A new wave of anti-Semitism has recently shocked a large part of the world. Especially in Western Europe, attempts were made first to minimize the outbursts by explaining them away as the grotesque gests of a few mentally perverted individuals. But the extent and ferocity of the anti-Semitic acts and the intense feelings they aroused soon demonstrated that a serious situation had been provoked.
Ever since the infamous pogroms of Nazi Germany the phenomenon of anti-Semitism has been a matter of profound concern. The shocking events of recent decades in Germany took hard hold on our memories. Books documenting the terrors of Nazi anti-Semitic policies still appear and continue to attract serious study. Reflecting on that dreadful history, one remembers what was done in the name of culture to fellow human beings. One remembers the easy shamelessness with which people could converse about the anti-Jewish program at the time it was being carried out. Hitler had said in his Mein Kampf that he could spot the Jews behind all the darkness in the world, and then he declared that he would rid Germany once and for all of its Jewish problem. But we also tried to get behind these concrete memories to analyze the deepest motives of Hitler’s anti-Semitism.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
Some writers saw a connection between anti-Semitism and natural man’s resistance to divine grace. Karl Barth declared that anti-Semitism was obviously the sin against the Holy Spirit, and argued that it was a revolt against the divine election of Israel. Since his exegesis of the biblical texts in question was somewhat dubious, Barth’s statement itself aroused considerable discussions. Others saw in anti-Semitism an expression of racial delusion and pretension implying a denial of the image of God in all men. Indeed, anti-Semitism does bring to mind James’ statement about the tongue by which man—the image of God—is cursed. And the hatred of the Jews which we have seen in the past decades has indeed been man’s curse on thousands of fellow men, women, and children. These people were put under a curse, accused of crimes they did not commit, and forsaken by the human race.
I recall seeing Jews driven out of my parish in Amsterdam and out of all parts of the country, packed together as animal herds, and carted off toward Germany to vanish forever from our sight. We saw suffering that we had not imagined before. I recall the words written by one person who had gone through the torture and survived: “I can no longer imagine it. If I could imagine it once more, I think I would die at that moment. I have seen the night of nights, the night of human damnation.” It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of man! As I think about anti-Semitism, I am reminded of David’s words, spoken when darkness seemed to fall on his own life: “I am in a great strait: let us fall now into the hand of the Lord; for his mercies are great; and let me not fall into the hand of man” (2 Sam. 24:14).
OUR PROGRESSIVE RESPONSIBILITY
To those who have thought deeply about anti-Semitism, the recent outbreaks are no minor matter. We insist that the present anti-Semitic demonstrations are worse than what happened in Hitler’s day, not in effect, but in tendency and implication. As history develops, there is a progressive responsibility for us. He who now, after the facts of the past are known, thinks and acts in the inhumanity of anti-Semitic patterns, demonstrates the extremity of human blindness and is guilty of a sinful denial of the humanity created in the image of God.
I am also reminded of the words spoken by one of the Nuremberg criminals. He was converted during the trial and humbly owned his guilt. He declined all sedation during the trial, insisting on staying alert to pray. As a German, he said: “Germany’s guilt shall not be paid for in a thousand years.” Now, we know that as men we are not allowed to be presumptuous in our talk about payment and forgiveness of guilt incurred against God. And we must always take care even in such instances as these to avoid pharisaical judgments, as though we could stand on high and hurl anathemas against an isolated group of war criminals. It is surely not allowable for us to assert that these criminals were not men any longer, but had become demons.
True, there was a demonic element at work in the Nazi pogroms. But the terrible thing is that human beings were at work in them. We cannot wholly separate ourselves from this group; we belong to them because they too, in all their terror, are part of our humanity. The Christian confession that all men are sinners prohibits the Pharisaism that makes absolute distinctions between men. But though we confess that the Nazis, even at their worst, were members of our race, we may hope and pray that such a damnation of human beings as they were guilty of may never be permitted again.
One of the most terrible statements made after it was all over was that the Jews deserved this judgment at the hands of men because they crucified the Christ. Such pretentious statements are totally foreign to the mystery of the Gospel. They arise from a failure to understand that precisely in and through the awful disobedience that put Jesus on the cross, the Lord of infinite mercy displayed and triumphed in his grace.
NO ARISTOCRACY OF RACE
The Gospel of grace means that there can be no aristocracy of race or people. The Dutch poet implied an answer to this perverted pious anti-Semitism when he penned the lines:
It was not the Jews, Lord Jesus, who put you to the cross …
It was I, I my Lord, who nailed you there.
If anything is manifestly anti-Christian, it is anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is not a protest against an idea or an ideology; it is a sin against humanity, a crime that is especially tragic because it has no stopping point. Recall what is written in Revelation 18 concerning the judgment upon Babylon. The sellers weep over her “for no man buyeth their merchandise any more.” Everything is taken from her: gold, silver, precious stones, and fine linen, and finally … the souls of men. This is the awful thing about falling into the hands of men. If human beings have no worth, if children no more awaken pity, if man is without compassion, the final step is the opening of the gas chambers to receive their victims while the rest of the world goes unconcerned to the order of the day.
Happily, the order of God’s day is different. He thinks differently about his creatures, for he is merciful and compassionate. And through the witness of the church of Christ against the godlessness of anti-Semitism, the mercy of the Lord may yet be revealed.
Jacob J. Vellenga served on the National Board of Administration of the United Presbyterian Church from 1948–54. Since 1958 he has served the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. as Associate Executive. He holds the A.B. degree from Monmouth College, the B.D. from Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary, Th.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and D.D. from Monmouth College, Illinois.
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