Anti-Semitism, Anti-Judaism and the past and future of Christianity

Last week saw two attacks on communities of faith. The first, at an African-American church, was thwarted by security measures the congregation had put in place after Charleston. Undeterred, the gunman went to a nearby town and gunned down two African-Americans in a parking lot. The second was at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh where 11 worshippers, aged 54 to 97 were brutally murdered by a white man. Both assassins were white men filled with hatred,, white supremacy, racism, and Anti-Semitism.

It may be that as a culture, we are so hardened by the recurrence of acts of racist terrorism that we hardly noticed the Kentucky incident. Or perhaps it was because only two people were killed. In either case, the lives lost there and the escalating violence against African-Americans, enabled by a culture of white privilege that refuses to acknowledge our complicity in systemic racism, has not so much reopened old wounds as it has exposed how deeply racism pervades the American psyche and American culture.

The killings at Tree of Life Synagogue have struck a nerve in myself and throughout America. World War II and the Final Solution showed us the scale of the horror that human beings could inflict on each other and revealed the end goal of Anti-Semitism. At the same time, American Jews assimilated into the mainstream. Overt acts of Anti-Semitism became rare and bias against Jews became unfashionable. As many Jews have become less observant and inter-marriage between Jews and non-Jews common, Jews seemed to be different from other Americans only in their personal or family histories, or that they observed Chanukah as well as Christmas.

The massacre at Tree of Life, like the massacre at Mother Emanuel Baptist Church places a mirror in front of us, revealing us to be who we are, revealing that Anti-Semitism is not a historical relic but a present reality. It demands that we confront it in all of its evil, to expose all the ways our culture and our religion continue to be shaped by it.

Though Christianity began as a movement within Judaism and a movement that sought to maintain a Jewish identity at its center, its theological and institutional development was shaped by anti-Judaism. Paul’s vision that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male and female” quickly gave way to a very different perspective, such as that in the Gospel of John, where “Jews” are depicted as Jesus’ implacable opponents and responsible for his death. Not surprisingly, the Pittsburgh shooter alluded to a verse from John on his social media profile: “Jews [You, the text reads] are the children of Satan” (John 8:44).

Theologically, Jews were consistently viewed as obstinate, or stiff-necked for their resistance to the truth of the Gospel. Efforts were even made early on to expunge Scripture of its Jewish content or to claim that the Old and New Testaments bore witness to two different Gods—a perspective that persists in popular ideas of the “the angry God of the Old Testament” and the “loving God of the New Testament.”

 

I won’t rehearse here the history of Christian Anti-Judaism or how over time that Anti-Judaism, which was based in theological categories became something much broader and ultimately developed into Anti-Semitism. But there are important elements that are worth noting. For example, the first victims of the Medieval crusades were not Muslims or Turks, but Jews living in German towns and cities of the Rhineland. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, after Jews were expelled from Spain, the Spanish Inquisition continued to pursue third and fourth generation descendants of Jewish converts to Christianity.

If racism is America’s original sin, then Anti-Semitism is Christianity’s original sin, a symbol of our failure to embrace the full humanity and diversity of our brothers and sisters and to conceive of a God who might extend grace and love to all people without abandoning the covenant established with God’s chosen people. And like our reluctance to confront the racism central to American identity, our refusal to confront the Anti-Semitism that has helped to shape and define Christianity, has allowed it to linger just below the surface, or to manifest itself in a myriad of subtle ways. Still, it remains persistent and powerful enough to enter our political discourse in language of “globalism” or profiteering, in attacks on Jewish philanthropists or humanitarian organizations, or in images in campaign mailers that draw on medieval depictions of Jewish moneylenders.

As Christians, we must do more than mourn the dead, lament the persistence of Anti-Semitism, and shake our fingers at hate mongers. We must confront all the ways Christianity has contributed to the hate and evil in our culture and our history and we must do the hard work of developing resources that provide a basis for constructing a new way of being religious and Christian in our complicated and violent world. And even as we excavate the evil in our past and in our theology, we must acknowledge all the ways that our scriptures, our theologies, and our liturgies offer life-giving alternatives, hope, and joy, in the midst of so much evil.

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Prayers in times of violence, hatred, and grief

A Prayer for Victims of Terrorism

Loving God, Welcome into your arms the victims of violence and terrorism. Comfort their families and all who grieve for them. Help us in our fear and uncertainty, And bless us with the knowledge that we are secure in your love. Strengthen all those who work for peace, And may the peace the world cannot give reign in our hearts. Amen.

A Prayer for Social Justice

Almighty God, who created us in your image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP, 260)

A Prayer for the Whole Human Family.

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, 815)

A Prayer for Social Justice.

