A Lay Reflection

Reflection on the problem of anti-Judaism in Christian texts and worship, particularly the texts of the passion narrative
By Ann Lewis, Task Force convener and member of The House of Hope Presbyterian Church, Saint Paul, Minnesota

Problematic Easter Texts: “Merciful Treatment” – a Lay Reflection Just before Christmas I received notice that a childhood friend had written a book. When I had first met him in the sixth grade he was already a deep and creative thinker. Eventually, he had gone on to college to major in Religious Studies. He had been very serious, but the book was described as funny, a satire, written to make people laugh. I was intrigued. I couldn’t wait to read it and got it right away. It began with light hearted predictable cultural criticisms. It was funny, for awhile, and then the text turned to more serious “spoofs”, such as “unintended cruelties effected by religious pure hearts.” A case in point was a discussion in which the protagonist became aware that he, a Jew, was somehow still seen as included in the responsibility of Jesus’ death. He laughingly proclaims that this is quite a feat in that it happened 2000 years ago.” Born too late myself to take part in the Crucifixion, my personal complicity has never been made clear.” I did not laugh. It became obvious to me in this and subsequent scenarios , that growing up Jewish in a Christian culture had a deep and enduring impact on him. It underscored for me the importance of addressing the continuing possibilities of the transmission of anti-Judaism in our Christian texts.

At this volatile time, with the growth of anti-Jewish websites like “Jew Watch,” and issues concerning Israel and Palestine, it seems critical to address the anti-Judaism possible to associate with the Lenten and Holy Week texts. I am reminded of a pre-Easter editorial written several years ago by the Reverend John Buchanan, editor of The Christian Century magazine and head minister of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, who observed, “I am probably not the only preacher who cringes every Good Friday as I read John’s Passion Narrative with its relentless negative references to “ the Jews.”

I resonated with his sentiment then, and do with renewed fervor now, and thus urge that special attention be paid to the anti-Judaism that can be periodically interpreted from various Christian texts, but most especially those in the Easter season.

In her book, Preaching without Contempt, Marilyn Salmon, an Episcopal priest and professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Minneapolis, states, “The historical and ongoing ability of Christian texts to communicate anti-Judaism and contribute to anti-Semitism is a fact and a continuing problem.” The challenge is: how do we incorporate this kind of awareness into the reading of, and preaching of, these texts?

Professor Salmon suggests careful consideration and clarification of context, of the time period of the writing and the intent of the writers. Thoughtful solutions vary. Jewish professor and scholar Daniel Boyarin from the University of California- Berkeley focuses on the meaning of the word “Jews” as being critically important in the Passion Narrative. Does the Greek word Ioudaioi, when translated as “Jews” pertain to a priestly establishment that claimed a spiritual superiority despised by the general population? Does it mean authorities afraid of different interpretations of observance, or Israeli officials put in place by, or afraid of, Rome? Does it mean Judeans, or six “Jews” or six hundred? Most significantly, does it mean “Jews” as we use and understand the word today?

Professor Amy Jill Levine, a Jewish New Testament scholar who teaches at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and whose essay on “Jesus as Jew” also appeared in the issue in which Rev. Buchanan’s reflections appeared, writes that scholarship will not likely arrive at a universally accepted understanding. However, the persistent fact is that certain Lenten and Holy Week texts have historically been interpreted as anti-Jewish and continue to have that ongoing potential at every reading. Thus, she says, these “problematic texts” must, at the very least, undergo “merciful treatment” . The sensibility she suggests is what Rev Buchanan reflects in the continuation of his comment. “As I read those passages, I think of my friends Joe and Tony, Jews who are married to Presbyterians and who are sitting in the pew. I want to interrupt the reading and say. This doesn’t refer to all Jews.”

At the end of her book Marilyn Salmon significantly states, ” overcoming anti-Judaism ha far-reaching consequences. It does not end with correcting misrepresentations of Judaism. It extends to the core of the Gospel. Eradicating anti-Judaism is grounded in the conviction that it is antithetical to the Gospel. Ultimately that is what is at stake. In the gospel, there is no room for preaching contempt.

As a lay person, I would thus urge the transmitters of our tradition to acknowledge to their congregations this year, in their own creative ways, that some of our Lenten and Holy Week texts are problematic, and that the good news for Christians must in no way perpetuate bad news for Jews.