A Teachable Moment? – opinion
Many evangelical Christians are ignorant about the hatred and disdain expressed toward Jews by respected Christians from our tradition.
By Timothy Yoder | May 28, 2023
Evangelical Christians, especially those who reside in the United States, have a startling level of ignorance or apathy regarding the history of antisemitism. This lack of awareness is particularly disturbing because it produces two problematic implications.
The first is that American evangelicals are unaware of the degree to which the Jewish people have suffered at the hands of those of the Christian faith. The second is that the ignorance of evangelicals is countered by an intense awareness of this antisemitic history by contemporary Jews. The result is a level of mistrust and suspicion which undermines Jewish-Christian relationships today.
My opening premise is a broad claim, and I will not attempt to support it with statistics or studies, in part because it is not controversial to say that American evangelicals are weak in the history of the Christian faith. I have been a professor for over 20 years at a number of evangelical institutions, and in my experience, knowledge of antisemitism among Christians is often limited to the Crusades and the Holocaust.
Many evangelical Christians are ignorant about the hatred and disdain expressed toward Jews by respected Christians from our tradition. John Chrysostom, one of the best and most influential preachers among the Church Fathers, repeated, in a series of sermons against the Jews, various myths and untruths about the Jews. Chrysostom said that he hated the Jews, and he believed it was the duty of all Christians to feel likewise.
Augustine thought that Jews deserved to be scattered without a homeland, exiled as a testimony to their unbelief. Martin Luther wrote a treatise called On the Jews and their Lies in which he called for the burning of synagogues, the prohibition of preaching by rabbis, and the removal of Jewish legal rights. Too few Christians are aware of the blood libel and the belief that Jews conspired to cause the plague in medieval Europe.
They are ignorant of pogroms against the Jews in Poland and Russia, the expulsions of the Jews from countries like England, France and Spain, and the forced conversions that many Jews endured. This antipathy regarding our own history is disturbing, and it is made worse when it becomes blissful ignorance of the sins of the past.
I don’t know that I completely agree with Santayana that those who ignore history are bound to repeat it, but I do think that those who ignore the mistakes in the history of their religion or culture or nation are ill-equipped to make better decisions than their predecessors.
I learned of the startling disparity in the memories of Jews and Christians on a recent trip to Israel in conjunction with Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation. The Jewish members of our group testified to the fact that Jewish communities commemorate the atrocities done to them. They remember those who vilified them, and they learn lessons from the past.
Thus, they are wary and even suspicious of Christians, even those who flock to the Holy Land in search of historical experiences to make the Bible come alive. These suspicions are well-grounded in 2000 years of history. If evangelicals claim that those individuals who committed these atrocities were not genuine Christians, it is a difficult claim to support. Chrysostom represents the Eastern Orthodox Church, Augustine the Roman Catholics, and Luther the Protestants.
WHAT IS to be done? I cannot apologize for the sins of those followers of Christ who preceded me, as much as I may wish to do so. It is not in the power of any human being today to undo the tragic history of hatred and violence done to Jewish people in the name of Christ, and in diametrical opposition to the ideals that Jesus preached.
An act of good faith
The act of good faith available to me is to mourn together the grievous tragedies of the past, in the hope that our common lament would produce a teachable moment in Christian traditions. The consequent question, then, is, so what should be taught? Here are three points to emphasize, arising from this awful history.
Fearmongering should have no place in the hearts of those who worship God. The outrageous lies about Jews desecrating the host, or killing boys for their blood, or plotting to take over the world existed only to manipulate Christians regarding the Jews. The steps from fear to hatred to violence are short, and they are inconsistent with the character and message of Jesus, who taught his disciples to love those outside of the faith.
The Christian goal is not to vanquish enemies, but to preach the sacrificial love of Jesus. That Christians have failed to live up to this ideal is an indictment of the human body that is the church, not the founder of it.
The myth of supersessionism must be refuted. This perspective holds that the rejection of Jesus by his contemporaries implies that all of God’s promises to his chosen people are transferred to the church, and the Jews are removed forever from God’s plan and purpose. It is called “replacement theology” because it holds that the Christian church has replaced the Jews, who are eliminated from God’s plan.
Supersessionist teaching can be found in the early fathers, but it is inconsistent with the Christian scriptures. Paul clearly holds that there is still a future for Israel in Romans 11:26-29, in which he declares that God’s gifts and call on the people of Israel are irrevocable.
The last point is to urge all parties – Christian, Jewish and those outside of either religion – to remember that the grace of God is the bottom line. We know beyond a shadow of doubt that each of us is morally flawed and guilty of mistakes, errors and sin. We know this by our own experience, and also by the Bible (Psalm 14:1-3, Ecclesiastes 7:20).
We also know that our God is rich in mercy, and there is no limit to his graciousness. He removes our sin as far as the east is from the west (Psalms 103:12), and his hessed (kindness) is unparalleled (Exodus 34:6-7). The deep wells of his grace are not opposed to justice, but transcend it. Every conversation about human sin and failure needs to be held in the context of the amazing hessed of the God of Abraham, Moses and David – sinners all, but justified through faith by grace.
The writer (MDiv, PhD) is a professor of theology and philosophy at Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas.