Photograph by Sandy Huffaker/AFP/Getty Images
A Christian response to anti-Semitism
June 10, 2019
The latest explosion of anti-Semitic violence in America came on the last day of Passover when a 19-year-old white male walked into Chabad of Poway synagogue and murdered one person and injured three others. The shooter was raised in the Christian church. His father was an elder. He had been taught Christian theology from an early age. And yet, somehow, he was a virulent anti-Semite by the tender age of 19.
The Chabad of Poway murder was six months to the day after another anti-Semite murdered 11 Jews at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. The day after Passover ended, I was scheduled to preach at the Baptist church where I am the Associate Pastor. Our church follows the Revised Common Lectionary readings, and that morning the gospel reading was the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus from John 20.
Scriptures that make us cringe
Just as in many congregations, the people stand for the reading of the Gospel. So there I was, shifting from foot to foot, ready to walk up to the pulpit, and John 20’s opening words rang out: “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” (John 20:19 NRSV)
I cringed when I heard that phrase “for fear of the Jews.” My discomfort did not arise from being ashamed of the gospel, as Paul disclaimed in Romans 1:16. Rather, I immediately wondered how people who were not trained in the interpretation of biblical texts would hear those words. Ripped from their historical context, the text might be heard as the basis for stereotypes about Jews.
A person who is prone to believe that the Jews killed Christ—as anti-Semites over the millennia have proclaimed—might hear this as supporting evidence. The fact that the Gospel of John was written in the context of Second Temple Judaism, by a Jewish author, engaging in an intra-Jewish dispute, is the kind of nuance likely lost on anti-Semites.
“For fear of the Jews” sounded different because of what had happened in Poway, California on the last day of Passover in 2019. For fear and hatred of the Jews, an anti-Semite in California went to a synagogue, murdered one person, and injured three others. Now, just one day after that shooting, I went on to preach the gospel, and I brought up the Chabad shooting. But I wasn’t prepared to deal with the gospel reading and its language about “the Jews.”
“For fear of the Jews” sounded different to me because of the friendships I had formed and nourished in the last two years with rabbis and other Jews in my community. I suddenly had this urge to explain, contextualize, and historicize. Interfaith relationships both deepen our understanding of Christian faith and challenge us to interpret and condemn the tragic history of anti-Semitic violence that has arisen in the heart of Christendom.
I remember having a similar cringe last summer when I had planned a sermon about the relationship between church and state, focusing on Romans 13. It seems like a thousand years ago in political time, but you may recall that then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions had quoted the passage as a theological justification for the DOJ policy of prosecuting all migrants and family separation.[i]
The verse cited as authority by Sessions was Romans 13:1, where Paul wrote, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” (NRSV) The amount of hermeneutical twisting and historical research required to get that verse to say something else was quite an exercise. To hear it read out loud, just days after many had been debating the use and misuse of this verse over the centuries, was another uncomfortable moment.
We all know of passages of Scripture that we would like to politely pass or gloss over, or even excise entirely given the history of misinterpretation and misuse. And the history of Christian anti-Semitism has had its fair share of reliance on problematic passages. The John 20 passage is just one of several which deserve careful study and contextualization.
More fatal for Jews have been Christians resorting to violence on the authority of John 8:44 (“You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires”) and Matthew 27:25 (“His blood be on us and on our children!”) If you study Christian history and pogroms, you’ll never hear those verses the same way again. For centuries, Christians promulgated the myth of deicide and hurled the epithet “Christ killer” against their Jewish neighbors. New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine has argued that the Matthew 27:25 verse has “caused more Jewish suffering than any other in the Christian testament.”[ii] (Amy-Jill Levine, Matthew, Mark, and Luke: Good News or Bad?, p. 91 from “Jesus, Judaism, and Christian Anti-Judaism: Reading the New Testament After the Holocaust.” Westminster John Knox Press (2001) eds. Paula Fredriksen and Adele Reinhartz)
The Chabad of Poway Murderer
On April 27, 2019, an anti-Semite brutally attacked congregants and the rabbi of Chabad of Poway synagogue with an assault rifle. At the end of his murderous assault, congregant Lori Gilbert-Kaye was dead and three injured, including the rabbi of the synagogue. The shooter reportedly screamed out anti-Semitic curses before opening fire.[iii] News reporting established that he was also the author of a seven-page screed filled with anti-Semitic tropes and hatred. [iv]
The shooter had no criminal record.[v] He was no cryogenically frozen Nazi who woke up in the 21st century and decided to go on a rampage. In actuality, he was raised in a Christian church. He was a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (“OPC”), in which his father was an elder. He was also reportedly a 19-year-old nursing student.[vi] The fact that this latest occurrence of anti-Semitic violence arose within the very heart of Christianity, was a warning bell for many clergy and especially members of the OPC.
