Two years ago this week my book buddy Jim Van Buskirk and I were attending a lecture at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco. We used to work together at the San Francisco Public Library producing book events, and we still enjoy going to almost any literary event together. He is Jewish; I am Christian, we’re both gay and love books.
We were there to hear Deborah Lipstadt talk about her then new book, Anti-Semitism: Here and Now. I was one of the few non-Jewish people in the audience. I appreciated the chance to hear perspectives I might not hear otherwise. Dr. Lipstadt read from her work quotes like “We recognize and abhor the extremists. There is no ambiguity about who they are and what they believe. Most people (with an emphasis on the word “most”) respond to them with visceral disgust. But our focus on them can sometimes distort the landscape because they’re not the only ones poised to do harm. In the wake of the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler has become the template for the archetypal anti-Semite. When someone does not present as an out-and-out Nazi, observers often fail to recognize him or her as an anti-Semite. But to be an anti-Semite one need not be a Hitler or Nazi equivalent. You need not even be prone to violence. There are many anti-Semites who would never dream of even using offensive rhetoric.” And “When our children fear there is danger in openly identifying as a Jew, it is indeed something that should concern us all.” I felt uncomfortable as a Christian pastor.
It was just a few months after the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were killed. As Dr. Lipstadt described her anxiety about the upcoming Easter holidays as a time of particular wariness for Jews, I thought about the language we comfortably use in our Holy Week services that routinely talk about “the Jews” and the role they played in the first century death of Jesus. I felt the palpable fear in the room. As the holiest days in the Christian calendar approached, people in my community were excited about Easter lilies and new clothes, but people with whom I was sitting had plans for beefed-up armed security at their temples. Not two weeks after Easter that year an armed gunman shouting anti-Semitic sentiments shot up the Chabad of Poway synagogue near San Diego killing one woman and injuring others.
I grew up in a church that prayed every Good Friday for the “conversion of the Jews” with these words: “Let us pray for the Jews that the Lord … may take the veil from their hearts. … You do not refuse your mercy even to the Jews; hear the prayers we offer for the blindness of that people … that they may be delivered from their darkness.” Those prayers have been cleaned up in recent years, but the sentiment remains the same. In liberal Protestant churches we mostly don’t pray like that, but during Holy Week we will all likely read the accounts of Jesus’s death, replete with references to the Jews, never distinguish between a first century account and the present use of the term, and never acknowledge the Jewishness of Jesus.
The stories of Jesus’ death were internal to a community at the time but since then have been used by Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants alike, from Augustine to Martin Luther, to justify anti-Semitism even to the present. We use prayers and hymns that have people saying “Crucify!” but don’t pause and say, that was particular to a time and place. We need to say every time we use it in public worship that we disavow anti-Semitism in all its forms, or we are subconsciously participating in perpetuating Christian supremacy.
Fellow Christians, we don’t need to build up our faith at the expense of other people. We can tell an ancient story and give it context. We can talk about how the resurrection of Christ brings life and hope to us. And we can acknowledge the history and legacy of how that story has been used to oppress others, and explicitly refuse to perpetuate it, even unintentionally. Repentance for anti-Semitism in the past and in the present is what makes the events of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter truly Holy. A world of religious harmony and an end to intolerance and violence caused by religion is what Resurrection looks like.
The Rev. Jim Mitulski is the interim pastor of the Island United Church UCC in Foster City, co-president of the Peninsula Multifaith Coalition and a member of the Peninsula Solidarity Cohort.