Reflections from a St Vincent’s Parishioner
In this holiest of seasons, we Christians are called to celebrate the love God showed for us by grafting us onto the “olive tree” of those first called into a sacred covenant relationship with God: the Jewish people (Romans 11).
It is hard for us to hear that our Christian faith has sometimes been twisted, through the centuries, to justify prejudice and violent attacks against Jews. It can be even harder for us to realize that parts of our own Scriptures have been misinterpreted to support this kind of thinking and action by Christians against Jewish people and faith, even though Jesus himself and his first disciples were Jewish, and this kind of “weaponizing” of the Christian message is obviously antithetical to Jesus’ mission.
For example, the cry of the crowd for Pilate to release Barabbas and execute Jesus: “His blood be upon us and upon our children,” from the Passion according to St Matthew we read on Palm Sunday this year: This passage has been invoked for centuries by Christians and others to blame all Jews for all time for the death of Jesus, and to attack them violently in retribution in the Middle Ages and since then.
Also, many references to “the Jews” in John’s Gospel—including the Passion we read on Good Friday—have led many to think that Jesus and “the Jews” were enemies. And on the 2nd Sunday of Easter this year, we will hear that in the days before they encountered the Risen Jesus, the disciples locked the door “for fear of the Jews.” Some of the terms in John’s Gospel reflect an attitude that some Christians arrived at decades after Jesus’ earthly life, when more and more followers of the Jesus movement were Gentiles, and some were puzzled or angry that most Jews remained faithful to the understanding of their relationship with God they had received and practiced for over a thousand years.
All of this reminds us that the most important message of Jesus’ death is not that it was an evil deed done by some bad or misguided people, but that it was God’s loving and redemptive action generated out of love.
How can we heal this?
In the past 50 years, theologians and historians have been guiding us toward understanding the context in which the books of the New Testament were written. and our responsibility to know and repent for our history, including the terrible fact that the Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews took place in Christian Europe, with scant resistance in defense of Jews. There are hundreds of good resources to read about this. Here are just a few you can “google” or find in a library:
- Nostra Aetate (In Our Time): A Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. Pope Paul VI 1965.
- This short but ground-breaking statement rejects the centuries-old accusation of “deicide” (“God-killing”) that some Christians have leveled against Jews, and embraces “the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham’s stock.”
- Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, James Carroll (2001) A long book (600 pp) but parishioners who have read it say it moves quickly; they recommend it highly. The name reflects the author’s view that when Constantine declared Christianity to be the religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th Century, he essentially transformed the cross of love and justice into a sword for conquest and domination.
- “Countering Anti-Semitism: A Catholic Theologian’s Perspective” Mary C. Boys, SNJM*
- A 13-page chapter in Anti-Semitism & Psychiatry: Recognition, Prevention and Intervention (Moffic et al, 2020) Short, helpful overview to read before (or instead of) Constantine’s Sword.
Listening and Interacting
We thrive when we recognize the face of God in each other. This is what Pope Francis calls “encounter.” We can seek opportunities to get to know Jewish people and learn about Judaism. It is a font of wisdom and strength that continues to glorify God’s name. We are blessed to be sisters and brothers, all made in the divine image, all seeking to fill this world with God’s love and justice. In Holy Week, and every week, let’s remember this!
As St. Paul reminds us in Romans, all Christians are the fortunate recipients of God’s boundless mercy. And “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). Let us pray for our hearts to open, to see how our ancestors’ misunderstandings of our faith—and our own— have deeply harmed the Jewish people over many centuries including our own. And let us pray for the courage to be part of changing that sorrowful legacy, in the name of the one merciful God who loved us all into being.
For more information
If you are interested in learning more about this topic, or if you’d like to read the referenced article by Mary C. Boys, SNJM please contact Mary Laver at email@example.com
Written for St Vincent de Paul Parish/ Philadelphia by Mary Sweetland Laver, Ph.D. (March 2015; revised April 2020)