Upon themselves and on their seed
The burden of their dreadful deed
The Jews assumed in thoughtless rage
It dogs their steps from age to age
And on the Gentiles God will pour
The boundless riches of His grace
What the Jew foolishly forswore
He makes of us – a chosen race
Welcome to just a few of the lines penned by 17th century Icelandic Lutheran pastor and poet, Hallgrimur Pétturson, from his Passion Hymns. I’m sure you can see why many both within and outside of the Jewish community have criticized them for their anti-Semitic tenor. Considering such, you would think that their use in Christian worship would have ceased long ago, but that is not the case. In Pétturson’s native Iceland they are still proudly read on public radio during the Lenten season despite repeated requests from those in the Jewish community to stop.
This sort of insensitive behavior toward the Jewish people among those who align themselves in some way with the Christian faith is nothing new. 20 years ago I was profoundly challenged with the disturbing observation that Catholic priest Edward Flannery (1912-98) made of the Christian Church in his widely acclaimed book, The Anguish of The Jews:
The vast majority of Christians, even well educated, are all but totally ignorant of what happened to Jews in history and of the culpable involvement of the Church. …It is little exaggeration to state that those pages of history Jews have committed to memory are the very ones that have been torn from Christian (and secular) history books.
As a result of this revelation I set out to learn what pages from Christian history Flannery was referring to, such as that seen in Pétturson’s hymns. The subsequent journey wrecked me. It wrecked me so much that it eventually set me on a path to invest some of the best hours of my day into helping the Christian community learn how to better live out Jesus’ teaching to love their neighbors; particularly their Jewish ones.
It has not been an easy path to walk.
Along the path I’ve learned that certain aspects of Christian theology helped pave the way for a lot of the antagonistic behavior that the Jewish people have experienced over the past 1800 years; including the charge of deicide, that the Jews murdered God, and that they were forever cursed for doing so. Doctrine such as this has rightly been repudiated by every branch of the Church that ascribed to it, but its residue still lingers.
One disparaging doctrine, however, that continues to capture the hearts and minds of many Christians is the belief that God’s nationalistic promises to ethnic Israel, including those related to their eventual return to their ancestral homeland, were repudiated either because of Jews in the 1st century who rejected Jesus as their Messiah or because those promises are considered to be fulfilled in the redemptive work of Christ and absorbed into his “body,” the Church. These same Christians appear to be willfully unaware of just how damaging theology of this sort has been in shaping negative attitudes toward the Jewish people within popular culture.
19th century Anglican Bishop J. C. Ryle in 1858 observed this in his era and challenged those who had ears to hear to do something about perpetuating this sort of anti-Jewish theology or find themselves culpable of contributing to further evil against the Jewish people:
What I protest against is, the habit of allegorizing plain sayings of the Word of God concerning the future history of the nation Israel, and explaining away the fulness of their contents in order to accommodate them to the Gentile Church. I believe the habit to be unwarranted by anything in Scripture, and to draw after it a long train of evil consequences.
I don’t think it’s off base to say that some of the ashes of the Holocaust that occurred just 80 years after Ryle’s challenge are linked in part to Christian leaders who didn’t heed his warning soon enough or at all.
I know that may seem like a bold assertion, but after looking at the historical record of Christian anti-Semitism, it is not too difficult to conclude that there is Jewish blood on the hands of the Church. And there will be even more blood on its hands if Christians are naive enough to believe that they’re immune to contributing to the anti-Semitism that still emanates in our world today.
Certainly there have been noble exceptions within Christendom, like Corrie ten Boom, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others, along with particular denominations that have repudiated anti-Jewish theology. But history has a way of repeating itself, especially when there remain prominent Christian leaders and institutions that continue to espouse various forms of anti-Jewish theology to a new generation of Christians who are woefully unaware of its past ills. Although the circumstances and the players may change, history has demonstrated time and time again that anti-Semitism is a mutating virus that must be confronted and dealt with.
This is why I am very encouraged to see a new Christian film, The Great Rage (Oct. 2015), seek to educate and confront the Christian community on the historical expressions of Jew-hatred and the progression of it into the present-day.
The film is the first installment of a 5-part series called Covenant & Controversy (produced by Frontier Alliance International). According to their website, the series “explores different nuances of the history and theology of the enduring controversy over the Jewish people, the land of Israel, and the city of Jerusalem.”
After watching The Great Rage I can tell you that it will unsettle some of its viewers, and may even irritate those who persist on denying the depth of anti-Semitic ideology in Church doctrine and its lingering presence. Some people have a hard time looking in the mirror and seeing their flaws. But hopefully Christians who are serious about being a voice of peace and truth will seriously consider the evidence that the film puts forth, along with the data that is readily available from other well-documented sources, such as Flannery’s aforementioned book.
If they don’t, then I concur with Dalton Thomas, the film’s director, who attests that if anti-Judaism in the Church isn’t confronted, “the powers of the air will capitalize on it, exploit it, and use it for their benefit,” just as has happened in the past.
Christians have a long history of ignoring that their origins run deep in Jewish soil and that before Jesus was recast as the founder of a new religion, he lived and breathed as a very faithful, and dare I say, nationalistic Jew. That is not to say that Jesus wasn’t far more interested in redirecting both his countrymen and every nation upon the earth into a redeemed and reconciled relationship with the God of Israel through his atoning sacrifice (1 John 2:2), but if Church leaders of today continue to neglect the reality that Jesus was not anti-Jewish and tether themselves to theology that divests the Jewish people of their role in redemptive history, then I fear that they may very well help pave the way to another chapter of evil against them in the not so distant future.
Christians would do well to consider the exhortation of the Apostle Paul, writing to the early church in Rome—“As far as the gospel is concerned, [the Jewish people] are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable” (Romans 11:28-29, emphasis added).