Monday, November 9, 2015

The Church & The Holocaust

Jewish Thought

Last week, I posted an essay, “Jesus Of Nazareth Was Not A Christian;” this week’s post is on The Church and its influence on the Holocaust. This is the last of a four-part series on Jewish thought related to the New Testament and Christianity. 


Recalling Nostra Aetate, a declaration adopted on 28 October 1965 by the Second Vatican Council, Pope Francis told the crowd in the square: “Indifference and opposition were transformed into cooperation and benevolence. Enemies and strangers have become friends and brothers. The Council, with the declaration Nostra Aetate, paved the way. It said yes to the rediscovery of the Jewish roots of Christianity, and no to any form of anti-Semitism and condemnation of any insult, discrimination and persecution derived from that.”

“Attacks on Jews are anti-Semitism, 
as are attacks on Israel,’ Pope Francis tells Jewish leader,”
Oct 28, 2015

Not surprising, the Holocaust matters for the Jewish People, and this being the case, it has been written about extensively over the last few decades from religious, political, economic and socio-cultural points of views. There are no shortage of books, articles, monographs, essays and other assorted media on one of the seminal and tragic events in the history of the Jewish People. Much of the writings are focused on why the Holocaust took place.

I think the answers to such questions are not found in politics, but in religion. This will seem absurd to persons who view themselves as secular, as many Europeans now do, but secularism is really too young of an ideology to have taken root anywhere. In Europe, Christianity resonates, especially if its way of life is threatened in any way, and when this occurs it reverts to old forms, old prejudices. It is my view that anti-Judaism has never left Europe, and that anti-Zionism, although a newer hatred, remains as potent a force as any other older religious hatreds of the Jewish People. Religious hatreds are not only powerful and potent, they also defy reason.

What is the relationship between the Church and The Holocaust? That is to say, did the Church’s anti-Judaism teachings in conformity to the doctrines of Christianity and to the New Testament—its central historical and religious document—prove fertile ground for the anti-Jewish sentiments leading to Hitler’s Final Solution? It is an unpleasant subject, and perhaps an old subject, but it bears looking into for the reason that the Church still has not sufficiently acknowledged its influence in the attempted genocide of the Jewish People.

The Holocaust found its life-blood in the dominant religion of the European continent; it found its raison d’être, its rationale in the holy book of the Christians, its passion in the teachings of the Church Fathers, and its justification in the potent views that the Jews, since Christianity’s transformation to a world power, have been cast aside and are thus no longer chosen, favoured if you will, by G-d. That the Holocaust was a deserving heavenly punishment for the Jews’ refusal to accept the claims of Christianity. There is, however, another view worth considering: the Holocaust, to a large degree, can also be viewed as a test on humanity; that many looked away meant that many failed the test.

This historical failure ought to encourage Christians to examine the Holocaust, too; and in doing so come up with another view that has more clarity, if not more understanding. In a paper (“The Holocaust is a Christian Issue“) delivered as part of an international conference (June 20, 2001), in Jerusalem, marking the 85th birthday of Professor Emil L. Fackenheim, entitled The Philosopher as Witness: Jewish Philosophy After the Holocaust, Richard A. Cohen, then a professor of Judaic Studies at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, writes why the Holocaust should also matter for those who call themselves Christian: 
But the case is different for Christianity. While Christians as Christians were not perpetrators of the Holocaust, the Holocaust occurred in the most Christian part of the world. It occurred in the very heart of Christendom. Furthermore, while the hundreds of thousands of Nazis and their collaborators carried out the Holocaust, every Nazi and every collaborator to a person (excepting only Muslim collaborators), had been baptized a Christian. Every Nazi had Christian parents, attended Christian Churches, heard Christian sermons, and went to Christian Sunday school. Nazis buried their relatives with Christian ceremonies. Furthermore, the Catholic Church never—to this very day— excommunicated a single Nazi. What this means, then, is that during the Nazi regime Christianity and Christians failed in their own deepest beliefs. Christians failed to love their neighbors. Christianity failed to help the weak, the lame, the halt, the blind, or the stranger in its midst. In a word, when tested, Christianity—which, with all too few exceptions, showed no love, no compassion, no forgiveness—failed.
There were righteous Gentiles, righteous Christians, who refused to be silent during the dark days of humanity. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian, comes to mind as a fine example of active resistance to evil; he was killed by the Nazis on April 9, 1945—two weeks before U.S. soldiers liberated the concentration camp (at Flossenbürg). Israel’s Yad Vashem recognizes more than 25,000 such individuals in its Righteous Among the Nations.There are others today continuing the good fight, who years later know that a little light will chase out darkness. For example, there is a French Catholic priest named Father Patrick Desbois, whose mission the last 13 years is to bring the hidden crimes of The Holocaust to light. His work is commendable and a shining example of the best in humanity. Well done, Father Desbois. Your work does not go unnoticed

Yet, as laudable as his example is, it stands out because he stands out; as does Bonhoeffer, although his Christian faith influences his views about the Jewish People. Why the failure of so many who remained silent at best and who aided and abetted at worst? The answer can be found in some of the most objectionable and odious teachings and writings of the Church and how they were then viewed, and for that matter still viewed in some places, in the confines of some churches. It is important here to do a quick survey of some important documents that influenced Church history and how it viewed the Jews. It is always best to cite the textural sources themselves, to allow these to speak to us.

