Gellman: A Letter to a Bigot

I recently received the following question by e-mail: I'm sending you a scan of a clipping from our local newspaper. My question is, How can one respond to a horrifying letter like that? Thanks for your help. —M from Bethlehem, PA

This is my reply:

Dear Sir,

I see you live in Lower Macungie Township in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley. The place you live was first settled by the Lenni Lenape tribe of Native Americans. They are the ones who claimed all the trees and sat under all the trees before any white people ever stuck a plow in the good earth of the Lehigh Valley. The name Macungie is derived from one of their words and it means bear swamp, or the place where the bears feed. I guess that means that the bears claimed the trees even before they did. Before you take up the cause of whites claiming trees, you might want to remember that in America no white person was ever the first person to claim a tree.

According to the Macungie Township's Web site, the first tree claimers who were not bears and not Native Americans were a group of German farmers who settled there in the early 18th century. They were both German and Protestant. They did not even accept the provisions of Pennsylvania's 1835 Free School Act until 1849 because they feared that the German language would be displaced by English. They did not want non-Germans to feel comfortable sitting under their German—and Protestant—trees. The prejudice reflected in your letter was preceded by a different kind of prejudice (the white-on-white kind). I don't know who your ancestors were, but it's hard to believe they weren't affected by bigotry in one way or another. The great thing about America is that any person of any color and any culture can sit under any public tree. Your view is that America ought to color-code its public trees. I understand that you want America to be just like you, but America is not just like you. Our greatness exists because of our diversity, not in spite of our diversity.

Three hundred and two million Americans have to share their trees; we are bound to run into some problems from time to time. But there is a better way, an American way, a moral way out of the problem of tree claiming. We can agree that the trees belong to all of us, and that any one of our fellow Americans who is seeking shade from the hot sun merits a place beneath one of them. Most grown-up Americans learn this in kindergarten or at home or in houses of worship or unaided through the power of human reason. Sadly, you have not yet learned this lesson. I wonder if you could learn it now.

Perhaps you could learn it from the ancient rabbis of Judaism who taught that at first God made just one person (Adam) so that in the times to come no one could ever say, "My ancestor was greater than yours."

Perhaps you could learn it from Abraham Lincoln, who demanded that at his cabinet meetings the number of Confederate dead be read along with the tally of Union soldiers who had died. One member of his Cabinet protested, saying, "Who are they to us?" Lincoln answered him this way: "Thank God the world is larger than your heart."

In the Book of Matthew, the 25th chapter (verses 34-40) we read, "Then the King (Jesus) will say … 'I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me'."

If you cannot learn from the ancient rabbis, and if you cannot learn from Abraham Lincoln, perhaps you can learn from the One who made the Christianity you use as a weapon and not as a salve. If you cannot learn from Jesus, your Lord and Savior, God help you and God help America.

Yours sincerely from the bear swamp,
Rabbi Marc Gellman