1BECAUSE CHRISTIANITY HAS BEEN VICIOUS TO ITS MOTHER (ANTI-SEMITISM)
Nobody is born a religious jerk. It takes a religion to help someone become that way.
Unfortunately, I know this from personal experience.
I put my whole heart into parenting my four kids. They’re now adults, two with kids of their own, and judging by the way our kids turned out, you would think I was an amazing dad. But last night I wrote a letter to one of our adult children to ask forgiveness for a significant flaw in my fatherhood: my approach to discipline.
In the letter I explained that my approach to parenting was strongly influenced by Christian leaders whose teachings I am now repulsed by.1 I trusted those leaders because they were respected in the Evangelical community to which I belonged and because they used a magic word, biblical, to describe their teaching. Now, I’ve come to see that what they called biblical was actually authoritarian, and I am coming to terms with how much better a parent I could have been if I had found better teachers. This breaks my heart, I wrote, because fatherhood has been the most meaningful experience of my life and I sincerely wanted to do it right.
I explained all this not as an excuse but as part of my apology, because I now see how some aspects of my parenting were insensitive, unwise, and hurtful. I’ve told all my children, “I sincerely did my very best for you as a father, but you deserved so much better.” If only I knew when they were born what I know now! In some ways, my Christian commitment probably helped me be a better parent than I would have been otherwise, but in others, I think it made me worse. The situation recalls a time Jesus spoke of religious people traveling over land and sea to make converts, only to make them “twice the sons of hell” they were before (Matthew 23:15).
Our religion can “hell-ify” us by inspiring in us an impenetrable sense of rightness or even superiority. That sense of rightness can inoculate us against humility, infusing in us an excessive confidence or addiction to certainty that keeps us from seeing our mistakes until after the harm has been done—to others (including our children) and to ourselves. Our religion is right, we believe, which makes us right. As a result, the more devoted we are, the more stubborn and unteachable we become. And everyone can see it but us, because we’re blinded by our sincerity and zeal.
The stories we typically tell ourselves about Christianity keep us living in our comfortable delusion of innocence. For example, as a young Christian, I was taught that heroic Christians like William Wilberforce ended slavery. (I wasn’t taught that other Christians gained unimaginable wealth through slavery, or that the vast majority of white Christians in the South defended slavery either actively or tacitly, or that America’s largest denomination formed to perpetuate slavery on biblical grounds.2)
I was taught that devout Christians like Sir Isaac Newton were responsible for many of humanity’s great scientific breakthroughs. (I wasn’t taught how their fellow Christians mocked, persecuted, and opposed many brilliant thinkers, from Copernicus and Galileo to Charles Darwin and Rachel Carson.3)
I was taught that Christians like George Mueller and Mother Teresa had been champions of orphans and widows, the downtrodden and poor, the sick and destitute. (I wasn’t taught that their fellow Christians, including many of their major donors, created, profited from, and defended the systems that produced so many orphans, widows, downtrodden, sick, destitute, and poor.)
I was taught that Christians like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Archbishop Desmond Tutu courageously fought to overcome the American and South African versions of apartheid. (I was never told that their fellow Christians created those very systems and defended them with elaborate theological justifications, deceptive legal machinations, and plenty of violence.)
I was even taught that Christianity was the incubator of humanity’s greatest art and literature, from da Vinci and Rembrandt to Bach and Handel to Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. (I was seldom if ever taught to appreciate the magnificent art of other traditions or acknowledge the proliferation of Christian schlock.)
I was taught the heroic stories of Christian missionaries, of special interest to me because my paternal grandfather was a Scottish missionary to Angola. (But I was never taught about the harmful legacy of much missionary activity or about the catastrophic effects of European colonialism, to which the modern missionary movement was often fused at the hip.4)
I was taught that Christians saw the earth as God’s handiwork and that we were its stewards. (But I had to discover for myself how Christians use doctrines of “dominion” and “the Second Coming” and “election” as excuses to exploit the earth since God gave it to “us,” and besides, since God is going to destroy the earth soon anyway, we might as well use it all up while we can.)
I was taught about the heroic Christian martyrs who faced torture and death with courage and equanimity. (But I wasn’t ever taught about how often Christians had made martyrs of others, torturing and killing both people of other faiths and their fellow Christians in the name of God, Jesus, the Church, the Bible, and Christianity.)
Through sermons, books, radio/TV “ministries,” and other media, I was repeatedly informed about the worst atrocities across history committed by non-Christians. (But about our own Christian atrocities, I was kept shockingly ignorant.)
In short, I was taught my religion’s historical upsides and few of its downsides, and I was taught about other religions’ historical downsides and few of their upsides.
That’s a perfect recipe for creating ignorant and arrogant religious jerks.
