Last week and this week our focus is on uprooting anti-Semitism from Christianity.
We need to be very clear: Anti-Semitism is un-Christian, yet it is all too often all-too-Christian. It’s important for us to take a hard look at how our faith is so easily twisted into the service of hate. And then to repent as we need to and, by the Grace of God, to more fully live into a truly life-giving, truly restoring, truly redeeming way of faith.
Then the next two week I’ll focus on that positive project: how to understand the Christian faith in a way that honors the wisdom of Judaism, and moreover how to seek God by following Jesus in a way that is truly uplifting of all people, truly at peace with the fact that there are many faiths in this world. Next week I’ll start by looking at what the Apostle Paul taught about Law and Grace.
Overall, it’s the spirit of that grace that I hope we have through all of this. And I’ll repeat what I said last week, that the most important thing here is building relationships. Yes, it’s important to take a hard look at our beliefs and assumptions and history as Christians. But that doesn’t mean anything unless we’re also building relationships across religious boundaries, helping to build peace across religious divides. And more than that, inter-religious understanding doesn’t mean much unless we’re also building relationships across the divides within Christianity. In particular, we need to be connecting much better with folks who may be susceptible to the messages of hate. People in our communities, often young men, who may be struggling, feeling alone in this world, nursing a hard grievance, gnawing on resentment, maybe looking for someone easy to blame and hate – we have to win them over to the side of a sane and peaceable way of following Jesus. They need to know God’s love so their hearts do not succumb to the forces of hate.
Alright. So, all that said, our task right now is to get into the weeds of why is it that Christianity, which is supposed to be about the love and grace of God, is so easily used for hatred against Jewish folks and Judaism. I’ll try to do that by telling a kind of parable about how a particular Jewish movement following Jesus became a separate religion called Christianity.
First I need to be clear about some history: Jesus was Jewish. He was born as a Jew. He lived as a Jew. He died as a Jew. He was resurrected as a Jew. He never stopped being Jewish. He didn’t form a new religion. He wasn’t the first Christian. Jesus was a Jew who said to his fellow Jews, “Hey, let’s all be really truly deeply faithful Jews. Let’s follow the Holy One, Adonai Elohim, our creator, our Abba, our Father. Let’s follow the truest spirit of God’s law as revealed to Moses and the Prophets. I didn’t come to change the law, I came to fulfill it.”
And it wasn’t just Jesus who was Jewish. Jesus’ core disciples, the 12 Apostles, the Apostle Paul: all of them were Jewish, were committed to being Jewish and never stopped being Jewish. They were Jews who followed Jesus as the Messiah, as the one anointed by God to be the gateway to God’s salvation. They found that gateway through Jesus life, teachings, crucifixion, and resurrection. They proclaimed that Jesus was resurrected by the power of God. But he was crucified, we have to be clear, by the power of sin, at the hands of the Romans, with complicity from corrupt occupied Jewish religious leadership. That power of sin, the violence and domination of empires, the corruption of religious leadership – these are universal human problems. We are possessed by the same forces today – that is why there is saving power for us now in God’s deeds done through Christ. This all represented a surprising innovation in Jewish understanding, but it wasn’t in any way a break from tradition.
This all means that it is a lie to say that “the Jews killed Jesus.” Christians have been saying that for a long time. But it is a vicious, pernicious lie. It is not merely a misunderstanding. It is a willful lie, designed to justify violence against Jewish folks. Oh humankind: we take what can set us free from sin and twist it back into sin’s service. “Would that they had known the ways that make for peace!”
Okay, we had to be clear about that. Now, getting back to the Jewish nature of Jesus: After Jesus’ resurrection, the movement of people who followed Jesus as the Messiah was a Jewish movement. Now, it quickly developed some different schools of thought. They had some unique ways of understanding their Judaism. So, for instance, many early Jesus followers were very open to non-Jews joining their religious movement and to making it easier for them to join. Some people were really upset about that.
It’s important to realize that the Jesus movement formed in a time of intense pressure on the Jewish people because of Roman occupation – violence and exploitation … rebellion, the Romans sacking Jerusalem and destroying the second Temple. The Jesus school was in the mix of competing schools of Judaism who were part of this intense effort to figure out how to keep Judaism alive under these threats. Then Christianity ended up splitting from Judaism. And I think the scars from that are part of the story of anti-Semitism in Christianity.
Now we get to the parable. Rather than a history lecture about the first 400 years of Christianity, let’s think about it like the story of a family.
Christianity and Judaism are in the same family. Judaism is the elder – we could say father and mother – and what becomes Christianity is the junior, the child.
The child was raised up in the traditions and the community of the parents. But when that child started to come of age they fell in with this hippy commune all into this new guru Jesus, and they began to develop a religious understanding that, as time went on, was more upsetting to the parents. There were some true and powerful things going on for this child – the figure of Jesus as a Jewish Messiah, you know I believe he’s the real deal – The Way, the Truth, the Life – but there was also, if we’re honest, some adolescent rebellion going on here – this is all too human stuff here mixed in with the divine inspiration when it comes to movement that became Christianity. And the parents didn’t respond so well from their end either and there ended up being a big blow out. A nasty break, with a lot of bitterness and resentment.
And then to make matters worse in young adulthood this kid goes off and marries into the Roman family – a rich, wealthy, powerful family that owned the town you could say. For long time this Roman family had bullied and abused the Jewish family, which was much, much smaller. The kid caught this bullying too. But as young Christianity grows and finds their fate and fortune, they basically disown their family for the sake of power. And then, as the generations go on, with that power young Christianity turns and seeks revenge on their family of origin. Partly it is because of the sins of power. And partly it’s because over time, well, you know how it can go with resentment and bitterness: over time the story runs on loop, you know, that pain of the break with the parents just gets more distorted as you nurse that grievance.
So, as Christianity grows and spreads into dominance, and becomes quite comfortable with dominance. And actually becomes quite good at playing the victim. While Judaism continues to be a small tribal community that has to survive and negotiate where too often it seems their only hope is in God. All alone, young Christianity – and Christianity to this day – carries strong traits from its family roots in Judaism. We carry that DNA in our Holy Scriptures. We’re in the family with Judaism and Judaism remains our elder. We owe the heart of our faith to Judaism.
So as our elder Judaism deserves our respect. This family needs some reconciliation.
Throughout history when Jews and Christians and Muslims for that matter – everyone in the family of Abraham – when they’ve have gotten together with a spirit of mutual respect, of humility and of dignity, of finding common cause in our devotion to God and to the promise of the Realm of Heaven on Earth. That’s a good and true way to follow the Way of Jesus in our times.
To God be the glory.
(Delivered November 12, 2018, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)