The OPC, for its part, issued a vigorous condemnation of the shooting and of anti-Semitic acts more generally, stating that “[w]e deplore and resist all forms of anti-Semitism and racism. We are wounded to the core that such an evil could have gone out from our community. Such hatred has no place in any part of our beliefs or practices, for we seek to shape our whole lives according to the love and gospel of Jesus Christ.”[vii]
The murderer authored a seven-page manifesto posted on some dark corner of the Internet, which among other things, apparently contained several theological claims allegedly in support of his anti-Semitic motivations. Reverend Mika Edmondson, as the Washington Post has reported, is a clergy member of the OPC who has read the shooter’s rant. Rev. Edmondson had this to say about the anti-Semitic rant and the shooter who authored it: “We can’t pretend as though we didn’t have some responsibility for him — he was radicalized into white nationalism from within the very midst of our church.”[viii]
The Tree of Life and Chabad of Poway shootings leave me with more questions than answers. Does the Church have a problem with Christian-sponsored anti-Semitism? Are we failing in educating Christians about the proper interpretation of New Testament passages which have a dark history of being correlated with violence against Jews?
Is the problem instead that we are fighting a losing battle against the 24/7 onslaught of the dark corners of the Internet, with sites devoted to anti-Semitism and white supremacy, where conspiracy theories abound and manifestoes can be posted? Can we hope to counter such bile with a 20-minute sermon on Sunday morning or our Sunday School hour?
People commit horrific acts of violence all the time while drawing inspiration from a variety of ideologies and sources. That a mass shooter also attended church shouldn’t seriously surprise us, especially in 21st-century America when mass shootings are just a part of our everyday life. Unfortunately, being raised in the Christian church is not an insufficient inoculation against violence and hatred.
Dennis Rader, the notorious “BTK killer” was a church leader and operated for years using the mask of Christian piety while committing unspeakable acts of barbarism.[ix] Nobody seriously thought that he learned how to torture and kill from the Church.
All of that to say that it would be a logical fallacy to suppose that the Church is responsible for every act of evil committed by its members. The Church is, after all, a community of sinners. But there is a serious question to ask about the role that strains of Christian theology have played in the formation of murderous anti-Semitism that distinguishes the Tree of Life and Chabad of Poway shootings from other acts of violence.
Here’s the question that I’m sure many in the OPC and other Christians are now asking: how did a young person raised in Christian faith, training to care for sick and injured patients, turn into an anti-Semitic murderer? I don’t know, and we may never know the full story. Nor do we know the precise role that Christian anti-Semitism played in his ideological formation. Much is murky about the shooter’s motivations, and perhaps we’ll never get the clarity we’d like. But we have a responsibility to inquire, to investigate, and to do some soul-searching.
I hope you can see the complexity of this issue, and the difficulty—no, even the sheer impossibility—of determining causation in any given case. Causation is almost always multi-factorial, and only time will tell whether in this specific case it was mental illness, the ideology of white supremacy, gun culture, or the killer’s theological beliefs which tipped the scales towards murder. Perhaps it was all or some of these factors which combined, in some imperfect storm, to create his hatred.
So long as we obsess about causation, we remain paralyzed to proactive speech and action. We can be tempted into saying he is not one of us, no one here would ever do that. Or we can distinguish our congregational and cultural setting from that of the shooter’s. My guess is that no person in the OPC congregation thought they were directly fostering anti-Semitism. No one thinks their community is capable of that kind of darkness until they’re looking in the rearview mirror.
