I have been reading lately Dr. Jacob Jocz’s detailed account of the treatment of Jews in Christian Europe since Constantine and until the French Revolution (short summary: bad). I admire Dr. Jocz’s excellent scholarship and willingness to hold an honest discussion about what the Church had done to alienate Jews from Jesus Christ; the level of detail he provides about the Church’s misdeeds, in my experience, can only be had only from Jewish writers.
And yet, I am catching a whiff of something in this writing that feels a little too uncomfortably familiar. Dr. Jocz was an Anglican. I have no knowledge of how Anglo-Catholic he may have leaned, if at all; but in either case, there is just enough separation there that he can point a finger at the Catholic Church, detail its misdoings, and say – without saying it – “You know all that nasty stuff the Church did to the Jews? Well, it wasn’t my Church!”
It’s a familiar train of thought. One of the several reasons I did not become Catholic at the time was in fact because of historical Catholic anti-Semitism – Crusades, Inquisitions, and all. But of course, now I find myself talking to Catholics who can with justification point to John Paul II’s apology to the Jews and the philosemitic language of Vatican II, and contrast it with ongoing anti-Semitism within the Orthodox Church, especially in Russia and in the Middle East. As for the Oriental Churches, enough said.
What about the Protestants? Sure, there are a couple of Evangelical denominations that are frankly too new to have participated in everybody else’s historical anti-Semitism and that, being quite a distance away from any actual Jews for most of their history, developed a pro-Israel theology. Barring them, I’m willing to bet that there isn’t a historical Protestant denomination (maybe the Mennonites or other peace-lovers are an exception?) that did not support and participate in state discrimination against the Jews in Europe (Spinoza’s Amsterdam comes to mind) or try to keep the Jews out of Ivy League schools here in the States. Dr. Jocz points out that it was the French Revolution – not the Protestant Reformation – that brought any significant change in the legal status of Europe’s Jews. And of course it was the Vatican, not the Lutherans (with the notable exception of Bonhoeffer and his small group of supporters), that spoke out against the Holocaust and saved Jewish lives.
Not all of these forms of anti-Semitism are equally acute, of course. But I would contend that those denominations who have not practiced the most acute forms have done so but by the grace of God: again, most of them simply were not around during the generally violent times when the “Christ-killer” ideology was formulated and became predominant. And yet some of us keep pointing fingers, thinking that we could somehow land ourselves in a “clean” Church with no connection to anti-Semitism. Others insist on defending their churches’ historical behavior and turning a blind eye to crimes against Jews.
We can argue whether a given denomination’s transgressions in this regard are more or less significant than those of another; or whether, say, the medieval Catholic Church’s insistence that Jewish converts remain Christian under pain of death even if they were forcibly baptized makes sense if you just think really, really hard about the theology of baptism. The Church – any church – will get nowhere attempting to win these irresolvable arguments. Just as the Jews cannot get away from their rejection of Christ, the Christians cannot get away from their persecution of Christ’s family; yes, for the most part it happened in the past and other people did it, but the spiritual, cultural, and demographic consequences must be dealt with today by those who claim their legacy.
We as Jewish Christians – and I’ll be the first to admit I’ve not done this right – must be less skittish about our affiliation with the Church as a historically anti-Semitic situation. It is a fact – one to be admitted honestly to Jewish friends and family, lamented, and prayed and fasted over; not brushed under the carpet or awkwardly justified. The Church, insofar as it is run by human beings, has sinned greatly; at the same time, it is the vehicle through which we approach God and hear His true word; and insofar as it is Christ’s mystical Body as well as a human institution, its sins will not prevail against it.
With Lent upon us, it is a good time to remember that our sins, too, will not prevail against us if we cleave to Christ – grave as those sins may be, and much as we may at times despair of conquering them. In both our own souls and our churches, the chief weapon in the struggle against sin is not self-justification, but hope in Christ.
While I have your attention, I also thought I’d offer my apologies for lax posting. Since the new year, my job (that is, the one I get paid for) has gotten dramatically busier and I’m still working to figure out how to juggle things. But the blog will continue, even if at a slightly abated pace – especially since it is a month away from its anniversary, and since I have some exciting items in queue for next week. Thanks to those of you who have not given up and are continuing to read and contribute comments – I hope to meet you all some day!