Antisemitism and the Church

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Antisemitism has always been a uniquely Christian problem. Our history of persecuting Jews long predates the creation of the Jewish state in Palestine, the root of so much anti-Jewish sentiment in the Muslim world today. That’s a whole other thing for a whole other time.

Antisemitism among Christians has systemic religious roots. It’s paradoxically a result of Christ’s passion and a radical indictment of our collective participation in and guilt for it.

The problem is the Church has often identified Jews as Christ-killers while denying our collective responsibility. We’ve forgotten that we also participate in Jesus’ death, not in some abstract he-bore-our-sins way but in a very direct, very active involvement in the sacrificial system that caused Jesus’ death in the first place.

We can’t deny that the passion was a good/bad thing. It brought about salvation for all but through a grisly process of injustice leading to the grave. The Jews and the Romans sacrifice Christ to keep the peace. After all is it not better for one man to die for the people than the whole nation perish? Pilate hand-waves away his complicity, but sacrifices Jesus anyway.

Jesus becomes the ultimate sacrifice to end sacrifice, doing what the sacrificial system and all proto-sacrificial systems could not do — instead of simply dying a victim, driven out of the camp and off a cliff, the sins of the people laid on him to break the cycle of retributive violence, he inverts the whole thing and rises again. He becomes not just another scapegoat, but a living, breathing victim, one that lays bare our crass self-interested perpetuation of a cycle of religious violence against the weak and disenfranchised, the foreigner and outcast. Jesus identifies with those who are most likely sacrificed to the mob by himself being sacrificed by the mob. And by identifying with Jesus, we identify with those likely to be sacrificed to the mob as well.

This is how we deconstruct the mob, how we break the cycle of religious violence, and why the scapegoating and persecution of Jews is such an endemic feature of Christian societies.

I think the problem is that we’ve embraced philosophies of Christ’s death that enable us to do this. Substitutionary atonement (not nearly as unanimous a theory as our modern fundamentalism would suggest) allows us to divorce the benefits of the cross from participation in it. We identify with Jesus in his death, but as the sacrifice, not as the mob. We have a third party for that — the Jews (and the Romans to a lesser extent). Even the disciples are complicit as they turn their backs on him and deny him for fear of dying with him.

Divorcing ourselves from our participation in the system of sacrifice that indicts us as well as the Jews allows us to do exactly what the death of Jesus was meant to prevent: Neurotically persecute the visible minority in our midst under obviously false pretenses.

There’s nothing wrong with identifying with Christ in his death and rising again, after all that’s what baptism is for, right? But it’s important to remember what Jesus death saves us from. And when we scapegoat and victimize and marginalize and persecute Jews, we are in practice identifying with Jesus’ killers. Not with Jesus. In these acts of communal violence against the visible outsider, we have perverted and inverted the meaning of the cross. We’ve absolutely failed to understand the meaning of the passion.

The thing to remember here is that the cycle of religious violence, of mobs rising up against the visible minority, of a burst of collective violence against a sacrificial victim that heaps our collective retributive violence on his or her head… this is the human condition. This our default setting. This is Sin with a capital S. This is what Jesus comes to end by exposing the cycle of religious violence for what it is.

It’s a hard lesson, one that we often fail to learn. Look at the US, a nominally Christian nation, turning against the sojourner or minority in its midst (the Muslim, the black person). It’s not a coincidence that these effects are most strong amongst fundamentalists who don’t understand their own symbols.

What’s odd is that fundamentalists in the US, which seems to have most of them, by and large almost reverence Jews and the Holy Land today. This is the result of some really oddball eschatology, not of really understanding what the cross is about and what it means to identify with and follow Christ. It almost feels like a kind of diagnostic over-reaction to the problem of antisemitism.

In any case it’s important for the church to come to grips with what it means to follow Christ. When we identify with him, we identify with his death. We remember that Jesus’ passion was an act of injustice, a grossly wrong and evil sacrifice of a victim who had done no wrong. We identify with his resurrection, an act of power over death that exposes the principalities and powers of this world, that exposes them and triumphs over their violent sacrificial systems by demythologizing them and laying their crassness bare. We no longer participate in systems of ritual purity designed to separate the sheep from the goats; we no longer say do not touch and do not eat and do not handle, because we are the goats.

We die with Christ to this elemental spiritual force of the world, how can we still participate in it? How can we neurotically scapegoat the Jew, the Muslim, the poor, the disenfranchised? How can we identify as Christ-killers, subject to the mythology of the sacrificial victim, purposely averting our eyes from the lies and false pretenses of our sacrificial system, when we have been raised with him?