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When Two Worlds Collide

This typed manuscript served as the basis for the oral message delivered by Rick MacArthur during the Sunday gathering on March 23, 2014.

Every year, about this time, an unease falls on the religious sensibilities of good Church-going folks. It occurs in the springtime when the season of Lent unfolds. The awkwardness is felt as the story of Jesus’ death is retold, re-sung, and reenacted, all with great vigor, for all to see and hear.

Here’s the essence of the story. Jesus is crucified. The story of his death on a cross and subsequent resurrection three days later as reported in the Gospels is seen by many as God’s stamp of approval on these events. A new religion is born. An old religion is usurped and its replacement spreads across the world. The new religion called Christianity becomes the largest in the world. Its predecessor, Judaism, becomes number eleven.

That makes for some awkward tensions each spring as these two religions come head-to-head in a battle for the hearts and minds of the spiritually faithful. And the awkwardness found in this complex mixture of religions brings out confusion, doubt, uncertainty, and no small amount of hard feelings among their adherents.

It’s one or the other, we are told. You can’t have both. The unfortunate result is the reality these two religions get along about as well cats and dogs. One barks at the other while one hisses in return. Or they coexist like oil and water. Sometimes the volatile mix flares up and somebody gets burned. When these two worlds, Judaism and Christianity, collide, the stakes are high, harsh words are spoken, and respect for one another can be hard to appreciate.

I’d like to suggest that we find a way to turn down the dial a bit. To encourage each religion to respectfully practice its own tenets. To see the good in each faith system. And to build bridges between the two, not barriers or dividers. For boxing gloves or barriers seem to be the preferred means of communications.

When was the last time you dialogued with someone from the Jewish religion about your differences? When did you last invite a Jewish Rabbi to come talk about his faith? When did your study of an Old Testament book get taught by a Jewish scholar? His faith tradition wrote it. Shouldn’t his perspective be invited to explain it?

That’s not how these two great spiritual institutions currently operate. They are more likely to be seen as antagonists or competitors – not colleagues on a mutual journey.

When we let the Lenten and Easter season blur our perspectives and ecumenical relationships we do damage to each other. I’d like to suggest we cease and desist from denigrating each other’s religion, start listening to one another’s points of view, and that especially we avoid making derogatory statements one often hears when the Easter season rolls around. Things like: 1. Judaism is an in inferior religion. 2. Christianity is the better faith system. 3. The only path to God is the one that begins on Christmas morning and ends on Easter Sunday.

Those three proclamations are incorrect. And if they ever become part of your faith conversation, I encourage you to rethink such false notions.

Replacement theology, as it is now being called, is not what we believe. Replacement theologies – the ones that suggest Christianity has replaced, or should replace Judaism – is offensive to the ears of all adherents to Judaism and to not a small number of Christian adherents as well. That kind of destructive thinking needs to be called out for what it is – a harmful, prejudicial, demeaning, and inaccurate assessment of what these two great world religions ultimately represent.

Christianity, as James Carroll has insightfully written, has unfortunately practiced anti-Semitism throughout its past and has used scripture to defend those unfortunate practices. Here are a few examples. Perhaps you are familiar with them.

1. Christianity has quoted the Gospel of Matthew 27: 24-25 as a pretext for denigrating Jews and attacking the Jewish religion.

Matthew 27 is the story where Pontius Pilate stands before Jesus on the night of Jesus’ arrest. He alone will decide Jesus’ fate on charges of blasphemy.

When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!” (The Message, vs. 24-25)

That single verse has done more harm by Christianity against Judaism than any other single verse of Scripture. It has been used as a means of holding all Jews responsible for the killing of one man 2000 years ago.

The words “His blood be upon us and our children” (vs. 25) has been taken by Christianity as carte blanche to accuse all Jewish followers of Jesus of being complicit in his unethical trial, judgment, and penalty. And even worse it suggests all Jews, religious and non-religious, are guilty of ordering his death.

Anybody feel a gross injustice being at work here?

That’s like saying all Native Americans today are guilty of the massacre of Custer and his cavalry at the Little Big Horn. Or all people of Japanese descent are responsible for the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Or all people of German descent, like my saintly grandmother Mima, and ergo me, are complicit in the Holocaust. We do history a disservice when we think in those terms. We do ethnic minorities a disservice when we categorize them with incredibly stupid blanket statements – you are guilty just by association.

Yet Christians engage in such slanderous assaults when they misuse scriptures for their selfish ends. If we want to understand who killed Jesus, I suggest we start with a study of the Roman Imperial legal systems. Crucifixion was a Roman form of punishment, not a Jewish one.

It’s time to stop this ridicule of Judaism, this unfortunate use of scripture, and stop blaming all Jews for the death of Jesus. Here’s a second fact.

2. The Crusades spread carnage to both Jew and Muslim.

When the Crusades began in the 11th century, the Pope sent his soldiers to Jerusalem to free the city from non-Christian domination. Jews were slain by the thousands wherever the Crusaders went. All along the journey from Western Europe to the Holy Land the Jewish people faced torture and execution. The Bible was used to show the Holy City of Jerusalem belonged to only one religion, a misreading of the Scriptures if they’re ever was one. Each of the Nine Crusades during in the Middle Ages endorsed Christian hostilities and this wide, institutional use of violence set the norm for Christian – Jewish relations for centuries to come. Here’s a third fact.

3. American history began with Jewish persecution.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus made an entry in his diary as he headed off to discover the new world. His diary references the edict which Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand had just issued as Columbus departed. This edict called for the expulsion of all Jews from the broad-reaching Spanish kingdoms. Tens of thousands of Jews were expelled from Spain and the European continent. Excluded from participating in the discoveries of the New World, they were cast to isolated locations, forced to convert to Christianity, and subjected to the brutal torture of the Spanish Inquisition when they chose to keep their Jewish faith. America began with the suppression of Judaism. Not one of our prouder ancestral moments. Fact number four.

4. The Father of Protestantism, Martin Luther of Germany, laid the foundations for the Nazi Holocaust.

It’s hard to admit that the Reformation had such prejudicial thinkers. But Luther, later in his career in 1543, published a 65,000-word treatise, entitled – get this – “The Jews and Their Lies”. Luther called the Jews “filth”. He likened their synagogues to “evil sluts”. He advocated the burning of their schools. He labeled the Jews “these poisonous worms”. And he concluded this sermon of vitriol by stating that all Germans “are at fault for not slaying them.”

I somehow missed that part of the Christian story during my time in Sunday School. It was conveniently left out.

It’s not too hard, hearing these obscure truths, to see how Hitler could devise the Holocaust knowing that the breeding grounds for Jewish genocide had already been laid five centuries earlier.

I suggest to you that Christianity has stigmatized Jews long and hard and it’s time to stop. It is time to become beacons of light not voices of discrimination for our brothers and sisters in the Hebrew faith.

Three things I’d like to suggest we do:

1. We validate the Jewish religion as one means of a path to God.

We do not need to view Judaism as an incomplete or inferior religion. Judaism’s claim as path to God is as valid as any of the world’s religions. It’s not considered a half-religion, inadequately interpreting God’s plan for human history. Remember Jesus was a Jew. The first disciples were Jews. And as our readings said this morning, without Judaism, Christianity would not exist. The validation of the Jewish culture and religion as a legitimate path to God should be our first order of business.

2. We advocate for the cessation of Anti-Semitism whenever, wherever we hear it. Recent studies indicate the incidents of anti-Semitic speech and violent acts are increasing. In some countries of Western Europe this resurgence has seen a doubling of attacks on Jews in the last decade.

3. We engage in broad, ecumenical conversations supporting both Judaism as a religion and the Jewish people as equal recipients of divine grace.

Some folks have not gotten that message. The President of the Southern Baptist Convention, Bailey Smith, is a prime example. A few years ago Bailey Smith made a statement that set the cause of ecumenical relations back a few centuries. Speaking at the Religious Roundtable’s National Affairs Briefing in Dallas, the leader of the Southern Baptists proclaimed that God did not and God does not hear the prayers of Jews.

When asked to apologize, he reiterated his words and showed just how widespread such personal biases are and how ignorant, harmful thinking shapes and colors religious conversations every day.

You and I, as people of faith, have an obligation to change that conversation. Not only are the lives and values of other people at stake. So is our own personal integrity. And that of the faith systems we hold dear.

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