The pope's visit to Israel and his strong statements seeking to acknowledge the history of Christian anti-Semitism should gladden the hearts of every person on this planet. For thousands of years, various religious forces have sought to dominate or destroy others who did not share their perspectives on God and salvation. No wonder so many people eventually felt disgust and revulsion at the pettiness and evil of religious communities that desecrated the image of God, seeking to impose their "one correct path" to the sacred.

Christianity has a lot to repent for in this regard. Christian teachings inflamed millions of people to engage in acts of unspeakable cruelty and murder. And Christian institutions gave their blessings to those who used the Bible to justify the genocidal policies of conquistadors and American settlers, the enslavement of blacks, the burnings of women suspected of being witches, and numerous wars against the Muslims.

And then there is the very special history of Church anti-Semitism, which created a mindset in which Christians were always ready to attack, rape, expel, or murder Jews whenever one of their Christian leaders suggested it was appropriate. Jews were particularly vulnerable around Easter, when the masses were focused on Gospel stories of Jews killing their savior. The legacy of hatred laid the foundations for the Holocaust, and the indifference of most Christian institutions to the fate of the Jews made escape or rescue less likely.

One of the standard ways that societies seek to explain the alienation and lack of community their own members feel is to blame some Other who has been undermining what would supposedly have otherwise been a wonderful reality--and anti-Jewish indoctrination by Christianity guaranteed that Jews would become one such demeaned and hated Other for hundreds of millions of people.

I'm delighted that the Church is beginning to recognize its role in all this. But it will take much more than statements from the pope or even messages to the bishops to repair the damage done by nearly 2,000 years of hatred.

There are three steps that are needed to create real reconciliation between Christians and Jews:

1. Every Christian child must be taught the history of Christian distortions in relationship to Jews. This must go beyond an explicit repudiation of now-debunked Gospel teachings about Jews' supposed responsibility for Jesus' crucifixion. It must also include a detailed knowledge of anti-Jewish legislation by the Church, such as the Inquisition, the expulsion of Jews from Spain, Portugal, France, and England, the long history of pogroms in Eastern Europe, and the dismal failure of the Church during the Holocaust.

2. Christian institutions should foster joint Christian-Jewish projects aimed at creating a common struggle to challenge the ethos of selfishness and materialism in the contemporary world, and to challenge the "demeaning of the Other" that frequently accompanies this ethos.

Reconciliation can best be achieved when Christians and Jews find common ground by moving to higher ground: a shared vision of a world based on love and caring. I don't mean resolutions or projects with professional "community relations" people--I mean a true grassroots organization of Christians and Jews actively engaged in struggle against the globalization of capital and supporting, in its place, a Biblical approach to global economics, starting with the Jubilee, the Biblical mandate to periodically eliminate debt to fight poverty.

3. The Catholic Church should make reparations to the Jewish people--not through payments of money to Israel or some official organization but through support and cooperation with Jewish educational and religious institutions. The aim should be to teach Judaism to the contemporary world and to teach the Bible from a Jewish standpoint. Christianity sees itself as based on the Bible (chauvinistically labeled by Christians "the Old" Testament), so let them hire at least one Jewish educator per location to teach the Bible as read by Jews.

We are a long way from this at the present moment. First of all, most branches of Christianity seem unwilling to take any real responsibility for each other ("the Catholics did that, not us") or to be willing to grapple with the deep roots of anti-Judaism in the Gospels' polemics. Second, the pope is not yet willing to acknowledge the betrayal of the Jews during the Holocaust by Pope Pius XII or the terrible role played by Catholicism in Poland in creating the mass base for Polish anti-Semitism that generated so many willing persecutors of the Jews during the Nazi occupation.

Yet I still feel eminently pleased by all that has been done by this pope, all the moves he has made in the right direction, all the symbolic steps toward reconciliation.

In his attempts at Jewish-Christian reconciliation, the pope mirrors his stance in so many other areas. Consider his impact on social justice. On one hand, he has been an articulator of the social-justice gospel, declaring that the world needs to challenge the unfair distribution of wealth and power generated by marketplace selfishness and globalized capital. On the other hand, he has been a force to silence progressives inside the Church, undermine the potential impact of liberation theology in Central and South America, and elevate into positions of leadership in the Church many who are all too happy to reconcile with the forces of capital and to offer the poor little more than a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter.

Let's not kid ourselves--this pope has not built his Church into a vehicle for social healing, justice, or reconciliation with the Jewish people or any of the Church's many other victims. And when Church activists are mobilized, it is more often around their opposition to abortion or gay rights than it is to challenge government defense budgets, the proliferation of guns and alcohol, the excesses of corporate capitalism, or the denunciation of conservatives who have done their best to further weaken social support networks. In short, why be surprised when such a pope does a great public-relations job around Jewish issues without really making the grassroots changes that I've mentioned above.

One of many reasons why I wish this pope had a greater interest in turning his sometimes stirring moral visions into Church realities and a new kind of social-justice-oriented Catholicism is that it would give him cleaner hands when dealing with the State of Israel. Too often, Israelis are able to dismiss the pope's interventions on behalf of Palestinian rights by simply noting that the Church's tawdry record leaves it in no position to preach morality to the Jews.

Yet we Jews should learn a lesson from our own critique of the inadequacy of Christian efforts at reconciliation. The Jewish people, particularly those living in Israel, must soon confront the issue of reparations for the Palestinian people. Though the expulsion of the Palestinian people was never an outgrowth of Jewish religious teachings, it was a tragic and avoidable consequence of the struggle for Jewish liberation (a struggle made necessary, in large part, by the long history of Christian anti-Semitism). In subsequent decades, the religious community in Israel has become a champion of moral insensitivity toward the Palestinian people and religious chauvinism toward almost everyone (particularly fellow Jews who follow a different path). Those of us who remain committed to Torah and the religious path to God have lots of atoning to do for this misuse of Judaism. So we might develop a certain amount of compassion for this flawed pope--because we too have been deeply flawed in the way we have talked about reconciliation toward those whom we have oppressed. And we too have still not delivered the goods.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad