Christians, Anti-Semitism, Difference and Fear

By Doug Kelly, Senior Pastor

I am doing some soul searching. Churches are doing some soul searching. As the stories pour in of the victims of the shooting last week at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, we are all doing internal work. We are asking questions about America.  We are asking questions about hate. For some, anxieties have shot up. Some of us have simply dropped more tears.   Personally, I have been touched by the picture and story of the Rosenthal brothers, Cecil and David, who didn’t let their developmental disabilities keep them from being key to the heartbeat of that congregation and neighborhood.

What rocked me in all the headlines was the information from the Anti-Defamation League that hate crimes against Jews increased 57% from 2016 to 2017, the largest single year increase on record. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported a significant increase in hate crimes in the last quarter of 2016. Why the uptick in America?

While it would be easy to blame the presidential victory of Donald Trump for all of this, I’m not sure that is helpful or accurate.   One person’s words do not a racist or a racist culture make. However, it certainly doesn’t help when our President plays identity politics to stoke the fears of a dominant white group. Without getting all Republican and Democrat here, one has to say that the rhetoric around those who are different is getting out of hand.

We cannot listen to these characterizations of “the other” without asking some questions. I find it simply amazing that a group of women, children and men walking over 1500 miles toward our southern border is being branded as an invasion that requires 15,000 soldiers to fight them off.  Would 5,000 brutalized and oppressed Irish immigrants landing in New York harbor elicit this same kind of rhetoric? This is playing on racist fears, pure and simple. Do we have immigration issues to solve? Yes. Are there issues at our southern border? As a fourth generation Californian, let me tell you yes there are. But we welcome 1.4 million immigrants annually; the idea that this group of a few thousand folks, unarmed, tired, worn out, and on foot is a threat, or can’t be handled is a farce.

But this gets to the point. Presidential language matters. And, in a country that still has some Christian origins, language is a matter of great importance. Will we Jesus followers, no matter our ideological leanings, abandon our key Bible injunction to treat the immigrant, the stranger fairly and with affection? Or will we follow the instruction of the Deuteronomist to “love the immigrant as yourself” because we ourselves were immigrants in the land of Egypt (Leviticus 19.34)?

There is a loss of memory here among American Christians, our Jewish heritage. Which brings me to the shooting in Pittsburgh and real tragedy of anti-Semitism in Europe and America. It is fear-induced, but the fear is misplaced.

In John’s gospel in chapter 20, the day of our Lord’s resurrection, we are told that the disciples were huddled in a locked room for “fear of the Jews” (John 20.19). We have misread this passage ever since. For, with half an ounce of thinking, we could deduce that all the people in that room were Jews. So Jews were fearing Jews? In reality they were afraid of the “Judeans” the Jerusalem leadership and their cronies. Those in the upper room were Galileans. They didn’t fear all the people of Israel, but the local regional brand governed by the aristocratic Sadducees who had made a bargain with Pilate and the Roman invaders to keep the peace.

We, in the so-called Christian West, have been paying the price for this misinterpretation ever since. Or, rather, our Jewish sisters and brothers have paid dearly. I remember talking with my Jewish college buddy who grew up in Long Island in the 60’s and 70’s. This son of a judge and a Hebrew school teacher told me that on Good Friday and Holy Saturday they were forced to stay in the house, lest they become the victims of violence against Jews.

This is what bad theology does. This is what unreasoned fear does. This is what unwarranted appeals to our primal, reptilian brains does. This is what our openness to charlatan appeals to fear difference does, whether it emanates from pastors, pundits or politicians does. It moves us to the automatic, unthinking, unloving response of fight, flight or freeze whether we’re talking about Jews or brown skinned people fleeing violence in Central America. But we have brains and souls that are more than reptilian.

Can we just stop for a minute and ponder who we are? We, in the church, no longer gather in a synagogue, but we worship one who did. That’s who we are. And, though not all of us are recent immigrants, we must live and love as those who were ourselves strangers in Egypt.  That’s who we are.

This is a complex time in America. It is a season that requires of me some soul searching. It requires that I step back, chew on our story in the Scriptures. It requires that I pray about my own fears of and struggles with difference. Will you join me?