Through the years I have tried to rectify my ignorance about my own religion’s downsides and the upsides of other religions. But honestly, even after years of research, I can’t be certain how much I still don’t know simply because Christian institutions have so effectively denied, minimized, and rationalized our faults, recalling the old bromide about the victors writing history.
The earliest atrocity of my religion began just decades after Jesus lived and died. He taught and modeled love and radical forgiveness, but the religion that sprang up around his name very quickly showed a hateful face, and the first victim of its hostility was its own mother: Judaism.
The irony is so stark that it’s hard to process: a Jewish movement with a Jewish founder and all-Jewish original followers becomes, in the matter of a couple of decades, viciously anti-Jewish. From late in the first century onward, beginning with the author of the Fourth Gospel and later including Tertullian, Origen, Chrysostom, Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine, many of Christianity’s most revered leaders vilified Jews, setting the stage for inhumane acts of persecution against Jewish people in the coming centuries, from ghettoization and banishments to forced conversions and mass executions.5
During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, many scholars reviewed the history of plagues in Christian civilization and saw how these plagues often stirred up anti-Jewish sentiment and scapegoating. For example, historian Frank Snowden, author of Epidemics and Society, recounted how as the bubonic plague spread from body to body in the fourteenth century, a social plague of violence spread from mind to mind, with symptoms of “divisiveness, xenophobia, witch-hunting, blaming, finding a guilty party—the great ‘other’ that we can attack.”6 The Jews became the other of choice upon whom European Christians repeatedly projected their pent-up anxiety and violence.7 Over two hundred pogroms—or organized massacres—erupted during that plague outbreak alone, with an especially horrific massacre occurring in Strasbourg, France, on Valentine’s Day, 1349. Snowden writes,
The citizens of Strasbourg rounded up the community of [2,000] Jews, brought them to the Jewish cemetery, and said that it was their religion that was leading them to poison the wells where Christians drank—and that was the source of the bubonic plague. They had either to renounce their religion or be killed on the spot. Half of the Jews held to their religion, and they were burned alive.
A priest/historian from later in that century, Jakob Twinger von Königshofen (1346–1420), recounted that the motives for the massacre included money as well as plague-inspired panic. After the slaughter,
Everything that was owed to the Jews was cancelled.… The council … took the cash that the Jews possessed and divided it among the working-men proportionately. The money was indeed the thing that killed the Jews. If they had been poor and if the feudal lords had not been in debt to them, they would not have been burnt.8
Later that year, Pope Charles IV officially pardoned the city for its crimes of mass murder and theft.9 Some might call that pardon an act of mercy, but it has the scent of coverup and complicity.
Less than a hundred years later, the Protestant Reformation was born. It too perpetuated anti-Semitism with venomous fervor, as exemplified in the bone-chilling words of Martin Luther:
Their private houses must be destroyed and devastated, they could be lodged in stables. Let the magistrates burn their synagogues and let whatever escapes be covered with sand and mud. Let them be forced to work, and if this avails nothing, we will be compelled to expel them like dogs in order not to expose ourselves to incurring divine wrath and eternal damnation from the Jews and their lies … we are at fault in not slaying them.10
It’s not hard to see how this kind of vicious rhetoric, smoldering deep in the German Christian psyche, caught fire in the Nazi death camps, gas chambers, and mass graves four centuries later.
I was born a decade after the Holocaust, at a time when fundamentalist Christians like Jerry Falwell, Sr., seemed to embrace Judaism as Christianity’s equal partner in creating the West in general and the United States in particular. Falwell constantly spoke of the “Judeo-Christian tradition.” (A rabbi friend of mine noted, with appropriate skepticism, “Judeo-Christian usually just means Christian.”) Falwell’s son carried on the pairing.11 Along with TV preacher John Hagee and many others, the Falwells became fervent supporters of the nation of Israel, offering further evidence, to some at least, of their anti-anti-Semitism. It’s clear, however, that their brand of Christian Zionism bears only superficial resemblance to Jewish Zionism. In the end, Christian Zionism reduces Jews to the status of pawns in the fulfillment of end-times prophecies that many Christian preachers love to speak and write about.
By the time I was a young pastor, all things Jewish were downright trendy, and many Evangelicals started celebrating “messianic Passover Seders” and many joined “messianic synagogues.”
