Six things I have learned about anti-semitism and the church

antisemitic stations

1 Anti-semitism is a real thing in the life of the church

A number of years ago I was visiting a church in the Diocese of St Andrews and happened to look up at a set of Stations of the Cross and remarked to the Rector that they were rather stylish. “Hmm,” she said, “look again – some of those images are not very nice. There’s a narrative of trying to implicate ‘The Jews’ in the way the pictures represent the story of the crucifixion.”

And I looked and indeed saw that it was so. She was right and I hadn’t noticed. The picture that I’ve posted above is one of those stations and is based on stereotype and characterisation which is prejudicial to Jewish people.

The question is, would I have noticed this if it had not been pointed out to me? I had been in that church plenty of times and never noticed. In that there’s something of a parable. Anti-semitism is something that people who think they are good simply don’t notice. How much of our art, our theology, our preaching, our discourse, our storytelling is anti-semitic?

The answer has to be that I don’t know. I/we need to do our best to spot things that might make someone Jewish feel threatened, but the truth is, there may be things that I/we cannot see due to familiarity, uncovered prejudice or simple ignorance.

I enquired about those Stations of the Cross a couple of years ago and was told that they’d been taken down and stored in a glory hole somewhere and there didn’t seem much appetite for putting them back up. I hope that they didn’t ever go back up though I do know that these were only copies and the originals still hang in a Church of England parish in the Diocese of Derby.

2 So called “Christian Seder” meals are offensive and unhelpful

It has become the custom in some parts of the church to celebrate something called a Christian Passover or Christian Seder. The idea seems to be to learn more about “exploring the Jewishness” of Jesus and the “Jewishness” of the Last Supper. NB – Jesus didn’t have a small element of Jewishness within him. Jesus was Jewish.

It should not be a surprise to Christians that holding a parody of a key religious meal that people in another faith celebrate is offensive. However, that often seems to come as a surprise. Again, I will admit that it was only hearing a Jewish theologian talk about how offensive it is that I really thought about it for the first time. However, once I had done, the penny dropped.

There are ample explanations on the internet for why Christians holding a parody of a Jewish Seder meal is offensive. When something is offensive, we shouldn’t do it.

You want to know about the Seder? Then ask someone who is Jewish. They might even invite you to one and note well, you’ll be offered food there. Compare and contrast this to asking people from other faiths to a Christian Eucharist and telling them “no bread, no wine”. Not that anyone should expect someone from another faith to Christianity to take bread and wine in church but there’s something about hospitality that Christians have to learn from other faiths that is missing all too often in our own.

3 Some Christian theological interpretations of texts are anti-semitic

In particular – and this is really important, it is anti-semitic to teach Christian interpretations of the bible solely through the lens that Jesus was the answer to all the Jewish scriptures. Yes, you can find ample biblical evidence to support such a view. But you can find ample biblical evidence for slavery – so go figure.

Look up supersessionist and understand what it means. (Quick version – the idea that the church has replaced the Jewish people as God’s chosen people). Look out for supersessionist interpretations of scripture in church and talk about them when you encounter them. For you will. Look for that kind of theology in hymnody as well as in sermons and readings.

4 I have learned more about anti-semitism from Jewish people than from others

I have learned some things about anti-semitism from people with a Jewish heritage who have subsequently embraced the Christian faith. I have also learned a great deal from people who are practising Jews themselves and this should not be surprising. It should not be surprising that it is Jewish people who know what anti-semitism is and have a more authentic voice in any of these debates than anyone who is not Jewish.

In particular, I learned a lot from participating as a theological reflector at a conference organised by the Council of Christians and Jews. I also learned a lot about Judaism that I didn’t know (and quite a lot about Christianity that I didn’t know) from being invited recently to a synagogue to experience worship there on a Saturday morning. I learned about anti-semitism though the experience of having to take photo-ID with me and the experience of witnessing their having to have a security presence on the door. It is unacceptable to me that a religious group in Glasgow should need this. And I feel helpless in knowing what to do about it.

I have learned about anti-semitism from reading things.

