Saturday, April 10, 2010


For Christians, April 11 is the first Sunday after Easter.  But, in the Holy Land, the calendar reminds us, it is also Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom HaSho'ah…a time to recall in sorrow man's capacity for evil.  At noon, the sounds of sirens will mix with those of church bells around Jerusalem.  And, as the confusing cacaphony subsides, a now-old cry - "Never again!" – will echo through suddenly silent streets and alleys…leaving us to wonder:  What we to make of those words?  What are we to do with them?
In Fatal Embrace, Mark Braverman draws our attention to the Holocaust and to the "parallel crises" that face us in its wake – as Jews and as Christians.  The Jewish crisis, he says, is the struggle to untangle the exclusivist narrative of a chosen people from the universal moral/ethical message of the prophets.  The Christian crisis entails the struggle to rid the church of millennia of anti-Jewish bias in its teachings.
"What anti-Jewish bias?" some ask.  Consider today's Gospel.  Why were "the doors of the house where the disciples had met… locked?"  They were locked "for fear of the Jews;" not the Romans…the Jews.  And why were the Jews to be feared?  Consider our reading today from Acts.  The Apostles had begun preaching in the name of Jesus around Jerusalem and in the Temple itself.   It got them arrested…here a second time.  And in his questioning of them, the high priest's voice rises to anger pitch: "We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man's blood on us."
That is the infamous "blood libel" that, from the beginning, gave rise to anti-Semitism.  It was, we were told again and again, the Jews who killed Christ.  His blood was on their hands and, for that, they were to be dispersed and despised for all time. 
That libel festered as a darkness in the heart of European Christianity over the centuries.  For years, I lived in its shadow…in Munich, just a few miles from Dachau and a few more from Oberammergau, where every Lent John's Passion was played out by hooked-nosed actors shouting "Crucify him!  Crucify him!"…and in Krakow, just an hour's drive from Auschwitz where such anti-Semitism culminated in the Holocaust.  
The uniqueness of the Holocaust lies not just in the magnitude of the crime, the horror of which has indelibly stamped a sense of insecurity and victimhood on the souls of Jews, but also in the nature of the discontinuity – the break – it represents in the Christian experience of anti-Semitism.  The subsequent sense of guilt among Western Christians has been profound.
In neither instance – the fear or the guilt – have the consequences always been healthy.  They have given rise to the "parallel crises" that Braverman contends cloud our vision of current realities in the Holy Land and prevent frank discussion of the day-to-day injustices inflicted upon Palestinians there.  They are, he adds, crises that must be addressed within our separate traditions – the theme of justice voiced by the prophets and of love embodied by Jesus.  That, he says, may take longer for Jews than Christians.  But, he adds, "Don't wait for us.  You work on your problem.  We'll work on ours."
So what is the Christian problem in this regard?  It is that the have not really addressed – not historically nor theologically – the anti-Judaism in John and Acts and Paul; it is also how, over the centuries, that failure – that sin of omission – warped into the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust. 
Since the Holocaust, christians have swept the facts of early church history under the rug, preferring instead new theological stratagems designed to stress the continuities between Judaism and Christianity, between the Old Testament and the New – stratagems that, in their guilt-ridden enthusiasm, blur the discontinuities and reduce Jesus to but one in a long list of Jewish prophets.  Anti-Semitism has been replaced by fawning philo-Semitism.  Jews – and by extension, Israel – can do no wrong.
That, Braverman says, does Jews no favors.  Instead, he says, it "thwarts Jewish renewal by insulating us from the painful process of self-reflection about the effects of particularlism and exceptionalism." 
And it does Christians no favors.  Instead, it enables us to avoid facing and dealing with our real guilt.  We have locked the Holocaust in the hermetically sealed box of another time and place.  And we have fobbed off the consequences onto another people – the Palestinians – who had nothing to do with the crime. 
It didn't happen here.  It didn't happen on our watch.  We twenty-first-century Californians had nothing to do with it.  Like Pilate, we can wash our hands of the whole affair.  The Germans did it.  And they did it more than sixty years ago. 
"Not so fast, not so easy," warns Zygmunt Bauman, a Polish Jew and sociologist.  In Modernity and the Holocaust, he writes;
…the exercise in focusing on the Germaness of the crime as on that aspect in which the explanation of the crime must lie is simultaneously an exercise in exonerating everyone else, and particularly everything else.  The implication that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were a wound or a malady of our civilization – rather than its horrifying, yet legitimate product results not only in the moral comfort of self-exculpation, but also in the dire threat of moral and political disarmament.  It all happened 'out there' – in another time, another country.  The more 'they' are to blame, the more the rest of 'us' are safe, and the less we have to do to defend this safety.  Once the allocation of guilt is implied to be equivalent to the location of causes, the innocence and sanity of the way of life of which we are so proud need not be cast in doubt.
Those of you who attended the Taize service Good Friday evening may have noticed that there were tears behind my eyes, as we sang "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord."  Those tears were there, because I cannot escape the theology of that hymn or the truth of Bauman's wisdom.
It wasn't just the Jews – or the Romans – who killed Jesus.  We all did.  We were all there.
And it wasn't just the Germans of a certain era who had the capacity to kill six million Jews.  In our hearts of darkness, we are all capable of similar crimes.  Need I mention the genocide in which millions of Native Americans were killed, the centuries-long crime of slavery, the concentration camps in which we confined our Japanese Americans, or the hatred so many of us harbor for the Muslims in our midst.
Only when we confront the universality of evil and embrace the redemptive theology that proceeds from the resurrected Jesus, will we be able to deal in a healthy way with the guilt that is our Christian Holocaust problem.   
And only when we accept that Jesus – the Christ – is far more than just the product of his Jewishness, but rather its fulfillment…the New Adam who represents the break in human history through which the exclusive God of the Jews becomes the God of all…only then will we be able to help Jews deal with their Holocaust problem in a healthy way – to break the bonds of exclusivity and to embrace the universality of the one God we all worship.
In that instance, we – all God's children – can say with new understanding, new fervor – "Never Again!"  Never again for any of God's children – not Jews…in Israel, not Christians in Darfur or El Salvador, not Buddhists in Cambodia, not Hindus in Mumbai, and not Palestinians, be they Muslims in Gaza or Christians in Bethlehem.

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