The shooter in the synagogue in Poway, California, in April turned out to be a member of an Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The church released a statement: “We are wounded to the core that such an evil could have gone out from our community. Such hatred has no place in any part of our beliefs and practices, for we seek to shape our whole lives according to the love and gospel of Jesus Christ.”
“Wounded to the core” is a good start, but where is the word of repentance? Where is the self-examination that leads to change and different outcomes? Churches do not often think about how they encourage anti-Semitism.
Harassment of Jews is increasing worldwide. The U.K. has recorded its highest number of anti-Semitic attacks in each of the last three years. In the U.S. more than half of religious hate crimes are aimed at Jews, even though Jews represent less than 2% of the population.
The church has contributed a particularly ugly strain of anti-Semitism. In the twelfth century, Christians came up with the horrible idea of blood libel. This lie was that Jews murdered Christian children to use their blood for ritual purposes. On as many as a hundred occasions Christians massacred Jews in response to the disappearance of a child.
Martin Luther, who may be the most important figure in the last 500 years of Christian history, was anti-Semitic. He wrote a treatise, The Jews and Their Lies, which includes the line “we are at fault in not slaying them.” Historians tend to say that Luther was great except for his anti-Semitism—which is embarrassing for the historians. You cannot be great and anti-Semitic.
A line can be drawn from Martin Luther’s influence to the Holocaust. Centuries of Christian anti-Semitism made Hitler possible. In 1936, the Baptist World Alliance met in Berlin under the banner of the swastika and received greetings from Hitler. Baptists returned to the United States to report on the wonderful things happening in Germany.
The Catholic Church played a role in the rise of Nazism. John Cornwall’s biography of Pius 12 was titled Hitler’s Pope. The church has not just been on the wrong side of history, but on the wrong side of Christianity.
Most churches do not think they are anti-Semitic, but allow small attacks on Judaism that make larger attacks more likely. Churches should ask, “Would an anti-Semitic person be uncomfortable in our congregation?” because every person in the church should know that anti-Semitism is antithetical to Christianity.
The names “Old Testament” and “New Testament” are themselves unfair, but some Christian preachers suggest the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament, that the Old Testament God is angry while the New Testament God is merciful. This is not true to Judaism or Christianity.
Christians often fail to recognize that the Gospels describe arguments within Judaism and not arguments between Judaism and Christianity—which did not yet exist. Jesus is often set in opposition to first century Judaism as though Jesus was the only one who valued women or worked for the oppressed. Jesus learned to value women and care for the poor from his Jewish context. When Jesus said, “Love God” and “Love your neighbor,” he was quoting the Hebrew Scriptures. Putting down Judaism to make Jesus look good makes no sense.
Christians need to see what is at stake. Anti-Semitism is by definition a repudiation of Christianity as well as of Judaism, and an enemy of pluralism and democracy. Religious intolerance breeds greater intolerance.
A Christian youth minister takes her middle schoolers to a service at a Jewish synagogue. Afterwards a fourteen-year-old says, “They do what we do. They sing. They read the Bible. They pray. They stole our stuff.”
Churches can start with the simple step of remembering that Jesus was Jewish. Christians should encourage an appreciation for Judaism, because the best Christian values are Jewish.
On most Sundays a few Jewish people worship with Plymouth Church. You might think that would not change anything, but it does. I show a greater respect for our Jewish heritage, quote more Jewish scholars, and speak out more often on incidents of anti-Semitism. I have learned that I need to preach as though there are always Jewish people present. Congregations need to listen as though there are always Jewish people present.
Last month I preached at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue on a Friday evening and Rabbi Serge Lippe preached at our church on a Sunday morning. We did this because we need to learn more about and from each other. I need this to be more Christian.