Amongst the things I’ve read, I’ve learned in particular from the novels of Chaim Potok (though I am aware of criticism from within Judaism of his writing), from the theology of Amy-Jill Levine and from the novels of Howard Jacobson. (I read his novel “J” last week whilst on holiday in Milan and it was a fitting backdrop to the obscenity of anti-semitic speech from UK politicians that has recently been evident).

5 Liberals are not exempt from anti-semitism and it is anti-semitic of them to presume that this is a problem for Evangelical Christians

One of the curious prejudices that can be found in the Christian faith is that anti-semitism is something that right-wing evangelicals engage in whilst good liberals are all sufficiently conscious to make sure that they never engage in anything like that at all. The fact is, that just isn’t true.

One thing to look out for in particular is the view that Jesus came to free us from the “tyranny” of the Law. The truth is, Jewish people have lived lives of great fulfilment whilst engaging in lifelong dialogues about what it means to live within God’s law. They have felt free, happy and full of life-giving energy. They have composed, written, prayed and told one another a million jokes about their experience. One is not oppressed by the fact that one is Jewish though one may obviously encounter prejudice and oppression. Jesus did not come to set Jewish people free from being Jewish. That idea is itself problematic as it contains the notion that Jewish people are not themselves free agents able to dialogue with God and possessed of free will.

In particular we need to be aware of the dangers of creeping anti-semitism when reflecting on feminist theology, LGBT theology and other theologies of liberation.

6 There will be more about anti-semitism I have yet to learn

I have to acknowledge openly that I never learned that much about anti-semitism from within the Christian church. That in itself should give us pause for thought. I don’t think I learned anything at all about it in either of my theology degrees nor in my ordination training. I’ve learned what I know almost by happen-chance and meetings with people who have enriched my life but whom I might never have encountered.

The fact that the things that I’ve learned about anti-semitism have surprised me when I have recognised them must mean that there is more to learn and that I will have prejudices that I do not know about deep within me.

Comments

  1. David Beadle says:

    Thank you for this, Kelvin. This is hugely important.

  2. Edward Andrews says:

    Thank you, especially for your comments about Christian Seder. A neighbouring minister thought this was a great idea and was somewhat offended when I suggested that it was little short of blasphemy as they were really mocking other people’s ritual. You are the first time that I have heard this repeated.

  3. David Kenvyn says:

    I think that the problem comes from the translations of St. John’s Gospel into English where there are constant references to things like “for fear of the Jews”. I do not know if this is an accurate translation from the Greek, but I assume that St John, as a Jew himself, meant the “Jewish authorities” or “the High Priest” and the “Temple authorities” . I always find these passages in St. John’s Gospel very disturbing and difficult to reconcile with “A new commandment I give unto you: love one another”. There is also the problem in St. Matthew’s Gospel where the crowd demand that his blood be “Upon us and our children’s children”. What we have to confront is simple: what do passages of this kind actually mean? And we need an answer, because they are at the root of European anti-semitism, and because the European nations were the founders of world-wide empires, the poison has spread world-wide.

    • Not primarily a translation problem as a problem of what the text says, I think.

    • In my experience, when I preach on the text about Thomas, I’ll refer to the comment about the disciples hiding “in fear of the Jews” and say that we also need to acknowledge the many Jews, Muslims, LGBT people, supposed witches, and others who (over the centuries since) have need to hide behind locked doors in fear of the Christians.

  4. Father Bill White says:

    Not a translation problem at all. With Paul having stripped “Those who fear the Lord” out of the synagogues, the Roman authorities were turning bleary eyes on the Jews in the empire for the first time since there were no longer Roman citizens there, just the Jews whose Roman friends had, up till then, worshipped with them. By the time John wrote his Gospel around the year 90 – 95, Rome had turned on the Jews and there was fearful reason for Christians to say that they weren’t like “them”. I suspect sadly, that for those reasons, the anti-semitism was intended.