No doubt there is plenty of overt anti-Semitism, whether in the blasphemous slur that all Jews in all places are responsible for the death of Christ, or in other forms of stereotypical assumptions on display in Christian communities about Jewish people. Anti-Semitic attitudes can be quite subtle too.
A common interpretative move in Christian circles is to extrapolate from the anti-Pharisaic passages in the New Testament to Judaism writ large. Many contemporary Christians see themselves as the spiritual ones, while imagining that “the Jews” are the Pharisees of the New Testament, unyielding in their legalism. The notion that all Jews are “legalistic” and obsessed with ritual instead of a living relationship with God is quite prevalent in Christian communities. My experience has uniformly been that people who espouse these beliefs do so almost entirely without actual knowledge of contemporary Jewish belief and practice and have no deep friendships with Jewish persons.
At its worst, these attitudes may contribute to persons becoming actively anti-Semitic. At the very least, such attitudes contribute to a culture of apathy and moral disconnection from our Jewish neighbors. Christians have a moral obligation to vocally condemn anti-Semitism through education and interfaith relationships.
The command to love God and neighbor precludes anti-Semitism
Christians are commanded to love God and love their neighbor. A Christian cannot in good conscience do either of these things and be racist and anti-Semitic.
With respect to Christian attitudes towards Jews, it is important to know that Christianity was a Jewish religious movement. Jesus was Jewish and all his earliest followers were Jewish. The concerns, sacred texts, ethical assumptions, and theology of Christianity grew out of the context of Second Temple Judaism.
Jesus’ most fundamental teachings arose out of engagement with the sacred texts of Judaism. The spiritual and ethical core of Christian practice can be traced to Jesus’ response to the lawyer who asked him which was the greatest commandment of the Law in Matthew 22:35. Jesus responded with a pair of scriptural commands from the Hebrew Bible, the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:17-18.
Loving God and loving neighbor were the greatest commandments, Jesus said. And these were of course entirely consonant with the teachings and practice of Judaism. So, to hate any person is a violation of the command to love God and neighbor. For all persons are made in the image of God and we cannot love our neighbor if we hate them and spread lies about them.
The rise in anti-Semitism should add a sense of urgency to our response
There is a sense of urgency that I believe should grip the Christian community when it comes to anti-Semitism. The data shows that we are currently experiencing an explosion in incidents of anti-Semitism, both in the United States, and in the global community. The Anti-Defamation League has reported that acts of anti-Semitism are at historically high levels.[x]
Last year—2018—was the worst year in recent memory. During 2018, the Tree of Life shooting occurred, and in addition there were “1,879 attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions across the country in 2018, the third-highest year on record since ADL started tracking such data in the 1970s.”[xi]
American and international awareness of the Holocaust is increasingly dropping.[xii] In 2014, the ADL conducted an international poll which revealed that only 54% of the global population was aware of the Holocaust.[xiii] As survivors of the Holocaust age and die, the living memory of the Shoah is fading.
Christian theology and biblical interpretation have played a role in the rise of anti-Semitism
Christians should speak up and act against anti-Semitism because the Bible and Christian theology are still being used to justify hateful ideology and violence. Christians should make it plain that such reliance is horribly misguided and antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.
The anti-Semite who murdered Jews in Pittsburgh complained on social media of a welcoming attitude towards refugees and migrants.[xiv] On his social media bio page, the shooter referenced John 8:44, and then stated “Jews are the children of satan.”[xv]
His paraphrase is not literally what the verse says, but ripped from its context one can see how a person untrained in Christian theology or biblical interpretation could paraphrase the text in that way, especially a person who has been drinking in the bile of white supremacy online, day after day.
Truth be told, even with appropriate contextualization, the text is difficult to read and hear. In it, Jesus addresses a group of Jews who are debating with him about his claims about himself and about God the Father. The gathered Jews say that God is their father, but Jesus says that because they were trying to kill Jesus, this must not be true. The Tree of Life murderer cited John 8:44, which comes immediately after what I’m describing. In it, Jesus says to other Jews:
“You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (NRSV)
Of course, it is true that Jesus was a Jew, and that what we are witnessing is an intra-Jewish debate. At another level, the text is even further removed from Jesus because it reflects an intra-Jewish debate within early Johannine communities. It would be a bit like reading the transcript of a Baptist denominational meeting in which the group is trying to disfellowship a church from its midst. All present know that the family is having a disagreement, no matter how contentious, but it is all within the family.
