From Scripture to Shoah: Christianity today and the Holocaust

"We Christians cannot speak of the `promised land'' as an exclusive right for a privileged Jewish people… This promise was nullified by Christ… There is no longer a chosen people.”

Introduction: Anti-Judaism morphed into antisemitism with the secularization of society. But as religion survived the secular revolution, so too did anti-Judaism.


In 1930 American automobile magnate Henry Ford attended the famous Oberammergau Passion play, followed four years later by the Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler. 1934 was the three hundredth anniversary of the first performance of the play and at its conclusion Hitler addressed the audience and recognized it as an important element of the Third Reich’s plans for creating the new Germany:


"One of our most important tasks will be... to remain forever watchful in the knowledge of the menace of Jewry. For this reason alone it is vital that the Passion Play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in the presentation in the times of the Romans. There one sees in Pontius Pilate a Roman racially and intellectually so superior, that he stands out like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry."


In 2008 I was astonished to find the play featured on the cover of AAA World, the auto club’s travel magazine. I wrote a letter of protest which is reproduced on my website, Israel, the Diaspora and Jewish Denial.



Henry Ford in Oberammergau for Passion Play, 1930


In 2004 Mel Gibson’s own controversial Passion play, The Passion of the Christ, burst onto movie screens. An instant sensation it purported to depict the final twelve hours of Jesus’ life. The Jews were portrayed in scene after scene as tormenting the suffering Christ. Outside of the faithful who provided the $30 million film most of its more than $600 million dollars gross, it was considered blatantly antisemitic. From liberal Catholics (the troubled actor is himself Catholic) to the Anti-defamation League (ADL), Mel Gibson was attacked for inciting antisemitism.


If no other evidence were needed than these two cultural extravaganzas little has changed since the Holocaust in the image of “the Jew” as target for ridicule and hate.


At least 21 of the 48 contiguous United States host Passion plays, many of which host more that one. If the “arts” continue to vilify Jews as “Christ killer,” how has theology, Christian religion itself, responded to Auschwitz?


ADL’s 2011 poll on antisemitism in the United States found that,


“A surprisingly large number of Americans continue to believe that "Jews were responsible for the death of Christ." Thirty-one percent (31%) of Americans agreed with that statement.”


Faith and Fratricide: Nostre Aetate appeared in 1965. Nine years later, in 1974, a short critique of the role of Christianity in the Holocaust, Faith and Fratricide by Rosemary Radford Reuther, appeared. In painful detail Ms. Reuther describes what essentially anticipates my own most controversial writings appearing in this blogstream. After careful analysis she concludes that, as the title of her book anticipates, Christian scripture and theological expansion are the foundation and inspiration of the Holocaust. In the end and despite the millions of Jews murdered the result of that religion, she is pessimistic regarding reform: “Is it possible to eliminate anti-Judaism from Christianity,” she asks, “and still affirm Jesus as the Christ?”


Keep the thread of the discussion of the past several weeks, “Christian insecurity,” in mind as you read her words:


“That Christians could through the ages continue to assert that the Messiah has come, when evil demonstrably continues to reign—and, still more, to do such evil “in his name”—is, from a Jewish perspective, an unfathomable self-contradiction… The Church was at enmity with this Judaism, not because it was obsolete, but because it refused to be obsolete and threatened, again and again, to become compellingly relevant in a way that could call into question the very foundations of the Christian claim… was a viable alternative to the Christian New Testament… ”(pps. 62-3).


“The anti-Judaic tradition in Christianity grew as a negative and alienated expression of a need to legitimate its revelation in Jewish terms… it continues on in the Church Fathers, and even to this day as an ongoing expression of this same need by the Church to legitimate its Christological midrash by insisting that this actually represents the true meaning of the Jewish Scriptures…As long as “ the Jews,” that is, the Jewish religious tradition itself, continues to reject this interpretation, the validity of the Christian view is in question… Until Jewish religious tradition itself accepts this as the “real meaning” of its own Scriptures, “the Jews” must be kept in the status of the “enemies of God (pps. 94-5, my emphasis).


“Christian scriptural teaching and preaching per se is based on a method in which anti-Judaic polemic exists as the left hand of it Christological hermeneutic… Is it possible to eliminate anti-Judaism from Christianity and still affirm Jesus as the Christ?” (p. 121-23) 


"Possibly anti-Judaism is too deeply embedded in the foundations of Christianity to be rooted out entirely without destroying the whole structure," (p. 230).


