Of Pharisees, Sadducees, Manatees, and Memories
On this occasion of the 70th Holocaust Remembrance Day, the following is a reworking of some thoughts I’ve offered in presentations over the last several months.
A simple, familiar camp song has become for me a symbol that even though Auschwitz was liberated 70 years ago, Christianity is itself not yet liberated from its embedded dis-ease with, and distaste for, Jews and Judaism.
Here’s to hoping that I’m wrong, or hoping that if I’m right, we can one day sing a different song…or at least stop singing this one.
Most anybody who has been to any Church camp, any Vacation Bible School, has sung or heard the tune, “I just wanna be a sheep.”
You know it: “I just wanna be a sheep [Baa Baa Baa]. I just wanna be a sheep [Baa Baa Baa]. I pray the Lord my soul to keep! I just wanna be a sheep.”
Apologies that the song is now embedded in your brain for the next 24 hours or so.
Like it or not, you hear it, and you end up nodding your head or tapping your toes to the tune.
So then it goes on for several verses, until we get here: “I don’t wanna be a Pharisee. I don’t wanna be a Pharisee. They’re just not fair you see. I don’t wanna be a Pharisee.”
My toe-tapping slows.
Now comes the sheep chorus of course (they follow absolutely anything), and then one last verse: “I don’t wanna be a Sadducee. I don’t wanna be a Sadducee. They’re just so sad you see. I don’t wanna be a Sadducee.”
At this point, my toes want to walk away from the fire pit, walk away from the worship space, walk away from the guitars, walk away from the Baa-baa-baa-ing.
It’s a song that is immensely troubling.
Have not we read Luke 18? Have we not heard the story there, the one about the Pharisee who said, “I give thanks that I am not like them?”
And yet, here we are, teaching our children to sing just like that Pharisee, “I don’t want to be like them!”
“Ach,” I’ve been told. “it’s just a song, Anna! And they aren’t even around any more, unfair and sad or not!”
Makes me think of the anecdote about David Preus who once began a Churchwide Convention by saying that, given the new appreciation about inclusivity, he agreed that we ought not make fun of groups of people.
And so, out of this newfound sensitivity, he decided that he would tell a joke about people who were no longer with us, so as to no longer offend anyone.
So, he said, once there were two Hittites. Ole and Lena.
So, we think, there are no more Pharisees and Sadducees.
Except there are.
There are, at least by way of extended religious tradition, in the form of the Jewish faith.
When people hear the terms “Pharisee” and “Sadducee,” they think Jews.
With that in mind, who wants to join me in this verse?
“I don’t wanna be a Jew. I don’t wanna be a Jew. Their whole faith is askew. I don’t wanna be a Jew.”
Suddenly, the drum of toes tapping is quiet.
Put that way, you see, it becomes clearer that when people hear the terms “Pharisee” and “Sadducee,” they think Jews…unless one is a kid, or has never learned much about the Pharisees and Sadducees as a kid or an adult.
See, when my daughter, my amazingly, powerfully, stunningly wise and bright and All Good Things daughter, when she and I were dissecting this tune, she was shocked.
“Mama,” she whispered, because we may or may not have been dissecting the tune during the actual singing of tune. “I didn’t realize that they were people!”
My turn to be shocked.
“Really?” I whispered back.
“Nope,” hushed Else. “I thought that they were animals.”
I stared at her. “Animals.” “Animals?” I asked myself. “Why, baby girl, why, um…why animals?”
“Well, you know when we go down to Florida for Karl and the dolphins? I always thought that it was like manatees, pharisees, and sadducees!”
See, while I do think that most adults, anyway, know that the Pharisees and the Sadducees were Jews, I do not think that most people–kids or adults–know who they really were, and what they believed.
Do they know that the Pharisees are considered to be the foundational tradition for modern Judaism? That they believed that the 10 Commandments were open to interpretation, giving rise to the rich Jewish tradition of the Talmud? Do they know that they believed in life after death, and in a Messiah who would bring world peace? Have they heard that they encouraged broad education for the Jewish people?
Are they aware that Jesus did not disdain all Pharisees? That, just as in all religious traditions–Christianity included–there are leaders who need to be called out, as Jesus called out some Pharisees–and would some Christians?
Do they know that the Sadducees were priests, and were instrumental in keeping the rituals and traditions of the Jewish people intact?
(As an aside, this fellow, a rabbi in Atlanta, writes really well and clearly about the Jewish tradition, not least of all about the Pharisees and Sadducees).
What is unfair, what is sad, is not the Pharisees, not the Sadducees, but is rather that Christians continue to sing a song that maligns both of these groups, and thereby the Jewish tradition and faith.
At its best, the song demonstrates profound insensitivity.
At its worst, the song contributes to a tradition of Christian anti-semitism grounded in select texts and selected misinterpretations of Judaism and its history.
It’s a song that forgets, it’s a song that misremembers, it’s a song that places new and false memories in the minds of everyone who sings it, it’s a song that risks giving these perilous and counterfeit memories new life, new form, new motivations for hate, and hurt, and harm.
On this day, January 27, we remember the Holocaust.
Elie Wiesel has made the memory of the Holocaust his life’s work. In a wrenchingly moving interview with Richard Heffner, Wiesel has this to say about memory:
In memory you are not alone. You are surrounded by people. Those who are not here anymore, naturally, but they are there in your memory. They live. And you hear them and you speak to them. And when you need a presence it’s their presence. Of course, it’s a dead presence, but still it’s a presence. The presence of the dead is also a presence. And without memory, then what is worse than to live without a future? It’s to live without a past. And I think memory is that past.
