The World Council of Churches (WCC) describes itself as “the broadest and most inclusive among the many organized expressions of the modern ecumenical movement, a movement whose goal is Christian unity.” Its many activities include inter-faith dialogue, among others with a partner organisation called The International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations.
It was as part of that framework that, back in 1982, The WCC published a document entitled ‘Ecumenical Considerations on Jewish-Christian Dialogue’. It is a long and rather prolix document – in which Christianity’s role in generating and propagating anti-Jewish prejudice is just a side issue. I only mention it here because it includes an interesting paragraph:
“Teachings of contempt for Jews and Judaism in certain Christian traditions proved a spawning ground for the evil of the Nazi Holocaust.
This is, undoubtedly, a statement of fact. And, from a Jewish perspective, admitting that fact is a step in the right direction. But the statement is also cold, wordy and devoid of contrition. Compare it with the following sentence:
“[T]he Nazi regime could not have brought into being the Final Solution without the Christian church.”
Or take another, perhaps even more poignant, statement:
“[S]ix million Jews were rounded up, transported, selected and executed by, in the main, baptised Christians; [yet] we have failed to repent.”
The difference is obvious: unlike the WCC statement, the two sentences don’t ‘beat around the bush’; they do not attempt to ‘sweeten the pill’ or blunt the edge. Note the first person “we”: unlike in the case of WCC’s “certain Christian traditions”, there is no attempt here to shirk or even spread out responsibility; instead, there is determination to assume that responsibility with humility and regret.
I have picked up those two short fragments from a book entitled ‘Echoes of Contempt: a History of Judeophobia and the Christian Church’. There is no penury of books dealing with the plague of antisemitism; or even of books focusing on the responsibility of the Christian Church for that plague. More often than not, such books are written by Jewish scholars. But this one isn’t: it is authored by a Christian cleric, Revd. Bruce Thompson.
I say ‘authored’, rather than ‘written’, because the latter refers to an activity performed using one’s hand; but this book clearly comes from the heart. The author’s passion unmistakably shines through the text: passion for the subject, yes, but also for God’s Truth – presented ‘as is’, in its most faithful, unadulterated, raw form; laid out before the reader, just like in the two examples I’ve given, in the first person plural – even when it’s profoundly uncomfortable, even when it becomes unbearably painful. All that, with the quiet dignity of someone who knows no other way but honesty.
‘Echoes of Contempt’ is not concerned with breaking new ground, with undertaking new primary research – but with bringing together the facts that are already known, while conveying them to the reader in an easy-to-absorb, straight-to-the-point style.
The author warns us in his Introduction:
“There are certainly omissions; this is after all only a brief introduction to a vast subject, and particular aspects are addressed far more comprehensively than others.”
True, this is a vast subject and no book can claim to cover its entirety. Yet it seems to me that the warning above must have been driven by modesty – and misplaced modesty in this case. I found the treatment of the subject comprehensive and as profound as possible in a book addressed to the wide public, not to scholars specialising in this topic.
Entitled ‘A Struggle for Hearts and Minds’, Chapter 1 focuses on the evolution of the early church from a Judaic sect to a separate, Gentile-oriented religious community. It is in this context that the author brings to life the historical scene and juxtaposes its reflection in the Gospels, highlighting the increasing anti-Jewish animus from Mark to John.
The next few centuries see the Christian community grow in both numbers and influence, with Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire. This is described in Chapter 2: A Hatred Defined. But history is just the background; using examples from early Christian theologists, the text walks the reader through the reasons why and process by which anti-Jewish attitudes become embedded in Church dogma.
The next two chapters (‘Darkening Times’ and ‘Stigmatisation and Segregation’) focus on the Middle Ages and describe how ‘theoretical’ Christian antisemitism translated into persecution, expulsions and massacres. Here, too, the purpose is not to exhaustively cover each historical event, but to analyse and explain the process.
Chapter 5 is entitled ‘From Reformation to Enlightenment’. Calvin and Luther wanted to reform many aspects of Christian practice and doctrine; but Anti-Jewish rancour was certainly not one of those aspects. Quite the opposite: Judeophobia was one dogmatic aspect that they did not have a problem with, but rather sought to further promote and intensify. As for Enlightenment, in terms of antisemitism the author refers to it as a “false dawn”: the new ‘enlightened’ intellectuals envisaged a world in which Jews were no longer persecuted, providing that… they were no longer Jews.
The next Chapter describes the emergence of the concepts of ‘Race’ and ‘State’ and how the old dogmatic prejudice was given new ‘rational’ and ‘scientific’ arguments.
It all leads to the Shoah, which is the focus of Chapter 7. But, rather than just recounting the tragedy in its gory details, this chapter sheds light on the attitude of Church leaders within and without Germany – a subject which is much less familiar to the general public. Revd. Thompson concludes this chapter with yet another moving paragraph:
“We cannot escape the fact that many Nazis were Christians; many pastors joined the Nazi Party […]. The enormity of the Holocaust is overwhelming; the fact that it happened in the heart of Christian Europe and was conducted by many who attended church on Sunday is deeply distressing.”
The final chapter is ironically entitled ‘Of Course This Isn’t Antisemitism’ and focuses on ‘modern’ forms of Judeophobia in a Christian context. It analyses, among other topics, the influence of deeply-entrenched antisemitic prejudice on ‘anti-Zionist’ and ‘anti-Israel’ Christian political activism. The author concludes:
“Centuries of Judeophobia seem to have hardwired many Christians to be nervous of Jews and even suspicious of their motives. Those who verbally attack Israel, the only Jewish state in the world, without a decent knowledge and understanding of Judeophobia in the history of the church seem unable to hear the echoes of that past in their hostility: from the misplaced belief that Jews killed the Christ to the claim that Israel is hostile to religions other than Judaism; from the medieval myth that Jews poisoned wells to the claim that Israel tampers with the water supply to Palestinians; from the vile allegation that Jews sacriﬁced Christian children to drink their blood at Passover to the claim that Israeli forces shoot to wound Palestinians so that later in hospital their organs may be transferred to wealthy Jews; from the hostility toward enforced usury to the claim that Jewish bankers control today’s money markets; from the Protocols of Zion to the claim that a Jewish syndicate conspires to create social unrest through the media; from the boycott of Jewish businesses in 19 30s Germany to pro-Palestinian demonstrations outside shops in the UK; from book burnings in Munich to the trolling on social media of musicians who play in Tel Aviv; from supporting the Nazis to doing PR for Hamas and Hezbollah.”
Bruce Thompson concludes his analysis with the same modesty that he commenced with:
“I know that as a Christian there remains a lot I have to learn. There are many people yet to be convinced, and if I want the church to truly love its closest faith neighbour, there is still much for us to do”.
That is undoubtedly so. But ‘Echoes of Contempt’ goes a long way towards achieving those noble endeavours. For anyone (of any faith or none) wishing to learn about the history of antisemitism in a Christian context, this erudite but eminently readable book will provide a solid foundation.