For more than just the cross, or sunrise services, or the Easter Bunny, this time of year is also known for something else: the reading of the most virulent biblical passages regarding anti-Semitism. Good Friday services in the Revised Common Lectionary for this year include the chapters describing the trial of Jesus and the crucifixion drawn from the Gospel of John.
Each of the Christian scriptures shows the strains of the first century rupture within Judaism, yet John reflects it the most strongly. Pilate seems restrained, almost unwilling to execute Jesus, while “the Jews,” John’s frequently used blanket indictment of an entire people, are depicted having unrestrained bloodlust. At the end, Mark’s account of Joseph of Arimathea shows him as a member of the Sanhedrin, “the council” that administered the temple and the religious tax (hence the moneychangers’ tables), and a “seeker.” In John version, Joseph becomes an out-and-out “disciple” of Jesus, but “a secret one because of his fear of the Jews.”
The message countless hearers of the word from pulpits and in Sunday schools have drawn from this vilification has actually been an evolutionary one, where the Christian message and scriptures have evolved from the outdated teachings and strange and often violent stories of the Hebrew Bible. In effect, the “new” testament has superseded the “old,” and this supersession has been sanctioned by God through the appearance of his son, the Messiah.
In contrast to more blatant messages of Jewish hatred, we might call the supersessionism that often takes place in churches as a “soft” variety. “Soft” supersessionism comes from even the most learned and sincere voices in churches — which in a way makes it even more insidious. Oft-repeated but little noticed and centuries old, these old suspicions have often hardened into a fist.
While perhaps not hating Jews, people who have unthinkingly uttered words of contempt have built a Holy Week crescendo that occasionally rears its head and reminds Jews they are at best second-class citizens even in the West, and at worst Christianity’s victims yet again. The Anti-Defamation League in the United States recently announced that incidents of Jewish hatred have more than doubled in this country, and a study in Britain has found that the same sort of incidents there have reached an all-time high. Scholar Amy-Jill Levine and journalist Jonathan Weisman are among the scores of figures that have publicly recounted their youthful, and impressionable, brushes with the world’s oldest hatred.
This world is little changed, at least on this front, from the medieval legends that have plagued the church for hundreds of years. The “blood libel” that Jews killed children so they can use their blood in matzos is still a frequent theme not just on Arab TV, but in Poland and other parts of Europe, too. Antisemitism charges have dogged the British Labor Party for years, yet in recent days its leader has drawn even more fire for his endorsement (seven years ago, when he was little-known) of money grubbing Shylock figures in a painting where they are counting their pounds on a table literally built on the backs of naked workers, thereby combining a medieval with an ancient — and biblical — image.
What are the answers? Some religious traditions have seen fit to apologize through resolutions for the past. Scholars in what is called “scriptural reasoning” gatherings meet periodically and read scriptures from various traditions and try to understand them together. There is more, though, that individual churches and denominations can do.
First, rectify the pitiful training clergy receive in this area. I was a fortunate one who fell into occasional courses that were not part of permanent seminary curricula, and had graduate school training before that. But divinity schools and seminaries do little by themselves to rectify the problem. Clergy are under-equipped to identify and speak about these harmful teachings without falling back on old hearsay that perpetuates the tropes of hatred. The University of Richmond’s Frank E. Eakin in his book What Price Prejudice? Christian Antisemitism in America (1998), from which much of this list draws, has judged this subject more important than some of the required areas of study in these specialized schools. The national accreditation agency that oversees clerical training recommends this type of training, but does not require it. This is a formula for anti-Semitism and “soft” supersession to fester.
Second, informed lay leaders are in equally important positions of teaching within churches, yet are usually even less fit to meet this challenge. Their training is just as important, as they are often teachers in Sunday schools and repeat what they know — which, like the clergy in the preceding paragraph, happens all too often to mimic the worst of these canards. Catholic scholar Mary Boys has described how scriptures read in her church that should have prompted outrage yet were simply accepted later took on an entirely different reaction when read with Jews present in the room. And don’t forget children’s classes, too, where the teaching tries to simplify, and therefore once again perpetuates, this hatred.
Third, the “scholarly reasoning” approach of scholars should not be for the academy alone. Churches can do the same. Suzii Paynter, the executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, was a member of a group from her Texas church that met with a group from a synagogue and a third from another Christian denomination that did the same thing. These gatherings could be supplemented by, for example, films like Denial or Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews.
Fourth, gatherings with churches from a different tradition, usually white and black, are common. Why not do the same thing between church and synagogue? Will Campbell in the mid-1960s saw his life’s work in a new way, as an “apostle to the rednecks,” and ministered to Sam Bowers (the serial bomber) and others. Why can’t we take a much shorter leap of faith and find a Reformed Jewish congregation that will meet us halfway?
Fifth, practical gatherings where Jews and Christians discuss together the meaning of Hanukkah and Christmas, or Passover and Easter, or the solemn day of Yom Kippur are a chance to see the importance of ritual in a whole new way. I taught my children that if you want to understand your own tradition, study another one. I have taken that to heart: I was part of a Shabbat (Friday night) meal in Jerusalem where the appreciation for the bread and the wine (literally!) became ever more vibrant for me.
Sixth, form speakers’ groups of pastors and rabbis to address other congregations on special occasions. This one is risky, but only because we are neighbors and brothers and sisters that don’t appreciate the others’ traditions. Over time, those walls we have built over time would become more brittle.
It is past time to get serious about confronting this ageless hatred. Learning of the rising tide of old teachings in Europe, or talking about events in Charlottesville, which led in my own outdoor preaching setting to Klan images drawn on a nearby tree, should give a sense of urgency. The consequences of inaction are anything but “soft.” There is far, far too much evidence for that already.