An Open Letter to Youth Ministers – Laura Carlson Hasler

Laura Carlson Hasler, the Alvin H. Rosenfeld Chair in Jewish Studies, Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at Indiana University writes an open letter to youth ministers.

DRAFT—Please do not circulate without author’s permission.

Yale Center for Faith and Culture: “Belonging, Selfhood, Human Flourishing, and Joy – Putting Biblical Perspectives Into Practice.”

December 6-7, 2018
Revised January 2019

The greatest gift that evangelical parachurch youth ministry gave me when I was a teenager was the gift of belonging. Other gifts – a sense of a loving divine presence, and a lifelong fascination with Scripture – were channeled to me through this larger and transformative sense that I belonged. Christian youth programs cultivated in me a sense of belonging when I – like so many of my peers – needed it most, and when it often felt hard to come by. In these circles, I was given the extraordinary gift of having my adolescent disposition, gifts, and idiosyncrasies reflected back to me as valuable, trustworthy, and sought after. This palpable sense that I was loved and wanted lent me the security I needed to flourish as a teenager. Along the way, this deep sense of belonging paved the way for enduring friendships built around transformative conversations about meaning, spirituality, and grace.

As a teenager, I learned firsthand that belonging matters, and youth ministry is uniquely positioned to offer people this transformative gift.

Looking back, I feel profoundly grateful for the relentless ways this gift was offered to me. I also see clearly that I was an ideal candidate for belonging to this particular group: my middle-class whiteness, my evangelical family, and my dispositional bent towards relational and ideological loyalty (paired with a deep-seated fear of moral failure and rejection) was, in this context, a recipe for youth group stardom. I sensed that I wasn’t just a part of this group, but one of its core members. And that, frankly, felt great.

But hindsight has also given me a vision of the shadow side of our community, and of so many communities that are likewise centered on common religious belief and practice. When I look back, I also see stories of exclusion, though they are not my own. I think of my friends who moved to the margins – or beyond the boundaries – of our group because of claims they wouldn’t or couldn’t make or because of behaviors they wouldn’t adjust.

Occasionally the exclusion of these kids was generated by our group’s leaders, but much more often if was an act of subtle (sometimes gradual) self-selection. After an initial foray into our community, some of my peers would pick up on a sense that their ideas, questions, or actions were not celebrated and, at times, explicitly rejected. Sensing the particular conditions around which our community was centered, many of my friends withdrew to the margins or left altogether. I remember a particular friend cast her feelings about our group in terms of a kind of bait-and-switch: “I thought this was a group about friends having fun, but it turns out it was about religion.” At the time, savvy young evangelical that I was, I attempted to explain that “faith” (I deftly exchanged her term “religion” for what I thought was a more appealing word) was all about fun and relationships. Almost fifteen years later, I see more clearly the force of her observation: this was a community deeply and essentially around particular common beliefs and practices. These were claims and actions that she could not share, and therefore was unable to fully belong.

As a Christian and a member of the church, let me say at this juncture that this essay is not going to hold youth ministers responsible for every kid who flakes on youth group or who simply decides it’s not for her. The glorious challenge of ministering to voluntary groups is that you cannot control people and there are infinite reasons why people opt out. But I would like to think a bit more about the relationship between religious conformity and belonging, and to consider how the Bible may invite us to think differently about the confessional boundaries we build to try to keep kids close to us and – we think! we hope! – close to God.

Inviting the Bible into a discussion about belonging is a natural and fearful thing for me, as a Protestant biblical scholar. This is not least because the Christian Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, has, to put it mildly, a mixed record when it comes to issues of belonging and exclusion. On the one hand, both the OT and the NT offer remarkable moments of social compassion and porous communal boundaries. Leviticus 19 instructs the Israelites to treat foreigners like citizens, the prophet Isaiah envisions the inclusion of Egypt and Assyria into God’s chosen family (Isaiah 19) Jesus famously communed with social outcasts, and Paul suggests that the boundaries instantiated by gender, class, and ethnicity are irrelevant in the light of Christ (Gal 3:28). But the Bible also attests to radical and violent exclusions on the basis of behavior, belief, gender, and ethnicity. Sections of Joshua (1-9), Ezra (9-10), Romans (1-9), 1 Corinthians (14), and Revelation, for example, all revile difference in various forms. The biblical habit of depicting ethnic and religious others as impure, undesirable, and unworthy of belonging either to God or God’s people ought to trouble us as we search the Scriptures for directives on how to welcome others in.

