There’s a BBC sketch by two comedians Mitchell and Webb. The pair are two German SS officers on the Eastern front, waiting to be attacked by Russian forces near the last days of the Second World War. And Mitchell says to Webb, “I’ve just noticed something. Have you looked at our caps recently.” Webb says “No.” Mitchell goes on, “But the emblem on our caps… it’s a skull.” Web shrugs his shoulders. Mitchell goes on, “Why do you think it’s a skull?” And there’s a long pause. And then he goes, “Do you think… do you think we’re the baddies?”
Though this sketch was written for humour, the challenge within it is a relevant one. We are quick to say why we believe that what we are doing is right, but slow to question whether we might be mistaken, or indeed fundamentally wrong.
When it comes to the vast topic of racial justice, I don’t feel able to do justice to it. Even so, with the recent Jewish new year and Yom Kippur, I would like to pause and consider how the church, and how we as Christians, have related to the Jewish people in particular. Some of what I’m going to discuss will be very specific to Christian-Jewish relations, but other parts of it could easily be applied to other ethnic and racial groups.
When I was growing up, for reasons I’m not entirely able to explain, I had a particular love of the traces of Jewish culture that I encountered in my Christian upbringing. When I was a teenager, I read the Old Testament for myself – and I absolutely loved the books of law, much to the bafflement of my Christian friends and family. I also studied German at A-level, including Max Frisch’s play Andorra, which is about anti-Semitism.
What this meant was that for much my life, I saw myself as one of the ‘good guys’ when it came to Christian-Jewish relations. But more recently I’ve been looking back and thinking, ‘Wait… what if I’m not?’
Growing up as a Protestant Christian, I knew that Martin Luther had established the doctrine of justification through faith, but it was only in my late teenage years that I stumbled over a statement he’d made about the Jews. It was in a book about the holocaust and when I spent my gap year in Germany, I asked a Lutheran minister about whether this quote really happened. He cringed and said, “Yeah, Luther was an anti-Semite.” Oh. And I’d had no idea.
I was also blithely unaware that there was such a thing as holocaust denial. Until one day, in Germany, I was sitting in a public café talking to man – and I should emphasise he was not German. And he said this whole business about 6 million Jews being killed by the Nazis was made up. And I exclaimed loudly in my English accent, “But you can’t say that the holocaust didn’t happen!” And then heads started turning and looking at me. Holocaust denial is actually illegal in Germany, but I’d had no idea.
And then there was the time at university when I first watched a film adaption of Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. It was the version with Al Pacino playing the Jewish merchant Shylock and the film opens with with the words:
Intolerance of the Jews was a fact of 16th Century life even in Venice, the most powerful and liberal city state in Europe.
By law the Jews were forced to live in the old walled foundry or ‘Geto‘ area of the city. After sundown the gate was locked and guarded by Christians.
In the daytime any man leaving the ghetto had to wear a red hat to mark him as a Jew.
The Jews were forbidden to own property. So they practised usury, the lending of money at interest. This was against Christian law.
The sophisticated Venetians would turn a blind eye to it but for the religious fanatics, who hated the Jews, it was another matter.
Shortly after, you see one of the lead Christian characters in the play spitting at Shylock, unprovoked.
And again as I watched this film, I thought, “I had no idea.” But you know what, I probably should have had an idea.
And I would love to say that I began to realise that maybe I wasn’t as informed as I thought I was, but I’m not sure that’s true. I didn’t have any Jewish friends, I hadn’t read any Jewish literature outside of the Old Testament, I wasn’t making any effort to study the recent history of the Middle East or Britain’s involvement in the formation of the state of Israel, I didn’t think that holocaust denial or anti-Semitism was something that ever happened in Britain, and I was still willing to roll with sermons that used crass stereotypes to describe Jews during the time of Jesus.
So, the only thing I was really standing up for was a less dismissive reading of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. That’s not a lot.
If we want to be people who actively further God’s justice and peace on earth, then we need to be people who will go out our way, who take risks, who listen humbly, who lift the voices of the marginalised, who reach out, who pursue learning, who accept correction, and who persist in doing good.
I dare say Luther did these things when it came to justification by grace through faith, but he didn’t when it came to anti-Semitism. Instead his attitudes followed the same course of much of the church throughout history.
As Richard Harvey, a Messianic Jew, puts it in his book Luther and the Jews: putting right the lies:
[p57] …The majority of the early church fathers [had] argued… that God had finished with the Jewish people because the church (made up mostly of the nations) had become the new Israel, the true Israel. And furthermore, the old Israel, the Jewish people, were condemned to wander the earth, without a king or a home, as “reluctant witnesses” of their involvement in the crucifixion of Christ.
While this theology was developed by the church fathers Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, its expression was developed by Chrysostom and Augustine. Luther, as an Augustinian monk, inherited the views of Augustine on Jews and Judaism.
But he didn’t challenge them. He challenged the Catholic Church’s teaching on indulgences. He challenged whether the Bible should only be read in Latin. And he challenged whether the Vulgate Latin translation was as reliable a starting point as the original Greek and Hebrew. But he didn’t challenge anti-Semitism. Instead he cut himself off from Erasmus, who would have had the intellectual rigour to challenge him, and he refused to meet to meet with Rabbi Josel Rosheim when Josel asked Luther to intercede.
More than that, Luther leveraged his political influence, his religious influence, and his grasp of satire to incite other people to exclude, persecute and kill the Jews. His writings were littered with anti-Semitism and he wrote four significant works, the largest of which was written in 1543, titled ‘On the Jews and their lies’. It’s 65,000 words long.
