“The very presence of the Jewish people in the world… puts a great question mark against Christian belief in a new covenant [which] could not fail to cause profound and gnawing anxiety. Anxiety usually leads to hostility, Nicholls, (p.90).”
Although this article is not formally part of my book it resulted from a review I wrote this week on Nicholls'', Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate. And while writing I realized that my review represented an excellent bridge between my chapters on Christian theology as foundational to modern antisemitism and the Holocaust, and my next topic, certain to be more problematic for some of my audience, Christian Insecurity. Dr. Nicholls work deals explicitly with this issue, and so is relevant to the continuity of this series.
Professor William Nicholls, who died in 2003, was a minister in the Anglican Church and founder of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of British Columbia. So his credentials as critic of the religion he loved and was devoted to is clear from his lifework. Which is what makes his 1993, Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate, so important to the understanding of Christian roots of the Holocaust.
Dr. Nicholls’ book is unrelentingly honest and powerful, a carefully constructed and well-written indictment of a religion that sees itself as embodying the high ideals of ‘Love, Charity and Forgiveness.’ Wherever else these ideals refer to, as Dr. Nicholls describes in this volume, clearly they do not apply to the Jews.
I have read much on the history of Christian anti-Judaism and find none equal in scope and unblinking directness to this volume. Nicholls traces Christian theological development from Paul through Augustine, to Luther and into the twentieth century. He begins with the foundational work of Paul and the gospels which followed. The gospels in particular accuse the Jews openly and directly of responsibility for Jesus’ death leading to the eternal charge of deicide. John’s associating the Jews with Satan, along with the deicide charge, would be repeatedly developed and amplified over the centuries characterizing the Jews in Christianity’s midst as enemies of Jesus, a fifth column within Christian society.
Nicholls describes Augustine’s rationale providing for Jewish survival in Christendom as punishment for their crimes: from the fifth through the 16th centuries Jews were property of the church or princes and with few exceptions lived in poverty and despair. Their purpose in Christian society was to provide a warning against Judaizing or unbelief. But Nicholls’ reserves his harshest criticism for Martin Luther, a father of his own reformed church.
In the early years of his conflict with the Church, Luther assumed that, freed of the whip of Church anti-Judaism and the thousand year-long persecution it inspired the Jews would abandon Judaism and enthusiastically accept conversion to his reformist Christianity. When the Jews failed to fulfill his expectations Luther’s venom towards them was perhaps unmatched until four hundred years later when Hitler sought to fulfill Luther’s instructions to the princes before his death.
“At his trial in Nuremberg after the Second World War Julius Streicher, the notorious Nazi propagandist, editor of the scurrilous antisemitic weekly, Der Sturmer, argued that if he should be standing there arraigned on such charges, so should Martin Luther (Nichols, 1993, pps.270-271).”
What is to be done? Even assuming that Christianity would want to repent its two thousand years of Jew-hatred resulting most recently in what is not likely to be the West’s final effort at a Final Solution to its Jewish Problem: Is reform even possible? According to Professor Nicholls the likelihood is negligible. On page 168 he writes, “Christian anti-Judaism is not a later distortion of an originally pure religion. It is embedded in the foundation documents of the faith.”
What would reform demand if not modifying, even deleting blatantly anti-Jewish references from Christian scripture? What, for example, would the Matthew gospel be without its dramatic rendition of the trial of Jesus: of Pilate “washing his hands” (a typically Jewish, not Pagan, custom!); of the Jews self-condemned forever as deicides: “And all the people answered and said, ‘His blood be on us and on our children,’ (Matthew 27:22-25)?”
The John gospel repeatedly describes the Jews as satanic: “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do, (John 8:44).” From there it is a short step to characterizing the Jews as antichrists. John associates the Jews with Satan many more times than all three other canonical gospels combined.
Even were all branches of Christianity to agree to somehow moderate the anti-Judaism of the gospels and Paul, is this even possible? These documents in their present translation are, after all, considered the inerrant word of God. Unanimity over violating God’s inspired words just for the sake of saving the Jews yet another Holocaust? And assuming a wave of remorse, a universal need to express penance, what then would remain of Christianity if indeed it did agree to do so? According to Nicholls, “Once all the anti-Jewish elements have been removed from Christianity, what is left turns out to be Judaism (p. 431).”
But there are other means of reform short of tampering with the documents. A unified Christendom (recall this is all extremely unlikely) could resolve to interpret and teach the documents as holding the Jews blameless of deicide and not in league with the devil; but how to interpret ‘His blood be on us and on our children,’ other than “We did it?” And secondly this “conclave” would have to all agree that Judaism is a co-equal religion. According to Christian tradition Judaism is the dead branch out of which sprang the “new Israel,” which leaves no room for a living Judaism.
But this is similar to an effort by the Church in 1965. Nostre Aetate, described as an act of contrition by the Church over the Holocaust, instructed its clergy to teach that the Jews of today are not to be considered guilty of deicide in the death of Jesus. In the years since the general level and intensity of antisemitism has continued to follow its ancient pattern of responding to tensions in local and global society. In January of this year (2011) the Jewish Agency released a report concluding that, “antisemitic incidents in western Europe peaked to a level not seen since the close of World War II.” What does this indicate for the efficacy of education and sensitivity training, so strongly promoted by Diaspora Jewish organizations, as the path to understanding and a worry-free life in the West?
According to Nicholls, and this in 1993,“The forces that led to the Holocaust are still active. Until they are identified and eliminated from society, there is no enduring safety for Jews, (p. 284).” And, of course, he holds out little expectation of that.
Is there hope for the future? Early in his book Nicholls already concludes that there is little basis for that since, “No amount of tolerance and goodwill can obscure the fundamental threat to the Jewish people contained in the heart of traditional Christian belief [my italics]… The very presence of the Jewish people in the world… puts a great question mark against Christian belief in a new covenant [which] could not fail to cause profound and gnawing anxiety. Anxiety usually leads to hostility [my italics, again] (p.90).”
Most recent in this series, Antisemitism and Jewish Survival: