In defending myself against the Jews, I am acting for the Lord," said Adolf Hitler. "The difference between the church and me is that I am finishing the job." Hitler was lying in an attempt to mislead his public by concealing his own racial animosity behind a mask of Christian language.
Now, a group of prominent Jews has accused the United States Holocaust Museum of the same thing, of misleading the public by blaming Hitler's genocidal program on historic Christian beliefs about Jews (see "Is Holocaust Museum Anti-Christian?," p. 14). The writers of the U.S. Holocaust Museum orientation film Antisemitism, they say, have confused harsh Christian statements about Jewish religion with the race-based ideologies that informed Nazism. In addition, they have taken Hitler's explanation for his motivations at face value. Should Hitler's attempts to use the church to justify himself tell us any more about Christian theology than, say, David Koresh's ravings tell us about the Bible?
Hundreds of thousands of Christians who have visited the United States Holocaust Museum have sat and squirmed through all 14 minutes of the film's loose linking of historic Christian condemnation of Jewish refusal to believe in Jesus with Nazi racism. Most of those Christians, vaguely aware that there has been persistent prejudice against Jews for most of European history, have meekly accepted the film's claims and have not protested the inclusion of this anti-Christian message in a tax-funded national museum.
In December, however, six Jews, Jews who knew the horrific facts of historic Christian anti-Semitism, did indeed protest, sending a letter to the then director of the museum, Walter Reich. In that letter, Michael Horowitz, Elliott Abrams, and other notable Jewish thinkers called attention to the film's unfairness in portraying anti-Semitism in almost exclusively Christian terms. And since then they have taken a lot of heat for their stance—from The New Republic to vile personal attacks via e-mail.
The film paints with a broad brush. A dull voice intones disconnected facts and quotations that leave the viewer believing that anti-Jewish bias is the result of Christian influence on the Roman Empire, that it has been Christian society alone that has marginalized and oppressed Jews, and that Nazi racial prejudice against the Jews was in clear continuity with earlier religious prejudice. The anti-Judaism that preceded Christianity and that has long existed outside Europe is ignored.
Certainly one reason American Christians have not heretofore protested the dubious film is that they are largely unaware of the history of Christian anti-Judaism. They have heard, vaguely, about ghettos and pogroms, and they may have heard that Christians once called Jews "Christ-killers" and circulated rumors that blamed Jews for the Black Death. But they have not studied their own history, and they have no framework in which to place isolated facts and evaluate the claims of this film.
Facts without a framework
Let's be clear: From its very earliest days, Christianity spoke ill of "the Jews." The apostles (all of them Jews) felt deeply the rejection of their good news about Jesus from their own community's leaders, and they took the gospel to a more receptive Gentile audience. The internal disputes between Jesus and the leaders of various, competing Judaisms were transposed into a setting where the inner divisions of Judaism were obscured. Paul's hope for a church in which barriers between Jews and Gentiles were obliterated turned into a barricaded community.
From the early second century, the church fathers, puzzled over the fact that Jewish leaders did not interpret the their own Scriptures as Jesus and his apostles had, concluded that the Jews were blind, obdurate, stubborn, hard-hearted—and possibly demonic. John Chrysostom called the Jews, " … inveterate murderers, destroyers, men possessed by the devil, [whom] debauchery and drunkenness have given … the manners of the pig and the lusty goat." Despite their harsh words, many of the Fathers did not cease to appeal for Jews to come to Jesus (though, tragically, they required such converts to give up their Jewishness). Nor did church leaders advise or officially support violence against Jews: the Jews were to be preserved in misery as a sign of reprobation, the Fathers concluded, until the Last Day when God would exact judgment.
From Constantine to the Renaissance (with the notable, bloody exception of the Spanish Inquisition), both the "Christianized" empire and the imperialized church protected the existence of Jews, while progressively restricting their rights and their economic activity. On the whole, it was mobs, stirred by fanatics, who were responsible for the burning of synagogues and the killing of Jews. Church and state needed Jews, both to prop up a triumphalist theology and to foster finance and trade. And at times when other non-Christian religions were not tolerated, they protected the Jews' radically circumscribed existence.
For all the horrible history of Christian European anti-Judaism, it was almost always a cultural and theological prejudice, not a racial one, and therefore it was at least possible for Jews to escape the pressures through assimilation and conversion. Sadly, when they refused conversion, they faced even further straitening of their circumstances, as when Martin Luther, deeply disappointed by Jewish lack of interest in his Reformation, called them "this damned, rejected race," and advised the German princes to raze their synagogues and houses and forbid their rabbis to teach.
Nazi anti-Semitism was different. It targeted Jews as a race. Even those who had been baptized and assimilated were sought and rooted out, even from monasteries and convents. It was their fantasized racial characteristics that threatened the mythology of Aryan blood purity.
In March, John Paul II emphasized that same distinction between historic Christian anti-Judaism and various secular, racialist anti-Semitisms in his cautiously worded apology for the role some "sons and daughters of the Church" played in the Holocaust. Nazi acts and ideology, he claimed, had their "roots outside of Christianity."
Some have complained that this distinction cannot bear the weight the pope puts on it. And surely there is a debate to be had: To what degree did Christian beliefs about Jewish unbelief merely set the historical stage for the Holocaust, and to what degree did they actually contribute to the Holocaust? But this requires a complex and careful analysis that no 14-minute film (nor even an hour-long television special) can be made to bear.
The wages of guilt
Yes, Christians have plenty to apologize for in the way we have treated Jews in the past. But accurate history is vital for many reasons, among them this: indiscriminate guilt-mongering can lead Christians to be unfaithful to their own faith.
Take, for example, this comment attributed by the New York Times to National Council of Churches general secretary Joan Brown Campbell: "If you look at the Nazi regime, you can see in it the philosophy of Christian superiority." Campbell's remark was inaccurate, ignoring Nazi beliefs about the defects in historic Christianity. But it was also made in an interview in which she undercut the rising concern about persecution of Christians around the globe. Her timidity about the claims of Christ caused her to cast doubt on the efforts others are making to save lives and to spare believers from torture and imprisonment.
Likewise, Rosemary Radford Ruether's fascinating historical account of Christian anti-Judaism, Faith and Fratricide (1974), called Christians to abandon the belief that Jesus is the savior for everyone in favor of the notion that Jesus is the savior of some, while others will have their own "saviors." Overwhelmed by the history she recounts, Ruether is convinced that anti-Judaism is the inevitable corollary of believing Jesus is the savior of the world.
Christians must confront their anti-Judaism, but they cannot retreat from the core of their faith. Making unwarranted connections between Christianity's true-to-itself claims for Jesus and the tragedy of the Holocaust leads Christians like Campbell to the brink of denying their Lord (something about which Jesus himself had strong words) and to undercut an important humanitarian movement.
A museum of conscience
The concerned Jews' protest didn't receive the public attention it should have because the museum was soon after embroiled in a controversy over an invitation to Yasser Arafat to visit the exhibit. Museum director Reich fought the invitation and refused to be part of the welcoming committee. He was fired February 18. "This is a matter of conscience for me," Reich said, "and this is a museum of conscience."
As a museum of conscience, the U.S. Holocaust Museum has a responsibility to report how Jews have suffered, in large part because of morally repugnant stereotyping. How ironic and sad that its own film should foster inaccurate stereotypes of Christianity!
The museum celebrates its fifth anniversary this month. The controversies have come at a bad time, casting a shadow over an institution all Americans should take pride in. But what better time is there to correct the egregious stereotyping of this film and assure the public of the care and accuracy with which the museum's exhibits report the most tragic event of the twentieth century?
As communities of conscience, the churches also have a big burden. That burden is, first, to educate their members on the history of both Judaism and anti-Judaism. Contact with those for whom Judaism is a living faith is essential so that Christians do not think that Judaism froze in fixed form in the first century. (Some of the nastiest comments early church fathers made about Jews reveal they no longer had active contact with living Judaism.)
Second, the churches' burden is to take care in how we preach about Jews in the Scriptures—not treating Pharisee as a simple synonymn for hypocrite, for example, and not treating the Old Testament (as many have done) as a simple history of unbelief or as a mere codebook of messianic clues. Indeed, here American evangelicals have an advantage, thanks to the appreciative reading of the Old Testament handed to us by our Puritan forebears, and thanks to the more positive reading of the preservation of the Jews popularized by dispensationalism.
Above all, let us avoid triumphalism. Deaf to the invitation to self-examination brought by the biblical prophets, the Fathers applied their criticism only to the Jews. They spoke only of the church's glories, and forgot that the prophets' challenges apply also to us.
Copyright © 1998 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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