Justifying Hate

May 18, 2003



Justifying Hate: Part One (5/18/03)

University Congregational Church – Wichita, Kansas

Rev. Gary Cox

This world can be a scary place. We are thrown into this world like actors upon a stage, without the benefit of a script. If we are lucky, we have parents that love us from the very beginning, who teach us the difference between right and wrong, and who warn us about those who go through life unconcerned with right and wrong, and who prey upon the innocent.

And if we are among the fortunate few in this world who have loving parents, and who have an abundance of material wealth so that survival is never really an issue, we are accorded the opportunity to think about life itself, and to cherish it as the gift that it truly is. We look out upon the world around us, see the countless numbers of people who are born into circumstances in which survival is not guaranteed, and do our best to make this world a better place for everybody.

Most of us can get along with other people. We seldom feud with our neighbors. We don’t go out on Saturday night looking for a fight. And as much as possible, we turn the other cheek when we are confronted with those who thrive on conflict, and disorder, and who seek to turn every situation into a crisis.

But there is something in human nature that, as a species, we just can’t seem to move beyond. We seem to have the need to have an enemy. Even the best of us—those who try to do the right thing at every turn and seek to make this world a place fit for children—even for good-natured people of faith, there is something in our nature that makes us want to stand with like-minded people and look at others with a sort of disdain.

Consider racism. Obviously, there is no reason to dislike people whose skin color is different from ours. And yet I have known people who automatically dislike people of other races. It’s sad but true. I had an uncle, raised in rural southern Indiana, who I heard speak disparagingly of black people with great frequency as I was growing up. One day, he admitted to me he had never actually known a black person.

I found this amazing, this built-in readiness to hate. But as I grew older I came to believe our need for an enemy is built in. We are on the lookout for somebody, or some group, upon which we can direct that ugliness within us that we would like to pretend is not there. Now, I should mention that I know what I am saying is not universally accepted. Last week in the Adult Sunday Morning Discussion Group we talked a bit about this subject. That group has been discussing Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis. I have often accused Freud of looking inside his own damaged psyche and applying what he found there to the whole human race. I may be guilty of the same thing in this instance. I look inside and see that lesser nature that requires an enemy within myself, and take it for granted everybody shares the same condition. This idea has helped me understand a lot of what I see in the world, but I’ll be the first to admit I should not form universal laws based on the flaws I find in myself.
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This need for an enemy that I have observed in people is not confined to racial matters. When I was a child it was the communists that we were supposed to hate. Communism was some godless evil that was growing like a cancer upon the world. I remember how important it was for the Americans to beat the Russians at the Olympic games. The medal count was posted throughout the games, and there was much more than sports involved here. Even my prejudiced uncle would cheer for the young black man from Harlem if he was doing battle against some godless commie.

And beyond race, and beyond politics, there is one other area to which we turn to find an enemy: religion. And this is the saddest type of hatred we have, but it is also the most pervasive. Countries come and go. Political systems come and go. But you can bet that long after the nations of the modern world have faded into history, people will still be killing one another over religion. And there is nothing more dangerous than a person who is certain enough of God’s will to kill those who disagree with him.

It is almost impossible to unite people around a common good, but people will almost always rally against what they perceive as a common evil. Consider the way our hatred of communism held us together. Consider the devotion of racists to organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. Consider the way Nazi Germany united against what they perceived as the global Jewish menace.

As a sort of student of history, I am watching the relationship between the fundamental Christians and the fundamental Jews with great interest. These two groups do not care for one another. The fundamental Jews are sick and tired of the Religious Right telling them they are going to hell for not accepting Jesus, and the Religious Right is sick and tired of the Jews for not accepting Jesus as their personal savior. But amazingly, these two long-standing enemies have managed to put their disputes on hold long enough to embrace each other as they confront a common enemy—Islam.

