Owning Our Faults

Evangelicals, Featured, Judaism, Religion — By on September 28, 2012 at 7:00 am

A few days ago, this post showed up in my email (I subscribe to the blog). In it, the author, Joshua, (who is a non-religious Jewish atheist) makes a strange assertion that took me a while to come to grips with: That the Christian Church has a history of antisemitism, that this antisemitism persists even today in many Christian circles, and that the Church refuses to acknowledge this past and present antisemitism. Finally, Josh asserts that because of this, and because of a continued reluctance on the part of individual Christians (and the Church as a whole) to consciously and deliberately take steps to rectify the past and current wrongs, he finds it very difficult to take the Church seriously as a moral authority. I dialogued briefly with him on his post and felt convicted to write about it.

There are times, I think, to argue about unjust accusations and unfair generalizations. There are times to point out that the Church is, after all, composed of fallen human beings who do their best but often stumble: There are also times to point out that the earthly church has often been hijacked by those who use it for power and to further their own selfish, hateful ends.

But this isn’t one of those times. Antisemitism was not a brief moment in the life of the Church, quickly corrected. It was not a heresy that was recognized and cast out. It was not some kind of splinter movement, or the beliefs of a few radical “Christians.” It started early, around 400 a.d., as influential writers and thinkers began to condemn the Jews and claim that their sufferings were a result of their part in the death of Christ… and then it quickly became “and they wouldn’t hesitate to kill you either!” They were sub-human, mere beasts.  Although some popes did, indeed, speak out against the prevalent anti-semitism, many did not. The Jews were villainous beyond belief, and depending on who you asked, they were destined for perpetual slaverypracticed ritual murderate Christian children and drank their blood… Jews were railed against in churches and public places, driven from their homes and expelled from countries where they sought refuge, and killed by the hundreds and thousands.  And this was done by the general body of the Christian Church, sometimes with the explicit support of church leadership. And this went on, off-and-on again under various popes and in varying degrees of persecution, for over a thousand years.

We don’t like to talk about the mis-steps of the Church. We don’t like to talk about the people the church hurt and killed, the lives the church ruined, the terror and wreckage we let loose on the world when the church went bad. And perhaps that’s the reason that I never knew any of this before I got to Biola. I was never told, not at my private Christian k-8th school, not at my Sunday school, not at my church. There’s this huge, enormous, chunk of church history that we like to pretend never existed, so we don’t talk about it, we don’t acknowledge it in the slightest.

But it did exist. It happened. And while we’ve left the bloody pogroms and accusations of child-sacrifice behind, there remain the blanket-condemnations of the Jews of Jesus’ time as stupid, or greedy, or power-hungry, the ugly stereotypes of the Jewish lawyer, and a general and offensive ignorance of all things Jewish (which we nonetheless like to talk about with authority because hey, Christianity, right?).

I was lucky enough to be raised in an intelligent Christian household where antisemitism held no sway (to the best of my knowledge). I have never driven a Jew from his country, or accused him of eating a child, or blamed him for the death of Christ. I suspect most of you can say the same. The question then becomes, “Why do we need to apologize for something we had no part in? Why do we need to speak out against something that we aren’t doing wrong?”

Because Scripture tells us that we are one body, but many members. And because history, and the personal experience of Jews, tells us that the earthly, visible body of Christ has done great harm in Christ’s name. Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 12 that “if one member suffers, everyone suffers with it.” What happens to one member of the body of Christ happens to all members… and by the same reasoning, what one member of the body commits, all members are responsible for.

We cannot deny responsibility for the harm we have caused and are causing currently to the Jewish people as a whole and individual Jewish people in particular, merely because we did not personally take part. Neither can we deny responsibility to set things right, as much as it is in our power. We are not all pastors, and there is no central evangelical authority that can declare some official stance. But we all have spheres of influence in our lives (mine happens to be this small space right here). Each of us, individually, can take responsibility for the Church’s wrongs, and more importantly, we can take responsibility for setting them right.

