Who Killed Jesus? Combatting Anti-Semitism on Good Friday

Sadly, I've come to expect that many Christians think that "the Jews" killed Jesus. They grew up in churches where clergy have irresponsibly used the Gospel of John on Good Friday without contextualizing the use of the phrase "the Jews" which litters the text.
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Yesterday afternoon I received an email from a Jewish friend. It was a response to a newsletter I sent to the multi-faith community at our synagogue, Romemu, about the juxtaposition of the Jewish holiday Purim (celebrated Wednesday night and Thursday) and Holy Week.* He wrote, "I do not know the Bible well enough to know the details, but I have always felt very uncomfortable at this time of year when Christians are marking the day he [Jesus] died. I feel like I carry a guilty responsibility for his death."

Sadly, I've come to expect that many Christians think that "the Jews" killed Jesus. They grew up in churches where clergy have irresponsibly used the Gospel of John on Good Friday without contextualizing the use of the phrase "the Jews" which litters the text. It's a text which makes it seem that "the Jews" are responsible for Jesus' death at face value. Couple that with an anti-Judaism imbedded in most Christian theology, and it's terrible but not surprising that most Christians think that "the Jews" killed Jesus. Yet hearing from a Jew - a person whom I know and love - that he also had internalized this idea? This saddened me beyond words. If some Jews have internalized this message, Christian clergy have really missed the mark.

Obviously Christians do not have the market on texts that are inappropriately interpreted to incite others to violence. But this week especially (when there is a well documented rise in anti-semitic violence each year) we Christian clergy are called to teach and preach these texts in ways that honor the precious image of God in every human being. If we don't, we leave the door and text wide open to conscious and unconscious anti-semitism and anti-Judaism in the very place where we need to fight it most. If we don't, we undermine the whole point of our sacred story in which a Jewish leader preaching love is executed by an empire because he and his message were a threat to that empire.

Read this blurb by Rev. Mary Luti - and if you are Christian clergy, print it in your Good Friday bulletins and give Rev. Luti the credit. We need reminding, again and again:

As Christians, we live under the burden of a sad and violent history of anti-Semitism, in the sobering shadow of the Shoah (Holocaust). It is critical for us to be clear about what our sacred texts mean when they make reference to "the Jews," especially during Holy Week, when we contemplate Jesus' death. When the crucifixion narratives speak of "the chief priests and leaders of the people," they are referring to officials who collaborated closely with the Roman systems of oppression, and were viewed with contempt by much of the Jewish community in their time. They should not be identified with the Jewish people of the past as a whole, and certainly not with Jews in the present. It may be helpful to recall the cultural context of our Christian scriptures, emerging as they did from a small, originally Jewish community of believers in Jesus as the Messiah. All of the Gospels originated from Jewish communities. Jesus himself, was born, lived, and was crucified, a Jew. Any criticism of Jews from Gospel writers should be understood as the expression of differences of opinion among or about their fellow Jews. The gospels' use of the term "the Jews" therefore, should not be read as a criticism of the Jewish religion, and especially not as a condemnation of an entire people, either then, or now. It is one of the bitter ironies of history that our sacred texts have been used to justify the persecution of the covenant people, from whom our Savior came, and who are created, as we all are, in the precious image of God.

Last night my daughter, an 8th grader at a Jewish day school, said to me, "Mom, a lot of kids at my school think that the Jews killed Jesus, but it was really the Romans, right?" After I caught my breath - for the second time yesterday over the same issue - I replied, "Well, at least that part of my Union Theological Seminary education has filtered down to you. Yes, it was the Romans, and a very small number of Jewish authorities who collaborated with the Romans and who weren't much liked by many in the Jewish community at that time. Let your friends know that."

Just as Purim is winding down on Thursday afternoon, I will be preparing for the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services - a dramatic reenactment of the Last Supper, a Passover meal according to some of the Gospels - in which Jesus commands the disciples to love one another as he has loved them. All just before he is betrayed, arrested, and executed. It's solemn, sad and poignant. I always cry. And this year I will pray, especially after the attacks in Belgium and Turkey a few days ago, that all people will seek to love one another as God loves us, that all sacred texts be sources of loving kindness and not violence, that terror will not have the last word, that peace can and will reign...and that we Christian clergy will play our part in making that peace a reality.

*Purim originates from the Book of Esther which is a court drama of feasts, a "bad guy" named Haman who wants all of the Jews killed, and a turn around in which the Jews of Persia are ultimately saved by the courage of one (Jewish) Queen Esther. The feeling of the holiday is topsy turvy Mardi-Gras-like fun. Usually Purim is, in fact, closer to Mardi Gras - and Holy Week (the week before Easter in the Christian calendar which includes Maundy Thursday and Good Friday) usually overlaps with Passover. But due to an extra month inserted into the Hebrew calendar this year, it's Purim, not Passover, that coincides this year with Holy Week. For those of us in interfaith families, the juxtaposition of these two holidays this year is striking. The mood of Purim is giddy and wild, while Holy Week is solemn and serious. I have come to navigate Passover and Holy Week/Easter fairly well - but Purim and Holy Week?! Yet underneath it all there are some resonances: Holy Week is, after all, a re-enactment of a story about Jesus, full of feasts, betrayals, decrees by leaders of powerful empires, executions, and a surprise turn around three days later. It seems a more Jewish story than ever when set against the backdrop of Purim.

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