I freely confess, I have issues with Christianity, centuries’ worth, accumulated in the years since the acrimonious divorce from Judaism. God knows, Christianity has had issues with Judaism – and Jews. Commissions and omissions, a litany of sins, in doctrine and teachings and incitement:
- Deicide – the charge that the Jews of Judea clamored for the death of Jesus, forcing Pilates’ hand, their guilt indelible and everlasting. “His blood be on us and our children!” they cried, according to Matthew 27:25.
- Supercessionism and triumphalism – God’s covenant with the Jews had been superseded, replaced with a new covenant with the New (Christian) Israel, with certitude in Christian supremacy.
- The wandering Jew – Jews could live in Christian lands, but only in a lowly, miserable state, to bear witness to the fate of those who rejected Jesus as Savior.
- The blood libel – the tenacious accusation, originating in medieval Europe, that Jews made their Passover matzah with the blood of murdered Christian children.
- Expulsions – from the Middle Ages on, Jews were expelled from nearly every country in Europe, banned from returning, sometimes for centuries.
- Forced conversions, as in Spain, 1492, followed by the Inquisition’s relentless pursuit of suspected backsliding converts.
- Ghettos – Jewish restriction to mandated areas of European cities, some physically locked shut at night.
- Pogroms – Russian anti-Jewish violence, erupting from the late 1800’s on, marked by savage attacks, looting and murder…
I could go on. The roster of history is cruel, but not relentlessly grim or one-note, and I know that.
But memory here is long; it spans centuries. It foments rage, a deep, tribal Jewish rage that rattles me, even as I understand its roots. Even when I feel I can justify it.
My grandmother used to cross the street rather than walk past a church. She and her husband fled the Russian empire because of the virulent Jew-hatred. Russia – land of pogroms, those murderous state-sanctioned anti-Jewish riots. Until it inherited them with the partition of Poland, Russia was an empire closed to Jews. Prior to that Russia’s stance had been: “To the enemies of Christ, no sanctuary.”
I’ve inherited that tribal memory, that visceral aversion, as if it were encoded in my DNA. The Christian cross is not a symbol of benevolence to me, even as I hasten to separate past from present, to paint with a fine point and not a broad brush, to honor the good and the kind and the compassionate from every walk, those of my own tribe and those outside of it.
I could brush off my mother-in-law’s evangelizing. It’s an irritant. It’s her cherry-picking of history, her insistence on a mythologized and whitewashed past that unleashes that deep roiling fury.
Just once, she caught me off guard; it was the only time I ever spoke sharply to her. I wanted, once and for all, to draw the line, the line that must not be crossed. It wasn’t the arrogance of proselytizing that drew blood. It was the arrogance of proselytizing Jews and why that’s so, the sorrowful history, the lingering wounds. She claimed she had no idea, knew nothing of this, had never even heard the epithet “Christ-killer.”
I told her about my grandparents’ lives, the Russian pogroms, about how Jews in imperial Russia were terrified of Holy Week because churchgoers, incited by Passion accounts that blamed the Jews, would take out their fury on the Jews in their towns, beating them.
She was aghast.
“That’s not possible,” she cried. “The people who did those things could not be Christians! Christians love Jews!”
There was no dissuading her.
I don’t blame my mother-in-law for the horrors of the past. I do fault her for not knowing them, and more for denying and refusing to face them, for editing them out so her religious Eden is not disturbed.
To admit such things would be to pull a thread from her idyllic version of her faith. It would begin to unravel, and that would be overwhelming, intolerable.
She holds fast to what she believes and perhaps, what her pastor is telling her now. She’s not on a national – or international – stage. She has no bully pulpit.
Some elicit only my scorn, like Bailey Smith, former Southern Baptist Convention president, who declared “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.”
But others elicit my rage. One of them has been Desmond Tutu, the beatific former Anglican Archbishop, guiding light of post-apartheid South Africa. I admire Tutu, a beacon for forgiveness and reconciliation. It feels like heresy to criticize him. But for all his talk of forgiveness, Desmond Tutu has a blind spot regarding Jews, one that speaks to hypocrisy, holier-than-thou arrogance, and a peculiar selective memory.
An apologist could note that his words, his admonishments, are simply consistent with Christian doctrine. A case could be made. But the greater truth may be that sometimes we need more than glasses to see where we’ve been – or still are – blind.
Desmond Tutu crossed a line, one that may be unforgiveable.
Christmastime 1989, Jerusalem. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has a message for the Jews of Israel, one that will reverberate with Jews worldwide.
Tutu is not just anywhere in Jerusalem; he is at Yad Vashem, literally “a place and a name,” the Holocaust memorial, museum and research center. A place where the names of those who perished, those who have none to remember them, and those who proved the saving remnant of their families, their villages, their city blocks, their nations, are recorded, their stories told, their lives archived like holy writ.
A place devoted to remembering, in as much detail as is humanly possible, the inhuman, the incomprehensible – and also the incandescent goodness of some, many of them devout Christians, who risked all to give sanctuary or provide forged papers, to arrange safe passage or clandestine escape for Jews otherwise destined for slaughter.
But Tutu does not address the fortitude, the luminous acts of those like Irena Sendler of Poland, or Miep Gies of the Netherlands, or Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, then apostolic delegate in Constantinople, subsequently better known as Pope John XXIII.
He has nothing to say on the topic of Christian antisemitism, past or present, the teachings and legacies that over centuries depicted Jews as Christ-killers, desecrators of Communion hosts, even child murderers, accused of baking Passover matzah with the blood of Christian children. Nothing about the legacy which tilled fertile soil for the Nazis to exploit, the furrows already enriched by the slaughter of Jews by Crusaders and Martin Luther’s virulent Jew hatred.
No. Tutu’s message is this: It is time to forgive, to move on, to pray for the souls and salvation of the Nazis. Time to pray for those who planned, orchestrated and carried out the Holocaust, those whose sadism made slaves of, and soap and lampshades from, fellow human beings whose mere existence as Jews was an unforgiveable affront.
“We pray for those who made it happen, help us to forgive them and help us so that we in our turn will not make others suffer,” he says, his gimlet eye fixed on the Jews of Israel as he stands amidst the figurative ashes and mass graves of European Jewry, in a nation thick with the descendants of those who survived, one out of three Jews in the world dead, two out of three of the Jews of Europe.
It’s one thing to forgive on your own behalf, to those who have harmed you; another to forgive on behalf of others, and another still to tell someone else to do so.
Transylvania-born Elie Wiesel, acclaimed Jewish author, survivor of both Auschwitz and Buchenwald, was asked about forgiving members of the Waffen SS, the Nazi elite, after he urged President Ronald Reagan not to lay a wreath at the German cemetery in Bitburg because it included the graves of SS officers. His eyes somber as his voice, Wiesel responded, “Who am I to say we should forgive? I can speak only on behalf of myself, but there are millions of others. What do I know, how the hurt they felt…should be expressed, in words or in gestures? Furthermore, do you know that no one ever asked us (to forgive them for the Holocaust)?”
Jews are not commanded, as Christians are, to love their enemies, to bless those who curse them, or to pray for those who torture them. As if that were the point, and not the Archbishop’s tin ear and heart as hard as the Biblical Pharoah of Egypt, both men, it seems, fell captive to the plague of choshech, a darkness so deep that neither could see their hands before their eyes, much less another’s face.