Christian and Jewish fundamentalists share a common goal: rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, on the site where there currently sits a great Mosque. Let me remind you of the history of the Jerusalem Temple. Three thousand years ago, in the tenth century B.C., Solomon built the first Temple in Jerusalem on what is still called the Temple Mount. King Nebechednezzar of Babylon destroyed that Temple in 586 B.C. Another Temple was built on the same site less than a hundred years later, and that Temple, known now as the Second Temple, was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 A.D.—at about the time the New Testament gospels were being written. One of the walls that surrounded that Second Temple still stands, and is called the wailing wall. We’ve all seen pictures of people bowing before the wailing wall and sticking notes in the cracks of the wall.

The Jews dream of rebuilding the Temple, but as I mentioned, today a Mosque sits on the Temple Mount. It will be interesting to see what happens if that Temple ever gets built. First, the Jews and Christians would have to get together and knock down that mosque, which everybody agrees is a very dangerous idea. But ultra-fundamental groups of Christians and Jews would like to do just that. Because the fundamental Jews believe that once the Third Temple is built, the true Messiah will come and take his place in the Temple. And the fundamental Christians agree that the Jews will place what they think is the Messiah in the Temple. But those Christians claim it will actually be the antichrist, and the action of the Jews will usher in the beginning of the glorious end of the world, as spelled out in the book of Revelation. That’s when the sparks will really start to fly, but in the meantime, this situation tends to prove the point that nothing unites people like a common enemy.

Islam is a subject for another day, however, because the most common enemy Christians have been able to identify through the ages has been the Jews. I recently read a book about the relationship between Jews and Christians throughout history, and how Christians should think about this inter-religious relationship in the aftermath of the holocaust. We may not like to admit it, but Christians have a terrible track record with regard to Judaism. Throughout history we have made the Jews our common enemy. And throughout history there have been those who manipulated our lesser natures—that part of us that seems to need an enemy. These people have made the Jews the object of our hatred, the enemy that unifies us.

I don’t think we need a history lesson here. We all know about the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust. And those are just the major events that jump out of the history books. Sadly, one of the unifying elements of Christianity’s two thousand year history is our ability to view the Jews as a common enemy.

The book I recently read, which is actually a collection of writings by current New Testament scholars, sheds some interesting light on the original relationship between Judaism and Christianity. The fact is, the New Testament has some nasty things to say about “the Jews.” The strange thing about this is that Jesus and Paul—the primary figures of the Christian Bible—were both Jews. In the New Testament, the Jews seem to be the object of Jesus’ and Paul’s verbal attacks, and yet they themselves were Jews. It is their words that have been used through the ages to justify our derogatory attitudes toward the people of Judaism. Were Jesus and Paul really anti-Jewish?

Let’s look at both of them—Jesus and Paul—and see if history has distorted what they actually believed. We’ll begin with Paul.

Paul is credited with writing more books of the Bible than any other person, and there are many places where he can be interpreted as having an anti-Jewish mindset. One of the main questions in the early church was whether or not it was necessary for people who followed Jesus—they were not yet called Christians—whether or not it was necessary for them to follow the Jewish laws. Were they required to do the ritual hand washing of the Jewish faith before meals? Were they required to make sacrifices at the Temple? And the most debated question was whether or not the men were required to be circumcised. All of these things are called “works” by Paul, because “works” are things people do to obtain God’s favor.

As Paul spread the gospel into the gentile world, beyond the people of the Jewish faith, the importance of works was fiercely debated among the earliest apostles. Along with works, “the law” was a topic of heated discussion. Did the laws and commandments of the Hebrew Bible—the Old Testament—apply to non-Jewish Christians? Paul taught that the only thing a person needed to be in good standing with God was the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

Listen to some of Paul’s words, and you will see why he is often regarded as being anti-Israel and anti-Jewish.

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse.

Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law.

No human being will be justified in his sight by deeds prescribed by the law…

Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law.

As regards the gospel the Jews are enemies of God for your sake.

The Jews’ minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day, when Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.

