Cardinal Lustiger on Anti-Semitism

As you might have gleaned from previous posts, I’ve been quite taken lately with a book of interviews with Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, conducted (it seems) mostly by Jewish journalists. The view he puts forward of the relationship between Christianity and anti-semitism is particularly interesting. Please forgive the rudimentary citations below – I will simply refer to the pages in this particular edition on which quotes are found, rather than the particular interviews from which they came.

Lustiger’s key premise is that the Christian nations are perpetually tempted toward paganism – not surprisingly, since Christ was preached to the very pagan nations that are perpetually the foil and the enemy of Israel in the Bible. The basic nature of paganism is that it creates its own deities, which are assumed to be subjective, capricious, and subject to being cajoled or placated. Idol worship confines the image of the divine to the artistic preferences of a given nation, and the scope of its concern and action to that nation’s needs.

Paganism is inherently local, in precisely the opposite of the way in which worship of the one true God inherently transcends local concerns and characteristics, even while it may incorporate them. Israel worships the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the Philistines worship Baal. Both are, in a sense, local and particular relationships between a deity and a people. Yet it is God Who chooses Israel for His ends, which include revelation of Him to all the nations – while the Philistines create Baal for their own, limited purposes.

Thus, “pagans, even when they become Christians, are constantly tempted to refuse the particularity of history and divine election…. Each pagan civilization that becomes Christian is likely to be enticed into making Jesus its Apollo and projecting its own image of man, an image that it finds pleasing.” (p. 52)

The pagan tendency among Christian nations, then, manifests as a desire to “own” Jesus as a local deity. Italians paint Him to look Italian, and identify His will with Italian national interests;  the Russians and Africans do the same.

Crucially, what frustrates the drive to make Christianity into a collection of local paganisms is its Jewish origin:

After all, it is because of Judaism that Christianity recognizes Jesus as Messiah, the son of God, meaning by that what the Bible means by calling him Messiah-king and also eternal Wisdom. It is only because of certain criteria, inherited from Judism, that Christianity is preserved from the temptation of appropriating Jesus as a mythological character and adapting him to all circumstances, and to every culture… It is the Bible that tells us the real nature of God’s choice, and that is what makes it impossible to identify Christ and Apollo or Dionysus. Judaism is the witness of that unique choice. (p. 19)

It follows that “for Christians, it is the Jews who are the living witnesses of the unique and historical character of Christian faith.”

Anti-semitism, then, is a manifestation of the pagan impulse as it attempts to resist worship of the true God in the Christian nations. “It is when people want to do away with this [Jewish] foundation of Christianity that they start persecuting Jews and wanting to blot them out.” (p. 20). On one hand, it is a matter of pride: for those wedded to the idea of Christianity as a national religion – which is just another way of saying, a local pagan cult – the Jewish origins of both the Christian religion and the Christ is profoundly uncomfortable. The Jews, ever since the Roman conquest, have been a small, weak, persecuted, and increasingly wandering nation; what pagan civilization wishes to be associated with it? On the other hand, the constant harkening to Jewish origins makes it impossible to confine Christianity to any given nation. If Jesus was a Jew – and not by accident, but by God’s choice – it really puts a glitch into the narrative of His special protection of the Italians (or Russians, or Africans, etc.)

By divine irony, then, the only people who could potentially claim Christianity as a national religion – the Jews – are the ones who have excluded themselves from it. (And when they do, Jesus will return?)

Anti-semitism, then, ought to be understood as a continuation of the Biblical struggle between paganism and faithfulness to the God of Israel. On a deeper level, however, Cardinal Lustiger believes that anti-semitism is a phenomenon not only of paganism but of atheism. In the midst of a discussion about the Holocaust, he responds to one of his interviewers thus:

At the beginning you asked me, ‘What is a Jew?’, I said, ‘A man who brings the news of God’s choice to his neighbor.’ And here [in the Holocaust] he is being rejected and killed for no other reason. It is the uttermost limit of homicidal hatred. (p. 31)

This “homicidal hatred” is hatred not only of Jews, not only of specific men, but of mankind, and of Him who created and loves mankind; it is hatred of God. Atheism, Cardinal Lustiger argues, cannot rid itself of anti-semitism “because atheism cannot accept that the Jew is the figure of the absolute, present in a contingent revelation, in the specificity of history.” (p. 62) Atheist dictators, from the Roman emperors to Stalin, are always wary of the Jews because they are a constant, and uncomfortable, reminder of God’s sovereignty through His choice.

Two immediate questions stem for me from these ideas, and more will probably be formulated later:

If Lustiger’s narrative is sensible, what does it teach us about Jewish nationalism? Is it a Jewish form of the temptation toward paganism?

Where is the line, for Christian nations, between the desire to worship God as a nation, which I wrote about before, and the temptation toward paganism? Perhaps, after the Cardinal, we may take the degree of anti-semitism present within a given Christian culture as a “litmus test” (a term used by one of Kornblatt’s interviewees) suggesting whether that line has been overstepped.


About The Groom's Family

I was born in Soviet Russia and grew up in Israel. I was baptized Orthodox Christian in 2006. Today my husband and I live in Northern Virginia. I would love to hear from you, so please leave a comment!
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4 Responses to Cardinal Lustiger on Anti-Semitism

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