Being Jewish on Good Friday – where to hide?

I visited charming Wittenberg in Germany several years ago, to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. It is a fairytale city. You can read my report and insights about the visit and the contribution of Martin Luther to many things we simply take for granted. Nothing compares to him in Anglicanism because he basically translated the Bible into a form of German that set the future of the language. Luther is the creator of modern-day German, thanks to his translation of the Bible. He was a theologian, social justice reformer and a musician who composed many scripturally based hymns that we still sing. It was as if we took Shakespeare, Cranmer, Tyndale, Tallis, Byrd and Wilberforce and rolled them into one.

But like many agents of God, he was not perfect and indeed was deeply flawed. He had his own blind spots and prejudices and unfortunately these flaws shaped the future of Christianity in his German heritage, namely anti-Semitism. There is a direct link between what would become Lutheranism and a belief that the state and the rulers had a key responsibility in maintaining power to enable the church to function as an agent of God. He wrote several important tracts that allowed the German authorities to not only break ties with Rome, but also to persecute minorities like the Anabaptists and to crush the peasants revolt, many of whom were inspired with deeply spiritual principles.

Luther was also extremely critical of Judaism and shared much of the culture of his day in his vitriolic condemnation of Jews in general. In Vom Schem Hamphoras (1543), Luther comments on the Judensau sculpture at Wittenberg, echoing the antisemitism of the image and locating the Talmud in the sow’s bowels:

“Here on our church in Wittenberg a sow is sculpted in stone. Young pigs and Jews lie suckling under her. Behind the sow a rabbi is bent over the sow, lifting her right leg, holding her tail high and looking intensely under her tail and into her Talmud, as though he were reading something acute or extraordinary, which is certainly where they get their Shemhamphoras.”

The combination of support of the state to uphold the faith and his anti-Semitic vitriolic would culminate in 20th century National Socialism, the rise of Fascism as a mainstream political force and the destruction of European Jewry. Protestant and Catholic churches not only endorsed this genocide, but they reinforced a deep systemic hatred and fear of Jews that has been an indelible dark stain on the western Christian tradition that we have not fully acknowledged and still need to confess and repair.

There is a story about Mussolini when he was trying to get the Vatican to support his form of Italian fascism. He reminded the Pope Pious XI that his aspirational policies towards the Jews were not going to be that different from the historical response of the (Roman Catholic) church to Jewry. The Pope provided a decade of support to Mussolini’s policies recently revealed in a scathing book by Pulitzer Prizewinner David Kurtzer.

The hatred and fear of Jews is a shadow side of Christianity that many of us are not even aware of. Like racism, sexism and homophobia, anti-Semitism has simply been a part of who we are and if you have any doubt about what I am talking about, listen to the Gospel readings between now and Easter. Without proper teaching and interpretation, the texts appear to be full of anti-Jewish sentiments and no wonder the false claim that the Jews killed Jesus was able to fuel the fires of persecution and destruction of European Jewry over the last 2,000 years.

Some churches and clergy will use these Lenten moments both to clarify what the texts are saying, the contexts of what was going on (why the Gospel writers appear to be anti-Jewish) and why the Holy Week readings, more than any other texts, have been weaponized against Jews. There are many stories of how the church have used these themes and readings to encourage anti-Semitism and literally to beat up on Jews.

Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatoski, a professor of Church History from the seminary of the southwest reflects on medieval liturgical observance of Good Friday:

During the medieval Good Friday service, Christians prayed for the “perfidious” – or deceitful – Jews that God might “remove the veil from their hearts so that they would know Jesus Christ.” In another part of the service, a crucifix was placed in front of the congregation so people could venerate the crucified body of Jesus. During this time, a chant known as “the Reproaches” was sung. In this piece, the voice of God accused the Jewish people of faithlessness in rejecting Jesus as their Messiah and crucifying him instead.

