Jul/Aug 2005 Salon

An Immodest Proposal

by Thomas J. Hubschman

In the May 2005 issue of Harper's Magazine, its editor, Louis Lapham, takes the religious right to task, accusing it of attempting to set up a theocracy in which secularists like himself would be excluded in order to pave the way for the Second Coming of Jesus and the "rapture" that awaits his faithful. Lapham freely quotes from Mark Twain as well as from the Right's own "Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility." He has nothing but contempt for the cranky God of the Old Testament, in Twain's words "charged and overcharged with evil impulses far beyond the human limit."

Lapham was an unbaptized child raised in a family that "went to church only for weddings and funerals." When he got to Yale it came as a surprise to him that God was not dead. It has now distressed him that God not only has managed to survive into the 21st century but has gathered to himself a mafia of mass killers and apocalyptic crazies who have found fellow-travelers in the highest reaches of the American government.

Much of the rest of this issue of Harper's is also devoted to the Christian Right. Oddly enough, the prose style of the articles, with the exception of the veteran journalist Chris Hedges who contributes a piece on national religious broadcasters, is as prolix and sometimes as turgid as anything you might hear from a pulpit or religious tract from the groups being criticized. One can, for example, hear the same kind of passionate but euphemistic diatribe on both sides of the abortion question.

Lapham of course does not fail to mention Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, the movie that caused so much controversy and so little serious discussion about the real origin of anti-Semitism in the Christian tradition. Many Christians and non-Christians alike were appalled by the film's pornographic violence (I admit to not having seen the film, though I did in my Catholic youth view a number of such edifying reenactments of the "Passion," albeit probably not as graphic as Gibson's), and decried the film's anti-Semitism in portraying the Jews as responsible for the murder of the Son of God.

Mind, it's important to distinguish between "the Jews" and "Jews." One's antenna should become especially attentive at the former phrase, which indicts an entire group of people, while the latter may not be doing anything more than specifying the religious or ethnic identity of two or more individuals. Ethnic profiling can be equally fraught in biblical studies as much as on the New Jersey turnpike.

The movie seemed immensely popular with those who already agreed with its premises: those who believe that Jesus was the incarnation of God who lived, died and rose from the dead 2000 years ago, and who accept the four canonical Gospels as an accurate description of his life, death and resurrection. I haven't seen any statistical breakdown, but it seemed as if most of those who rushed to see the movie were already true believers. Frequently, they came in groups, entire congregations reserving seats in advance. Their numbers included church-going Protestants as well as Roman Catholics.

They went to the film presumably to reinforce their religious belief, not their anti-Semitism, assuming they harbored a dislike for Jews in the first place. According to Professor Richard Novick (The Holocaust in American Life) and Forward editor J.J. Goldberg (Jewish Power), America is not a fertile ground to go looking for anti-Semitism. Not that there are not plenty of people in the United States who don't like Jews, but there are plenty of people in the US who don't like a lot of people. Yet many Jews do feel at risk, the reason for their trepidation, as Novick points out, partly caused by perpetual Holocaust remembrance (known in some Jewish circles as "Shoa Business"), partly because fear makes for good fund-raising, and of course partly because of real events like The Passion of the Christ.

The Passion of the Christ played right into this heightened sensitivity and produced a situation that made any real discussion of anti-Semitism in the Gospels, in the original texts, almost impossible. The lines became quickly drawn. On one side were the faithful who saw the film as tantamount to the word of God. On the other were less fervent Christians and non-Christians who saw it as a violent orgy of perverted religious feeling and/or a vehicle for the age-old blood libel on Jews. Mel Gibson's statements at the time, not to mention his father's, only added fuel to the fire. As a result, what never got discussed or was only brought up peripherally, was the extent to which anti-Semitism is at the heart of canonical Christianity, not just when it is portrayed on-screen.

Much has been made of the papacy's very recent, in historical terms, apology to Jews for their mistreatment over the ages and of Rome's disavowal of the traditional indictment of "the Jews" for the crucifixion of Christ. But no one to my knowledge has apologized for anti-Semitism in the Gospels themselves. That would make for a very awkward situation theologically. If the Gospels are the word of God, any anti-Semitism in those scriptures must have been put there by God himself.

In my own Christian youth we were taught that it was ultimately our own sins that nailed Christ to the cross. But it was clearly the Jews who acted as our agents. It was they who cried out, "Give us Barabbas!" rather than set free the innocent Jesus. The Pharisees and the Sanhedrin and the rest of the Jewish power structure wanted the anti-establishment Jesus silenced. The de facto executioner, Pilate, is portrayed in the Gospels as a philosophical, Hamlet-like fellow who would rather not put to death an innocent man. Pilate's wife has a dream warning against it, and Pilate's conversation with Jesus, rather than being a dialogue between an autocratic administrator confronting a local troublemaker, is depicted as a kind of Socratic dialogue. Even after Jesus's death and resurrection, "the Jews"—Jews like Saul of Tarsus (later St. Paul)—continue to persecute "Christians" who still follow the teachings of their crucified Messiah.

Lapham makes no reference to the anti-Semitism in the Gospels but does go on at length citing the slaughters not only permitted but encouraged by the God of the Old Testament. Perhaps as someone not much exposed in his education to the New Testament, Lapham is not familiar with the Gospels. Or maybe he is just being selective about which scripture he criticizes.

To be sure, there is plenty of material in the Old Testament to give one pause, even apart from the smiting and slaughtering: Jacob's mendacity in pretending to be his twin brother Esau in order to cheat him out of his inheritance, to name just one instance.

My mother read Bible—i.e. Old Testament—stories to me as a young child. But because I was raised a Catholic, I never came upon them again in the course of my parochial education. Rather, the stories and hence the role models that were held up to me were of Jesus himself, but also of any number of Christian saints. The act of the crucifixion was presented as the ultimate expression of love, of God's love for humankind and as an example of the way human beings should love one another. Unfortunately, I was also taught that, by refusing to accept Jesus as the Messiah, the Jews turned their backs on their own salvation and incurred the wrath of God as well as that of his new Chosen People.

If Christians are sincere about disavowing anti-Semitism, they should own up to its existence in the Gospels, not just in the Christian tradition of the 2000 years following. It would probably be asking too much to expect them to excise those passages, but they might at least disavow them in the same way that most Jews disavow the condemnation of homosexuality in their own scripture.

In the same way, fundamentalist Christians who adhere to the literal truth of the Old Testament, along with their Jewish counterparts, should disavow any passages that sanction mass murder or promote bigotry.

The easiest way of doing so is simply to say that such texts should be read in their historical context.

By rights, we should also include Muslims in such a proposal. If there are comparable passages in the Koran, they should also be disavowed. They are hopefully not at the heart of Islam any more than Jacob's mendacity or the evangelists' anti-Semitism is—one hopes—at the heart of Judaism or Christianity.

This seems to me a radical but at the same time modest proposal. In any case, it's time to call the bluff of those who either claim innocence or outrage. Let them choose. Let them be honest enough to say, yes, there is a hateful portrayal of Jews in the Gospels and, yes, the Old Testament has plenty of nasty admonitions and questionable role models.

And then let them and everyone else who claims to be a person of "faith" declare: What we stand for is love of God and love of one's fellow creatures. Everything else is gloss.


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