The Church and Anti-Semitism: An Eastertide Sermon

Our gospel lesson begins with a very odd statement when you think about it.  St. John the Evangelist writes, “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews…”  What’s so very odd about it is that you could easily include this parenthetical in your reading: “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples —who themselves were all Jews—had met were locked for fear of the Jews…”  It’s not as if the followers of Jesus weren’t themselves Jewish—they were—or that Jesus himself wasn’t Jewish—he was.  It’s that John generally sets up the Jews entirely as antagonists of Jesus, as the ones who don’t receive his teachings or who look for ways to catch Jesus in rhetorical traps when he meant the religious authorities.  There are exceptions like Nicodemus who comes to Jesus to learn from him, but often the Jewish leaders see Jesus as a dissident, and so they seek to silence him in order not to disrupt their connection to the Roman Empire, and to maintain their own power.

But due to John’s usage of “The Jews” as the enemy of Jesus and his band of followers, anti-semitism has flourished almost as if it were ordained by God.  By not using “Jewish authorities” and painting with a broad stroke, John has caused thousands of years of damage and pain to those who are members of God’s chosen family.  So why did John do it?  It’s very likely that there was a growing animosity being followers of Judaism and the emerging Christian community of both Jews and Gentiles at the time he wrote his Gospel late in the first century.  Besides, it’s easy to create a bogeyman to fear and hate rather than dealing with a nuanced understanding of things, especially if that fits with the stereotypes that you espouse.  

And we can give John the tiniest bit of leeway—along with Matthew who does similar things—by recognizing that at the time they wrote their gospel accounts, Christians were a small minority and were themselves facing persecution by both Jewish religious leaders and Roman officials.  Minority groups suffering at the hands of others will often use rhetoric to paint their foes as villains. But that all changed dramatically when Christianity grew in the number of adherents and became the state religion of Rome, while we still had the gospel accounts that pin Jesus’ death on the Jews.  

One need only read about the Crusades, or the pogroms in Eastern Europe, or the recent rise in hate crimes directed toward Jews to see the impact.  And generally these things have been done by people claiming to be followers of Jesus—or at least connected to Christianity—and many had the direct backing of the church.  They did so because they believed that Jewish neighbors had been rebuffed by God because of the response of Jewish leaders to Jesus.

Of course one need only look to the church and state sanctioned slaughter of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust to see the tremendous impact the misreading of scripture has had in our world.  Beginning tomorrow evening our Jewish friends together with Jews around the world will commemorate Yom HaShoa—Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Flags in Israel will be lowered to half-staff.  Candles will be lit.  Holocaust survivors will retell stories.  And they will remember.  They will recall the absolute most vile atrocities that their people bore simply because of their cultural and religious heritage and the need others—many of whom claimed to be followers of Jesus—had to promote hate and death.

Unfortunately, the hate continues even now. In the first 14 days of this month, 23 Anti-Semitic acts in the US  had been reported in the press, according to the Anti-Defamation League.  Four of those incidents were in our state, including vandalism and racist graffiti in both Bedford and Brookline, and a perpetrator placing explosives being near the Jewish assisted living facility and synagogue in Longmeadow.  

Are Christians to blame for all these?  Perhaps, no.  But that doesn’t give us a free pass on addressing this grave issue directly, nor does it alleviate the truth that many Christians have engaged in anti-semitic acts both throughout our history and in the current day.  We cannot ignore the reality of pain we have caused.

So what can we do?  First, we should remember too.  We should light a candle tomorrow evening and say a prayer that such atrocities never happen again.  Second, let’s stand up against any racist attack—be it upon Jews, Muslims, or people of color—since these attacks are against people who bear the image of God.  This can be as simple as denouncing a seemingly innocent off-color joke.  Denigrating others is never funny. Third, let’s continue to befriend those who worship God differently from us so that we can continue to learn about God from them.  Let us cherish them and their faith practices, which can encourage us to deepen our own faith.  And finally, let us be cognizant of the deep and painful history that has resulted from misappropriating texts from the New Testament, and seek to make amends through our own lives in humility and grace.

When Jesus appears both times to his Jewish followers fearing for their lives, he extends to them peace.  As he had been sent by God, so now he send us.  Bringing the good news of love, of offering justice, of lifting up the lowly and caring for those in need.  Peace, shalom should become our hallmark, what we are known for, and should guide our interactions with every human being.

If we truly believe in the resurrection of Jesus, then let us live like him.  Let us promote justice, doing the good and honorable thing always.  Our faith demands that of us—to love our neighbors as ourselves in order to show our love of God.   May we truly become Easter people, whose lives fully embody the peace of God in our world.  May it be so.  Amen.

Photo Credit: chaim zvi Flickr via Compfight cc

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