Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Christians and Muslims and Jews, Oh My!
There. I said it. Simply, without elaboration, a bald-faced statement about a collection of writings millions of people consider the Word of God.
There was a time when I would have found this interpretation scandalous, offensive, heretical, even blasphemous. It's not that I was raised to believe every word of the Bible was literally God's word (however contradictory those words might be). My father never imposed any interpretation of Scripture on me. I was brought up to be a critical thinker, to approach texts with a skeptical eye, to look for the deeper meaning beneath the literal translation. But going deep does not come easily for an adolescent, and the most profound religious experience I ever had was when I was in middle school, and not prone to deep thinking.
My mother was the organist and choir director of the United Methodist Church of Emmett, Idaho, of which my father was the pastor. One year for Holy Week, she taught the choir a cantata: The Seven Last Words of Christ by DuBois. It's an over-wrought piece of schmaltz, full of catchy but cliched choruses and solos that lend themselves well to elderly sopranos with wide vibratos. Based as it was on the cut-and-paste approach to the Passion of Christ, it interwove bits and pieces of all four Gospels (that's the only way to come up with "seven last words" spoken from the cross). I was my mother's page turner as she played the thundering organ accompaniment, so I got a hefty dose of this music. Most of it I've forgotten. The part I can't forget is this chorus: "He is death guilty! Take him! Take him! Let us crucify him!" Notice that word "us," the us in this case being the Jewish crowd calling for Pontius Pilate to put Jesus to death. As if that little modification to the Biblical text wasn't enough (the words "let us crucify him" do not appear in any of the Passion narratives), it's then supplemented in the chorus with this passage from Matthew: "His blood be upon us and upon our children." Later that Holy Week--or perhaps the following year, the chronology is blurred in my memory--my father conducted a Maundy Thursday seder and Tenebrae service. That's right, we had a Passover meal in the fellowship hall, then moved into the sanctuary for a service in which the Passion according to John was read by a series of readers, each of whom extinguished a candle on the altar, until the sanctuary was completely dark. It was powerful and moving, and at the end of it, I was weeping. After the lights came up, my mother found me in tears and took me to my father. "Why did he have to die?" I sobbed. "Those are very special tears," said my father.
And there it was: in my mind, I had made the same connection as centuries of other uncritical Christians, the same connection the writers of the Gospels wanted us to make. The Jews killed Jesus. This depite the clear, historical germ of the text, something none of the Evangelists dared fudge: crucifixion was a Roman thing. Romans did it to Jews and other subjugated people. Sometimes they did it to entire cities. It's how they imposed their peace on their empire. Jews would not, could not crucify anyone. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, could and did order it, and did so with Jesus. It wasn't the Jews who killed him; it was their Gentile oppressors, the people who later became Christians themselves. Want to blame someone for killing Jesus? Look in a mirror. (I say this to my co-religionists.)
So why do Jews get blamed? We could pin in on Scripture, which does assign at least some of the blame to them, particularly to their priests; however, being Biblical has not led to large masses of people selling all they have, and giving it to the poor, despite this teaching being far more prevalent in the New Testament than that unfortunate anti-Jewish taint. It seems more likely to me that those words of accusation are there because, like so many difficult texts in the Bible, they reflect a fundamental prejudice of the writers and their community. The early church grew up at the same time as the early synagogue, as the destruction of the temple by Rome forced both Christians and Jews to locate their faith in other institutions. In some cases--and almost certainly in the communities that gave rise to the Gospels--church and synagogue were competing for members. Couple that with a strong anti-Jewish temperament running throughout the Roman Empire, and you've got a recipe for polemic. All of which is sociologically understandable. What makes it tragic is that those polemics were part of a tradition which, by the second century CE, was being viewed as Scriptural, with at least as much authority as the "Old" Testament (the Hebrew Scriptures). As the church became more institutional, and its traditions were standardized, the teachings against Judaism became a release valve with the added benefit of coming from God. If the peasants were becoming restless toward the end of winter, just read them the Passion narrative, then send them out to raid Jewish homes, many of which often had unlocked doors due to the Passover tradition of making sure Elijah could get in. Year after year, century after century, Jews unwittingly embodied the Passion, suffering the blows of Gentiles for no fault of their own.
