My friend Dr. David Patterson holds the Hillel Feinberg Chair in Holocaust studies at the Ackerman Center for Holocaust Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas. I met David this August at Oxford University in the U.K. at the Summer Institute on Curriculum Development in Antisemitism Studies sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP). Last week I was in Dallas to speak at a Christian University about the alarming resurgence of Christian Antisemitism in America. I arrived a day early to visit David in his office.
David recently edited a book along with Marcia Sachs Littell about the work of Franklin H. Littell, a man whose insights into Christian Antisemitism awakened my soul to the dreadful Antisemitism within Christianity that led to the Holocaust. Franklin Littell (1917-2009) was a pastor in the United Methodist Church, scholar in Holocaust studies, and Christian theologian. After World War II, Franklin was the Chief Protestant Religious Adviser to the High Command. He spent ten years in post-war Germany, where he was tasked with the de-Nazification of Christian Germany. Littell would spend the rest of his life passionately challenging Christendom toward repentance for their complicity in the Holocaust. He would become known as the pioneer of Holocaust studies. David Patterson’s book about Franklin’s work is entitled Legacy of an Impassioned Plea. It is a commentary by 29 scholars on Franklin’s book published in 1975 entitled, The Crucifixion of the Jews – The Failure of Christians to Understand the Jewish Experience.
After reading Littell’s book 20 years ago, my life took a different course. As an Evangelical Christian whose work is to push back against the growing Antisemitic narrative within Christianity, I can confidently say my inspiration largely came from Franklin Littell’s work. When I learned that Franklin’s library and papers were recently moved from Temple University to the University of Texas at Dallas due in part to David Patterson’s long friendship with Franklin and his family, I knew David was a man I wanted – needed – to spend time with.
During our meeting, David gave me a copy of Legacy of an Impassioned Plea. After reading David’s chapter (Antisemitism as Blasphemy: Franklin H. Littell’s Post-Holocaust Challenge to Christians) on my flight back home – pages of which included more of my underlines and highlights than non-highlighted sentences – I came to the surprise revelation I had missed a critical principle in Littell’s book. Comparing David’s quotation to the page reference in my worn copy of The Crucifixion of the Jews, I noticed I had not highlighted the disturbing but truthful line 20 years ago that David saw as a foundational principle in Franklin’s discussion on Christian Antisemitism. Was the line so provoking that I could not or would not accept it? Possibly. Here is the quote found on page 65 of The Crucifixion of the Jews. In a discussion about renowned German Theologian Karl Barth, Littell says:
“Karl Barth was quite right in criticizing the Confessing church in 1936 for having shown no sympathy for the millions suffering injustice…the theologian who condemned the church’s seeking to gain her own soul also sensed and defined, though not as strong as he later wished, the fatal error: ‘The question of the Jews (said Barth) is the question of Christ.’ Antisemitism is sin against the Holy Ghost.’
And here is Franklin Littell’s perspective of Barth’s imposing statement – the line (the headline, actually) I had missed years ago:
“Right! For Christians, Antisemitism is not just a peculiarly nasty form of race prejudice; Antisemitism is blasphemy – a much more serious matter!”
Though I could not comprehend the meaning (either by ignorance or choice) of Littell’s statement when I read it 20 years ago, I comprehend it now. After years of confronting Christian arrogance, pride, and indifference toward the Jewish people – peppered with a willful delegitimization of the Jews being chosen by the God of Abraham, I realize now that to reject the Jews is to rebel against that very choice and ultimately is a rebellion against God.
David Patterson explains Littell’s position that Christian Antisemitism is blasphemy on pages 197-199 of Legacy of an Impassioned Plea:
“…blasphemy is a very strong word, and Littell does not use the word lightly. If Christian Antisemitism is Blasphemy, then it opposes the very foundations of Christianity itself: where there is Antisemitism, there can be no Christianity. And yet, over the centuries, everywhere that there has been Christianity, there has been Antisemitism of the most virulent kind…But what makes Antisemitism ‘the sin against the Holy Ghost?’ Littell correctly maintains that, from a Christian standpoint, Antisemitism cannot be viewed as merely one among the many sins of racism, bigotry, prejudice, and the like, nor does it lie in xenophobia, scapegoating, or envy of the Jewish people. No, says Littell, Antisemitism is blasphemy, the ‘sin against the Holy Ghost,’ which, according to the Gospel, cannot be forgiven (Matthew 12:31).”
After a discussion of the many Antisemitic Christian theologies that still flourish in the church world (supersessionism – the Christian teaching that proclaims Christians have replaced Jews as God’s chosen, replacement theology, the church as the new Israel, the condemnation of the Jews not just as deicides but as people who reject the Christ) David Patterson concludes by saying that all of these Antisemitic theologies “damn Christians and Christianity…If Antisemitism is blasphemy, then, historically speaking, Christian theology is largely founded upon blasphemy (no wonder Littell drew such ire from some of his fellow Christians)…So we see the challenge that Littell faced: he struggled to rescue Christianity from its own blasphemy.” Dr. Patterson then declares that the sin of blasphemy is the “obstinate impenitence which was generally associated with the Jews.”
Suppose Christian Antisemitism is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, as Franklin Littell and David Patterson believe. In that case, it certainly explains the present freefall of American Christianity, and Franklin Littell’s struggle to “rescue Christianity from its own blasphemy” must be engaged now more than ever.