Friday, May 2, 2014

The Jews Did Not Kill Jesus

I wrote the following words on Good Friday, but due to the crush of Holy Week for someone in my profession, I did not send them out.  The news cycle has moved on from the shootings at two KC Jewish institutions, but I feel these words are still worth sharing now (and hopefully worth reading).   

I attended the interfaith memorial service for William Corporon and Reat Underwood who were killed last Sunday at the Jewish Community Center and Terri LaManno who was killed a few minutes later at Village Shalom.  The terrorist attack by a white-supremacist maniac shook Kansas City.  The victims were all Christians, but the intended targets were Jews.  Church members who knew I was attending the service looked for me on the TV broadcast, but when all the clergy present were called up to the stage I was in the very back and could not be seen.  That's just fine with me, because I wasn't there to be on TV.  On the back row, I got to put one arm around an Imam and one arm around a Rabbi while we sang "Oseh Shalom."  That was a special moment for me.

One of the speakers at the service declared that Jesus was killed by the Roman occupying army rather than by Jews.  I was glad to hear that said, but I wish he had stated it even more clearly, perhaps repeated it two or three or a hundred times, because the message doesn't seem to be getting out there.  The historical and biblical fact that Jesus was killed by Roman authorities has eluded Christians throughout the centuries and continues  to elude many today.  The idea of Jews as "Christ killers" has been an excuse for atrocities against Jewish people for centuries: ethnic cleansing, pogroms, the Holocaust, etc.  The image of the Jewish "Christ killer" has been propagated by such notable figures as Shakespeare (think Shylock in the Merchant of Venice), Martin Luther and Henry Ford (who distributed the scurrilous tract The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion).  The hateful idea spreads not just by the lunatic fringe spouting conspiracy theories about Jewish world domination but also by preachers in church pulpits around the world who declare, "Jesus was killed by his own people."

To be fair to those preachers who preach, "Jews killed Jesus," they are only preaching from the Bible.  In Matthew 27, the Roman governor Pilate speaks to a crowd who demand Jesus' death.  It reads: "All the people answered, 'His blood is on us and on our children!'"  This verse has been interpreted for centuries to mean that not the Roman authorities, not just the crowd saying those words but all Jews in every time are responsible for Jesus' death.  Similarly, the Apostle Paul, who elsewhere has positive things to say about his kin, states in 1 Thessalonians 2: "the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone."  The Gospel of John doesn't help matters much by its depiction of "the Jews" a term it uses about seventy times.  "The Jews" don't come off too well in John, especially in chapter 8 where Jesus says to some Jews who believed in him, "You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father's desires."  If Jesus said that about the Jews who believed in him, how bad were the words he used about the Jews who didn't believe in him?  The idea that Jews are "children of the devil" has inspired depictions of Jews with horns and cloven hoofs for over a thousand years.
Historians and critical interpreters of the New Testament argue (persuasively, I think) that these early Christian writings came about in a time when Judaism and its daughter religion Christianity were parting ways.  Like all family fights, this particular fight got nasty.  Furthermore, it should be noted that the early Christians (many of whom were in fact Jewish) wrote from the point of view of a minority movement rather than a majority one.  These verbal attacks against Jews were read differently when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Furthermore, historians and critical interpreters point out that while some Jewish religious leaders-particularly the Jerusalem elite-may have conspired to have Jesus killed, only Rome had the power to crucify someone.  The decades before and after Jesus' death are filled with plenty of rabblerousers being executed by Roman authorities.  Rome feared the power of crowds to assemble and wreak havoc.  The reason Pontius Pilate bothered to come to Jerusalem every year during Passover was because he was worried about all those Jews gathering together celebrating their victory over another subjugating empire (read Exodus if you've forgotten that story).  A Jewish rabbi who was being hailed as the King of the Jews and the Messiah would not have been tolerated by Roman authorities.  The first and second centuries C.E. contain numerous leaders of Jewish revolts who claimed to be God's Messiah; Rome killed all of them too.  The so-called "cleansing of the Temple" when Jesus drove out the money changers would have been seen as a threat to Jerusalem's religious establishment, but to the Romans it would have appeared Jesus was inciting a riot.  Such troublemakers were quickly disposed of by the might of Rome.

Critical historical inquiry of the New Testament doesn't stop hatred of Jews-at least not in and of itself.  What really changes people are relationships.  When people encounter others as people rather than as an abstract concept, common humanity is found.  Ultimately, interfaith relationships are what reveal the lies of anti-Semitism.  Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, in her wonderful book, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, writes these words:  

"To engage in interfaith conversation means to understand that what is dogma to one participant is danger to another, that what is profound may also be painful.  Jews and Christians need to read the texts together.  Christians need to recognize the impact that the problematic [New Testament passages] have had on Jews.  In turn, Jews should be aware that most Christians do not consciously read the texts anti-Jewishly and even resist any anti-Jewish implications.  Although the New Testament can be seen as anti-Jewish, it need not be.  Words-inevitably-mean different things to different readers.  We need to imagine how our words sound to different ears."

For centuries, Christians have declared Jews are "Christ killers" to justify violence against Jews.   We have a lot of years to make up for, so we had better get started calling out that lie.  Let's hope it doesn't take two thousand more years to eradicate it.  May we be bold declaring our love for our Jewish brothers and sisters, so that we might drown out the voices of hatred and violence raised against them.   

Grace and Peace,

Here are some related writings on the subject that I found meaningful to read:
You can read more thoughts from Chase and keep up with what he's reading on his blog: and follow him on Facebook and Twitter. 

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