  5. Excellent material here, Kelvin. For something similar re Christianised “Seders”, here’s a link to post of mine from a few years ago:

    http://revdocbob.blogspot.com.au/2013/03/why-christian-churches-shouldnt.html

  6. Meg Rosenfeld says:

    Did you ever wonder whether God came into the world as a fully human man in order to a) encourage the Jewish people to practice their faith in the way God gave it to them in the first place, and to hearten them in an era of oppression and b) spread God’s word to the other people of the world?

  7. Andrew Page says:

    I doubt there’s any translation issues within the gospel of John. It simply requires reading in its historical context. There can be little denying, unfortunately, that literalist readings of John have contributed to antisemitism.

    Thank you for writing this Kelvin – amongst all the sensationalist headlines and political controversy it’s positive to note that someone is determined to understand the real problems of antisemitism and do something to combat it.

    As a Christian of Jewish descent (my grandfather was Jewish) I couldn’t agree more in relation to the appropriation (often, but not exclusively, by evangelicals) of the Seder and other Jewish rites. Many thanks for speaking up!

  8. Jacqui Norman says:

    Thank you for this, it is extremely challenging. I have noticed antisemitic views in the church.
    Two things I would like to ask please.
    1. With regard to the picture, I understand the point you make, but surely it is as anti-Italian as well? The biblical story tells us that both groups were involved in the death of Jesus. Do the 2 Jewish people in the picture not represent the high priests who stirred up the frenzy at Jesus’ trial, rather than all Jews for all time?
    2. As a Christian (also with Jews in my family tree) I have often cooked a Passover meal for my family, and given thanks to God for his Passing over – in the Exodus and still today saving us through the blood of the Lamb. Because I believe that the Passover is hugely important for us Christians as well as for our Jewish brothers and sisters. For me is the most wonderful, beautiful, symbol of being “saved by faith”. I have done it in solidarity with Jews – never to mock or offend. Would you see this as this antisemitic?

    • No, the picture isn’t anti-Italian. It doesn’t show any anti-Italian stereotypes and there’s no way of knowing whether the soldiers involved in the crucifixion came from what we now call Italy in any case. It is anti-semitic because it portrays Jewish figures using stereotypes (ugly, hooked noses, evil) and in this case puts the high priests at the site of the crucifixion as though they are the agents of the story when in fact there’s nothing in the text to suggest they were there. There has never been any blood libel proclaimed against Romans or Italians by Christians. The picture does not blame them for the crucifixion. Nor does Christian history.

      I don’t believe that Passover is a hugely important part of Christianity. It isn’t. As I said above, I think that Christians appropriating passover is unhelpful and it is unhelpful regardless of whether or not Christians have found their actions in having such a meal beautiful or not. It does not have to be done in a mocking way for it to be offensive. It is offensive to people because it is done at all.

      • Martin Reynolds says:

        . The chief priests and the teachers of the law started mocking Jesus while he was crucified and were making fun of him saying: “He saved others, but he can’t save himself!” (Mark 15:31).

        • OK – you got me. However, I don’t think that fundamentally alters the argument about the visual image.

          • Martin Reynolds says:

            Really?
            I think it must do.
            Also Jacqui argues cogently from her experience of a mixed family.
            Its your blog, but this was one of the better arguments here and it was shut down too soon.

          • Martin Reynolds says:

            Oh. I didn’t realise this blog moderated its comments.

          • The visual representation is stereotypically antisemitic regardless of the biblical text. Hook nose, scheming, ugly.

            I moderate the blog comments sometimes and always with some topics.

          • Martin Reynolds says:

            This is cartoon, but it tells the Bible story well.
            The problem lies with the text, not so much with the cartoon.

            It is the text that compelled and justified slaughter and near annihilation of a faithful people.

          • And with regards to shutting down the conversation, I don’t think I can reasonably be expected to engage with someone claiming:

            1 – That my “opinion is that Christians should not engage with the Old Testament.”

            and

            2 – That I’ve called her an Anti-Semite.

            Neither statement is true.

            I’m sorry if cutting that off has stopped a conversation about things that I too think need to be talked about. However, I do have limits.

