Each year I teach a course called “Dialogue in a World of Difference.” Typically, one third of the class is Muslim, one-third Christian, with the rest being Jewish, non-religious, Buddhist and so on. Because of our seminary’s focus on Abrahamic religions, I structure the course as three successive encounters with the religious traditions that fall under that umbrella: first Judaism, then Christianity, then Islam. We read literature on each, travel to synagogues, churches, and mosques and speak with various clergy and religious experts to help us learn from and with each other, in dialogue.
One thing that often strikes me, whether in my classes, my social life or my travels, is how much work we still need to do to overcome anti-Semitism.
Actually, I’d say we have equal work to do to overcome Islamophobia, but many of my students arrive at the seminary aware of Islamophobia. And a good number of these students and others I meet seem aware that this is a pressing problem, thank God.
But fewer people I meet seem to understand that anti-Semitism is also alive, indeed thriving and growing. It is a national problem, on the right and on the left. Many of us, even if unwittingly, perpetuate stereotypes, foster unhelpful and destructive anti-Jewish tropes, or just generally think we are free of anti-Semitic leanings or thoughts or words when we are not.
In early December, three Jews were fatally shot at a kosher market in New Jersey, killed by persons fueled by anti-Semitism, possibly persons who claim to be the true people of Israel, the real Israelites. Sadly, since then we’ve witnessed other attacks against Jews in New York and elsewhere. Among them, on the seventh night of Hanukkah at a candle lighting gathering in a rabbi’s home, five Jews were stabbed in Monsey, N.Y., about 100 miles from Hartford. Though details about the perpetrators in all of these events are still emerging, and so drawing conclusions is premature, these utterly tragic, awful, sickening events — and let’s call them what they are: Evil, with a capital E — should not be surprising for Christians.
For Christians, our long history is closely bound up in supersessionism — think “replacement theology” — of the Jewish people. In this line of thinking, Christians have become the true people of God, the people God really loves — the New Israel — and typically this leaves no place for Jews, or worse yet casts Judaism as an impediment that must be overcome before God’s kingdom can arrive. In this line of thinking, Jews’ only hope is a future acceptance of Jesus as their savior — that is, becoming Christian.
Despite so much work post-World War II attempting to right the wrongs that contributed to the Holocaust, helping overcome anti-Semitism at the denominational level — statements like Nostra aetate from the Vatican, that of the Lutheran World Federation, etc. — few lay Christians today seem to understand that what happened in Nazi Germany is in fact part of our Christian history, something that is intrinsically linked to our own story as Christians. While not the sole cause of the Holocaust, the murder of six million Jews could not have happened had not the groundwork been laid by hundreds of years of Christian hatred and mistreatment of Jews.
Until we start teaching our children and our larger Christian communities that this past is specifically linked to, indeed is, our past — not the past only of others who were Nazis, but also the past of all Christians — I’m convinced our problems will not end. We will continue to witness persons linked to Christianity and supersessionism commit acts of killing and hatred against Jews, against those whom the apostle Paul in Romans 9-11 calls — including those who do not follow Jesus — eternally beloved by God.
Probably the most moving book I’ve encountered on whether the Nazis understood themselves to be Christians was called “The Mark of Cain: Guilt and Denial in the Post-War Lives of Nazi Perpetrators” by Katharina von Kellenbach. In it, the author sifts through countless prison chaplain files with testimonies from the Nazi perpetrators who were executed at Nuremberg and elsewhere. Almost without exception, these mass killers thought that what they did — the atrocities of the Holocaust — was justified by God. They had little to no guilt. Virtually none. It is a gut-wrenching read that every Christian should undertake.
If as a Christian you have not been to a synagogue, or met your local rabbi, or you have no Jewish friends, consider this an invitation. As I often say about Islam, do not go to the grave without making a Muslim friend; likewise, do not go to the grave without having wrestled with this part of our history and making a Jewish friend. The future of Christianity, and possibly the world, depends on it.
Joel N. Lohr is the president of Hartford Seminary. He is co-author of The Torah: A Beginner’s Guide, with Joel S. Kaminsky, Professor of Jewish Studies at Smith College. He is currently co-authoring a biography of a Holocaust survivor titled Mitka.