle east, and for our Jewish and Christian communities.

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