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Why Christians should audit their words, worship and practices for anti-Semitism

Christians can faithfully proclaim our faith as rooted in the witness of biblical Israel without using Jews and Judaism as foils for our own purposes. One place to start is by doing an audit for anti-Semitism.

A couple embrace near a growing memorial across the street from the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in Poway, California, on April 29, 2019. A gunman opened fire two days before as about 100 people were worshipping, exactly six months after a mass shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue. One person was killed in the Poway attack. (AP Photo/Greg Bull)

(RNS) — Jewish gravestones overturned and defaced in a Fall River, Massachusetts, cemetery. Gunshots fired in a New Jersey kosher market, leaving one of the owners, an employee and a customer dead. A woman killed and others wounded in an attack on a California synagogue. Five people stabbed by a stranger during a Hanukkah party at a rabbi’s house in Monsey, New York. 

All part of a wave of anti-Semitic violence against American Jews this past year.

It has become terrifyingly clear that Jews have become targets of extremist violence in the United States — a trend that has shocked and horrified American Jews and their neighbors.

While law enforcement seeks to punish the extremists responsible and prevent future attacks, there is still more work to be done to combat the underlying causes of anti-Semitism. And as uncomfortable as it is to admit, the Christian church has a role in perpetuating anti-Semitism. For the sake of the integrity of our faith and the safety of our neighbors, Christians must confront our own legacy of anti-Semitism. 

The Christian obligation to address anti-Semitism is especially critical in a country like the United States that, despite declining church attendance, still has a dominant Christian culture. Many of the recent twisted manifestos from people enacting anti-Semitic violence make terrifying theological claims of Christian supremacy and Jewish conspiracy.

If we are to root out anti-Semitism in the United States, we must honestly contend with the ways Christianity has perpetuated violence against Jews. 

As a way to differentiate Christians from Jews, early church leaders argued that God’s promises for the Jewish people had been taken away because they did not accept Jesus as the Messiah. As a result, only the church could be regarded as the true spiritual Israel.

What started as a sibling rivalry between two faiths with a common background eventually led to false depictions of Jews as “Christ killers.” Christians who carried out massacres and pogroms against local Jewish communities used that false depiction as well as false allegations that Jews were killing Christians — known as the “blood libel” — to justify their actions.

Very often in history, Christian holy days have been occasions for violence against Jews. Holy Week was particularly dangerous. 

Students from the Yeshiva School in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh pay their respects as the funeral procession for Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz passes their school en route to Homewood Cemetery after a funeral service at the Jewish Community Center on Oct. 30, 2018. Rabinowitz was one of 11 people killed while worshipping at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

We long for a time when the convergence of Christmas and Hanukkah, Passover and Easter is not dangerous for Jewish neighbors, but rather occasions for mutual, joyful coexistence. As Christian leaders, we must continue to follow the lead of Roman Catholic and major Protestant parts of the church in condemning religious language that blames Jews for the death of Jesus or that claim God’s promises have been removed from the Jewish people.

Both our faith and civic ideals tell us that we must condemn anti-Semitism.

This country promises freedom of religion for all, a high ideal that distinguishes the United States. We fail that promise when the dignity and safety of minority communities are under threat. We cannot be fully American if our neighbors cannot freely worship. 

We pastor and teach in very different parts of the United States, but observe similar ways that Christian communities across the nation engage, often unintentionally, in anti-Jewish practices. We hear the false binary of the “wrathful God of the Old Testament” and the “loving God of the New Testament.” We hear how Judaism is depicted as a religion of legalism and obligation while ignoring its spiritual vitality and joy. We hear how Jesus preached liberation from oppressive religion but ignore how he kept Torah.

We invite our fellow Christians to undertake an anti-Semitic audit of your words, worship and practice. Take a hard look at how you talk about Judaism and its traditions.  If you profess the name of Christ and value the American commitment to religious liberty, join in self-reflection about the ways our hymns, our theology, our Bible studies, our artwork, our worship, and our rituals can be construed as anti-Jewish.

Take a critical look at how you tell the story of Judaism. Ask what story you tell when you talk about biblical Israel or the Jewish people. Do you appropriate Jewish language and symbols for your own benefit? Is Judaism used as a foil to make Christianity look better? We urge you to learn more deeply about Judaism as Jews see it, with so much range and complexity.

Find new ways to proclaim the good news of Christ without using Judaism for your own purposes.

Christians are blessed to share a common heritage with Jews in the Scriptures of Israel and an abiding faith in a God who creates and redeems. Christians can faithfully proclaim our faith as rooted in the witness of biblical Israel without using Jews and Judaism as foils for our own purposes.

After each attack, we’ve said “never again,” but the violence against Jews continues. The declaration “never again” emerges from the global horror of the Holocaust. “Never again” was a promise to Jews that the silence of the past would not continue in the future. Never again would Christians allow anti-Semitism to metastasize into bloodshed. Never again would neighbors stand idly by. We fear our “never again” is an empty promise amid escalating anti-Semitism.

But this we can do: We can undertake the examination and cleaning of our own house. The church has a moral obligation to self-examination, for the integrity of our own faith and the safety of our neighbors. 

 (Laura Everett is an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ and the executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Dan Joslyn-Siemiatkoski is an Episcopal priest and a professor of church history at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)