But even this analogy breaks down. At its worst, Baptist infighting never resulted in a pogrom. But Christian anti-Judaism which over time became anti-Semitism did result in many pogroms. There is a direct correlation between bad theology and violence against Jews.
The truth is that even if Christians work harder at educating folk about these problematic New Testament texts which have a history of being used by anti-Semites for violent ends, we may never reach the cesspools of the online hate-mongering where so many spend their time. But a posture of defeatism is no warrant for remaining silent.
Indeed, whether our proclamation and advocacy is directed at hardened neo-Nazis, or to people who are still within the teaching and preaching influence of the Church, it is time for Christians to take a much more vocal stance against anti-Semitism. It is beyond time. In fact, it is 2,000 years late, but we have no choice but to start today.
We need to make common cause with our Jewish neighbors
Many churches may believe that they have plausible deniability in the case of anti-Semitic violence. They might point out that you can’t really point to the official teachings of any mainline Protestant or Catholic tradition today and say see, there it is, the church teaches its members to hate the Jews.
Instead, it is quite common for the bromides of church marketing to cover all the church’s sins: we welcome everyone…all are welcome here. When, in truth, there are white churches where blacks aren’t welcome. There are churches where LGBTQ persons aren’t welcome. And, no doubt, there are churches where Jews are not welcome.
We must move beyond the complacency of “all are welcome” and actually practice hospitality and genuine friendship outside the walls of the church with our Jewish neighbors.
Remember the Charlottesville rally where neo-Nazis chanted “Jews will not replace us”?[xvi] Remember the Tree of Life shooting in 2018, during which 11 Jews were murdered?[xvii] Remember the Chabad of Poway shooting? These atrocities, coupled with hundreds of incidents that don’t get widespread media coverage, like the defacing of graves in a Jewish cemetery in Massachusetts with swastikas, amount to a culture of hatred and intimidation.[xviii] All cry out for a robust Christian response.
The drastic increase in anti-Semitic incidents places an impetus on Christian leaders and lay people to reach out to their Jewish neighbors to learn from them and show solidarity. If you’re doing that already, great. If not, see this as a learning opportunity.
Ask yourself these questions: does my church or its leadership have any friendships with rabbis or other leaders in the Jewish community? Do I myself have any Jewish friends or colleagues close enough that I could call, visit, or email in the wake of yet another mass shooting at a Jewish house of worship?
Coming full circle
To bring this meditation full circle, I return to my cringing on the Sunday after the Chabad shooting. Why did the text make me cringe? Not because I am ashamed of the gospel. Rather, I am ashamed of the tepid and at times non-existent Christian response to anti-Semitism. I am ashamed of the history of Christian complicity in and advocacy of anti-Semitic attitudes and biases.
There is a different way, one which arises organically out of our shared faith traditions. One which can be traced directly back to the commands of the Shema in Deuteronomy and neighbor love in Leviticus. We cannot love God if we do not love our neighbor. And it is exceedingly hard to love our Jewish neighbors if we do not even know them.
I believe all of this starts with Christians reaching out to Jews in your community. Go to a shabbat service. Attend community events. Engage in joint ministry ventures in interfaith settings. These acts will inform your exegesis and appreciation of Scripture.
Work hard to know how our problematic texts have been used for violence and what that means today. Act as if you believe that Jesus Christ really did break down the wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles some 2,000 years ago as Paul claimed in Ephesians 2:14.
Do this or other hopeful and creative things to teach others that anti-Semitism and hatred of all forms violate Christian scripture, theology, and ethical practice.
However, being silent is no longer an option.
The Rev. Daniel Headrick is associate pastor of Northside Drive Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia. Prior to joining Northside Drive, he practiced civil litigation with a law firm in Knoxville, Tennessee. He is a former fellow of both the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.
[ii] Amy-Jill Levine, Matthew, Mark, and Luke: Good News or Bad?, p. 91 from “Jesus, Judaism, and Christian Anti-Judaism: Reading the New Testament After the Holocaust.” Westminster John Knox Press (2001) eds. Paula Fredriksen and Adele Reinhartz.
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