Regarding the incorporation of anti-Judaism>antisemitism into Christendom’s secular social transformation, Ms. Reuther observes that,


“Christian religious anti-Judaism had demanded the misery of the Jews and the containment of Jewish “unbelief,” leaving the “final solution” [her emphasis] in the hands of God. Racial anti-Semitism could stop at no such limitation. A disease of the body, unlike that of the will, cannot be cured by conversion… assimilation was viewed as a trick by which the “Jewish disease” infiltrated the Aryan bloodstream [my emphasis]” (p.224, all emphases above my own).


In 1965 the Vatican enacted Nostre Aetate which, among other things, “absolved” today’s Jews of the first century “murder” of Jesus. But with the offending scriptural passages untouched it was unlikely that absolution would last long in practice. In the past several popes also provided limited protection to the Jews which either went unnoticed (the usual outcome), or provided no impact beyond the life of the pope. Nor was the wait long before the “positive” impact of Nostre Aetate on Church doctrine and policy began to slip away. Soon after Benedict succeeded to the Chair of St. Peter he expressed his desire to see the controversial Holocaust pope, Pius XII, fast-tracked for sainthood. Again demonstrating disregard for Jewish sensitivities he invited the ultra-conservative Society of St. Pius X, who broke with the Vatican precisely over the issue of Nostre Aetate, to return to the fold. Neither did it soften the insult that one of its few bishops, Williamson, was aggressively antisemitic and a Holocaust denier. So it came as little surprise when the Vatican’s 2010 Synod of Bishops turned the clock of Church outlook back to the fourth century:


"We Christians cannot speak about the promised land for the Jewish people. There is no longer a chosen people… The concept of the promised land cannot be used as a base for the justification of the return of Jews to Israel.”


While we will be discussing antisemitism in the United States in some detail in the future, it is worth noting that the Catholic Church, as appears above, is not alone in its continuing anti-Judaism. A few month’s ago Katy Perry’s pastor dad sermonized his flock with, “Walk down a part of L.A. where we live and it is so rich it smells. You ever smell rich? They are all Jews, hallelujah! Amen." And Jerry Falwell famously declared in 1990, "Who will the Antichrist be… Of course, he''ll be Jewish.


But the most famous American clergyman, its pastor to presidents, was captured on Nixon’s hidden tape recorders in this 1972 exchange about Jews between Nixon and Billy Graham:


“BG: This stranglehold has got to be broken or the country''s going down the drain.


“RN: You believe that?


“BG: Yes, sir.


“RN: Oh, boy. So do I. I can''t ever say that, but I believe it.


“BG: No, but if you get elected a second time, then we might be able to do something.”


Graham was also captured on tape referring to Chrysostom’s homily from Revelations referring to the “Synagogue of Satan.”


And finally for our purpose, on 5 October, 2012 a three-page letter excerpted below was sent to the US Congress. “Leaders of several major US Christian denominations,


“including Protestants, Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans and Methodists — have asked members of Congress to reconsider US aid to Israel in light of “widespread Israeli human rights violations.


“We urge Congress to undertake careful scrutiny to ensure that our aid is not supporting actions by the government of Israel that undermine prospects for peace. We urge Congress to hold hearings to examine Israel’s compliance, and we request regular reporting on compliance and the withholding of military aid for non-compliance.


“We write to you as Christian leaders representing US churches and religious organizations committed to seeking a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians,” the letter said, adding that the organizations have “worked alongside our Palestinian Christian sisters and brothers to help build a peaceful and resilient Palestinian civil society.”


Postscript: Some Christians, attracted by one or another article title, come away assuming my intention is to vilify Christianity. While I assume no responsibility for reader perception, my intention is to describe a mortal threat posed by Christendom to the Jewish people. If Christians who regularly follow the forum come away with a deeper understanding of the cost to Jews living in the Christian world, I am pleased. But that is not my purpose.


On Tisha b’Av, 1938, Jabotinsky raced across Poland shouting warning, pointing out that Polish Jewry, distracted by the normalcy of daily life surrounding them, were unable to see the coming danger. My purpose is little different. We live according to perception, and this typically reflects how we want life to be. Life for our Polish community did not represent the immanence of Auschwitz. But then, Polish Jewry not have the vantage of “the Holocaust as history” to refer to.


We Jews of the 21st century have no excuse.