(RNS) — Many years ago, when I was teaching in a Jewish high school, the mother of two students told me about how few Jews there were in the central Canadian city where she lived.
And about how, one year, her co-workers had thought it would be amusing, at their yearly Christmas party, to have the only Jewish person in the office give a speech on “What I Want for Christmas.” They likely meant no insult, but she accepted, and after pronouncing the title of her speech, she proceeded to quote a long list of rabidly antisemitic statements from early Church figures.
There was St. Gregory of Nyssa (to whom Jews were “companions of the devil” and a “race of vipers”) and St. John Chrysostom (for whom Jews were “no better than hogs and goats”). She continued with gems of Jew-hatred from the writings of Martin Luther (like his excoriation of Jews in “On the Jews and Their Lies” as “venomous beasts, vipers, disgusting scum … devils incarnate”).
As she went on her listeners squirmed to hear from medieval Christian Jew-haters, and later ones, like Father Coughlin, the “radio priest” who spouted antisemitic opinions on the airwaves in the 1930s.
After a pause, she ended her speech with: “Now you know what I want for Christmas.”
It was a touché moment, to be sure, but it was uncouth of her to subject her co-workers, who were likely only trying to have a good-spirited time, to her litany of antisemitic libels. The more so because she surely knew that contemporary Christianity has come a long way since the days of Chrysostom and company.
Luther’s Jew-hatred has been decisively repudiated by Lutheran churches throughout the world. Jews today enjoy warm relations with both Catholics and Protestants. Many evangelical congregations are among the most dedicated supporters of Israel.
Antisemitism seems these days to have found ample refuge in other belief systems, though pockets of Christian antisemitism do still exist.
In Arizona, Pastor Steven Anderson of the Faithful Word Baptist Church has preached online that “the Jews believe that it’s okay for them to steal from Gentiles” — an assertion that, in case it needs to be said, is untrue.
Then there’s Rick Wiles, the Florida pastor who runs “TruNews,” a nightly newscast with more than 18 million views on YouTube. Jews and Israel are recurrent targets for his bile.
“Today’s Zionists are guilty of the same sins as ancient Jews,” he has proclaimed. “They built Zion on blood.” He has referred to a decidedly non-Jewish billionaire as “Rabbi Warren Buffett.”
The effect of these kinds of statements isn’t difficult to discern.
John Timothy Earnest, who killed one person and injured three others, including an 8-year-old child, in his attack on a Poway, California, synagogue on Passover, 2019, belonged to an Orthodox Presbyterian Church and prefaced his shooting spree with a declaration that expressed Christian motives for killing Jews.
Pittsburgh Synagogue shooter Robert Bowers, who shouted “All Jews must die!” before killing 11 members of a Jewish congregation in 2018, had written on a social media profile that “jews are the children of satan,” echoing a phrase from the Gospel of John.
No Christian of good will, of course, is responsible for any of those haters.
But, Longfellow’s words, in his famous poem “Christmas Bells,” come to mind:
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
He ended his poem on a hopeful note, that, eventually, “The Wrong shall fail/ The Right prevail …”
That might be part of a Christian poem, but it’s a very Jewish idea, the true meaning of the much-misused term tikkun olam: “the repair of the world.”
How can Christians — and Muslims — of good will help bring that about, at least with regard to countering the evil of Jew-hatred?
For starters, by getting to know Jewish people they meet, live near or work with. By learning about Jewish beliefs and practices. Websites such as Aish.com and Jewinthecity.com are invaluable guides. Conspiracy theories and misinformation abound these days in many realms, and Jews and Judaism are particularly popular targets of the wild-eyed. But the truth is out there.
And finally, by not allowing family members, co-workers or friends to get away with expressions of negativity about Jews. Ignoring en passant racist or sexist or antisemitic comments is easy. Challenging them is brave.
More Christians of good will taking those steps will be a most cherished gift, any time of year.