2016-06-30
During the Catholic Church's "Jubilee 2000" celebrations, Pope John Paul II issued a long-promised apology for the "sins of the sons and daughters of the Church" in its history against various groups like Jews, women, minorities, and even against truth itself. It was a sweeping statement, not complete--as no statement ever is--and not fully satisfying, in that it raised more subjects than it could address.

Yet, it represented something new in Vatican relations to the world. As a non-Catholic Christian leader, I want to express my appreciation and say it is a good beginning. I add quickly the obvious fact that it is surely only a beginning.

In this column, I want to focus on the portion of the papal statement that had to do with the church's treatment of the Jews, which I regard as the darkest stain on Christian history. Anti-Semitism is a particularly Christian "gift" to the world. Christians created it and encouraged it from the beginning of Christian history. It makes its first appearance in the Christian Scriptures.

Writing to the Galatians in the early 50s of the Common Era, Paul contrasted Judaism with Christianity in a most negative manner. Judaism was Hagar, Abraham's slave wife. Christianity was Sarah, Abraham's wife of choice. Judaism was Mt. Sinai, where "the bondage" of the law was received. Christianity was Jerusalem, "which is above," the source of "freedom from the law" (Gal. 2:21-31). Later, in his letter to the Romans, the Jewish Paul--in conflict with the more traditional orthodox elements of Judaism--wrote that "God gave them [the Jews] a spirit of stupor, eyes that should not see and ears that should not hear down to this very day."

These negativities also found a place in the Gospels. The author of Matthew's Gospel, who was a revisionist Jew, writing in the early 80s, states that the death of Jesus was the responsibility of the conservative orthodox elements within Judaism. Matthew even portrays these elements of Judaism as willing to acknowledge that fact and to accept that blame. Onto the lips of the Jewish crowd at the time of Jesus' arrest and crucifixion Matthew placed these dreadful words: "His blood be upon us and upon our children." Anti-Semitic rhetoric rises in intensity in the Gospel of John where Jesus was said to have called Jews "children of the devil."

In time, the Christian books that contained this hostility came to be called "The Word of God," thus validating Christian negativity toward Jews as God-inspired. When these words were later incorporated into Christian liturgies, this hatred reverberated through the ages in worship.

The Fathers of the Church--including such influential leaders as Tertullian, John Chrysostom, and Jerome--filled their writings with visceral condemnations of the Jews, calling them "vermin" and "worthy only of death." Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer in the 16th century wrote things about Jews that are difficult either to comprehend or to believe, so venal were they. Several years ago the Lutherans got a jump on the pope by issuing their own apology for Luther's anti-Semitic attitudes.

In the Sunday school of my childhood, the only Jews I met were evil people who sought to destroy Jesus. They were villains like Judas, his betrayer; Annas and Caiaphas, the high priests who sought his execution; and the Jewish crowds who shouted "Crucify him!" With this poison being dumped into the bloodstream of the Christian consciousness for 2,000 years, it is no wonder that anti-Semitism remains alive and well in the Christian West. It should not be surprising that during Holy Week and especially on Good Friday throughout Christian history, the Jews of Europe sought to stay out of sight because Christian worshipers were known to emerge from their churches after hearing the Passion story to beat and kill Jews for what their ancestors had done to Jesus.

When we add to this scenario the witness of previous popes who suggested that God's covenant with the Jews was null and void in light of Christ's resurrection, an event that suggested the Jewish religion had no right to continue, one gets just a taste of why an apology was necessary. It needs to be recognized that in these few illustrations, I have just touched the tip of the anti-Semitic iceberg created during Christian history.

There is no doubt that this Christian hostility over the centuries was a major force in creating the Holocaust itself. This human horror not only occurred inside the Western, developed, and ostensibly Christian nation of Germany, but it was also supported either overtly or silently by Pope Pius XII. The governments of such "Christian" nations as the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada were also guilty, for each of these countries closed their eyes to the reality of the Jewish slaughter by the Germans, and they also closed their shores to Jewish immigrants by refusing to treat them as political refugees.

All of this is to say that the apology from John Paul to the Jews was certainly in order. There is much for which an apology from all Christians to the Jewish people is long overdue.

In light of this history, the only real question is whether the papal apology is enough. If the apology is all there is, then the answer is obviously no. Only the concrete actions that flow from these words will finally determine the worth of the apology. John Paul II clearly sensed this, and his decision to follow the apology with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem was a symbolic act of recognition of the legitimacy of Judaism. His pointed visit to the Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem must surely have caused him to embrace the intense cruelty captured so powerfully in that place.

"We have sinned by our fault, our own fault, our own most grievous fault" is the only appropriate response to that experience.

What other actions might be taken to give substance and credibility to his apology? I suggest three obvious appropriate acts. First, John Paul might announce that the move to canonize Pope Pius XII as a saint had been permanently suspended. A pope whose hands are so obviously stained with Jewish blood has no place in the pantheon of Christian saints. The canonization of Pius XII would be an embarrassment to the entire Christian world.

Second, the pope could issue a directive that all Holy Weeks be observed by Christians apart from the hostile references to the Jews.

Third, the pope could state the obvious, by reminding Christians that Jesus was a Jew. So often the legend of his miraculous virgin birth has been used to gloss over the Jewishness of Jesus. Perhaps if we referred to Jesus as Yeshua and to his mother as Miriam, our consciousness might be raised to their Jewish identity. As a proper Jew, the Gospels assert, Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day of his life. He was presented in the Temple as part of his mother's purification, according to the law of the Jews, on the 40th day of his life. Perhaps his journey to Jerusalem at age 12 was part of a liturgical puberty rite that was a precursor of the practice of the Bar Mitzvah.

Judaism shaped and formed Jesus of Nazareth. The only sacred writings that Jesus knew were the Hebrew Scriptures, which came to be called pejoratively by Christians as the "Old" Testament. The only hymnal he knew was the Book of Psalms. The only Eucharist over which he ever presided was the Jewish Passover meal. We need to embrace both intellectually and emotionally the Jewishness of Jesus.

Beyond that, we need to be aware that Paul also was a Jew. All of Jesus' disciples were Jews. Mary Magdalene was a Jew. When Christians read the books of either Testament, we need to recognize that we are reading the work of Jewish authors. There is only debate about Luke's Jewishness. He does appear to have been born a Gentile but to have become a convert to Judaism. Certainly, we can read neither Luke's Gospel nor his second book, the Book of Acts, without being aware that the ordered liturgical life of the synagogue has washed over this man for years before he took pen in hand to write works that came to be included in Holy Scripture.

If papal action on these three proposals will soon follow the papal apology, then together with his stunning visit to the Holy Land the apology will gain proper credibility. Rooting out prejudice is hard work. It cannot be accomplished with symbolic acts alone. We welcome the papal apology and his symbolic journey. We hope other initiatives will follow soon.

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