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As We Condemn Violence, May We Also Look in the Mirror

There are still some things about which I hope people of faith agree despite our theological diversity.

One of them is we do not kill people over religious differences. Another is we lament the reality that there are those who do.

I assume we all grieve the mass murder, which some label a hate crime but I would call domestic terrorism, on Oct. 27 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

No doubt many, if not most, of our worship services on Sunday, Oct. 28, included prayers for our Jewish friends. All that is as it should be.

But I wonder if we are willing to go further than “thoughts and prayers” by taking a good long look at our own history as Christians and acknowledging our own possible complicity in the hatred of Jews, Judaism or both, which fuels this violence.

Let me be specific.

Does our local church Bible study curriculum allow for, or even encourage, the view that the “God of the Old Testament” is violent, brutal and unforgiving and fundamentally different from the “God of the New Testament,” who is kind and loving and forgiving?

Frankly, as a Christian educator serving in theologically and culturally diverse churches and seminaries, I hear this language frequently, as if it were a foregone conclusion. It should not be.

The truth is, the Old Testament, perhaps better described as the Hebrew Scriptures, describes God as vengeful at times and merciful at others, expressing “steadfast love” throughout.

In the same way, the New Testament, perhaps better described as the second or Christian testament, also portrays God as vengeful at times and merciful at others.

Both testaments bear witness to the same God.

Do we similarly use the term “Pharisee” as a synonym for a religious hypocrite as if that too were a foregone conclusion? That too is problematic.

The Pharisees were forerunners of rabbinic Judaism, or Judaism that emerged after the second temple was destroyed in 70 CE – that is, the Judaism of today.

Yes, the Bible does talk about “scribes and Pharisees” in a negative light, but let’s remember much of this rhetoric is coming from an “in house” fight between Jews, not an interfaith argument between Jews and Christians.

I suggest a better term to use might be “some religious leaders.” In this way, we are encouraged not only to look at “their” alleged sins, but also our own as religious leaders who sometimes fail to live up to the moral and ethical standards of our calling.

Something else for us to consider is whether our belief in the Great Commission, which tells us to “make disciples of all nations,” leads us inevitably to a doctrine of Christian supersessionism – the belief that the covenant between God and the Jewish people was superseded by Christianity as the “New Israel.”

Where does that idea come from? Most of the Scriptures cited to support this assumption come from the letters of Paul, himself a Jew, trying to get Jewish and Gentile followers of Christ to see themselves as equals.

It makes no sense to apply it today as a way of saying we, as Christians, are superior to Jews.

Finally, do we use language like, “The Jews killed Jesus”? If so, do we realize this idea, often referred to as “blood libel,” fueled pograms and played a huge role in both the overt support and passive tolerance of Christians toward the rise of the Third Reich and the Holocaust or what many refer to as the Shoah.

A simple consideration of history tells us only Romans could crucify. Yet, this oft-repeated depiction of Jews as “Christ killers” has caused immense suffering and death to millions of human beings.

Is that the gospel? I assume (hope) we all agree it is not.

We see ourselves as people who would rise to the defense of the persecuted religious other, but very recent history indicates otherwise.

Even the minority of Christians who did not agree with the Nazi agenda, often referred to as the “underground church,” were more likely to defend baptized Jews or those who had converted to Christianity, than practicing Jews.

Without the intervention of virtually unknown schoolteacher Elisabeth Schmidtz, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died due to his opposition to the Reich, would not have done so.

The Barmen Declaration, to which Bonhoeffer was one of the signatories, is often held up as a prime example of resistance against evil on the part of faithful.

Yet, it is primarily set forth as a defense of the independence of the church, not of the Jewish people.

The fact that there is a difference should give us all pause for serious reflection.

Karyn Carlo

Karyn Carlo PhD, is a retired New York City Police Captain who is now a preacher, teacher, theologian and social justice activist. She earned her Master of Divinity and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. As an ordained American Baptist pastor, she currently serves as a global theological educator teaching about peace and social justice in seminaries in Myanmar and Liberia.