Books examine history of Christian-Jewish relations

Published September 1, 2001

SINCE FOR MOST Canadian Anglicans the church year begins in September, and mindful of Francis Bacon’s admonition about books, “some few to be chewed and digested,” it is appropriate in launching this new column to consider two recent publications which address the Christian agenda of unfinished business from the 20th century.

I refer to the Holocaust (or Shoah) when some six million European Jews were systematically exterminated through an official government policy and when official Christendom responded with a deafening silence. Perhaps even worse, allegedly Christian western governments, including that of Canada, offered little succor to the persecuted. Why? Was it in some sense complicity?

It is time we Christians reviewed our historical inheritance and critically assessed our theology.

Perhaps this fall parish study groups might reach beyond the usual Christian personal self-improvement materials that flood the market.

[pullquote] The Holocaust and the Christian World presents a well-ordered starting point. Opening with a chronology that covers the period 1932-1988, the sequence of events and responses provides the historical context for the essays (all short and thoughtfully written) that follow. The decisions of the Roman church and the Vatican under Pius XI and Pius XII are confronted in terms of the priorities that determined their actions and the questions these raise in retrospect.

The non-Roman churches also receive critical attention and the same questions arise. We sometimes forget that for sixteen centuries there was a common root in western Christianity and that the Reformers were children of that root. In summing it all up, essayist Stephen D. Smith writes, “Facing these realities, the Holocaust is not only a tragedy for all time for Jews, it is also a disaster for Christianity.” To what extent did Christian history and theology lay a groundwork and create an atmosphere that allowed a “final solution” to be carried out?

Essayist Franklin H. Littel states, “Anti-Semitism in Christendom may be discerned at three levels – theological, cultural and political … through the centuries it appropriated and assimilated convergent anti-Jewish prejudices.”

Beginnings have been made in identifying the theological implications of anti-Semitism in Christian writings, from the early Church Fathers, through the Reformers to the present. But can our personal faith and beliefs face a similar analysis of how we understand and interpret our New Testament scriptures?

Even better questions are: Can we afford not to? Does a skewed Christianity truly serve God’s purpose? It is a wonderful study for those seeking renewal in faithfulness to the Jew, Jesus our Lord.

For those who would delve more deeply into how it all happened there is James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword. A former Roman priest and successful novelist, Carroll combines extraordinary historical research and personal pilgrimage to investigate the painful story of how the church came to choose false paths when there were other options, and continued to do so into the 20th century. He writes as a Roman Catholic but again the common root is there and reformed theologies offered little to alter the cultural and political inheritance of anti-Semitism.

Carroll traces the development of anti-Judaism from its roots in the struggle between competing Jewish sects, of which the early followers of Christ formed one, for ascendancy within traditional Judaism as it faced a pagan world. It was nasty. As more gentiles became Christian, the movement was expelled from the synagogues and Christians and Jews became competitors.

The fatal turning point is Constantine’s vision of the cross (312 C.E.) and its transformation from a symbol of the weight of the world’s sin and of God’s overwhelming love into a standard for worldly triumph and glory. Christianity became the official religion of the empire. Accusation and condemnation of others could now be backed by imperial force, as the Jews soon learned.

It would appear that Christianity and the exercise of secular power, political or economic, is not a comfortable fit, a lesson we are learning from the experience with Indian residential schools here in Canada. But are we learning it? I wonder what history will say of us in our day? Gordon Baker, a priest, journalist and former executive director of the Anglican Foundation, writes about books for the Anglican Journal.


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