In fact, it is the very difficulty of Scripture – and its blood-soaked interpretive history – that should add urgency to our questions of how to interpret parts of the Bible that seem to license horrifying acts of exclusion. This is a profoundly complicated question that perplexed even the Bible’s earliest Jewish and Christian interpreters. The strategy of “spiritualizing” or allegorizing depictions of physical violence has its roots in ancient biblical interpretation and – in my anecdotal experience – remains popular in modern contexts. For example: Joshua’s scorched-earth battles against the Canaanites or John of Patmos’ violent fantasies of political and religious vindication are often read – if at all – as individual spiritual battles against depersonalized impurity and evil. As a reading strategy, spiritualizing solves some obvious problems, but it accentuates others. This move can affirm social boundaries built on the basis of “pure” belief and behavior. In other words, if Joshua’s extermination of Canaanites has something to say about how we interpret and value pure faith and action in our communities, there’s reason to suspect the boundaries around those things might also be policed quite rigidly.

In response, I’d like to offer, briefly, a way to approach troubling, exclusionary passages in Scripture that neither spiritualizes nor ignores them. Then, I’d like to illustrate this by interpreting a difficult biblical passage that may yet have something to say to us about boundaries, belonging, and exclusion in Christian communities.

Let me say what I think the Bible’s authority might mean for communities who hold it as sacred: The Bible’s authority rests, first and foremost, on our attention. If this core principle strikes you as somewhat soft, consider how much money our culture invests in getting our attention, mostly through attractive and arresting images and sounds played on screens or through headphones. Our attention is one of the most valuable commodities we have to offer, and we invest whatever we attend to with identity-shaping authority. To say that the Bible is authoritative means that it ought to compel our attention. That also means, perhaps inevitably, that its images and stories will shape our vision of our selves, of our communities, and of our reality.

But to say that the Bible demands our attention, and shapes us can mean many things. To read the Bible, holistically, means that we cannot simply mine the Scripture for simple directives on how to live in the 21st century. Because the stories, genealogies, and poetry that make up the Bible can engage us must more richly than simply telling us what to do. When we attend to our full range of emotions when reading the Bible, for example, we may experience joy as well as horror. We read passages that trouble us, those that tug on our compassion, those that may elicit comfort or anger, and those we may want to resist. A holistic way of attending to the Bible honors all of these responses, and suggests that we may be instructed by them. Reading the Bible in this way opens up the possibility that some biblical passages may serve as cautionary tales, playing out the stakes of human interpretation and action in a way that demands our attention and teaches us through our emotional reactions to it.

A word of caution, especially for Christian interpreting communities, is in order: I have made efforts above to explain that exclusion and violence are not the sole issue of Old Testament texts, but permeate the whole of Christian Scripture. My teenage bible study experience often attributed – I’m certain unintentionally – the bulk of troubling texts to the Old Testament and, implicitly, to Judaism. It doesn’t take much complex reflection, or a long look into the Bible or the history of Christianity to know that this kind of thinking is inaccurate, heretical, and anti-Semitic.

Approaching the Bible as I have described above, especially in evangelical Protestant contexts, may feel dangerous. This approach relies on the Spirit, as it works through on our own experience, emotion, reason, as well as those of our reading communities near and far. The Bible was written by many people, and demands a rich tapestry of people in order to interpret it to its fullest, and to correct or expand our own limited vision of what these texts may be saying to us.

Lest this seem too abstract, let me attempt to put this experience in practice by reading Ezra 9-10 in light of my own reason, emotion, and experience, in hopes that the story may also engage you on all of those fronts. The point of this exercise is to demonstrate how this passage might help us think dynamically about belonging without necessarily giving us step-by-step instructions on how to do it. Rather, it invites us to imagine a very different context where issues of common belief and practice were also hotly contested, and it moves us to ask difficult, reflexive questions about how we create boundaries and the effect those boundaries might have.

I begin simply by repeating a lesson I have learned through my own experiences in Christian communities: that religious homogeneity can create intimacy. This intimacy, as I have experienced it, often feels good: it can create spaces of profound belonging that receives and cares for an individual’s vulnerability and pain. It can also be transformative. Religious or ideological homogeneity can open the way for conversations about ultimate meaning undergirded by certain first-order assumptions that are difficult to achieve outside of this frame.

I begin here because this experience has helped me better imaginatively inhabit the biblical text of Ezra 9-10. To be clear, the ultimate point of what follows will not be to redeem or explain away the troubling xenophobia found throughout the book of Ezra-Nehemiah. I raise this example, rather, because this narrative acutely depicts both the longing for and the dangers of exclusive spaces of religious belonging.

