Thistlethwaite: Reject anti-Semitism in 2020
Anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise around the nation and they are shocking to people of goodwill.
But it is not enough to be shocked. We must go behind the headlines reporting these hate crimes and reject anti-Semitism itself in order to prevent more horrors.
The individual events are, in fact, very shocking. A man armed with a machete just attacked Jews observing Hanukkah in a New York Rabbi’s home. The list is growing from the deadly attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 to the recent murderous attack at the kosher market in Jersey City to the lethal attack at the Poway, California, synagogue. These are the headlines, but there are many more anti-Semitic incidents from kicks, slaps, and spitting to shouted insults.
In New York, there was a hate crime against Jews every day during Hanukkah. Every day.
This fits the pattern of the rise in hate crimes around the U.S. Hate crimes in the U.S. have increased alarmingly from an initial surge of 17% from 2016 to 2017 according to the FBI’s annual Hate Crimes Statics. Hate crimes based on race and sexual orientation have also grown worryingly.
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In terms of religion, however, bias against Jews has risen astonishingly. Anti-Semitic hate crimes comprised 57.8% of reported offenses motivated by religion, followed by 14.5% of reported offenses targeting Muslims.
There are political rationales put forward. Heidi Beirich, who heads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, has said, “Hateful and inflammatory rhetoric from the current presidential administration continues to normalize the beliefs that motivate these crimes.”
That political context is important as I believe it is genuinely the case that hate is being normalized in this country as a political tactic.
But it is crucial, especially if people of goodwill wish to confront anti-Semitism and reject it, to dig deeper.
That means, to me, Christians need to step up and speak out.
As a Christian pastor and teacher, I believe the first step to take is for Christians to look inward and ask themselves how their religion could be contributing to this appalling spike in anti-Semitism. That is an essential step, in fact, toward rejecting it.
While there are far too many issues to consider in a short column, one that stands out to me today is the increased political clout of white Christian conservatives and their theology of Christian triumphalism.
Now, this is not exactly new. Christianity was decisively changed when it was adopted by Emperor Constantine (306) as a way of consolidating his imperial rule. Christianity became the dominant religion. It was, as St. Augustine, as well as many others held, actually the will of God that Christians rule. So, Jews need not apply, in other words.
The Jew, in this Christian history, is set up effectively as anti-Christian, and often as the vessel of the antichrist and thus evil. Jews could be persecuted at will to assert the “lordship” of Jesus Christ. The history of the murderous persecution of the Jews of Europe has been the result.
This Christian triumphalism, meaning Christians are appointed by God to rule over people of other faiths, especially over Jews, has had very negative consequences. It means, as well, that men should rule over women, and “dominant” races should rule over those deemed “lesser.”
The famous South African theologian John de Gruchy, whose theological work helped bring down apartheid in South Africa, has written that this kind of Christian triumphalism “is the essence of right-wing Christianity whether in the United States, South Africa, or anywhere else.”
And, de Gruchy argues, this Christian triumphalism is a heresy. It is the opposite of everything Jesus of Nazareth stood for as the prophetic reformer who stood by the downtrodden and the excluded.
The proof that Christian triumphalism is a heresy, de Gruchy argues, is that, in effect, it denies Jesus whom Christians call the Christ. A Christian church that follows Jesus should “affirm forgiveness and restitution. not vengeance.” That kind of Christianity means “we do not exclude others who are different from us from the human community,” but indeed, “embrace all.”
The rise in anti-Semitic attacks in recent years goes hand-in-hand with a rise in white Christian nationalism and its triumphalist ideology. It seeps into the culture at all levels, giving permission for people to spit, kick, mock, slap as well as stab and shoot their Jewish neighbors. It can trigger the mentally ill, as was apparently the case for the Monsey, New York attacker.
It is religious, political and psychological poison.
Christians need to speak up and speak out. We must roundly reject a Christian triumphalism that sets Christianity above others, and speak for the absolute religious imperative to embrace our Jewish neighbors as well as those of other faiths,
The failure to speak up and speak out, however, can also reveal a kind of soft Christian bias, the more subtle attitudes of Christian privilege that work to keep some of us in our own little, cushy church enclaves. After all, such Christians would contend, “I’m not anti-Semitic, so it’s not my problem.” Or, even worse, some Christians falsely equate policies of the state of Israel especially regarding Palestinians with Judaism as a whole. This false equivalence can also facilitate anti-Semitic bias. Israel is a Jewish state and of course can be critiqued. It is not all Judaism, however.
Christians can contribute to successfully resisting anti-Semitism in 2020 and beyond, but we will not do so unless we confront our own sources of anti-Jewish bias and reject them.
Then, we must act in solidarity with Jewish neighbors, and neighbors of all faiths and convictions, not only to reject hate crimes but also to build up a more just and equitable society.
Solidarity will actually move us forward.
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is President Emerita and Professor Emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary. She and her husband now make their home in the Vail Valley.
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