Justifying Hate: Part Two (5/25/03)
Rev. Gary Cox Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
I think the perfect sermon would be informative, intriguing, and inspiring. Informative, because people of the caliber that come to this church are eager to learn new things; intriguing, because people would like to learn interesting things; and inspiring, because that’s what church is all about. Which is probably bad news for this sermon. Let me say that I do hope you will find it very informative, and hopefully a bit intriguing. But I fully realize that if anybody walks out of here inspired and transformed after today’s service, it will not be due to my words, but rather to the skill of our great choir, and the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit.
Last week we began with a sort of psychological study of humanity. Admitting that my ideas on this subject are not universally accepted, I maintained that human beings seem to have a built in need for an enemy. Oh, it’s not that we’re cruel beings, or that we go through life hating everybody we see. It’s just that we seem to have this ugly little place deep inside where we store up our anger and frustration, and we have a need to find somebody or some thing on which to vent that ugliness.
We talked about racism, and how many of us know people who hate people of other races for no reason whatsoever. I cited a particular uncle of mine who falls into this category. And we remembered how communism was America’s focus of hatred for many years. And then we examined how people who give us permission to hate are often loved and adored. Whether it be the leaders of racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, or tyrants like Hitler, the surest way to get a loyal following is to separate the world into the good guys and the bad guys, and to give people justification for hating the bad guys. People need to vent, and it’s much easier when everybody is doing it together.
We then turned to the most dangerous and persistent form of hatred known to humankind: religious hatred. Once you are certain God is on your side to the exclusion of your enemy, the sin of murder becomes a virtue. After all, what’s the difference if your enemy goes to hell now or twenty years from now? Unredeemable evil must be confronted by those willing to stand up for God’s holy purposes.
Finally, the primary subject of last week’s sermon was the wretched track record Christians have in relation to the Jews. From the Spanish inquisition to the Holocaust, Christians have found reason after reason, time after time, for killing off people who adhere to the religion from which Christianity came forth. And we have used the biblical words of Paul and Jesus to justify our hatred.
Last week we took a close look at Paul, and discovered something that should trouble those who have relied on his words to make the Jews their enemies. To make a long story short, Paul’s words were written to non-Jewish converts to Christianity. When Jewish converts to Christianity told those non-Jewish people they should follow the ancient Jewish customs, Paul told them they did not need to do that. All they needed was the love of God as found in Jesus Christ.
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Taken out of context, Paul’s words can appear to be an attack on the entire Jewish faith. But as we saw last week, when placed in the proper context, and when taken along with Paul’s positive words about Judaism, his message does not attack the Jewish faith. In fact, Paul considered the Jews to be the chosen people of God. He simply believed that a new group had been added to the chosen people—the Christians.
This week, we turn our attention to Jesus. As is the case with every other subject in the world, Bible quotes can be pulled out of context to prove anything you want to prove. Want to prove men are superior to women? You can do so with the Bible. Want to prove men and women are entirely equal? Ditto—the Bible can be used as “proof.” Want to be a racist, a homophobe, a military conqueror, a hater of women, killer of pagans, despiser of Jews? No problem. A phrase here and a phrase there and we can turn the basic message of the Bible upside down and make it look like a terrorist manual.
When it comes to the words of Jesus, the problem is exacerbated. After all, this is the incarnation. Our faith makes the claim that Jesus Christ is the word made flesh, the very image of God in time and space. So if we can make it look like Jesus tells us to hate the Jews, we are on solid ground when we despise the Jews. If we can make it look like Jesus tried to establish this small, exclusive club of the “in” people—the heaven-bound Christians in a world full of hell-bound sinners—then we can start feeling pretty good about ourselves. And best of all, we can vent our hatred in the name of love.
And make no mistake, Christians do just that all the time. The message of a large part of the modern church seems to be, “God loves you…but you’re going straight to hell unless you think about religion just like I do.” The basic message of Jesus, which is to love everybody and judge nobody, is a double-edged sword. You can’t really love somebody you are judging. To love somebody means you love them as they are. To believe another person is worthy of hell, and to say you love them, is nonsense. If you love them, you find value in them as they are—not in some idealized version of them that you would like to create. And if you find value in them, how much more will God love them and value them—God, who created them in the first place, and who forgives their shortcomings just as much as your own?
Jesus really makes it pretty easy for us. Jesus allows us an amazing amount of freedom. We can do anything we want, as long as we love other people. Oh, and there’s one rule—one thing that we cannot do: judge. We should be real careful about taking the words attributed to Jesus and using them to cast judgment.