            I’m happy to take up the ideas again if others wish to make further responses.

          • Martin Reynolds says:

            I would agree with both of you.
            She was wrong to imply you were not wishing to engage with the OT and she was correct in thinking your post could imply she was an anti-Semite.
            I want to hear more of this debate.

            When I was young my Catholic family believed the Protestant celebration of the Lords Supper was a profanity of the deepest order.
            There were resonances that spoke of a hurt that was deep and filled with hatred and anger centuries old.

          • I think that some celebrations of the Lord’s Supper are a profanity of the deepest order.

            And I’m very careful to talk about anti-semitic feelings, thoughts, actions rather than calling an individual an anti-semite. As I am over calling an individual a racist or a homophobe. I just don’t use that kind of language of individuals.

          • Martin Reynolds says:

            My lovely family from your city meant our celebrations ………

          • Well, there are those who think what I do (and who I am) amounts to an abomination, if it comes to that.

          • Leaving aside the immediate questions about anti-semitism, there is something a bit odd about cartoon/satire being used for something devotional like Stations, I think.

            That’s not to say I don’t think that satire doesn’t have a place. I’m just not sure that this is the right place.

          • Martin Reynolds says:

            I have a broader understanding of cartoon, but even within your definition there remains a powerful place for spirituality and certainly the spiritual path of the cross. My problem with this depiction is that Jesus is not shown with the same racial stereotyping. That says he is not one of them in a way I am not at peace with.

      • Martin Reynolds says:

        Not quite what I was pointing to …… But ths is your blog …….

  9. Jacqui Norman says:

    Thank you. Re the faces of the Jewish characters I agree with you. However, the noses of the soldiers are definitely “strong Roman noses”.
    It is baffling that Romans are not equally vilified is it not!
    I have never looked at “stations of the cross” pictures before, as I am not in the established (nor evangelical church). I do not like the division that such labels cause, and wish we were all simply “Christian”, if I had to pin on such a badge it would say neo-charismatic (http://www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/2015/09/29/10-things-i-wish-everyone-knew-about-the-new-charismatics/37847)

    Re your comment about the meal, it saddens me, I am afraid. Solidarity can, by definition, not be anti!
    You say “I do not think that the Passover is important to Christianity ” (I disagree, if it is not then why do we not throw away the Old Testament!) nevertheless the phrasing of your sentence is fair, as it is your opinion and interpretation. But your following sentence is not fair comment, you state “It isn’t.” phrased as fact, not opinion. I would say, it most definitely IS hugely important to Christianity, as indeed is the Old Testament generally.
    Peace to you , and again, thank you for your very challenging piece on the blight of antisemitism.

    • Christians do not generally celebrate Passover, notwithstanding the influence of passover rituals on the Christian Eucharist. As Christians generally don’t celebrate passover, I would assert that passover itself is not a Christian festival, is not a Christian ritual, is not a Christian holiday and is not that important to most Christians.

      And again with regards to the meal, I’m not commenting on whether Christian Seders or Christian Passovers make Christians feel good or feel themselves to be in solidarity with Jewish people. My point is that they are offensive to people.

    • Meg Rosenfeld says:

      I haven’t had the opportunity to read through the version of the Book of Common Prayer that’s used in the Episcopal Church of Scotland, but in the USA the liturgies for Maundy Thursday and for the Easter Vigil both include readings from Exodus having to do with the Passover. It seems to me that this part of the history of the Jewish faith feeds directly into a part of the Christian faith, and in fact provides much of its basis. I presume you (Kelvin) are not advocating changing the readings, but are saying that re-writing the Haggadah to suit a Christian belief system is offensive.

  10. Jacqui Norman says:

    Dear Kevin,
    I am sure that some Jews would be offended, and this is very sad on every level. Just as it would be sad for Christians to object to non Christians celebrating Christmas or Resurrection Day.
    In your piece you said yourself, that some Jewish people invite Christian people to join them for the meals. This demonstrates that the offence to Gentiles celebrating with their Jewish brothers and sisters is not universal in the faith.
    Blessings.

