Learning to rout antisemitism from my tradition takes a life time...

For most of my life I have been perplexed - and then horrified - by Christian anti-Judaism. I've inherited a lot of it against my will simply by growing up in the faith. It has  been one of my most serious spiritual commitments to challenge my own unconscious Christian superiority as well as that of my tradition's.  Over the years I have continued to learn of my ignorance and bigotry. And as with racism, just when I think I've grown in sensitivity and wisdom, I find yet another part of my shadow sneaking into view. Within my tradition in the United Church of Christ, we have generally been careful to correct the intentional offensives of our past, but the subtle albeit profound veins of disrespect and disdain run deep. It is a life long challenge - and I embrace it with fear and trembling.

My earliest memory of meeting someone of the Jewish faith happened in sixth grade. Almost all the children in my school either went to the Congregational or the Catholic Church. There were two little guys in our neighborhood, however, who didn't: the Niemoeller boys. I didn't know them well, but during the summer when we ran wild in the housing development, they joined our games of baseball, cowboys and indians or hide and go seek. They were quiet and a little awkward most of the time. Once, when we had a cook-out for the kids, they brought vegetarian hot dogs. "How weird" I thought as at that time I had never met a vegetarian. While the burgers and hot dogs were being grilled, I overheard one of the neighborhood moms whisper to another, "Their parents don't come out a lot for these things... they have numbers tattooed on their wrists." The other women nodded with some secret understanding and went on getting our food ready and served.

I had no idea what that meant: why were these guys eating vegetarian hot dogs - and why would someone have numbers tattooed on their wrists? At the end of the day I asked my father about the tattoos. He was quiet for a long time and eventually said, "They are probably Jews. I don't know them very well, but they are probably Jews." That was it - no further explanation or elaboration - just, "They are probably Jews." I thought, "Do ALL Jews have numbers tattooed to their wrists? Is that required? What's going on?" Because his answer didn't really help much, I did what I always did when my parents answers didn't go deep enough: I consulted our home edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  I had a clue about Jews and tattoos so while I don't recall exactly what the EB said, I eventually discovered that some Jews with numbers tattooed to their wrists had experienced the Nazi reign of terror and were imprisoned in one of the concentration camps. That unleashed a trip to the library and what eventually became a quest to learn more about how the Holocaust came to pass.

Probably eight years earlier, I recalled playing on the front porch of my Grandma Nick's home in Connecticut when I was about 8.  The adults were inside watching the TV news. Someone named Eichmann was on trial. I went to watch but was quickly escorted back to the porch without an explanation. A few years later when I was 11 and my class was reading The Diary of Ann Frank in school - and the movie was going to be on television - my parents chose not to let me watch it because they were afraid it would be too harsh. I recall a permission slip being sent home to my parents printed with purple mimeograph ink. We argued about it, but they refused to sign so I was not allowed to be a part of the class discussion of the movie - just the book. (btw you can now watch the Eichmann trial on YouTube here; it is just as my 8 year old memory recalls it, too.)
So why all this background?  I started to read James Carroll's demanding and clarifying history of Christian anti-Judaism: Constantine's Sword. It is brilliant but simultaneously a slow read because he forces you to rethink how we tell the story of Jesus. For me,in the middle of Holy Week, when we tell and retell the journey of Jesus to the Cross, I am learning that the words of our gospels are saturated with details that are directly linked to the Shoah. That is Carroll's point and he makes it in a clear and exhaustive way. The words we have traditionally used in the Christian Church, especially but not exclusively concerning the Passion, make a mistaken and then deadly distinction between Jesus and the rest of Judaism. And when these words - polemics, challenges, insights and rebukes that once had merit with the early Jewish community are taken out of context - they create an unmistakable anti-Judaism. This reality is so interwoven through the tapestry of Christianity, that it often goes unseen even by the most tenderhearted advocates of interfaith cooperation. 

I have long sensed this to be true in the work of the Jesus Seminar. Even with their creative reinterpretation of Jesus as a radical, peasant mystic dedicated to human liberation, a vile form of anti-Judaism still runs through too much of their work. I know this is the last thing they intend, but such is the depth of this disease. With their insistence that Jesus was opposed to the workings of the Temple in Jerusalem, for example, an ugly picture is painted . Beyond any historical evidence, this picture portrays Jesus to be a spiritual purist standing in contrast to to the compromised, gritty happenings of the priesthood. Not true. Like most Jews of his time excluding the Zealots, Jesus understood the Temple to be a holy and a human reality. To suggest otherwise, even if unintended, places Jesus within an imagined ideological opposition to his Judaism. Carroll writes:

... there is a problem with the idea of Jesus symbolically "destroying" the Temple that would have been sacred and beloved to him as a Jew. (And) there are two problems with the idea of Jesus storming the Temple to rebuke its leadership, even if the debatable characterization of that leadership as greedy, wicked, hated and collaborationist was true. This denigration of Jewish cult, worship and society is the primordial idea of Jewish-Christian conflict - and it is still very much with us. The first problem is that the idea epitomizes the structure of antisemitic thinking: Jews as they exist as compared to Jews as they should exist. Second, the idea conflicts with all that we know of the message Jesus actually preached.

Jesus may have been an illiterate peasant (Crossan, Horsley, et al) or a relatively learned member of the middle class (Koestler, Brown, et al); we do not know. He may have been an apocalptist (Fredriksen) or a magician (Morton Smith), a wisdom sage or a self-styled prophet. Scholars disagree on what to emphasize. But the essential message of Jesus - despite all the questions of sources, sayings, oral and written traditions, and situations of Gospel composition - comes through every aspect of communal memory with ringing eloquence: that message is love.

As I listened to our carefully restated readings tonight during Tenebrae - a medieval monastic  liturgy we have reworked to tell the story not of the Lord's death  (as is true in so many Reformed churches) but rather his desertion and betrayal by those who loved him the most - I listened for elements of anti-Judaic messages. Thanks be to God they were mostly gone. A few appeared in the old hymns, but even they have been cleansed and scoured so that what we shared tonight told the story of a Jewish mystic's ministry of love among his people in  all of its sacrificial forms. As Carroll notes, during the life time of Jesus it would appear that most of his disagreements were not with the priestly class of the Temple, but with the emerging rabbis of the Pharisees. We worked hard not to prop up mean-spirited, religious straw men in our retelling of the Last Supper for this story, Fr. Rohr writes, is an archetype of our own quest for intimacy with God and personal integrity in real life.

In the Gospel re-creations of the conflict, especially in Matthew, the main antagonists confronting Jesus throughout his public life are not the Sadducees of the Temple establishment, much less the Romans, but the Pharisees. That alone suggests that Jesus was not generally motivated like a Zealot, by hatred of the priestly caste, which had found it prudent to cooperate with Rome. On the other hand, the Pharisees are absent as antagonists in the Passion narratives, where the enemies of Jesus are very much the priests. 

When it came to the last reading
 - Peter's all too common denial and betrayal before the cock crows - I discovered I was weeping against my will as we sang, "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross." It was a good night - and I give thanks to God for those who have worked on this so vigorously with me. My colleague, Carlton, is a master at both picking beautiful music and searching out new hymns that take us beyond our destructive path. And many of my peers on our worship team brought insight and depth to this night, too.  On Good Friday we will sit mostly in silence - singing a few Taize songs - and then lighting candles against the darkness. On Saturday we will join a local synagogue for a community Seder. And so it continues...


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