Needless to say, four hundred years later, Hitler found Luther’s anti-Semitic writings very useful.
If we want to be people who actively further God’s justice and peace on earth, then we’ve got to be prepared to wake up to our everyday assumptions. We’ve got to carefully consider those assumptions, and we’ve got to have the courage to go against those assumptions when people are being oppressed on account of them.
And we’ve got to do this, even in the areas where we consider ourselves to be strong.
James wrote that salt water and fresh water don’t come out of the same spring, and neither should both good and bad things come out of our mouths. But they do, and they have done.
In many ways, Peter was a compressed example of exactly this in Mark chapter 8. One minute he’s, “You’re the Messiah, you’re the son of the living God.” The next minute he’s, “Hey Jesus, stop talking about all this suffering nonsense, that’s not what the Messiah is meant to do.” Jesus is the son of the living God, but Peter knows best.
It’s cringe-worthy when you can see it, but when you’re doing it, you don’t see it.
Luther thought he was a very gracious and reasonable person when it came to the Jews. He was wrong.
We can just as easily think we’re very gracious and reasonable people. And we can be just as wrong.
I chose to write about anti-Semitism because this is an area I have a personal connection with. I also chose it because, politically, it’s a hot potato. And it would be easier not to talk about it, but I’m not sure we should be not talking about it.
That said, we need to take great care in how we talk about it. On a scale of one to ten, I would say my level of knowledge and understanding as regards the Middle East, Israel and Gaza, is about minus five, so I hesitate to say very much.
I do however have a lot of time for Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and there are two things of note that has said publicly. One was very recently, during a meeting with Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis in the run up to the Jewish new year a few weeks ago. Welby said, “It’s distressing and depressing that any community – especially the Jewish community – feels insecure in the country they love.” And Welby said this, fully supporting the internationally recognised definition of anti-Semitism and all of its eleven examples. The other thing Welby said was from when visited Israel in November last year (2017); during this visit he spoke of Britain’s unfulfilled promise to safeguard the welfare of the Palestinian people, and he called for Christians to pray.
Is this salt water and fresh water coming from the same mouth? I don’t think so. I don’t think we need to set these two statements against each other. I think we should be challenged by both.
When Welby and Chief Rabbi Mirvis met, they were taking part in that whole process we call cross-cultural engagement. It is a long process of learning and listening that requires dialogue from both sides of a divide.
And if we want to do this ourselves, then we will have to look for ambassadors who are willing to engage in dialogue with us. Finding the right people is important. Sometimes our questions will betray our ignorance and prejudice. And it’s for this reason, it’s because we may say offensive things even when we don’t mean to, that we need to respect the fact that not everyone from a certain group of people will be willing to be an ambassador to us. Being an ambassador is a calling and it’s a tough one, we shouldn’t try and force someone from the other side of a divide into that role, certainly not for the sake of our own personal learning.
But when we meet an ambassador, who is willing to invite us into their space – whether that’s their homes, their social spheres, or indeed their stories about who they are as a people – we need to participate as a guest. Their spaces are not places for us to take over; their stories are not narratives for us to claim and re-write as our own.
When I’ve spoken about my faith as a Christian I’ve often said that the gospel is a story that Gentile Christians get to enter into. We believe our participation was made possible through the work and ministry of Jesus, who we say is the Christ, the Messiah. If we didn’t believe that we couldn’t call ourselves Christians. But even though we get to share in God’s grand story as equals it is still a story we’ve been grafted into. Christians don’t get to claim superiority and we don’t get to take over the whole story as if it’s always been all about us.
One of the things about grafting branches into trees, is that although the branches become part of the tree, their fruit remains distinctive. As Christians we will have a distinctive story and history, which includes the ministries of Peter and Paul, the early church and the church fathers. For those of us who are Protestant like myself, it will include the reformers such as Luther, whose academic work in translating the Bible, the whole Bible, direct from the Greek and Hebrew, was hugely important in broadening Christians’ knowledge and understanding of both Old and New Testaments. We’ve got some really good stories and good heritage to be proud of; we shouldn’t feel like we have to appropriate the entire Jewish story as our own, just because some of our important stories haven’t been canonised into scripture.
And this image of grafting goes two ways. When other people want to graft into our culture, whether that’s our church, our community, or our country, we shouldn’t expect them to lose their distinctiveness. Sometimes I encounter the belief that if a group of people comes into another culture and holds onto their distinctiveness, then they’re like an ivy that wants to grow up all around the tree and eventually kill the tree. I don’t think we need to be afraid of that. And I think if we regard entire people groups with that kind of suspicion, we will be repeating the mistakes and the wrongs of history.
There are militant extremists out there – in other communities and in our own. Still, we will not feel any need to stoke fear if we remember that our root is Christ. Who do we say he is? We say he’s the son of the living God. We say he is the Christ who was crucified, died and who rose again. Who is seated at the right hand of the Father, who gave us his Spirit, and who will come again.
If we are privileged enough to know this, then we should use our privilege to serve. Not to antagonise, not to belittle, not to condescend, not to ‘other’, not to ridicule, not to slander, but to serve. The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve. All peoples. All races. All languages. May we do as he did.
Christine Woolgar normally puts her thoughts on her website Light in Gray Places and we are very grateful she shared her thoughts on this issue with us. As a note, this article was scheduled to be posted when the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting took place this last Shabbat. We offer it now as a challenge to the status quo and a hope that Christians would speak and act out the loudest for peace with the Jewish people.