Holding on when faith is hard.

ASEP The Rector's Blog

November 1, 2018

Holding on when faith is hard.

Last week’s shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh leaving eleven people dead sent a wave of shock, disbelief, and horror throughout this nation and the world beyond. People at worship are not supposed to be at risk of dying, but it has become an all-too-familiar occurrence:[1]

First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas – November 5, 2017, 26 dead, 20 wounded

Burnett Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch, Tennessee – September 25, 2017, 1 dead, 7 injured

Al-Fuquan Jame Masjid, New York City – August 13, 2017, 2 dead

Holy Ghost Tabernacle Ministries, Jersey City – August 10, 2016, 1 dead, 2 injured

Keystone Fellowship Church, Montgomery Township, PA – April 26, 2016, 1 dead

Mother Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC – June 17, 2015, 9 dead

Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City and Village Shalom, Overland Park, Kansas – April

13, 2014, 3 dead

Hiawatha Church of God in Christ, Ashtabula, Ohio – March 31, 2013, 1 dead

First United Presbyterian Church, Coudersport, PA – December 2, 2012, 1 dead

World Changers Church International, College Park, GA – October 24, 2012, 1 dead

Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, Oak Creek, WI – August 5, 2012, 7 dead

Victory Way Assembly Church of Go in Christ, Detroit, MI – May 9, 2012, 1 dead

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Ellicott City, MD – May 3, 2012, 2 dead

If you’re having trouble remembering all of these incidents, you are not alone. I thought about only including the ones where there were multiple deaths, as if one death in a place of worship is not sufficiently horrible.

But it’s this latest slaughter in Pittsburgh that is on my mind and heart, as I’m sure it is yours. News reports indicate that there were two motives behind the killings: it was a synagogue and it hosted a Refugee Sabbath sponsored by HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. The shooter made clear that what fueled his assault was anti-Semitism and his opposition to refugees coming across our borders. Regardless of your opinion on the issue of immigration policy, I don’t imagine the idea of a deadly assault on a service of worship praying for refugees would even cross your mind as a possible solution. But it’s the Jewishness of that organization and the Jewishness of the synagogue that are at the heart of the matter.

I have some bad news for you. As Christians, our hands are not clean. Our scriptures have been interpreted in such ways to have fomented hatred and violence against the Jews since our very beginning. Shouts from “the Jews” to crucify Jesus recorded in the Gospels make a direct line to those who still call Jewish people “Christ killers.” Calling the Christian scriptures “New Testament” and Hebrew Scriptures “Old Testament” is like saying that the old ones have been supplanted, that ours are “better.” Even calling Jesus “messiah” implies that the Jews missed the boat and continue to wait in vain. We are often so careless with our language that we fail to see the implicit and sometimes explicit harm we inflict on our Jewish family.

Many of the problems are how our scriptures have been interpreted, lifting them out of their very Jewish context. Every single bit of what Jesus knew and was and taught was already part of his deeply Jewish tradition. He was called “rabbi,” not “Father” or “pastor.” He was a Jew. The Apostle Paul has also been stripped of his Jewishness, as if the preaching about God’s grace were not present in the Jewish notion of loving-kindness (chesed).

Through centuries and layer upon layer of interpretation, it is undeniable that Christianity lit the match of anti-Semitism. In the 4th-century Augustine of Hippo, considered a giant among theologians, wrote

How hateful to me are the enemies of your Scripture! How I wish that you would slay them (the Jews) with your two-edged sword, so that there should be none to oppose your word! Gladly would I have them die to themselves and live to you!”[2]

The Church was complicit in its support for Crusades during which the slaughter of Jews earned indulgences for their killers. One of Martin Luther’s later treatises was, “On the Jews and Their Lies.”  John Calvin wrote, “Their [the Jews] rotten and unbending stiffneckedness deserves that they be oppressed unendingly and without measure or end and that they die in their misery without the pity of anyone.”[3]