That’s the point of this post. If we are to claim that the Church is, in fact, one body, and that the Church means something, then we must claim responsibility. As ambassadors of Christ, we must own our faults and right them: Otherwise, why should the world take us seriously?

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  • David

    Very convicting and thought provoking. I think the same thing can be said about the crusades and racism that was prevalent in many churches in the past.

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    I agree with you, with a very key difference: We no longer go on crusades, and racism is now recognized by *almost* all Christians as ludicrously incompatible with Christianity. Antisemitism, though, has a way of sticking around in stereotypes and back-of-the-mind assumptions, even among people who might reject it in theory.

    That said, there are certainly strong parallels, and no Christian should be ignorant of these wrongs perpetrated in the name of Christ.

  • Darren

    Question – what about the hostility towards Mormons, JWs, and other groups?

  • http://twitter.com/thephilosotroll Philosotroll

    A fair point of discussion, especially in contemporary discussions of Mormons in a lot of evangelical communities. [Some of the most open hostility I've heard has been directed at Mormons and Catholics.] That said, there’s a difference in the order-of-magnitude, I think, and the extended historical nature of Jewish persecution that makes it an especially troubling case.

  • http://twitter.com/thephilosotroll Philosotroll

    I think that there is a short exchange from the comments of the original article that is worth keeping in mind, with regard to Mac’s point about the *contemporary* nature of anti-semitism in Christian circles. [I've truncated for legibility; you can read the comments for some of the odd exchanges.]

    Mackenzie: “I hate to say it, but I feel as though you are overgeneralizing the
    actions of a few loudmouthed idiots as speaking for the church as a
    whole.

    Maybe I’m just rolling with a different crowd, but I have
    literally never seen antisemitism of the kind you describe here in the
    church… I guess I’m asking for concrete examples, because the scenario you
    describe–evangelical leadership being antisemitic–is extremely foreign
    to me.”

    Joshua: “I attended a meeting of a campus ministry at CSUF where a guest speaker
    spoke on Luke 11:37-54 and made a point about the necessity of the new
    covenant based on the failure of Jews [actually using that word] to
    fulfill the old covenant, implicitly on account of their greed as
    expressed in 11:39-41. I spoke with the leadership of the group
    afterwards and they hadn’t realized that anything offensive had been
    said.

    I attended a meeting of the same campus ministry on another
    occasion, this time to talk about an interfaith event that I had put
    together with a few of the groups leaders, and they had another guest
    speaker who went on a long bit about the extensive legalism of the old
    testament with an off-hand joke about Jewish lawyers… that one
    actually mortified the leader of the group, especially following our
    previous conversation…

    I
    had several incidents in my last two years doing interfaith work at
    Fresno State where a small discussion with leaders of major Evangelical
    churches implied strongly that my work as a philosophy tutor teaching
    things they considered subversive, like introductory hermeneutics, was
    somehow related to my Judaism.”

    That’s actually a fairly short list of cases of mainstream, evangelical leaders in an urban community in California during my last two years of college. I could’ve gone on a bit longer… but that adequately illustrates the sort of things that go basically undiscussed in contemporary churches, from what I’ve observed.

  • Darren

    Actually, anti-Mormon persecution during the 1800s was violent like unto what happened with the Jews; it’s just that few people outside the LDS faith know about this.

    For example, have you ever heard of the Haun’s Mill Massacre?

    Back in the 1830s the LDS faith tried to experiment with racial integration, something that their neighbors in Missouri (a slave state) didn’t like. Relations between the Mormons and the neighbors soured quite rapidly, such that at one point – the Gallatin Voting Battle – a mob even tried to keep Mormons from the polls on election day.

    Gallatin kicked off what would ultimately become a dress rehearsal for the Civil War, with the pro-slavery Missouri natives attacking Mormon settlements and Mormon militia groups trying to run the attackers to ground.