But over the years, we have gotten quite good at doing just that. We have that inborn need for an enemy, and if we can meet that need with religion as a foundation, we’ve can have our cake and eat it too. We can vent our ugliness and please God at the same time!
The first thing we have to realize when we look at the way the words of Jesus have been used to denigrate the Jews is this: we find more than one picture of Jesus in the Bible. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John do not give us an accurate photograph of Jesus. Instead, they each give us a rough sketch, and from those four sketches each of us develops our personalized composite drawing that we hang on the wall of our religious mind.
Can the words attributed to Jesus be used to justify anti-Jewish sentiments? Absolutely. And that brings us to the most critical and controversial issue we face when trying to identify the actual thoughts and words of Jesus. Each of the gospel writers puts his own spin on Jesus. They interpret their community’s memories of Jesus at least forty years after Jesus’ crucifixion. And scholars are in near universal agreement that there are places in each of the gospel accounts where Matthew, Mark, Luke and John sort of put words in Jesus’ mouth.
By the time these communities of faith were forming, a great schism had arisen between the Jewish authorities and the followers of Jesus. This is understandable. Jesus’ followers were claiming that the long-awaited Jewish Messiah had arrived in the world…and that most Jews failed to recognize him. In fact, they claimed, some of the Jewish authorities were even complicit in his death.
After Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70—about forty years after the death of Jesus—there was a chance that the Jewish faith would disappear from the earth. This was a small and persecuted community. Their main city, Jerusalem, and their primary place of worship, the Temple, had been destroyed. The Romans finally decided they had had enough of the Jews, and the Jewish authorities were convinced that unity was of vital importance. The only way to hold the religion together was for everybody to agree on certain religious truths.
The fact that a small band of troublemakers were standing the very core of the faith on its head, by claiming the Messiah had already arrived, was not helpful. Even worse, these so-called “Christians” were inviting non-Jewish people into the faith. This was simply unacceptable. And the Jewish authorities wrote religious laws against the Christians. They ordered them out of the synagogues, and said that any follower of Jesus would have his name removed from God’s book of life. They would be lost forever.
This is the climate in which the gospels were written. And we can be relatively certain that while Jesus never envisioned Judaism as his enemy—he was thoroughly Jewish throughout his life—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were in a difficult struggle with the Jewish authorities. And when they re-told the story of Jesus, their struggle with the Jewish authorities colored the way they told Jesus’ story.
Let’s look briefly at the four gospels, starting with the first gospel to be written—Mark. Of the four gospel writers, Mark seems to have the least problems with the Jews. In fact, Mark uses the Greek word for Jew, or Jews, only five times in his entire gospel, and then it is to refer to Jesus as the King of the Jews.
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t treat the Jews as a holistic group. He deals more with various groups within the Jewish community, and with individual Jewish people. The individuals, for the most part, fare pretty well. In fact, only Herodias, the wife of Herod Antipas, is portrayed as being purely evil. She is the one who asks for the head of John the Baptist. Even her husband is deeply grieved at this, although he follows her wishes.
The disciples, all of whom are Jewish, are simply normal, flawed human beings in Mark’s gospel. They misunderstand Jesus. At one point or another they deny him, betray him, and forsake him. But that is a sign of their humanity, not of their evil nature. Along with the disciples, the other Jewish individuals that appear in Mark’s gospel appreciate Jesus, and are amazed at his healing powers and his miracles.
The Jewish groups, such as the Pharisees and Sadducees, do not fare so well. The various Jewish sects of that day did not get along with one another, and argued vehemently over religious practice and theology. But Mark portrays them all as opposed to the ministry of Jesus. And this is a critical point. Each and every person who followed Jesus when he was alive was Jewish. It was the religious hierarchy that became the enemy of Jesus.
Matthew’s gospel really brings this point home. The Jesus we find in the Gospel of Matthew is quite Jewish. In Matthew, Jesus not only accepts the commandments, he makes them stronger. The commandments say one is not to kill; Jesus says one cannot even be angry. The commandments say one cannot commit adultery; Jesus says one cannot even look at another person with lust. Jesus upholds the basic laws of Judaism, and follows the Jewish rituals. He even says, at one point in Matthew’s gospel, “the scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore do whatever they teach you and follow it.”
