BISHOP RICHARD J. SKLBA
Sometime last summer, I was first approached by someone who, like myself, was becoming very concerned about the increasing number of anti-Semitic attacks on synagogues and mosques across the country. Sadly, the deepening divisions in our American society and the increasingly common bitter partisan disputes somehow seemed to give new license to hate groups and acts of violence in our land.
Out of those initial rounds of local conversation regarding that phenomenon came the desire to write a small book addressing the enduring reality of anti-Semitic attitudes which have long lingered at the edges of our world and infected deeper attitudes in our society, and sadly even our religious beliefs. A nationally known local publisher, Jon Sweeney, took on the job of editing such an effort and the project was born.
“Jesus wasn’t Killed by the Jews: Reflections for Christians in Lent,” a small, 128-page paperback was published by Orbis Press and released last month. With a foreward by the internationally renowned Rabbi Abraham Skorka and an afterword by the respected Jewish American scholar of Matthew’s Gospel, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, the book contains 14 brief studies on various interrelated topics — biblical, liturgical and catechetical — all germane to the issue of anti-Semitism. I was honored, together with Milwaukee resident and professor emeritus Dr. Richard Lux, to be included among the contributors to that effort.
Anti-Semitism has been a long and bitter poison in our religious and social world. Even as far back as the first century CE in Judea, when all Christians were Jewish, there was the beginning of the divide; mutual recriminations began to surface. At that time, the debaters were all Jewish, as I said, but pious Jewish leaders (like early Paul himself) in Jerusalem worried about the initial trinitarian challenges of those first followers of “The Way” to the Jewish conviction regarding the oneness of God. On the other hand, Jewish followers of Christ felt the duty to distance themselves from the increasing political rebelliousness of other Jewish leaders to the authority of their Roman conquerors. Both developments were viewed as somehow seminally dangerous in their own ways. The seeds of division and mutual suspicion were sown, even though they were all Jewish.
The Gospels which we know and love, often because of our weekly Catholic exposure to the Scriptures at our Sunday Eucharist, contain examples of the ancient arguments between Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries. Jesus himself belonged to the company of the Pharisees. They were all Jewish, as I said, and their sometimes heated debates were often inspired by differing points of teaching among the rabbis of the time. Unfortunately, it subsequently became easy to speak of Jesus versus the Jews, completely forgetting that they were all Jewish and that the initial debates were about differing aspects of Jewish life and belief.
Given the fact our Gospels were each written toward the last part of the first century CE, they reflect the discussions of their own age. By that time, what Jesus himself actually said and did, reflected in the early preaching of the Apostles in the light of his resurrection was finally put into writing by each Evangelist. Each writer selected a different title for Jesus as the basic theme of his Gospel. Each account was historically accurate, but each had a specific teaching to emphasize and its own lens for deepening early Christian belief. They included and addressed the later arguments of their own day, however, and with the passion of their convictions. For the most part, they all remained Jewish in perspective. Our Christianity, even all these centuries later, remains Jewish to the core.
Over the centuries, the divisions deepened and the controversies became ever more bitter. Christian political power in the Middle Ages was unfortunately able to authorize discrimination and legitimate social persecution. A deep and sometimes bitter mutual antagonism ruled the medieval world right into the heart of our recent 20th century. Curiously, it was the fruits of the God-awful Nazi extermination plans that helped to force the world into recognizing the evil of anti-Semitism for what it was. Humble and honest acknowledgement of our Catholic share in the fault, heightened by the now public horrors of the Holocaust/Shoah, have finally inaugurated the grace of conversion and provided a fresh start for Jewish-Christian reconciliation.
Much remains to be done. Unfortunately, our use of the Gospel of John for our Good Friday rituals each year obscures the fact that all the participants (except Pilate, who was the authority which condemned Jesus to death as a political agitator, and the Roman soldiers who executed his command) were Jewish. We humans, all of us in our own way were at fault, but obviously we Christians believe that the entire world benefited from the Lord’s death of Jesus. Our liturgical use of that Johannine text each Holy Week usually obscures the fault of the Romans and, with terrible historical consequences, has left the lingering false sense of Jewish singular responsibility for the Lord’s death.
At long last, it was the forthright teaching of the Second Vatican Council which addressed that untruth when it stated, “What happened in his [Jesus’] Passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, nor upon the Jews of today … The Church repudiates all persecutions [and] … deplores the hatred, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and from any source.” (Nostra aetate, §4)
Our little volume is yet another effort to eradicate the sin of anti-Semitism from our minds and our world. The hope of the authors and contributors is that this Lent might again move our world into a relationship which better reflects God’s will because, as a later Paul would insist in writing to his Roman colleagues, the “gifts and call [of the Jews] are irrevocable.” (Romans 11:29)