The Bishop’s E-pistle: Loving Our Neighbors, Knowing Our History

On Wednesday, I wrote a letter to the Chabad of Flagstaff offering my prayers and support after their new building was vandalized this week. In that letter, I said in part:

“Anti-Semitism has no place in this world. Hatred of any people, group, or religion has no place in this world. As faithful people of good-will, we are all called upon to speak out against the words and actions of people with hate in their hearts whenever we encounter them. As a Christian, I am particularly compelled to speak out when that hate is demonstrated in a way that may–however misguidedly–be informed by the very real tradition of Christian Anti-Semitism that inhabits our history.”

I am grateful for the leadership of Church of the Epiphany in Flagstaff, and their Rector, The Rev. Marianna Gronek, for participating in a local interfaith vigil, and remembering their Jewish neighbors through prayer and action this week.

I realize that I have just moved from New York City, where Jews make up about 13% of the population, to a state where Jews are only 1.5% of the population, and there are fewer opportunities here for partnership and dialogue across faiths. In New York City, churches are required to have a fluent understanding of how our scriptures and rituals have fomented violence against Jewish people, and to consistently repent, teach, and preach to our congregations with sensitivity to that context. We are conversant with Martin Luther’s encouragement of burning synagogues; with the historic expulsion of Jews from England and other nations, and their ghettoization elsewhere; and with the abysmal participation of many churches in enabling the Nazi regime and the Holocaust within living memory. We also had constant visible reminders, in the form of armed security guards and concrete protective barriers, that Jewish congregations face radically different threats of violence than churches do.

As we prepare to enter into our liturgies of Holy Week, I invite you to prayerfully remember that these very liturgies and traditions have historically been fodder for Anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence. It is our responsibility as preachers and liturgists to wisely exegete our scriptures, and to take appropriate steps to ensure that our congregations, and especially visitors to our congregations, are able to easily understand some key points in the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, including the following:

  • Jesus was a Jew, as were all of his initial followers.
  • Crucifixion was a Roman form of capital punishment. Jesus was crucified by the Roman state; not by the Jewish people.
  • The Gospel of John was written at a time when Christians had recently been put out of the synagogues, and there was understandable disagreement between the Jews who followed Jesus and those who did not. The use of the term “the Jews” in John’s Gospel as the opposition to Jesus is an unfortunate catch-all term that in some instances means “Jewish authorities” and in others means “Judeans” and in others is a term for people who are following Jesus.
  • We are called as Christians to honor the descendants of Abraham and their traditions, but not to appropriate their traditions.

I encourage all of our congregations to form relationships with your local Jewish communities; to join wherever possible in their worship, study, and outreach; and to invite Jewish leaders into your congregations to share what it is like to be Jewish in the United States today.