The Problem with Anti-Semitism

A couple of weeks back, I was talking to Nueva Vida about Jude 16- 19. In the context of that we talked about why we take communion to remember. It is not just an intellectual remembrance, It goes deeper than that. We can remember facts but we can lose the significance, lose the freshness, lose the now-ness. Communion takes us back to that place. This is particularly important for succeeding generations who were not physically present at Calvary.

Each year, we pause to remember on the 11th November or the nearest Sunday. We remember the horrific cost of war. My grandparents were born during the First World War, lived through the aftermath into the Great Depression and served during the Second World War. The horror of those conflicts stayed vividly with a generation that bore the cost of it. I am old enough to remember the fear of the Cold War and of IRA bombings. Memories remain vivid.

Younger people will have no recollection of such things. Those leaving school at 18 this year were born in this century. They were barely a year old when 9/11 happened. Imagine that, another event that is vivid in our memories, an event that  unfolded almost in slow motion like a scene from a film on our TV screens, an event burnt into our eyes and to many people it’s just history now.

And so that’s why I want to come to Anti-Semitism. Why does it matter? Why can it have no place in our public life?

Well on the one level, it should seem obvious shouldn’t it? It’s obviously a bad thing. But I fear it is not seen like that. When we say that we need to root out racism, we get it. However, here we have one specific race focused on and we are so slow to deal with it. Why? Well It’s a different type of racism isn’t it. Anti-Semitism isn’t about looking down on the asylum seeker or fearing the mass immigration. We don’t associate it with vicious attacks on vulnerable people as “ benefit scroungers.” Rather, Anti-Semitism tells you that there is a powerful group of people, who are wealthy, who hold leavers of power, who exist in the shadows and who are linked to a not very popular regime. Anti-Semitism presents itself as part of the struggle against “The Man” but tells you that the man had an ethnic identity.

Anti-Semitism teaches people to fear other people based on gossip and rumour. It teaches us to see the problems we face as caused by a specific group in society. It tells us that we are always the victims and others always the oppressors. It encourages us to associate evil with a nation and its people.

And because the memories are faint now and because we are part of a later generation, We need to be reminded that anti-Semitism led to the brutal genocide of 6 million Jews. That’s what happens when you single people out because of their race and religion. That’s what happens when you create conspiracy theories about them and that’s what happens when those lies go unchecked. Mind you, Hitler wasn’t satisfied with just the Jews, there will always be others to blame, other vulnerable people to attack.

Anti-Semitism is dangerous because very sadly it is something that from time to time has polluted the church. It comes when we under emphasise that Israel was specifically chosen and loved by God, his continual grace and sovereign care for them and that It was through them that God fulfilled his promise to send the Messiah. God the Son himself came and was incarnate as a Jewish man. He was explicitly crucified as “The King of the Jews”.

It comes when we over-emphasise the part the Jews played in rejecting and killing Jesus. There are three primary reasons for this.

1.       A misunderstanding of how John’s Gospel uses the term The Jews to describe those opposing Jesus. John wants to emphasise that “he came to his own and his own knew him not” but he is writing as a Jew about a Jew, rejected by specific other Jews even as he was welcomed and followed by still others.  So John might  be best read as describing “The people” … “some of the people” or … “the leaders of the people”.

2.       The way that the early church was persecuted by the Jews as seen in the book of Acts. However, this again is about disagreements between Jews. As the church few and expanded it would face increasingly hostile persecution from the Roman Empire and indeed it has done where ever it has existed.

3.       The role the Jews played in handing Jesus over to be executed. We can say that they killed Jesus but the point is not that they did and that others didn’t but that all people everywhere are culpable in his death. We killed Jesus.

4.       Questions about continuity between the Old Covenant and New. This led to what has been known as “ replacement” theology with Israel replaced by the church. Now, we can’t ignore the fact that there is a type of replacement in the New Testament but it is the replacement of one covenant with another, it’s old hard hearts of stone replaced with new hearts of flesh. It’s the replacement of being in the first Adam with being in the second. But, as for people, they are not replaced, rather we are ingrafted into them meaning we share in their promises and their heritage.

Theological errors meant that Christendom was implicated in Anti-Semitism.  Long before Hitler, Luther wrote deeply disturbing things and before we make it a German problem, our history in the UK does not hold up well to the light either. Jews were treated as unwelcome outcasts here. You can read about one of the worst incidents here

Anti-Semitism is dangerous because, as we have seen, it focuses on a specific people and presents them as the problem. It encourages pride in our own race, class and culture and often a false-victim-culture. It is therefore a heart problem.

This means that the solution will not be found in political campaigns, inquests and regulation. The solution can only come with heart change. This comes when we recognise and remember that the human problem lies not “out there” with one group of people but “in here” in all our hearts, we are all sinners without excuse. We all need that Jewish saviour who took our sin, shame and guilt on himself.