The connection between Jews and money with the implication that they are all rich and dishonest schemers has roots in Christianity, too. Dealing with money was considered unsavory and downright sinful in the Church, and when money began to be used as a means of exchange rather than bartering goods and services, the Jews stepped in to fill the need of handling money. And who had most of that money in the Middle Ages? The Church. So while the Church needed the Jews, the Church could also vilify the Jews. As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg points out in her Twitter thread on the topic, this actually benefited the Jewish people, because when they were under persecution and had to pick up and escape, money was one thing that was easy to take along with them, and they could re-establish themselves in a new area.[4]

We can draw a direct line from all of this to the Russian pogroms, the Nazi Holocaust, the chants of “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, and the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Conspiracies and nefarious schemes attributed to “globalists” and “monied interests” are just anti-Semitic dog whistles. Anti-Semitism is deeply rooted in our nation and in our world and it gets mixed up in the geopolitical conflicts between Israel and Palestine and with the Zionists and Evangelical groups whose support of Israel is solely because they believe that the Second Coming  must take place in Israel, so the creation of that nation in 1948 was a precursor to the great tribulation that precedes Christ’s return (see what I mean about misinterpretation of scripture?). It is scary and horrifying and is a shameless attempt to rob the Jewish people of an identity that is full and complete and whole regardless of their relation to any other group.

But once they have no singular identity, then we get to create the identity we want for them: globalists, Christ-killers, moneychangers. The list goes on. There are many forms of anti-Semitism I have not even touched on here, nor have I touched on how racism, white supremacy, and misogyny are woven of the same fabric.

Friends, my aim in writing all of this is to let you know that the Church must repent of her own history of anti-Semitism, and once we have exposed that to the light, we must work to rid our public discourse and common life of such misguided hate. One way of doing that is to show up. To offer support.

Last October in Charlottesville on Sukkot, a group of tiki-torch wielding white supremacists returned to gather around the Robert E. Lee statue that had been the flash point of the Unite the Right rally in August. That statue is a block away from Congregation Beth Israel (CBI), the oldest (and only) synagogue in Charlottesville. Since it was Sukkot, the young adults, led by my friend, Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin, were having an outdoor party under the sukkah. When she learned of the gathering down the block, she sent a message out to her clergy friends asking for help. Tim and I were just finishing up dinner nearby with a friend, and I asked them to walk with me up toward CBI. And there we met up with several other clergy friends and activists and positioned ourselves around the perimeter of the synagogue to keep watch so that our Jewish friends could enjoy their festival.

That’s what it means to stand in solidarity. We didn’t ask why they had to do this outside or why take that risk or try to control the narrative in any way. Rabbi Rachel called for help, and we came.

Our Jewish neighbors are calling for our help now, to stand in solidarity with them, to stand against bigotry and hatred wherever it rears its head – even around the Thanksgiving dinner table. It’s hard and it’s risky, but chances are we won’t have to sacrifice our life for it. They will.

I am proud to be a Christian. I am grateful to have been called to serve as a priest to proclaim the Gospel. In order to do that faithfully, I have to wrestle with the reality of our history – the good, the bad, and the ugly – so that I truly can proclaim Good News to all of God’s people. It can be hard and challenging work, but it is the only way we will create a world of peace for our Jewish neighbors. A world of peace for all of us. A world of God’s shalom.

[1] Collected from various news sources.

[2] Confessions, 12.14

3 Excerpt from “Ad Quaelstiones et Objecta Juaei Cuiusdam Responsio,” by John Calvin; The Jew in Christian Theology, Gerhard Falk, McFarland and Company, Inc., Jefferson, NC and London, 1931.

[4] I am indebted to Rabbi Ruttenberg who frequently writes long threads on Twitter about anti-Semitism and Judaism, and to Nathan Leach, a Yale Divinity School classmate working on a PhD in early Christianity at the University of Texas who writes long reflections about current events and the early church on his Facebook page. I encourage you follow both of them if you are so inclined.

ASEPHolding on when faith is hard.