An Easter comic strip portrays a menorah being replaced by a cross. Weeks later, a professional basketball player and a conservative political honcho make startlingly similar comments independent of each other, blaming Jews for crucifying Christ.
To Jews, as well as Christians involved in interfaith dialogue, it may seem like a return to the bad old days, when Christianity was rife with anti-Jewish teachings, such as the idea that Jews killed Christ and that Christians replaced, or superceded, Jews as God's chosen people, thereby relegating Judaism to the "reject" pile of world faiths.
"I find these episodes disheartening and a caution regarding the amount of work that needs to be done in reformulating Christian teaching beyond its anti-Jewish forms. We'd like to think we've come further than we have," said Peter Pettit, director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding of Muhlenberg College, a Lutheran institution.
For decades Catholic and mainline Protestant churches have been revising their theology to eliminate anti-Jewish teachings. Evangelical churches form a more complicated picture: To the extent that theology deemed offensive by Jews still exists today, it is generally among evangelicals.
But even so, evangelical thinking in recent years has undergone changes large and small, and one observer of the conservative Christian world said the predominant reaction to these recent flaps in Christian-Jewish relations was "tremendous embarrassment."
To understand the evangelical reaction to these recent incidents, it is important not to lump the three together: New York Knicks player Charlie Ward said in an interview that Jews have Christ's "blood on their hands," and political conservative Paul Weyrich declared on his website that Christ was "crucified by the Jews." In a substantively different incident, Johnny Hart, creator of the B.C. comic strip, drew an Easter strip deemed offensive by many.
Ward and Weyrich were espousing the notion that Jews are responsible for Christ's death. Though long a part of Christian thinking, "the idea that Jews are somehow responsible for the death of Christ is just not good theology," said Richard Mouw, president of the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary. "It wasn't the Jews who crucified him. It was sinful humanity who was responsible for him."
Mouw strongly condemned any reading of this theology that would lead to hostility or violence. But, he said, taking the gospel seriously means believing that "Jesus was the messiah and he came to Israel, and most of the Jewish people misunderstood what he was about, and to this day we disagree about it." Put another way, Mouw said, "If the Christian message is right, then many views of contemporary Jews are just wrong on this."
Still, Mouw is not espousing the supersessionism of yore, and his version wavers in both substance and style from earlier takes on the idea. For one thing, he said that "God continues to be faithful to the Jewish people."
"We've been guilty of a lot of bad things in the name of this gospel," Mouw said. "We've tended to want to preach at Jews without learning from Jews and cooperating with them on common concerns."
While supporting the theology behind Hart's cartoon, he criticized the way Hart framed it.
"Christians, and especially evangelicals, tend to express themselves in unnuanced and crude forms," he said. "Two thousand years of history have occurred since the New Testament, and we have to realize the deep hurt."
Whatever form it takes, Jews are unlikely to be comfortable with any form of replacement theology. Jewish leaders and organizations rushed to condemn Hart and lamented what seemed to them a resurgence of anti-Jewish teaching. Supersessionism, in their eyes, implies that Judaism has no legitimacy and was blatantly rejected by God.
"For Jews, the message remains the same [no matter how the theology is phrased]. You can't have a little bit of supersessionism," said Rabbi A. James Rudin, the longtime director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, who is now retired.
He said many evangelicals, most notably Billy Graham, have gone far in revising their theology and publicly repudiating anti-Jewish beliefs. Graham has repeatedly denounced attempts to target Jews in evangelistic efforts.
Replacement theology is not an issue on which Jews and Christians can simply agree to disagree, said Rabbi David Sandmel, former head of the Baltimore-based Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies.
"When a theology talks specifically about someone else, that's different from saying we have differences in our understanding of sin and repentance, for instance," Sandmel said. "It's one thing to have differences in theology. It's another thing to perpetuate theological bigotry or theological racism."
Even so, evangelicals and Jews tend to get along better today than ever before, said John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron. Evangelicals tend to see in the modern state of Israel a fulfillment of biblical end-times prophecies, and in observant Jews they find common values and political leanings.
Evangelicals in recent years have become more theologically sophisticated and better educated, which has reduced the anti-Jewish aspects of their rhetoric and theology, Green said.
The major recurring "irritation" in evangelical-Jewish relations, Green said, is over proselytizing: Evangelicals believe they must do it because God calls them to spread the "good news" of Jesus, and Jews believe the practice is insensitive at best. Several years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention began a high-profile missionary effort to convert Jews to Christianity. To Southern Baptists, it may have been an attempt to reclaim the evangelistic zeal of a bygone era, but to Jews it was the height of disrespect and even hate.
And, Green said, evangelical leaders have by and large avoided any aggressive campaign to eradicate anti-Jewish sentiment from their followers' thinking. "I'm not sure evangelical leaders have systematically addressed that cultural baggage," he said. "Maybe what's missing is that intentional effort to educate people."
Such an effort has been going on for years in Catholic and mainline Protestant churches.
Two 20th-century events have forced Christian thinkers to re-examine how their faith has approached Judaism: the Holocaust and the rise of pluralism. The first caused Christian theologians to consider the ways in which Christianity contributed to Nazism. The second caused many Christians to accept, respect, and even celebrate the religious and ethnic diversity in American and European societies.
In recent years, Christian thinkers have relied on complicated, groundbreaking theological arguments to re-explain the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. Theologians today emphasize both faiths' common origins and beliefs. Some speak of a double, ongoing covenant, one that God struck and maintains with Jews, and another separate-but-equal one that God struck with Christians. Others have explored and re-emphasized Jesus' Judaism and the debt that Christianity owes Judaism for forming the basis of the newer faith.
The Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, and many others have issued statements in recent decades repudiating and apologizing for the anti-Jewish teachings of their past, calling for cooperation with Jews, and emphasizing the common values and common God of the two faiths.
Muhlenberg College's Pettit said the key to eradicating anti-Jewish feeling is to train a new generation of clergy.
"Jewish-Christian understanding has been ghettoized: Those who do it are few and far between, and what they do hasn't had a big effect on those folks in the classical disciplines," he said. "I don't think this issue has been integrated into the curriculum well."
Among the many efforts to further the process is one at the institute Pettit heads: He is creating a web-based journal that will provide pastors with ideas and resources for sermons that integrate Jewish sources with Christian ones.
"This will provide imagery from the pulpit that puts Jews and Judaism in a positive light," Pettit said.
Rudin, though, believes that evangelical-Jewish relations will worsen in the coming years, as the Holocaust--with its tangible reminder of the dangers of anti-Jewish thinking--recedes further into history.
"We have a new generation [of evangelicals] that is not restrained in the same way," Rudin said. "We're in for some tough times."
For his part, Mouw called for Christians to forge "deep friendships" with Jews, to love and respect them, to learn from them about the Jewish roots of Christianity and the ways in which Christians beliefs have hurt Jews, and to repent for those sins.
On this, he admits he feels conflicted: Evangelicals must continue to witness to Jews while doing so sensitively and with understanding of the pain it has caused in the past.
That "messiness" is something Mouw is content to live with. And in that messiness lies the shift in evangelical theology during the past half century.