    The horrific end came when Haun’s Mill was raided. A few days earlier, a group of Mormon militia engaged one of the mobs in a battle near Crooked River. What the Mormons didn’t know was that a member of the mob was a state militiaman who had gone AWOL to join in the anti-Mormon violence. When the militia member was killed in the exchange, a report was sent back falsely declaring that the Mormons were in open rebellion. Gov. Lilliburn Boggs responded by issuing the “Extermination Order” that required the state militia to kill or expel all Mormons in the state, and first on the list was Haun’s Mill. 19+ men were killed when they tried to buy their wives and children time to flee, a 10-year-old boy was *executed* in front of his mother as a show of force, and another young boy had his hip blown apart while he tried to run away.

    Yeah.

    Suffice to say that when the perpetrators of Mountain Meadows were apprehended, “revenge for Haun’s Mill” was commonly given as motivation for the incident.

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    While this is horrible, this example is quite different from what I wrote my post about. From what I can see (even at http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Haun's_Mill_Massacre), this attack had nothing to do with the Christian Church as a whole. That’s what makes it so different from the subject of this post.

    Antisemitism has been part of the Church almost since its beginning, and it still exists in a subtler (sometimes not so subtle) form today in the church. It was almost a defining facet of the Church for centuries.

    So yes, the people you mention committed an atrocity. But I genuinely don’t understand the relevance to the subject of the Church as a whole repenting from something that the Church as a whole was responsible for.

  • Darren

    Read the anti-Mormon literature and sentiment from the period, and even absolute scoundrels tried to use God’s name to justify what they were doing, from Philastus Hurlbut using “counter-cult apologetincs” to seek personal revenge against Joseph Smith to people in Congress proclaiming that God would curse the nation if the Mormon population wasn’t eliminated.

  • http://twitter.com/thephilosotroll Philosotroll

    I’m actually fairly well-read on LDS history. I’m not really making a dispute about kind, as you’ll not in the above comment. I think Mac’s response about the culpability of the “whole Church” is the reason why this is not the best case study for a discussion of moral culpability, and the reason why I didn’t even allude to it in my post. I agree with you. Most evangelicals aren’t going to.

    Also, it doesn’t help that you actually do have cases where the explicitly religious nature of Mormon persecution can be easily questioned. The Utah Campaign was run for, allegedly, political motives rather than religious ones, for example.

    That said, my point was about scope and scale. You’re talking about a single century of Mormon persecution with several hundred [perhaps in the four figures] deaths as a result… we’re tacking on at least 1200 years for Jewish persecution by Christians [by my dating, which errs on the conservative side intentionally] and casualties at least two orders of magnitude larger, again being generous with the issue. So while I’m not opposed to the use of the analogy for the purpose of demonstrating similarity in kind of some instantiations [despite the fact that others will take issue with it] I do think that the order of magnitude is absurdly disparate.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.nilsen David Nilsen

    What counts as anti-semitism here? For example, the author of that post explicitly objects to the very language of Matthew’s gospel as racist. Is it anti-semitic to point out that the Jewish people broke the covenant with God? Is it anti-semitic to say that the Jewish leadership (not the whole people) were guilty of killing their own Messiah? Or is anti-semitism only found in offensive jokes about Jewish lawyers, etc?

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    David, I want to point out that the particular comment you’re thinking of was not Josh/Philosotroll himself, although I am interested to see his response here.

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  • http://twitter.com/thephilosotroll Philosotroll

    Please attribute arguments properly. That is not a claim I make either in the article or the comments.

    There is a porous and problematic border for what counts as anti-semitism and what doesn’t, and it is used as an excuse by a number of contemporary Christian leaders to side-step the issue, instead of owning up to the obvious cases, which are what I explicitly present in the article and Mac presents above.

  • http://endtimechaverim.wordpress.com Princess

    Aren’t false narratives of glory prettier than ugly truths? I suspect part of the problem is that Christian seminary and bible school graduates probably haven’t taken one brief course in antisemitism. You may have not killed or persecuted any Jews or urged others to, but the men you consider great leaders of faith all did. I believe repentance would involve repudiating the false teachings of Catholic and Protestant antisemites and seeking how to make amends.