John and the Jews: a serious problem for the church

The press continues to report on the rise of antisemitism in the U.S.  Trump’s notorious Mar-a-Lago dinner, for example, is among many reported cases.  It’s an outbreak visible in places large and small throughout the country.  Sadly, growing public awareness of the cancerous evil coincides with the time in the church year between Christmas and Easter when the Gospel of John is woven into Sunday readings.  Reaching a crescendo during Holy Week with blistering condemnations of Jews for failing to believe that Jesus was the promised messiah and for their engineering his crucifixion by the Romans.

It can’t be dismissed with a shrug  and a few cautionary  remarks in the middle of sermons.  John is perhaps the most favorite gospel of many Christians because it abounds in loving, reassuring passages such as the familiar football stadium banner, “For God so loved the World.” Jesus is most clearly understood as the Son of God in John.  He knows every thought and is the master of every situation, including his own arrest.  At the same time, John displays his human exhaustion, hunger, anger, and humor better than the other gospels.  How can John not be the beloved gospel attributed to the beloved disciple?  

It is a narrative about an observant Jewish messiah followed by Jewish disciples, with occasional forays into gentile territory to extend his gifts of healing and salvation. It’s hard to understand then why the narrative is also filled with condemnations of the Jews referring to them simply as ‘the Jews.”  It’s language which inspired twenty centuries of “Christians” to persecute, oppress, burn and murder Jews.  The violence was sometimes at its worst during Holy Week, especially on Good Friday.  From 1290 to 1472, Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land detoured to slaughter Jews they encountered.  The entire Jewish population of England was deported in 1290. To where? Anywhere not in Britain. Resettlement in Britain was informal and not officially tolerated until 1650. In the meantime, Jews in Eastern Europe were subject to periodic pogroms right through the 20th century.  Fifteenth century Spanish Jews were in mortal danger every day and often forced to convert by threats and through torture.  Oddly, Jews could usually find relative safety in Muslim territories. The holocaust of WWII that exterminated 6,000,000 Jews and others was so horrible we were positive the era of Jewish persecution had finally come to an end.  It didn’t.  It is here today in our own country. It is part and parcel of our long history of brutal discrimination against nearly everyone who cannot claim some sort of Anglo Saxon heritage.

It is the shame of the church, and the shame of every person who waves the banner of Christ.  It isn’t behind us.  It’s the greatest shame of nations led, at least figuratively, under the banner of Christ.  More than any other institution the church has a holy, moral obligation to do something, but what?

A good start would be by confronting John head on, especially during Lent and Holy Week.

Trying to explain context in readings from John is an option.  I’ve done that, but it always felt like an evasion that had little impact on what people in the pews heard in the readings to confirm their prejudices.  Another is to substitute “temple leaders” for the word Jews.  It’s closer to the truth, but it also evades the obvious problem of the words right there in the printed text.  One might eliminate  reading anything anti Jewish in John, but that also seems like evasion.   Some brutally honest adult Christian education can do wonders for those who attend and pay attention, but how many would that be? There are too many ‘buts’ in all these possibilities.

What we probably need is a combination of each.  Leave John out of Holy Week.  Present sermons with explanations that separate political manipulation in Jerusalem from the ordinary daily lives of the people. Conduct Christian education programs that address the problem directly, including the history it generated.  Boldly publish condemnations of anti semitism in every available way.  Teach Christians the fundamentals of Judaism.  Offer a morning or evening workshop from the Jewish prayer book, with obvious adaptations. 

Is it really necessary?  I think it is and that it will help in other areas where racism and other prejudices govern too much of every day life.   Failing to act when anti semitism is on the rise is to allow anti semites to feed on Holy Scripture.  It  encourages other voices claiming to be Christian to misrepresent the good news of God in Christ Jesus.  This is the year to act.

© Steven E. Woolley

4 thoughts on “John and the Jews: a serious problem for the church”

  1. This, i deed, “…is the year to act”…. and I. will be so homiletic, as you eruditely recommend!

  2. A wise and desperately needed admonition. Each of us must find a way to be heard, perhaps especially those of us who treasure our Judaic heritage whilst not particularly admiring the State of Israel as currently constituted.

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