This song, of course, in and of itself, this song is nothing stacked against the horrors of the Holocaust.
But this song is a symbol of the subtle tenacity of suspicion and distortion and contempt.
And so this blog is about this song, but is about so much more than this song.
This blog is a testimony against false memory.
It is a testimony of the hope of never forgetting the painful memory of the Holocaust.
It is a blog yearning for faithful memories, memories that could be antidotes to new Holocausts.
It is a blog about remembering the past, of creating new futures, of honoring the memories of the dead, and of hoping that by faithfully remembering, no more unnecessary deaths born out of distrust, of hate, or in gas chambers will need to be remembered again.
As you know, I grew up in Bexley where my school was about 50% Jewish. Some of my best friends were-and still are-Jewish. I read a lot of novels about the Holocaust and am currently reading “All the Light We Cannot See.” Your comments resonate with me. I don’t know that the parents of my classmates were survivors because the time frames wouldn’t fit into the wealthy of Bexley and it was a subject rarely mentioned at school or in our home-except when I was teased about being born on Hitler’s last earthly birthday. Just random thoughts before bed.
Love it, Anna, thank you so much for this. It is always really worrying to me to hear some of the ‘great old songs’ whether they be VBS songs, old chestnuts used in nursing homes, or simply those found in our hymnals get such zest and enthusiasm when they are so off for today’s realities, and really maybe never were profoundly meaningful in the first place when thought about at theologically-rich lengths.
I count myself fortunate enough to have always thought that anytime I saw a Jewish leader in scripture, I immediately began to think of our church. Because of, perhaps, my generationally-inspired institutional mistrust, I saw in themf those in our religious community (before I was a pastor) and now I think of myself and my rostered colleagues at the very least.
What did and does slip from memory again is the richness that those leadership groups did pass along and how they advocated so many things that don’t seem ‘all that different’.
What we do owe to our generations and to our brothers and sisters is to properly frame and place the people, structures, and issues regarding things like this… I fear without it, we become content to let the assumptions of who and what things are in scripture will continue to breed further contentment and ignorance, which leads to apathy in relationship to one another, amongst other things.
If we can being to frame and place, then maybe we can move beyond the labels of groups and start to look at ideas and lived realities- that Jesus had a Pharisaic follower in Nicodemus, that the traditions persevered by those Jewish leaders and rabbis after their world and city and place of worship were decimated by earthly powers of domination and suppression, and that Jesus came to confront dogmatic expression that divided people from God’s presence and power in their lives- to proclaim and shout that God’s Kingdom was near to them. The chastisement was rooted in God’s abundant promises and covenants with God’s people, holding the leaders to a higher standard, based on their own preached vs. lived realities.
Jesus’ message and issue with the leadership of his day is as much about our issues with the leadership today, if not more so. But what happens when those leaders, when we, are the ones entrusted with Jesus’ message of embrace and nearness? Are we able to take those words, sometimes of condemnation to our assumed way of leading and exclusivity based on rules and regulations and codes of holiness, to heart and listen to what God is saying in this time, in this place, to this community? I fear not many of us are able to take those words, hear, listen, and respond appropriately.
Thank you again for raising up such a needed reality check.
Thank you for this thoughtful blog, Anna. As with racism or any other kind of prejudice we carry within us,
it is easy to “overlook” the little ways in which our negative attitudes have been and are reinforced.
I must tell you, though, that even growing up in a very devout Protestant family, I have never heard
of the song you shared. Somehow it passed me by. And I guess now I’m glad it did.
If we take a theological look at the song, we might view that the lyrics are saying: I want to be a saint (Sheep), versus I don’t want to be a sinner (Pharisee, Sadducees, etc). Yet, the confession of sin in the LBW says we are “in bondage to sin”, and in the ELW “captive to sin, and cannot free ourselves.” Though we may not want to be sinful, we are, and the best thing to do is admit it just as alcoholics and other addicts first do when the go through a 12 step program. So perhaps the lyrics should add the lines, “I am a Pharisee, Sadducee or sinner.”
Yet, our theology takes us further, in that we cannot sing “I want to be a saint (Sheep)” and so do it by our will. That is what “Cannot free ourselves” makes abundantly clear. So, how is “Saint” (Sheep) something that we might call ourselves? Ephesians 2:1-10, explains how God calls us forth by grace into the working out of saintly behavior. So, to be a saint, is something we cannot want / will for ourselves. This is a reality bestowed on us by divine grace alone, and such grace does not leave us alone, but rather keeps us away to the fact that our way of being is not saintly, thus we must cling to God’s grace to have hope that saint like behavior is inspired in us, hence it is God’s will being done in and through us, as we cannot will it to be no matter how much wanting we have.
So as for wanting or not wanting, well, such is useless thinking when we should just admit who we are – Sinners called by God’s grace to work toward letting God’s holy way of being be done by the Holy Spirit through us. When we admit that, then we stop seeing ourselves as able to be something other than someone else. God’s grace through Christ is for all Jews, Greeks, and such, because God sees us all as the same, “Children of God.”
There are my two cents worth of thought that helps me agree with your struggle with this song.