The story that frames Ezra-Nehemiah begins with a deep wound. The destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and the decades-long exile in Babylon constituted massive loss to the 6th century BCE Judean community: the loss of life, land, political autonomy, and the primary locus of worship. These profound and intersected losses, moreover, called into question the Judean’s intimate relationship with God.

Ezra’s narrative begins with what appears to be the end of this cultural nightmare: a new imperial regime permits the Judean’s return to their land and the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple. Like so many recovery stories, this return is incremental and involves revisiting old wounds. In Ezra 3, the foundations for the new temple are laid. The ensuing dedication generates joyous celebration, but the text notes that this joy is mixed with sadness. Those who remembered the old Temple wept (Ezra 3:12-13). The act of rebuilding cannot completely erase the memory of that which was lost.

The community also has to revisit the ongoing pain of lost political autonomy. Though, according to Ezra-Nehemiah, the Persian empire is the source of certain important gains for the Judean community, Ezra-Nehemiah also acknowledges that subservience to foreign regime is a kind of “slavery” (Ezra 9:9; Nehemiah 9:36). Within the narrated world of Ezra-Nehemiah, the many wounds of exile are still fresh, and the community’s ongoing vulnerability is visceral.

But while much of Ezra-Nehemiah is preoccupied with responding to the trauma of the past, the scenario this community now finds itself in is in fact quite new. The crux of the drama surrounding the book of Ezra, especially, unfolds when old wounds are mapped onto new situations. In Ezra 7, we are introduced to the character of Ezra, a priest and a scribe who leads a group of exiles back through the wilderness to their ancestral land. When Ezra finally returns to Judea he is quickly informed that the previously-returned exiles are intermarrying with “the people of the land” and having children with them.

Ezra meets this news with utter horror. From Ezra’s perspective, this is a worst-case scenario: religious syncretism begotten by intimacy with foreigners brought about the devastation of the last generation, according to Ezra’s interpretation of Israelite history (Ezra 9:6-15). Suddenly, the community was at risk at going through the same cycle again, which previously had nearly severed their intimacy with God. Within Ezra’s logic, closing cultural-religious ranks is the only reasonable response: orthodoxy, so conceived, is not just about maintaining intimacy within the group, it is about retaining intimacy with God. Seen in this light, homogeneity is salvific because the yield of orthodoxy is connection with God. It also, moreover, might ward off the conflict and fracture that had characterized so much of Israel and Judea’s latter history. Simply put, the intimacy that religious homogeneity creates is desirable because it is efficacious.

But this story is more than a tale about the efficaciousness of religious orthodoxy. Ezra 9-10 gives way to two related observations related to homogeneity and belonging. The first is, as noted above (albeit within a very different context), that religious conformity is seen here and many places in the Bible as salvific and conducive to intimacy with God. It is thus cited as the critical foundation on which a community can be built and, in this case, rebuilt. The second observation is that perceived vulnerability can create cultures of exclusion.

It is in the midst of this latter observation that this story reveals its particularly sharp edges, raising questions for exactly how we should, if ever, productively “apply” this story in contemporary life. This story exposes the tragic consequences of interpreting present history in light of the vulnerabilities of past trauma: in this case, “the people of the land” (the women with whom some returnees have intermarried) are interpreted as equivalent to the ancient neighbors who compromised Israelite worship beyond all orthodox recognition and incurred divine wrath. The unabashedly violent rhetoric of nationalistic exclusion endemic both to Ezra’s speech and the biblical traditions he draws upon ought not to be ignored. Again, the biblical habit of depicting ethnic “others” as pollution deserves a central seat in our discussion of biblical ideas of belonging and exclusion.

What is remarkable about Ezra’s disgust over the people of land, however, is that the biblical text itself gestures to the fact that this attribution may be a case of mistaken identity. We have met “people of the land” previously in the book of Ezra. These are the people in Ezra 4 who forestalled the Judeans’ Temple rebuilding efforts. Yet this antagonism was preceded by an exchange in which this, or a related group, approached the Judeans with a surprising request:

“Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have
been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria
who brought us here.” (Ezra 4:2)

This comment raises three important similarities between the “people of the land” and the returned Judeans: 1) they, too, are a diaspora group, currently living under the shadow of imperial rule; 2) they have been worshipping the Judean’s God as the Judeans do at this very same site; and 3) they, too, want to rebuild the Temple, and thus seek initially to join, not obstruct, its rebuilding efforts. The request from this group, who becomes identified as the “people of the land” (in a formulation very similar if not identical to the group that surfaces in Ezra 9-10), is flatly denied by the Judeans. In Ezra 9-10 the reasons for this punishing exclusion become clear: Ezra identifies them with the groups of “foreigners” that previously corroded Judean orthodoxy. But Ezra 4:2 complicates this association by hinting that Ezra may be mistaken. This group is remarkably like and, by some measure, are Judeans (insofar as this vexed term connotes at this point both ethnicity and religious practice). But the returnee’s perception of their radical vulnerability causes them to close ranks and, eventually, to expel these “foreign” women and their children from the community (Ezra 10).