    • No Jacqui. It is considered a blessing in Judaism to include others in the ritual of passover. This does not justify Christians copying it without Jews being present, appropriating the ceremony to make it something entirely Christian and in doing so causing offence. It is not the same in any way as Christians objecting or not to non-Christians celebrating Christmas.

      If you wish to follow the line of saying that Christian Passovers are not offensive to all Jewish people, then can I ask what proportion of Jewish people you think it is legitimate for Christians to be offensive to? How many is OK?

      • Jacqui Norman says:

        Of course one would not wish to offend anybody.
        I feel we must graciously agree to disagree, I see no difference to the Christmas/Resurrection Day comparison… We disagree on this one point from your piece.
        God bless you.

        • > We disagree on this one point from your piece.

          So what you’re saying is that anti-semitic things that other people do are wrong but things that you do can’t be anti-semitic because you do them with good intent in your heart?

          Isn’t that what the problem is?

          • Jacqui Norman says:

            WOW what a leap!
            No, of course it is not what I am saying… It is the opposite!
            Your opinion is that Christians should not engage with the Old Testament. Mine is that it is divisive NOT to. As you said Jesus is Jewish, we are his body …
            I have never had a conversation with a Jew who has expressed your opinion about this matter.
            I asked you politely about this aspect of your opinion, and you have made a personal attack at me(whom you do not know) and called me an anti Semite when nothing could be further from the truth. Now, that kind of thing IS where the problem lies.
            Blessings to you.

          • Don’t be ridiculous, Jacqui. My opinion is not that Christians should not engage with the Old Testament.

            If you can’t post things truthfully then I’ll not allow further comment.

      • Martin Reynolds says:

        I would ask the opposite question.
        How many need to be offended?
        Just one?

        This argument seems to be in the mode of
        “Christians shouldn’t practice yoga.” school of thought.

        • There’s a difference isn’t there? Most people wanting to stop Christians practicing yoga think that they should take that view because it will harm Christian souls rather because it will harm Hindu feelings.

          • Martin Reynolds says:

            It depends which Hindu you talk to.

          • Can you point me to an argument coming from someone in the Hindu community who believes that Christians and non-Hindus should refrain from practising yoga? I’m genuinely interested.

        • Martin Reynolds says:

          I will try and point you in the right direction.

  11. Alexander Hamilton says:

    Wel now that was a jolly good read. Thank you to all contributers, some thought provoking matters raised, with of course no conclusion, and properly so. So much is a matter of personal belief and practise, no matter how bedecked and caparisoned the chuch one attends. I find myself sayng, ‘What would Jesus say?’ when watching the next best thing to pantomime at some services.

  12. Jacqui Norman says:

    Ps, In my opinion, the fact that “Passover is not important to most Christians ” is due to a lack of good teaching on the subject. It is not possible to fully appreciate the work of Jesus, (who in you picture, notably does not have the “Jewish nose” – very much enforcing your point that people do not appreciate that Jesus was (is!) a Jew, and with which I wholeheartedly agree with you) without first understanding the Old Testament story in its fullness.

    I would also like to emphasise that this is the only one of your points with which I disagree 🙂

  13. Jacqui Norman says:

    From the homepage:

    Disclaimer
    The views published here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of St Mary’s Catheral nor the Scottish Episcopal Church.

    Nor do they represent what I’ll think forever.

    I change my mind sometimes – especially when persuaded of something by someone in debate.

    Try me and see.

    Maybe that should read “Try me and get called ridiculous ”

    Very sad.

    • Jacqui – this is my blog space. You don’t get to post untruthful things about me on it.

      Whether you like that or not doesn’t really matter to me it is the way it is.

      No further comments from you.

  14. Dion Smythe says:

    Christian “seders” are comparable to Jewish [re]appropriation of the Eurcharistic texts and reciting them [with some notable omissions] at Kiddush after the Sabbath morning service….