Ultimately, Matthew’s message is similar to the message of Paul we examined last week. It is not that the Jews have been replaced by a new chosen people—the Christians. Instead, his message is that a new group has been added to God’s chosen people. Having said that, we must admit that one phrase from the gospel of Matthew has been used to justify the Christian hatred of Jews through the ages. As Jesus is being tried, and the Roman authorities say they have no reason to put him to death, Matthew has the Jewish crowd cry out, “His blood be on us and on our children.” Amy Jill-Levine, who is an unusual combination—a Jewish New Testament scholar—says that both she and her children have been called “Christ killers,” with that single phrase from Matthew used as justification. We can only imagine what the devoutly Jewish Jesus would have to say about that.
Luke does not give a favorable portrayal of the Jews, which is not surprising since he is the one gospel author who likely was not himself Jewish. It is generally agreed that Luke’s faith community had a very poor relationship with the local synagogues, which he indicates are a place of irrational hatred.
Luke’s story of the prodigal son, however, when interpreted allegorically, indicates that Luke may not have been against Judaism so much as he was for Christianity. If you’ll remember the parable of the prodigal son, when the young son returns to his father, the older son is jealous at the big fuss made over his little brother, who ran off and blew his inheritance on wine, women and song. Some interpret this parable by saying the Father is God, the young son represents newly forgiven Christians, and the older son is Judaism. But remember what the father says to the oldest son—“You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Interpreted in this way, it would appear that even Luke considered Christianity an addition to God’s kingdom, as opposed to a new kingdom that made others irrelevant.
And that leads us to the Gospel of John. This is the most spiritual of the gospels, and the least accurate historically. It is the most powerful of the gospels, for those of us who seek to develop a strong relationship with the spirit of the risen Christ. But there is no way to pretend that the writer of the Gospel of John had warm and fuzzy feelings toward Jews. In the 8th chapter of John, Jesus says to a group of Jews, “You are from your father the devil.”
It is hard to imagine Jesus saying such a thing. It is generally agreed that John’s community was the most persecuted of the four gospel communities. It is generally agreed that they had been forcibly expelled from the synagogue, and labeled as hell-bound heretics.
There is no doubt that scholars can separate Jesus himself from the anti-Jewish arguments in the Gospel of John. And in all the gospels, Jesus’ harsh words are almost always aimed at the Jewish authorities, and not at the people who followed the Jewish faith. But I have to agree with Adele Reinhartz, who after trying her best to prove John was not anti-Jewish, writes, “There is in fact no solution that gets the Fourth Gospel off the hook.”
For John everything is black and white. You are saved or you are damned. You are in light or you are in darkness. You are a follower of the one and only way to receive salvation—Jesus Christ—or you are lost. The theology that can be derived from John’s story is spiritually powerful. And if we were to throw out his gospel because of its weaknesses, we would be losing something important. But the fact is, we have to accept that John, like each of the gospel writers, was a human being. And as with every book of the Bible, however inspired, there are moments of fallen humanity that work their way into those words. We should always remember that we are the tools through which God works, and less-than-perfect tools often skew the vision of the artist.
Well, that may not be what some of us were hoping for. It seems that even the best of us, from the gospel writers to modern clergy, from the Mother Theresa’s to people in the pews, have that dark place within us that needs an enemy—an enemy that often becomes the object of our hate. That’s why it is so important that we be aware it is there. Because there have been countless times throughout history when people have been able to tap into that hatred and use it for their own purposes. And whether they base their arguments on religion, race or politics, these are the “powers and principalities” our faith warns us to stand against.
We’ve found reasons to fight with one another—to kill one another—for as long as we’ve been on the planet. And history indicates, and our honored veterans can attest, that war is sometimes unavoidable. But none of us would say that of the 200 million-plus human beings killed in wars in just the 20th Century, each of those deaths was necessary, unavoidable, and just.
There are a few dreamers, and I am one, who believe the day will come when we decide to stop killing each other; when good people refuse to take the lives of other good people; when the religions of the world stop justifying war. On that day, the powers and principalities will throw a war, and nobody will come. We will each have our dark place in check, and refuse to seek an enemy.
I know my logic sounds almost childlike, but that’s okay, because I’ve just seen too much hatred, too much killing. And my faith lies in another dreamer. My hope comes in remembering the one who refused to be manipulated; the one who loved even in the face of pure hatred; the one who took a child and said, “To such as this child belongs the kingdom of heaven,” the one who took up his cross, and was willing to follow it wherever it lead.