Scholarly explanations for these acts of exclusion as well as the correspondence between the “people(s) of the land(s)” and various historical groups are complex and wide-ranging. The point I would simply like to make here is that this orthodoxy-based exclusion is represented in Ezra-Nehemiah as deeply desirable, even salvific. But the text also reveals that these acts of exclusion are executed on the basis of fear, and gestures towards Ezra’s (mis)application of old traumatic stories onto new and distinct situations. Ezra’s exclusions are, in short, both intelligible and tragic.

I do not want to solve the problems Ezra 9-10 illustrates about the relationship between perceived vulnerability and brutal acts of exclusion. As interpreters we should neither dismiss the ruthless terms in which these expulsions are narrated, nor the palpable fear that generates them. My own speculations provoked by my particular youth group experience adds a further – albeit relatively mundane – layer to these issues: that collective intimacy built out of ideological homogeneity might be transformative, allowing people a threshold of safety and belonging that may catalyze conversations of ultimate meaning. In this sense, too, homogeneity can be efficacious.

But where does this leave us, we who may be troubled by the painful exclusions we find narrated in Ezra and elsewhere, who may be horrified by violent acts of exclusion in our present contexts, and who might be seeking to create spaces of radical hospitality in our academic or ecclesial contexts? I do not think Ezra-Nehemiah offers clear answers, but it gestures, in the very questions it gives rise to correlative questions that may form productive bases of conversation. I will name just a few of them here. First: Are their ways to create transformative spaces of belonging in the absence of religious or ideological homogeneity? Must the impulses towards intimacy and inclusion always pull groups in different directions? Second: Are their ways that perceived vulnerability can result in radical hospitality? How, in other wards, can woundedness and vulnerability materialize into porous and hospitable cultures? Or must hospitality always, at some level, stem from a posture of perceived strength?

I would like to return, briefly, on a very different passage mentioned earlier, from a very different part of the Hebrew Bible: Leviticus 19. Represented as part of the body of law given to the Israelites before their entrance into the land of Canaan, Leviticus includes the following legislation about how to treat foreigners in the Judean’s midst:

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.
You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you,
and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt:
I am the Lord your God.” (Lev 19:33-34)

Interpretations may differ on the question of whether the remarkable inclusivity stems from a position of perceived vulnerability or strength. On the one hand, the paired terms of “your land” and “stranger/sojourner” assumes a position of political sovereignty and thus a clear power differential between Israelite and the stranger. In contemporary terms, we might say that the Israelites, within the imagined world of this passage, can afford to be generous.

On the other hand, the theological basis given for this inclusivity is one that remembers profound vulnerability: “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The audience would surely associate the term, “stranger” in this context with an even more dire condition: slavery. This is hospitality built on the basis of remembered wounds.

Neither of these biblical passages untangle the complex relationships among pain, difference, intimacy, and belonging for contemporary American teenagers or Second Temple Jews. However, they do give us windows into possibilities of how vulnerability – palpable, perceived, or remembered – might materialize into hospitality that reaches deeply across difference, and raise the question of whether hospitality must always compromise in-group intimacy. But these passages also bear witness to how such woundedness can also cultivate a desire for radical exclusion. The tragic brilliance of Ezra-Nehemiah is that it illustrates how desirous this move towards religio-cultural homogeneity is, while also giving us glimpses of its brutality. The challenge for us as ministers, teachers, and religious-practitioners remains: how do we create centers of transformative intimacy in the face of the margins it – often painfully, perhaps inevitably – generates? Put more simply: who do our boundaries help and who do they harm?

Reading Ezra 9-10 in light of present adolescent experiences with belonging and exclusion accentuates the questions that the Bible raises, without offering definitive answers of how we should solve them. Reading in this way not only exposes the struggles around identity and boundaries threaded throughout the text but also invites us as readers to struggle alongside it, especially in how to apply it to our own lives. Let me suggest that treating the book of Ezra as Scripture will instruct us through the very discomfort it raises and the difficult questions it poses. Perhaps the pain, fear, and (arguable) scriptural misreading that Ezra trades in will sharpen our attention to the intuitive ways we embrace and exclude, and soften our own encounter with difference.