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the people of this land], that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, 823)

A Prayer for First Responders

Blessed are you, Lord, God of mercy, who through your Son gave us a marvelous example of charity and the great commandment of love for one another. Send down your blessings on these your servants, who so generously devote themselves to helping others. Grant them courage when they are afraid, wisdom when they must make quick decisions, strength when they are weary, and compassion in all their work. When the alarm sounds and they are called to aid both friend and stranger, let them faithfully serve you in their neighbor. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.– adapted from the Book of Blessings, #587, by Diana Macalintal

For the President of the United States and all in Civil Authority

O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to your merciful care, that, being guided by your Providence, we may dwell secure in your peace. Grant to the President of the United States, the Governor of Massachusetts, and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do your will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in your fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

For Peace

Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace, as children of one Father; to whom be dominion and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

A Prayer Attributed to St. Francis

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

Thinking outside the book: Re-imagining Common Prayer in the 21st Century

Fr. Jonathan's Blog

There’s a great deal of discussion among Episcopalians about the possibility of prayer book revision. I’ve been thinking about the English Reformation, Anglicanism, and contemporary Christianity in light of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and it occurred to me that the Book of Common Prayer is very much a product of the print culture that emerged in the 16th century and to talk about “prayer book revision” is rather odd in a context dominated by the internet, smart phones, and digital media. So here are some reflections about thinking “outside the book.”

A few weeks ago, I noticed that a visitor was holding her personal Book of Common Prayer as she greeted me after the Sunday service. I tried to think back to the last time I had seen someone with their own BCP. There’s a man his mid sixties who comes occasionally who brings with him a leather-bound 1928…

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Proclaiming the Gospel and following Jesus in America, 2018: On Muslim bans, indefinite detention, and the separation of families

As the days and months go by, I barely recognize the nation in which I was born and where I’ve lived for 58 of my 60 years. Perhaps it would be better to say that the shiny polish of civility, justice, and inclusion that dominated my understanding has been removed so that the ugly image underneath is on full display.

With the Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of the “muslim ban,” the continued assault on the rule of law, the inhumane and unjust treatment of refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers, it would seem that there is no check on the forces of racism, white supremacy, and authoritarianism. Even worse, as we have seen in recent weeks, Administration officials appeal to Christian scripture to support the legality and morality of their actions.

As a preacher of the Gospel, it remains my solemn duty to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, to call for justice and peace, to remind myself and my fellow Christians of our  duty to love God and neighbor, to welcome the stranger and the alien, to respect the dignity of every human being.

Over the last week, I and other members of the Unity and Relations Commission of the Wisconsin Council of Churches worked on a statement entitled “On the misuse of scripture to justify injustice.” It was approved by the Board of Directors and published yesterday. The full document is available here: On the Misuse of Scripture to Justify Injustice – Wisconsin Council of Churches – final.

I would also call attention to a personal statement I wrote on February 1, 2017, as the “muslim ban” was originally announced. It’s available here.

In addition, the Wardens and Vestry of Grace Episcopal Church published this statement in  2017: Renewing Our Covenant

This is who we are: America has always separated families

From unlikely sources such as the US Chamber of Commerce to ordinary Americans appalled by the scenes of children ripped away from their parents and living in cages, the cry arises, “This is not who we are.”

It’s an appeal to emotion, morality, what used to be a common sense of decency.

Unfortunately, it’s not true. As commentators like Jelani Cobb and Shaun King point out, the institution of slavery often separated parents from their children, wives from their husbands. And freedom didn’t make it easier–freed slaves were separated from their family members who were still enslaved.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Native American children were taken away from their families and culture and placed in boarding schools in an attempt to “civilize” them.

So, this is who we are and the fact that the policy has widespread support among Republicans should give us pause. That many of those supporters claim to be Christian is more evidence of the existential crisis in which American Christianity finds itself.

It’s not just that the Attorney General cites Romans 13 to argue for obedience to these policies, that he neglects Paul’s eloquent statement just a few verses later, that “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).

As Christians, we believe that all human beings are created in God’s image. As Episcopalians, at every baptism, we promise to respect the dignity of every human person. This policy is the end result of a steady process of dehumanization of our fellow human beings. It’s the same process that historians remind us preceded the Final Solution in Germany. (For a recent discussion of some of these issues, see this article by Cass Sunstein). That ICE employees use similar tactics as were used then. Telling parents that they are taking children to get baths was a common explanation given by prison guards before leading children to the gas chambers.

In the face of these horrors, the enormity of the evil, clarity of witness and courage to speak are necessary. We must remind ourselves and the world, that the God we worship has a special concern for the poor and the outcast, the stranger and the alien, the widow and the orphan. We must remember and proclaim that the Jesus we seek to follow embraced and welcomed children. We are called to love: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Our clarity and courage as we proclaim God’s love and justice, as we seek to live out that love and work for justice, and our witness to the world as love one another may seem futile and meaningless as we face the enormity of the evil in our world, but it is our calling. Our hope is not in our own efforts but in Christ; our faith is not in our own power but in the power of our God who hears the cries of the oppressed.

 

The passing of a generation

A couple of weeks ago, while I was back in my hometown for a memorial service for an aunt, a photo in one of the displays grabbed my attention. It was of my father’s family, taken in the late 1930s or early 1940s. It’s one of those photos taken at family gatherings—weddings or funerals. Everyone was perfectly posed, dressed in their Sunday’s best. My dad’s parents seated the middle, surrounded by their 11 children, ranging in age (I’m guessing) from late teens to perhaps early 30s.

