Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Other at Easter: The Paradox of Christian Anti-semitism


Late on a Saturday afternoon in October last year, a busload of football players from Ocean Grove who had been at the Caulfield races was driving through Balaclava in the suburbs of Melbourne. Locals, families with children, were walking home. Some of the occupants of the bus leaned out and yelled words including “Go the Nazis”, and motioned as though they were machine-gunning the children. When the bus pulled up at a red light and one man remonstrated with the men on board, they knocked off his hat and punched him in the eye.

Two weeks ago one of the offending footballers – one of the name callers - was convicted and fined for his actions, although those accused of assault are yet to come to trial. Oddly enough the convicted man’s family name was “Christian”. The victim was of course Jewish.

The appearance in suburban Melbourne of that ancient and deeply-ingrained form of prejudice is a reminder of the paradoxical place that Christianity has in the history of the particular form of intolerance that is anti-Semitism. Of course the Church condemns anti-semitism and other forms of racism, but before the mid-twentieth century and the revelations of the Nazi final solution, the level of commitment to such opposition could not be taken for granted. But Christian failures in this regard were not due solely to lack of information; they stem from the history of relations between Christians and Jews.

To state the obvious, Jesus was Jewish and his followers were Jews. He did not found a new religion as such, but questioned the real meaning of allegiance to the God of Abraham and of Moses and of David. The impact of his teaching, and the experiences of his followers in those events we have commemorated and continue to celebrate through Easter, led them to proclaim him as Messiah and Ruler, Son of God and Saviour. When they became convinced that non-Jews could share in serving and worshipping Jesus of Nazareth, the message was too radical to contain within the bounds of their own religious tradition. Yet this process did not happen instantly or easily, and tonight’s readings illustrate that fact. The readings this evening (Rev 3:1-13, Acts 12:1-16) give some clues to the ancient sources of Christian and Jewish difficulty with the mere fact of each other’s existence.

The elder John, visionary author of the Revelation, conveys messages from a divine figure who must be identified with the ascended Jesus. These are directed to Churches in cities of western Asia minor, through their guardian angels. To the Church of Philadelphia – the modern Turkish town of Alasehir – John is commanded to write various high-sounding words of encouragement, but also that “I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but are lying - I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you”.

The clearest thing about a “Synagogue of Satan” is that you don’t want to be part of it. It may be that those who “say they are Jews and are not” are exactly those whom you and I would call Jews, and that John’s embattled friends in Philadelphia are locked in a dispute about the scriptures and traditions of Judaism. They did not yet think they had created a new religion called Christianity – they thought they had recreated Judaism itself, and then found themselves locked in a deep conflict with those who, understandably, disagreed.

In the Acts of the Apostles, which depicts Christian life in the first few years after the first Easter but was written some further decades later, the Christians are now literal victims of religious violence. King Herod Agrippa I has James, one of the twelve apostles, executed, and then arrests Peter – who in this narrative is miraculously freed. This could all be political intrigue rather than ethnic or religious conflict, but we are told that James’ execution had “pleased the Jews”. And the miraculously delivered Peter the Jew proclaims (somewhat awkwardly) "…I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting."

In this document Jewishness is not a disputed term, but has been abandoned by the Christian author - even though many of the original readers were Jews, not the mention all the characters in the events depicted - as incapable of redefinition in the radical terms their claims would necessitate; Jews are now someone else – “other”.

Although the Ocean Grove footballers did not know it, their abuse of Jews in suburban Melbourne was a further episode in two millennia of Christian misconstrual of this “otherness”. Jews were quickly to become the embattled minority and the objects of Christian violence, and their identity not merely contested, but denied its value altogether. The results we know too well.

Otherness is among the greatest gifts and challenges of human life. Otherness can make a man named Christian yell at a man who called Jew; it can put another man on a cross. Yet it can also be that which allows us to value those human beings with whom we are called into relationship as precious to us, able to enrich our lives, to provide what we may not know in the tasks of growing as individuals, and as a human community.

The ability of the Christian Church to deal with the otherness of Judaism in particular is test of our authenticity; not just one high moral demand among others, but something that goes to the heart of the Gospel and the meaning of Christianity. The Church that was coming into being in the late first century and stands two thousand years later, was and is a means by which the heritage of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses and Miriam, of Ruth and David, is made available to a wider community, without specific ethnic origins and in a variety of cultural forms; but without the heritage of Judaism and even its present witness, that tradition is meaningless.

This history is as great and terrible an irony as Easter could present. The mere possibility that the emergence of the Christian Church could carry with it a great burden of wrongdoing is a reminder that the cross and resurrection are not God’s imposition of a theologically-correct world order. Easter is God’s invitation to us all to love beyond safety and to be assured not that God will now make us what we ought to be, but that we will be free to become so; and that God is with us in our deepest struggles, on the cross, and on the footpath in Balaclava.