What are we to make of all this? Paul certainly seems to separate the religious world into two groups: the good guys—the followers of Christ; and the bad guys—the Jews. But things are never as simple as they seem, and in those passages of Paul’s letters I just read, his harsh words were not written to the Jews. They were addressed to the gentile, non-Jewish converts who were trying to understand the significance of Jesus, and who were being told by the Jews that they must obey the Jewish laws and perform the traditional ritual works.

Paul never met Jesus. He had a vision of the risen Christ a couple of years after Jesus was crucified. And Paul went about preaching the gospel and starting churches. After Paul started a church, he would move on to another region and start another church. And this is when the trouble began. The people who had actually known Jesus—the apostles who followed Jesus around and learned from him—those apostles would travel to the places where Paul had started churches, and they would attempt to get the people of those churches to follow the Jewish laws and rituals.

These people became the enemies of Paul. The people we are talking about are men like Peter and James. The Book of James in the Bible is often regarded as an attack on the teachings of Paul. And Paul himself attacks Peter in some of his letters. There was a great deal of tension in the early church, and it turned into a power struggle between those who had known Jesus, such as Peter and James, and Paul and his followers.

Finally, Paul met with the original disciples in Jerusalem to iron out their differences. It was agreed that Peter, James and the original disciples would minister to the Jews. They would spread the gospel message of Jesus Christ to people of the Jewish faith, who, by the way, were the people to whom Jesus himself directed his message. And Paul would have a ministry directed toward the gentiles—non-Jews for whom the universal message of Christ was essential.

This did not make the problem go away. The people who knew Jesus believed he was thoroughly Jewish, and knowing that Jesus himself followed the Jewish laws and rituals, they believed converts should do the same. But they gave Paul some latitude, and Paul continued to stress the fact that the Jewish laws and works were not necessary for non-Jews. And there is the important part of the story that so many Christians through history have left out. Paul was not anti-Jewish. He simply believed that God had added a new people to his chosen people. Paul believed that the gentile followers of Christ were a new chosen people, not replacing the Jews, but joining them in the grace of God.

All of those words of Paul that can be taken out of context and used as an attack on Judaism were not written for people of the Jewish faith. They were written for the gentiles who were struggling with whether or not God loved them if they failed to wash their hands properly before meals, or did not go to the Jewish Temple to make sacrifices, or did not get circumcised. Paul wasn’t saying that the Jews should not do those things. He was simply saying that it was possible for non-Jews to be followers of Jesus without following Jewish rituals.

Consider some of Paul’s other words, not read nearly as often from Christian pulpits as those seemingly anti-Jewish words we heard earlier.

What advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way.

Do we overthrow the law through this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.

Has God rejected the Jews? By no means!

They are the Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.

All Israel will be saved.

It seems to me that those phrases of Paul are too seldom recited from Christian pulpits.

John Gager is a professor of religion at Princeton, and the author of many books on ancient religion, including a book on Paul written just two years ago. I want to read the concluding paragraph from one of his essays.

Finally, Paul never speaks of Israel’s redemption in terms of Christ. Just as he no longer thinks of salvation for gentiles within the Jewish covenant, so he does not imagine salvation for Jews through Christ. Further, and significantly, Paul expected all these things to be accomplished in his own lifetime. It was the failure of the “end” to come as anticipated that turned his arguments, originally directed against competing factions within the Jesus movement, into arguments against Israel and the Torah. Here, then, is the final lesson: Once we recover the original circumstances of his letters and reread them within those settings, the old view of the anti-Jewish Paul becomes impossible to defend.

That is a good stopping place. I’m sure the millions of Jews who have been persecuted and killed over the past two thousand years by Christians who used Paul’s words as justification for their hatred, wish John Gager’s research had been done a few thousand years earlier. But even if that were the case, we still have to deal with the apparent anti-Jewish thinking of Jesus. In all four gospels the Jews are portrayed as the archenemies of Jesus. Next week, we’ll take a closer look, and see if Jesus, like Paul, has been distorted through the ages by those looking for an avenue, and a justification, for their hatred.

In the meantime, may we all agree that there is no room for hatred—no time for hatred—in the priceless and too-short span of days we are granted in this world.