    • Meg Rosenfeld says:

      As a Christian who once visited a conservative synagogue where they did this, I was surprised and pleased to find this activity that was so much like ours, taking place. It seemed home-like. My daughter, then a teen-ager, had the same reaction. We were both thinking “Now I see where this part of our ritual comes from.” After all, Jesus (a Jew) was probably following very familiar tradition when he, as we say, instituted the Eucharist; he just said some new and startling things.

      • Dion Smythe says:

        Meg, I think you’ll find that what you witnesses at a conservative Jewish synagogue was the standard Kiddush after the Sabbath morning service — blessings over wine and bread and then the sharing of the same. What I was suggesting was that these Christian “Seders” would be comparable to Jewish congregations celebrating Christian Eucharists but with the important words left out [or indeed maybe even not] rather than the comparison between Christian “Seders” and Jews [or other non Christians] celebrating or marking the celebrations of Christmas or Easter, but not going so far as to have a parody of the Christian Eucharist.

        • Meg Rosenfeld says:

          Hmm. since I’ve never seen the sort of thing you’re describing, I can’t really make an intelligent comment. It’s difficult to think of a literal parody of a Christian ritual (except maybe in the case of a group of kids “playing church”) other than the secular Santa-centered goings-on which seem to be increasingly taking over the holy day commonly known as Christmas . . .

  15. Meg Rosenfeld says:

    Back to St. John, sometimes I can’t help wondering what Jesus would say if he heard some of John’s more convoluted pronouncements. What’s the Aramaic for “Huh?”

  16. James Byron says:

    Regarding offensiveness: surely Christianity’s central claim, that Jesus of Nazareth was God in human form, is deeply offensive to Judaism.

    Further, offense isn’t a knockdown argument. It just means that someone strongly objects to something. Many evangelicals find gay relationships offensive; many Calvinists find Arminianism offensive, and so on. Such feelings say nothing for the merits of the view.

    The key question isn’t whether X is offensive, but whether the objections are reasonable and compelling enough to justify ending it.

    • Dennis says:

      Once again, we have a problem with most of western society having forgotten the difference between disagreeing with and being offended by. Offensiveness is most certainly not just when someone strongly objects to something. Calvinists don’t or shouldn’t find Armenianism offensive, though they disagree with it. It is merely a competing theory that divides evangelicals. But a play or novel that presented John Calvin as pimp who ran a brothel on the side and committed sex crimes with little boys would be offensive because it would be a false characterization meant to belittle and demean. So-called Christian seders are more like the sex-crime pimp John Calvin example than the disgreement with non-predestinationist types example – and would therefore be offensive.

  17. Bernard Randall says:

    At the risk of re-opening a can of worms, it seems to me a mistake to suggest that passover is not important to Christians. The death of the firstborn Son, the crossing of the people through the waters etc – the whole Exodus narrative – are deeply part of Christian theology. It’s an inescapable background to much in the New Testament (Sermon on the Mount as reflecting Moses on Sinai, or Jesus (in John’s Gospel) being crucified at the same time as the Passover lambs are sacrificed, anyone?).
    So to take just a few liturgical examples, in “Common Worship” material for Easter season, the introduction to confessional starts “Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed for us …”; the Eucharistic prefaces say “he is the true paschal lamb” or “in the joy of this Passover”; and the invitation to Communion is “Alleluia. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast. Alleluia.”
    Fine, that’s Church of England, not everyone will be saying those particular words, but the theology is front and centre.
    To this extent the passover story belongs just as much to Christianity as to Rabbinic Judaism. But the passover story in the Bible is not the same as the Passover religious observance/festival of modern Judaism.
    Indeed I thoroughly object to Christians celebrating a Seder meal, because it isn’t what Jesus did – both because the Seder as we have it is a later development, and because the Last Supper quite likely wasn’t a Passover meal. A “Christian Seder” doesn’t connect us to anything historically, while we have the Eucharist (and Maundy foot washing) to connect theologically to what Jesus did at the Last Supper.
    I don’t think that being offensive alone is a reason not do something with another more positive purpose, but in the case of a “Christian Seder” the offense is caused to no good purpose and so the case against is fatal. It ought not to be done.

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