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg diagnosed our problem succinctly in a tweet: “Philosemitism is antisemitism, too. Fetishization of Jews and Judaism is also an objectification of us and a denial of our humanity, and also often comes with a side order of appropriation.”12
Rabbi Danya’s assessment makes sense to me, especially after a tour of Israel and Palestine I helped organize several years ago. Our trip wasn’t a typical holy land tour. We spent half of our time in the West Bank and half in Israel, seeking to understand the Israel-Palestine situation by actually meeting Israelis and Palestinians.13 We met settlers whose settlements were funded and defended by “philosemitic” Christians in the United States. We met Palestinians whose lands had been taken by those Christian-supported Israeli settlements. We met Israeli Jewish activists who were working to end house demolitions and assure equal human rights for their Palestinian neighbors. We visited Palestinian refugee camps and met with a leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization—who was, by the way, a dedicated Christian. We were guests at a Shabbat service in a synagogue near Jerusalem. It was full of friendly people, few of whom had ever had a personal relationship with a Palestinian or understood what life was like for Palestinians. Over our ten-day trip, we went through several checkpoints and saw the “wall of separation” from both sides.
We came away seeing the ugly underbelly of Christian Zionism and “philosemitism.” We saw with heartbreaking clarity how Christian Zionism hurts Palestinians, whether they’re Christian or Muslim. We also saw how Christian Zionism has become a fundraising tool for extreme right-wing political alliances that many Jews find morally horrifying. We saw how Christian Zionism perpetuates a simple but terribly dangerous theological idea, an idea that Christian missiologist Lesslie Newbigin called “the greatest heresy in the history of monotheism,” the idea that God chooses some people for exclusive privilege, leaving everyone else in a disfavored (or we might say “dis-graced”) status.14 They are the other. They don’t belong here. They are in the way. Their rights don’t count.
This elitist attitude has been central to Christian anti-Semitism through the centuries. Large swaths of Christians embraced and still embrace a doctrine called “supersessionism.” Yes, the Jews were “God’s chosen people” in the past, this doctrine says, but ever since they rejected Jesus, we Christians have replaced (or superseded) them. Some modified their supersessionism to say that God chose two groups of people, first Jews and then Christians. But either way, the supposed pro-Israel stance of many conservative Christians today has a chilling dimension: Jews in Israel are useful to these Christians because of their supposed role in bringing in “the last days,” during or after which they will either convert or be sent to the fires of hell—as if God in the end will outdo the worst Christian hate crimes against Jews.
Not only that, but I suspect another unsavory motivation is at work. After the Holocaust, the Jews were seen as a group of innocent victims. By associating ourselves with innocent victims, we Christians could, in a sense, enhance our own sense of innocence. (We’ll return to this theme of innocence in Chapter 16.) Christians could derive other benefits from Jews too, as I saw some years ago during a preaching trip to Guatemala. I noticed that every second or third car on the road had a bumper sticker of an Israeli flag or star of David. “I had no idea there were so many Jewish Guatemalans,” I said to my driver. “Those aren’t the cars of Jews,” he explained. “They’re the cars of Pentecostals. Pentecostals teach that God will bless whoever blesses the Jews. So they sell those bumper stickers at their churches. It’s a way for Christians to buy a blessing from God. Life is hard here, so we want to get blessings any way we can!”
The Christian community still remains largely ignorant of or in denial about its detestable history of anti-Semitism. It remains equally oblivious to how its contemporary “philosemitism” fetishizes, objectifies, appropriates, and exploits Jews in anti-Semitic ways. Until these dangerous underlying conditions are fully and effectively addressed, they remain like loaded guns hidden in the glove compartment, even among Christians sporting pro-Israel bumper stickers on their minivans.
I have felt this danger even more acutely since the weekend of August 10–11, 2017, when I was asked to be part of a clergy witness in Charlottesville, Virginia. There I watched as hundreds of young khaki-clad white men (along with a few women) carried tiki torches and baseball bats through the city, chanting anti-Semitic Nazi slogans and waving Nazi and Confederate flags. I rallied, sang, prayed, and marched with a multi-faith group of counter-witnesses standing for Black, minority, and Jewish lives. I was among those who ran into the chaos to help care for the wounded after a white supremacist terrorist drove his car into a crowd, injuring many and killing one young woman. I saw with my own eyes that anti-Semitism continues to ferment in many American souls.
Until the Christian faith unites more passionately and decisively in acknowledging its ugly anti-Semitic history (which is ongoing and, in some places, experiencing a resurgence), I must be sympathetic to those who say they can’t stay Christian for this reason alone.
I think of two people I’ve met, one born in a Mainline Protestant family in the United States, the other born in a Lutheran family in Germany. After learning the realities of Christian anti-Semitism, each felt that the most faithful and moral thing they could do was convert from Christianity to Judaism. One became a rabbi in the United States, the other, an activist in Israel. When their kind faces and thoughtful eyes come to mind, I feel a deep and complex irony: might it sometimes be necessary, to follow Jesus’ example of deep solidarity with the oppressed, to leave the religion associated with Jesus entirely? Might the most truly Christlike choice be to disassociate from Christianity and associate with a religion that Christians have persecuted? Might the nonviolent example of Jesus require a true follower or friend of Jesus to defect from any religion with a long track record of doing violent harm in Jesus’ name? No morally serious person can minimize the gravity of these questions.