Medieval Christians thus received the message on Good Friday that the Jews who lived in their midst were the enemies of Christians who killed their savior and needed to either convert to Christianity or face divine punishment. This language about Jews in the medieval Good Friday liturgy often carried over into physical violence toward local Jewish communities. It was common for Jewish houses to be attacked with stones. Often these attacks were led by the clergy. David Nirenberg, a scholar of medieval Jewish-Christian relations, argues that this violence reenacted the violence of Jesus’ suffering and death.”

Similarly, a 14th century famous stone carving in St Mary’s church in Wittenberg remains to this day of Jews suckling on the nether regions of a pig. It is horrific and so offensive, yet it reminds us Christians of the suffering we have caused in the name of Christ to the community that was used by God to bring a message of healing and reconciliation to the world. The church and modern German state decided to keep the monument as a reminder of OUR past sins and offences and there is an interpretive monument at the foot of the original offensive stone.

It is interesting how Lutheran and German authorities have treated revisionist history as we Americans remove confederate memorials and begin to scrub our public squares clean of our racist past. The Germans have a different approach to their vicious and violent history and the images of anti-Semitism become themselves memorials to a human condition we are not proud of. This shameful history is still very much with us and the German approach seeks to draw attention enough to prevent us from ever going there again. This seems to opposite of the American propensity to forget our mistakes and simply move on. The German approach appreciates the process of learning from the past. I would argue the anti-Jewish texts in the gospels are opportunities for us Christians to repent and re-interpret scriptures so our Jewish forebears (like Jesus, all the Apostles and even St Paul) can take their place in the heart in first century Judaism. You will hear us reading (in place of “the Jews”) preferring to say, “The authorities”. This helps to clarify what the Gospel writers really meant, given these were arguments within Judaism into the nature of Jesus and the hope of a Messiah. It is an extraordinarily complex story and without clear guidelines and communication, we lose all the simple meaning of human salvation and the hope Jesus represents for all humanity. It is not enough to say “Well, if the Jews would only believe…”. There is so much that is simply dangerous, misinformed, and anti-gospel that one article cannot deal with the depth of horror and pain I am describing.

I do not know the history of anti-Semitism in Chestnut Hill, but it was not uncommon for most of our neighborhoods to exclude minorities from holding property, join clubs or share fully in the civic and cultural life of the city or state, in the same way as us good Christians. It would be helpful for me to learn more about this. Here is a recent local report on incidents in Philadelphia in 2020.

This Sunday’s presentation by Dr. Kara McShane during the Clergy Conversations at 11 a.m. is one courageous attempt to name it and seek ways to heal and move towards a better understanding of what Christians have been complicit in creating for 2,000 years. Pay attention this Lent. Ask your Jewish friends and neighbors to talk about what it has been like for them and their ancestors to live here. Learn about the Jewish Christian dialogue (C-J Allies of Greater Philadelphia ) that was one of the great contributions Cliff Cutler made to St. Paul’s by giving them a home on our campus. They have just independently incorporated as an independent charity and are doing great educational work in our local schools and beyond. This is an area that we all need to work on and perhaps our friends at the Jewish/Christian dialogue can be of help to us.

But before we enter Holy Week, we need to understand not only what the Gospels are saying, but how historically they have been weaponized and placed others upon a cross who suffered needlessly in the name of Christ. Come to the Sunday conversation at 11 and learn more about “what we have done and what we have not done”. Yes, Lent is about thinking differently AND repentance. Re-interpreting our stones of hatred and misinformation is harder work and more courageous than simply pulling them down or moving them to a museum or out of sight. Building strong and healthy relationships across all faiths remains a key challenge for America and the world, given the recent history of Islamophobia and populist Christian fascism. This stuff never really goes away. Just listen to what we will be reading in church in the coming weeks!! Just look at the rise of neo-fascism in Europe and North America with its co-option of Christian symbols and rhetoric. A recent sermon from the National Cathedral by Amy-Jill Levine, gives us even more food for thought on how to tell the Easter story differently and what needs to change in our liturgical practices that will help to heal the systemic fear and persecution of Jews. I wonder, (as Godly Play might ask us) what Jesus would say? I wonder what he might like us to say as this stuff floats to the surface of sacred consciousness of our 21st century reality?

Albert Ogle