Fast forward to the Crusades, and now the church in Rome unites fractious Europe behind the goal of taking Jerusalem back from the infidels--specifically, the enlightened Muslim regime that had made it an open city, welcoming pilgrims of all persuasions. The Crusades were not, mind you, rescuing Jerusalem for the people who had founded it, the Jews. Crusaders who came upon Jewish villages on their way to the Holy Land often put them to the sword. No, Jerusalem was to be reclaimed for Jesus, who by now was considered an Arian as blonde as any German Catholic. God's covenant with the church superseded any promises made to Jews, who pitifully clung to their obsolete faith even as God clearly favored Christianity.
Still, Jews were tolerated in Muslim cities. Spain under Muslims was a haven for both Jews and Christians. Once Catholics ruled Spain once more, the Inquisition was put in place to force conversions from those Jews and Muslims who remained, and ultimately to expel most of them. Other parts of Europe were little better. Martin Luther initially reached out to German Jews, but finding them unwilling to see reason and convert to Christianity, published pamphlets excoriating them.
Now fast forward to the nineteenth century. Pogroms were to Jews as tornadoes are to Oklahomans, terrible tragedies that come too often, but are so frequent as to be a fact of life. In the midst of this arose the anti-semitic movement. The movement was capped in 1903 with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fabricated instruction manual for using the blood of Christians to make mozzas. This text, coupled with Luther's screeds, were foundation to Hitler's thinking as he set out to exterminate the Jewish people.
One would think the Holocaust would have awakened Christianity to the anti-Jewish rot at its core, and to an extent, it did. The Death of God movement drew much of its passion from post-Holocaust theology, appealing as it did for a reboot of Christianity into something more like what Jesus intended, a peaceful faith concerned with justice rather than conversion. But calling God dead was fightin' words for the majority of American Christians, who are, far more than the Christians of any other first world nation, conservative in their approach to Scripture and tradition. "The Bible says what it means, and means what it says." "Don't you mess with my Jesus." It's not limited to southern evangelical congregations. United Methodist churches I've pastored had pictures of blonde Jesus, and I've had more than one parishioner say in a Bible study I was leading that "The Jews killed Jesus," as if it was an accepted fact of history.
It's not as simple as that anymore, of course. Contemporary evangelicals, especially those with an apocalyptic bent, tend to be fervently pro-Israel, turning their anti-Semitic impulses against Muslims. But the central truth of the matter, and the problem for me as one raised in one of the more liberal branches of Christianity, is that in our foundational documents, the texts we know best and love to dramatize every year during Holy Week, there is a lie that cannot be disassociated from its bloody history. Every one of the four Gospels blames Jews for Jesus' death. It doesn't matter that, in Luke, he forgives them from the cross. The blame is there, and has been used for two thousand years to justify genocide.
John Holbert, another of my preaching mentors, liked to say that there are some texts that are so weighted with historical baggage that he can't preach them, however dear they may be to the hearts of Christians. I have a memory of him saying that about the entire Gospel of John, the most thoroughly anti-Jewish book in the New Testament. Virgil Howard told me once that sometimes to be true to Scripture, one has to disagree with it. (That really didn't fly with the parishioner who told me "The Bible means what it says, and says what it means.") I have found in the last decade that most of my faith tradition's dearest texts are guilty by association with the Holocaust. It's probably why my favorite New Testament writer was Paul, the Pharisee turned evangelist whose Jewishness comes through on every page.
More than any other reason, this is why I am no longer, nor will I ever again be, a Christian minister. I must hurry to add that I have known many sincere, open-minded Christians who cherish friendships with Jews, and would never think of labeling them Christ-killers; and further, that many modern and post-modern churches have engaged in active penance for the horrors of the Holocaust. I just can't be one of them anymore. I can't see past this statement by Rabbi Irving Greenberg, first quoted to me by my first wife Brenda: "No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children."