A trained eye could detect signs of the transition taking place between generations of Mennonites. My grandmother wore the covering with ribbons that she wore until her death and my grandfather a plain coat. My dad’s brothers and sisters were dressed conservatively but less distinctively Mennonite. The men wore jackets of contemporary cut, white shirts buttoned to the neck but no ties. In a few years, things would change even more dramatically. During World War II, my dad’s older brothers were drafted as conscientious objectors and served in Civilian Public Service camps across the country. Three of my dad’s sisters would go to college, two of them ultimately becoming Registered Nurses, while their oldest brother and sister, my Uncle Orland and Aunt Dorothy, didn’t even graduate from High School. Within a decade of that photo, my grandfather would be dead.

Now, some seventy years later, none of the people captured in that image are alive. It’s strange, at age 60, to feel the loss of that generation. They provided so much of the soil that nurtured me and helped me to grow into the person I am today. It was my Uncle Orland, who, in spite of his lack of a formal education, became that Mennonite community’s unofficial historian and wrote the history of its first hundred years. It was he who introduced me to the Martyrs’ Mirror, the seventeenth century compendium of stories of Anabaptists and Mennonites who lost their lives because of their faith. It was he who told me the story of the Hochstettler family, who on the Pennsylvania frontier in the 1750s refused to defend themselves when a Native American raiding party attached their homestead. Some were killed, some escaped, some were carried off into captivity, and I am descended from the survivors.

I remember summer evenings spent on the screened porch of the old homestead, the air thick with humidity and corn pollen, the sounds of crickets and cicadas chirping in the distance. I would lie on the concrete floor, grateful for its coolness, reading, or playing, or falling asleep, while the voices of the elders murmured stories of people I didn’t know or things that happened long ago.

Their faith, nurtured in the congregation where I also grew up, provided a firm foundation in changing times. They lived out that faith as conscientious objectors, in service through nursing, by volunteering in many capacities, in quiet service to their congregation and the wider community. Two of my dad’s brothers were called by their church and by the Holy Spirit to be pastors, serving mission churches in Toledo and in rural southern Ohio.

But it wasn’t all easy. In later years, my mother would express how intimidated she felt as a young bride, coming into this family of accomplished, articulate women. And after my Uncle Orland’s death in 1971, even though I was only 13, I remember going through the materials that he used in writing his congregational history, leafing through minutes of congregational meetings, and finding a notation that my grandfather was reinstated to full membership after some unnamed lapse in 1916 or 1917 (later records were almost comical in their detail—a sort of secret service reporting on those who were seen attending the County Fair and prevented from receiving communion for their sins). There was also the stash of empty liquor bottles discovered by my dad’s employees in the 1970s when they were demolishing an outbuilding that had been moved a mile from the church to my grandparents’ farm. The official explanation was that the bottles must have been left by hobos when the building was still on church property in the 1930s.

Now, with that generation gone, and most of my cousins in their sixties and seventies, the distance we all have traveled from that farm on which our parents were raised is far indeed. While some of us have remained in the area, and a few of us who grew up elsewhere have made our homes there as well, we are spread across the country, from eastern Pennsylvania to California, from Wisconsin to South Carolina. And our children have dispersed even further.

The legacy of our parents and grandparents lives in us, and because we had an uncle and four aunts who never married, their legacies live on in us as well. We have become businessmen and women, doctors, teachers, all manner of professionals. Few of us remain in the Mennonite Church, though the values of that tradition continue to echo in the vocational choices we have made and in our commitment to family and community.

As I enter this season of my life, having turned 60 last week, no longer accompanied by those aunts and uncles who nurtured me in my youth, I pause to reflect on all that they gave me, all the ways that they shaped me. Their faith, witness, and their sacrifices have helped to make me who I am. Their love nourished me along the way, and their examples continue to inspire me. As the author of Hebrews wrote,

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.

It is a long journey I have traveled in those sixty years, a journey that has taken me a great distance from that community, from the Mennonite Church in which I was baptized and where I first encountered scripture and came to know the love of Jesus Christ. The great cloud of witnesses that now includes my father and all of his siblings surrounds me still.

 

The Cross and the Lynching Tree: Words from James Cone for Good Friday

James Cone died on April 28. Here’s a brief excerpt from The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Fr. Jonathan's Blog

To understand what the cross means in America we need to take a look at the lynching tree in this nation’s history–that “strange and bitter crop” that Billie Holiday would not let us forget. The lynched black victim experienced the same fate as the crucified Christ and thus became the most potent symbol for understanding the true meaning of the salvation achieved through “God on the Cross.” Nietzsche was right: Christianity is a religion of slaves. God became a slave in Jesus and thereby liberated slaves from being determined by their condition.

The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst. Faith that emerged out of the scandal of the cross is not a faith of intellectuals or elites of any sort. This…

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