The psychology of anti-Semitism is as complex and convoluted as its history. But one thing is clear: anti-Semitism is not like a freak accident that happens randomly to individuals. It’s more like a conspiracy theory that an unscrupulous cable news station spreads among susceptible groups, recruiting the naive as accomplices in ignorance, lies, and bigotry. For most of its history, the Christian religion has been this tawdry cable news station, hosting a wide array of dangerous anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, and in many places, it continues to do so.
So it is for reasons of moral integrity that I must ask myself: might it be necessary to turn off the religious network that turned so viciously on its own mother, and that continues to put her under threat? Might a religion that could make me a worse father also make me a worse neighbor or citizen? Don’t I owe it to my neighbors, especially my Jewish neighbors, to seriously reconsider my involvement in a religion that has been so cruel to them for so long?
2BECAUSE OF CHRISTIANITY’S SUPPRESSION OF DISSENT (CHRISTIAN VS. CHRISTIAN VIOLENCE)
I’ve lost touch with Chad in recent years. He was a likable leader of a Christian organization who read my books and sought me out privately for guidance on a few occasions. He once invited me to speak at a large conference he organized. When I arrived, he escorted me through the crowd and whispered in my ear, “We’re glad to have you speak to our conference. But we almost lost some of our major donors when they found out we invited you. That’s why we couldn’t have you give a lecture, but could only let you be interviewed onstage. We had to title your session ‘Interview with a Heretic.’ I hope you don’t mind us calling you a heretic. It’s the only way we can get you in front of our constituency.”
I didn’t know whether agreeing to speak under those conditions was an act of humility or folly on my part, but I did know that the term heretic was loaded. Historically, it empowers those who apply it and disempowers those to whom it is applied.
Early in Christian history, heretic was a neutral word, roughly equivalent to nonconformist. By the middle of the second century, the word changed to an epithet. Early in the fourth century, heresy became a crime with increasingly dire consequences.1 Labeling someone heretic or apostate made almost any cruelty possible. It put the presumed heretic under great threat, and it gave the heresy hunter great power. It targeted the heretic as an enemy not only of the Christian church but also of the Christian empire.
The historical reality of Christian empire, like Christian anti-Semitism, is bathed in irony. Jesus was an oppressed brown Palestinian Jew, living in a Middle Eastern nation that was occupied by a European empire centered in Rome. Jesus challenged the empire of Rome by proclaiming an alternative empire, the empire of God. The similarity of the terms highlighted the radical contrasts between the two empires:
Rome’s empire was violent. God’s empire was nonviolent.
Rome’s empire was characterized by domination. God’s empire was characterized by service and liberation.
Rome’s empire was preoccupied with money. God’s empire was preoccupied with generosity and was deeply suspicious of money.
Rome’s empire was fueled by the love of power. God’s empire was fueled by the power of love.
Rome’s empire created a domination pyramid that put a powerful and violent man on the top, with chains of command and submission that put everyone else in their place beneath the supreme leader. God’s empire created a network of solidarity and mutuality that turned conventional pyramids upside down and gave “the last, the least, and the lost” the honored place at the table.
Not surprisingly, the Roman Empire saw Jesus and his nonviolent movement as a threat to their violent regime, so they had him tortured and publicly executed as a matter of standard procedure. By pinning a naked human being to wood the way a dead butterfly or grasshopper is pinned in a display case, the empire showed its own absolute dominance and its victim’s absolute defeat. The message was clear: Jesus’ message of truth and love meant nothing in the face of the empire’s crushing power and domination.
In defiance of the empire, Jesus maintained nonviolence to the end. He cried neither “Goddamn you filthy Roman dogs for what you are doing to me!” nor “I’ll be back, hunt you down, and make you all pay someday!” Instead, with his dying breath he uttered a prayer for his torturers and killers to be forgiven because they didn’t know what they were doing.
Echoing its founder’s nonviolence, the Christian faith initially grew as a nonviolent spiritual movement of counter-imperial values. It promoted love, not war. Its primal creed elevated solidarity, not oppression and exclusion: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26–28). The early Christians elevated the equality of friendship rather than the supremacy of hierarchy (John 15:15; 3 John 14, 15). Because of their counter-imperial posture, including their refusal to be soldiers in the Roman army or to participate in the imperial cult that proclaimed the divinity of the emperor, they were often mocked, distrusted as unpatriotic, and persecuted.
Copyright © 2022 by Brian D. McLaren