Editor Samuel Loncar Reflects on Christianity’s Antisemitic Legacy
Tree of Life Synagogue
brothers, Cecil Rosenthal & David Rosenthal
husband and wife, Bernice Simon & Sylvan Simon
May Hashem avenge their blood.
In response to the antisemitic attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue, what can we do? We can confront the fact that antisemitism is a deeply internalized part of American and European culture; that antisemitism and violence arising from it has been increasing; and that much of the toleration, approval, and even fuel for antisemitism comes from Christianity. It is this last fact in particular that religious leaders and the culture at large avoid and have often refused to acknowledge. Failure to do so makes it practically impossible to understand the broader cultural existence of antisemitism. Christianity remains the dominant religion in Europe and America, and even where people no longer believe in its teaching, they remain shaped by a culture steeped in those teachings for 1600 years.
This semester I am teaching the history of Early Christianity at Yale Divinity School. An important part of my teaching aims at helping students understand that Christianity’s very existence as a religion has generated some of the worst antisemitic discourse and behavior. What we call Christianity centers on the life and teachings of an indisputably Jewish man, Jesus of Nazareth; his disciples were Jewish; their Scripture was the Tanakh, what Christians call the Old Testament; the importance of the Torah was so important it is perhaps the central concern in the writings of St. Paul. “Earliest Christianity” was thus not Christianity as we think of it but a thoroughly Jewish movement.
Within four centuries, although the movement centered on Jesus remained connected in complex ways to the Jewish communities in the Roman empire, it also had come to articulate its identity through an essentially hostile idea of Judaism. The Jews became the subject of critical discourse that was originally internal to their community. The prophets had critiqued Israel for its lack of fidelity to the Torah and its meaning, but this was an entirely internal critique that had nothing whatsoever to do with ethnic or religious prejudice; rather this prophetic condemnation was the wholly normal reform impulse present in any religious tradition – using the standards of the Torah, the prophets critique Israel for not living up to them. This same discourse, however, was weaponized by the early Christians so that through it the Jews as a people were demonized. This prejudicial repurposing of Jewish writings against the Jewish people became, tragically and horribly, the primary way in which Christian theologians and preachers presented Judaism to their communities. The effects of justifying animosity towards the Jewish people and their religious teaching from the highest authorities in the spiritual life of a culture cannot be overestimated. We can, as historians and scholars, conceptually distinguish theologically and religious grounded antisemitism from apparently non-religious antisemitism, but in the historical evolution of Western culture they are integrally related.
Imagine hateful behavior of a child done in front of the parents who look on and say nothing. What will the child learn? That such behavior is at least tolerable, perhaps even tacitly approved. This is the “best case” scenario of Christian theological anti-Judaism and its relationship to antisemitism. Far more typical is the nodding in approval of the parents, perhaps even the offering of slurs to the child for use in such expressions of hate. Unlike other forms of racism, antisemitism has been not only approved of by the highest spiritual life of the Christian world – in its theology and worship – but has arisen out of the core of that spiritual life, the Christian anxiety about the obvious dependence of their religion on Judaism.
This is not simply history. Most Christians today will think of the “God of the Old Testament” as harsh, perhaps even cruel, a judge, to which they contrast Jesus as loving and kind. This is a form of Marcionism, one of the earliest and most anti-Judaic heresies that claimed Jesus has nothing to do with Judaism, that he and his God were a revelation of pure love in contrast to the stern God of the Jewish people. No serious reading of either the Old or New Testament can justify such a contrast, yet it is perhaps the dominant way most Christians will think of the relationship between the Old and New Testament.
This is one of many reasons that antisemitism is our problem, for we are a culture shaped by Christianity. Our personal beliefs, whether secular, spiritual, atheist, or devoutly religious, do not change the legacy of hatred that has dominated Christianity and its cultural expressions about the Jewish people.
Pretending antisemitism is isolated, rare, or unusual in European and American culture is wishful thinking at best, more likely deluded and culpable historical ignorance. It would be comforting if the expressions of antisemitism that are so easy to find today were the exceptions; viewed from the perspective of history, they are not—they are normal.
Only serious education, of the mind, the feelings, and the historical imagination, will change this. As with all other forms of hatred and prejudice, merely handwaving or repeating empty phrases changes nothing. If we want to confront Islamaphobia, people must actually be wiling to study Islam, to get to know Muslims, to learn about its teaching, its history, its extraordinary variety, just as those wishing to do something about racism in America cannot pretend a blithe ignorance of its effects or history is compatible with real social justice. Justice must affect the mind and the memory because how we think of the past and of ourselves is often essentially connected to how we imagine others as objects of contempt, suspicion, or hatred.
It is easy to condemn a horrible act of murder. But what if murder comes from hatred, and hatred begins, as Jesus taught, in nursing and tolerating nasty thoughts towards others? Then the least we can do when confronting horrible acts of hatred is to ask how we, in our communities and our own lives, may also be preserving and nourishing seeds of hatred. We are the problem—it is from this truth that real repentance and justice begin.
Samuel Loncar is the Editor-in-Chief of the Marginalia Review of Books and teaches at Yale. His research concerns philosophy, religion and science, and Christian-Jewish relations.