Thursday, April 2, 2015

A time to mourn: My seminary encounter with Christian violence toward Jews

If I had to tell you one seismic shift in my thinking since starting seminary, it would be the way I understand Jews and Judaism. My favorite classes have been Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and Hebrew. I've had multiple professors who are experts in historical Jewish-Christian relations. And I have been smacked in the face with the grief of the way my religion has treated our such close Jewish brothers and sisters.

I was not, or at least I thought I was not, anti-Jewish in any way before I came here. But sometimes we don't realize the subtle ways our beliefs build walls or breed condescension.

Like a good Christian, I saw the Jewish faith in some way as incomplete, misguided, overshadowed by the advent of Jesus Christ, as though God's intimate and messy history with the people of Israel were no longer worth much attention, except as it prefigures Jesus or reveals human brokenness.

Like a good progressive whose husband spent a year living in the West Bank under the shadow of the Israeli dividing wall, I mourned the way Israel went from oppressed to oppressor. I began to associate Judaism with 18-year-olds on catwalks holding AK-47s, pointing them down to intimidate all who travel through the Bethlehem checkpoint from Palestine into Israel. I began to associate Judaism with Europeans living in wealthy modern cities built on the tears of displaced people. (Americans, and Christians are of course implicated also in these things, which are never simple.)

I still believe Jesus changes everything. God did a new thing in Jesus, but there must be a way to hold that newness in tension with the good and faithful things God was doing and continues to do through the covenant with Israel.

I still believe that, though it is complicated and sometimes painful to talk about, though there is mutual violence and enmity, the state of Israel should be rebuked for the times it has been an oppressor. But this should not define Judaism.


Did you know that in the middle ages, Christians made up stories about Jews desecrating the bread of Holy Communion in order to justify killing or expelling them from cities?

Did you know that the Nazis extensively used the language of Martin Luther and other Protestant Christian reformers to build up their rhetoric against the Jews in the 1930s?

Did you know that on the way to "take back Jerusalem" in the First Crusade, and aflame with apocalyptic ideas, Christians pillaged and ransacked Jewish cities and killed their brothers and sisters?

Did you know that language from our very own Gospels was used for centuries to view Jews as children of the devil, killers of Jesus, stubbornly unreachable?

Did you know it's not over today, or at least, its felt ramifications are not over today, in the small ways Jews hear our language as superiority, in the small ways our assumptions carry forward?

All of this I deeply mourn.


So especially this week, a week when so many of us Christians will unthinkingly associate Jews with the death of Jesus, a week when so many of us Christians will celebrate the historic event that seems to us sometimes to render any of God's work in the world before the time of Jesus as irrelevant or secondary at best, I want to pause and celebrate the beauty that I have found as I've learned more about Judaism.

The Hebrew Bible is an exceedingly beautiful religious text, remarkable for its time.

I love that out of all the ancient religions of the Near East, the Jewish people were the only ones who lost their land and kingdom and independence and yet did not lose their God. Instead of believing (as was typical) that the destruction of their kingdom was a sign their God was not strong enough, or had abandoned them, they believed that their God went with them into exile, and 3 generations later brought them back.

I love that the vast majority of works preserved in ancient Hebrew are theology. We have references to other literature, like political records and court documents, but what was important enough to them to preserve was the story about God.

I love that God's crowning act of creation and a centerpiece of God's law given to Israel is a day of rest. (A day which Christians have largely ignored or explained away, and then have said Judaism is a religion of works and Christianity a religion of mercy.)

And if this is not enough...Jesus himself was deeply Jewish. Christians have sometimes divorced his teachings and theology from its Jewish roots, offering a caricature that paints the Torah as legalistic and Jesus as focused on the heart. But Jesus' teachings are deeply connected with the Hebrew Scriptures, and many of his "innovations" have long precedent in the Torah (Here's a great book about that.) His last word, his last prayer, was a Psalm.

All of this--all this beauty, all this pain, all this mangled history--calls me to mourn. I mourn for the violence of my heritage, and I mourn for the years of missing out on so much richness of my spiritual heritage by not looking deeply into the Torah and the offerings of historical Judaism. I come now to a place of humility, and I think now is my time to listen, and learn, from the tradition that taught the world so much about God, and shaped even my Jesus in his ministry to all.


  1. Katie, this is beautiful and powerful. Your dad shared it with some of his friends who are in an interfaith dialog group.