Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Anti-Semitism and the Gospel
But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the Sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.
I can still see Mr. Abbott, my high school principal, standing with his hands on his hips, glaring at me, demanding an explanation for something I had done or not done. “I want a reason,” he shouted, “Not an excuse!” And I can remember pausing as I thought to myself, “Actually, what you want is an excuse. I’ve got a reason, but you won’t think it’s an excuse.” Wisely, I did not try to correct him. I mumbled something and he threatened dire consequences if it happened again.
There are reasons for the anti-Semitism in the fourth Gospel, but they are not an excuse.
John frequently uses “the Jews” the same way that Matthew, Mark and Luke use “the Scribes and the Pharisees.” He is talking about the religious authorities who oppose Jesus. (We pause briefly to note first that the Scribes and the Pharisees are the same people. Second, the Pharisees were reformers. Third, that Jesus was almost certainly a Pharisee. And Fourth, that the Pharisaic reform movement gave birth to Christianity and rabbinic Judaism.) The reference to Pharisees as a synonym for self-righteous hypocrites is historically inaccurate and implicitly anti-Semitic.
John was writing at a time when the church and the synagogue were separating. Christianity began as a Jewish sect. The synoptic Gospels portray an internal conflict within the synagogue between the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus. John characterizes the conflict as one between the followers of Jesus and “the Jews” who remain loyal to Judaism. Of course, the followers of Jesus were also Jewish. It was a sibling rivalry.
As a potential source of anti-Semitism, the verses from the fifth chapter are far from the worst passage in John’s Gospel, but they are bad enough. John says that “the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him” for breaking the Sabbath and for blasphemy.
I was in college when I first met someone who had been called a “Christ killer,” by the (so called) “Christians” in his Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. I was appalled, but also perplexed.
The very simple version of atonement theology I grew up with said that Jesus had died for my sins. He had also died for the sins of the world. But the personal part was where we put the emphasis. The historical roles of Pilate, Herod, the Sanhedrin, and the crowds, were all incidental accidents. The only theologically valid answer to the question, “Who killed Jesus?” was, “I did.”
Over the years I have grown into a very different theological understanding. Jesus died because his absolute faithfulness collided with the sinful violence of the empire. He died because he proclaimed the Kingdom of God as a just and non-violent alternative to the Roman Empire and to every empire. The Romans didn’t crucify people for religious crimes.
Holy Week is always an appropriate time to reflect on the issues of anti-Semitism, and Christians should choose their texts wisely for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The Passion story is John’s Gospel should not be used without careful explanation of its historical context. But on this particular Holy Week, those reflections take on a special urgency because of the killings this past weekend in a Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas, by a white supremacist.
As it turns out, the three people killed were all Christians. One Roman Catholic and two United Methodists. You can read more about this by clicking here.
The FBI keeps statistics on hate crimes. In his column in the New York Times, Frank Bruni wrote that in 2012 there were 6,573 incidents reported. Most of the hate crimes were racially motivated. About twenty percent were motivated by the supposed religion of the victim, approximately equal to the percentage motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation.
Within the category of hate crimes related to religion, I would have expected that the majority would have been perpetrated against Muslims, but that would be wrong. Anti-Semitism is still the big winner. Sixty-five percent of all religious hate crimes were directed against Jews. Eleven percent were aimed at Muslims.
In this Holy Week and Passover, we need to unite in opposition to all forms of hate crime. And we need to remember the things that bind us together.