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Shirley MacLaine: Aging Without Saging

 Shirley MacLaine is a better actress than she is a philosopher or theologian. Jewish groups are justifiably upset with some comments she penned in her new memoir, “What If… A Lifetime of Questions, Speculations, Reasonable Guesses, and a Few Things I Know For Sure.”

The quote that is generating a lot of criticism suggest, the six million Jews and others who died in the Holocaust were “balancing their karma” by paying for sins in a previous life.  But MacLaine did not stop with just the six-million Jews, or for that matter the other eighteen million people killed by one man’s hatred, she also compared  Stephen Hawking to Jesus, writing that just as Jesus chose martyrdom, Hawking “chose to live” with a debilitating disease.

Gee, that must make the Holocaust survivors along with their children really great knowing that somehow, they “karmically” managed to survive. As  a child of an Auschwitz survivor and as a parent of an ALS child, I take great offense to her words.

Let us briefly examine MacLaine’s comments:

  • What if most Holocaust victims were balancing their karma from ages before, when they were Roman soldiers putting Christians to death, the Crusaders who murdered millions in the name of Christianity, soldiers with Hannibal, or those who stormed across the Near East with Alexander? The energy of killing is endless and will be experienced by the killer and the killee.” (pp. 240-241)

Over twenty-years ago, I encountered this kind of muddled thinking once before.  On one occasion I debated a Religious Science minister who said  something almost identical to MacLaine. The minister claimed that if a young child is raped or mutilated, it is I order to clear the child’s soul of his/her “karmic debt.” The Church of Religious Science is an example of a New Age religion sometime ago in the 1980s—based on the metaphysical theosophical thought of Ernst Holmes. Although Holmes never advocated anything that was even remotely similar to what this minister asserted, many of his disciples seemed to developed this idea on their own.

The popular New Age self-help writer, Louise Hay, author of  the NY Times best-seller “You Can Heal Your Life” maintains that every human being is responsible for creating every circumstance that occurs in one’s life. According to her, all disease comes from a lack of self-love and unwillingness to forgive others. This is true regardless whether you have headaches or hemorrhoids—all disease comes from a failure to “love yourself.”

A Pulitzer prize journalist named Michael D’Antonio wrote about a conversation he had with Hay. Her views on Third World nations and AIDS victims prove to be revealing:

  • People starve amid the “abundance of the universe” because of low self-esteem,” said Hay. “A poor self-image is more damaging than one might expect and attracts the kind of experience that seems appropriate. That’s why, she said, women who are raped are responsible for what happens to them. They attract the rapist because they expect and fear an attack. Similarly, the poor of the world are responsible for their plight, as are those afflicted with AIDS…[1]

In another conversation, D’Antonio commented about Hay’s remarks regarding the Holocaust. She mused that the AIDS victims were the reincarnated souls of the Nazis, who were being paid back for “their crimes against the Jews!”

And the Jews? Well, they too deserved their “karmic fate.” [2]

For Jews, this is nothing new. We have been accused of karmic crimes for a long time. Unfortunately, many of the Christian world’s greatest theological minds—ancient and modern—expressed  ideas that also resonated with MacLaine’s view of karma. After the night of  Dietrich Bonhoeffer became famous for saying on the night of Kristallnacht, ““If the synagogues are set on fire today, it will be the churches that will be burned tomorrow.” But who would imagine him, saying only minutes later to one of his colleagues, “that the Nazis were merely giving what was owed to the Jews. After all, “they nailed the Redeemer of the world to the cross,” they had been forced to bear an eternal curse through a long history of suffering, one that would end only “in the conversion of Israel to Christ”?[3]

Here is one more example of Bonhoeffer’s animus against the Jews:

  • The Church of Christ has never lost sight of the thought that the “chosen people” who nailed the redeemer of the world to the cross must bear the curse for its action through a long history of suffering…. But the history of the suffering of this people, loved and punished by God, stands under the sign of the final homecoming of Israel [the Jews] to its God. And this homecoming happens in the conversion of Israel to Christ…. The conversion of Israel, that is to be the end of the people’s period of suffering. From here the Christian Church sees the history of the people of Israel with trembling, as God’s own, free, fearful way with his people, because God is not yet finished with it. Each new attempt to solve “the Jewish question” comes to naught…[4]

Deicide is not a new accusation, it goes back to the earlier period of Christian history.[5] All of these attempts to explain the suffering of the Jews ignores what I believe to be the only truth worth discussing: Karmic reasons play no role whatsoever in why one people  suffers and not another. When looking at the real causes of human suffering, one thing is clear. Human beings are responsible for the moral evil they perpetuate against other people.

Instead of blaming the victim, isn’t it about time we hold the victimizers of these atrocities totally responsible for the evil they cause? What I am suggesting is not rocket-science theology, but it is predicated upon a theology of common sense and fairness. In the final analysis, God holds Cain responsible for the death of his brother—not God, not because of some “karmic” debt, but because of our capacity to dehumanize people we don’ like.  In Christian history, this has been going on for nearly 2000 years.[6]

Although MacLaine wrote a book called, from Sage-Ing While Age-Ing  (shamelessly plagiarized from Rabbi Zalman-Schacter’s 1995 book, “From Aging to Saging”), it is clear that while she is aging, but definitely not “saging” as she purports. One can only hope that Shirley MacLaine will develop a more ethically mature and responsible way of viewing and interacting with the world. Maybe then, hopefully, she will be better able to “Dancing into the Light,” instead of “Dancing into Darkness”

The world needs more compassion—not more judgement. The world needs more wisdom, not more shallow-mindedness.

“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever, to observe all the words of this Torah” (Deut. 29:29).” In other words, human beings are better off worrying about the problem of manifest evil, and leave the hidden and metaphysical issues to God alone to worry about.



[1] Michael D’Antonio, Heaven and Earth: Dispatches from America’s Frontier (New York: Crown Books, 1992), pp. 94-95.

[2] Michael D’Antonio, Heaven and Earth: Dispatches from America’s Frontier (New York: Crown Books, 1992), p. 95.

[3] Anders Gerdmar, The Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism: German Biblical Interpretation and the Jews, from Herder and Semler to Kittel. (Boston: Brill, 2008), p. 396.

[4] Matthew D. Hockenos, A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront the Nazi Past (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004), 21.

[5] Augustine, Reply to Flaustus the Manichean [Contra Flaustum Manichaeum], Libri XXXIII, 343–347.

[6] So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” ((Mt 27:24–25).