First and foremost there is the famous verse in the Gospel of Matthew with its blood libel:
When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. 'I am innocent of this man’s blood,' he said. “It is your responsibility!” All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:24-25).
Then there are the Church Fathers. Here is one of many examples of the kind of vitriol aimed at the Jews; this from St. John Chrysostom [c. 344-407 CE], considered the doctor of the Church, who wrote Eight Homilies Against the Jews (a homily is a scriptural commentary); this is a short citation from the first, Against the Jews. Homily 1” delivered as a sermon in 387 CE:
Stephen was right in calling them stiff-necked. For they failed to take up the yoke of Christ, although it was sweet and had nothing about it which was either burdensome or oppressive. For he said: "Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart", and "Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is sweet and my burden light". Nonetheless they failed to take up the yoke because of the stiffness of their necks. Not only did they fail to take it up but they broke it and destroyed it. For Jeremiah said: "Long ago you broke your yoke and burst your bonds". It was not Paul who said this but the voice of the prophet speaking loud and clear. When he spoke of the yoke and the bonds, he meant the symbols of rule, because the Jews rejected the rule of Christ when they said: "We have no king but Caesar". You Jews broke the yoke, you burst the bonds, you cast yourselves out of the kingdom of heaven, and you made yourselves subject to the rule of men. Please consider with me how accurately the prophet hinted that their hearts were uncontrolled. He did not say: "You set aside the yoke", but "You broke the yoke" and this is the crime of untamed beasts, who are uncontrolled and reject rule. (4)
Not much love and compassion shown in this homily; I suggest that you read all of it to receive the full sense what  was on the mind (and heart) of John Chrysostom, who was bishop of Antioch at the time of these sermons. 

Not to be outdone is Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, whose public stinging rejection from the Jews, resulted in this reaction: a provocative if not inflammatory 65,000-word anti-Semitic treatise in German (Von den Juden und Ihren Lügen), translated into English as On Jews and Their Lies (1543):
What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. If we do, we become sharers in their lies, cursing and blasphemy. Thus we cannot extinguish the unquenchable fire of divine wrath, of which the prophets speak, nor can we convert the Jews. With prayer and the fear of God we must practice a sharp mercy to see whether we might save at least a few from the glowing flames. We dare not avenge ourselves. Vengeance a thousand times worse than we could wish them already has them by the throat. I shall give you my sincere advice:
First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians. For whatever we tolerated in the past unknowingly—and I myself was unaware of it—will be pardoned by God. But if we, now that we are informed, were to protect and shield such a house for the Jews, existing right before our very nose, in which they lie about, blaspheme, curse, vilify, and defame Christ and us (as was heard above), it would be the same as if we were doing all this and even worse ourselves, as we very well know.....
It was only recently that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America repudiated the hateful writings of its namesake, Martin Luther, with its 1994 “Declaration to the Jewish Community.” It’s a good gesture, following what the Catholic Church did in 1965, led in its efforts by Augustin Bea, a Jesuit priest from Baden, Germany, and who was head of the Secretariat for Christian Unity. But even a conservative Catholic as Paul Johnson, the noted historian, admits that the document, Nostra Aetate, “Declarations of the Relations of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” hasn’t gone as fair as it should. Johnson writes in A History of the Jews (1987):
It was a grudging document, less forthright than Bea had hoped, making no apology for the church's persecution of the Jews, and inadequate acknowledgement of the contribution of Judaism to Christianity. The key passage read: “True the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in his passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, not against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be represented as rejected of God or accursed, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.” This was not much. But it was something. In view of the fierce opposition it aroused, it might even be considered a great deal. (517)
For the Church, perhaps, but it is not much of an apology or a change of heart. But it was probably as far as the Church could go, considering that its primary document, the New Testament, said so much to prevent it from completely viewing the Jewish People, and its religion, Judaism, as equal in any way. Christian supersecessionism, the view that Christianity replaced Judaism, or to put it another way that Christians replaced Jews as God’s chosen or favoured people, greatly contributed to the anti-Jewish ideas and ideology that have long prevailed in churches, ever since they were first put forth by the Church Fathers.

Perhaps, the only reason that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church agreed to such a measure—feeble as it is— was that it knew that its power (and some of its influence) was then waning. This is not to suggest that the current climate is not better, but to point out the obvious: an institution as powerful and influential as the Catholic Church didn’t change its views on a few issues because it had a change of heart, or that it felt “the hand of G-d” upon its broad shoulders. The facts on the ground spoke to the Vatican more than anything else.

Even so, is the crime of deicide, the killing of a god, pales in comparison to the killing of a human; the reasons are so clear that any rational human should understand why this is so. Making a clear case of it is Eliezer Berkovits, [1908-1992] a Jewish theologian, philosopher and rabbi, in Faith After the Holocaust (1973):
That deicide is the greatest of human crimes is among the most dangerous fallacies ever taught to man. The truth is that the capital crime of man is not deicide, but homicide. To torture and to kill one innocent child is a crime infinitely more abominable than the killing of any god. Had Christianity, instead, of being preoccupied with what it believed to have been a deicide, concentrated its educative attention on the human crime of homicide, mankind would have been spared much horror and tragedy. There would have been much less suffering and much less sorrow among all men; nor would there have been either Auschwitz or Treblinka.Unfortunately, the teaching of deicide became an excuse, and often a license, for homicide. Pity any god thus caricatured by his devotees! (127)
Pity indeed. The collected writings form a powerful and influential charge against the Jewish People; it is easy to make a straight line between such antagonistic ideas and the Final Solution, the destruction of Judaism, its ideas and its history by murdering its followers—the Jewish People.
Even in more recent times, not enough has changed. Emil Fackenheim [1916-2003], a professor of philosophy at University of Toronto, says that Christians often continue to negate the importance of Israel to the Jewish People:
Why did the Christian press remain undisturbed by nineteen years of Jordanian control of the Christian holy places (and desecration of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues), but become greatly agitated by Israeli control? Why does it fill its pages with accounts of the plight of Arab refugees but rarely even mention the nearly as numerous Jewish refugees from Arab countries? Why are there moral equations between Israel’s claim to the right to exist and Arab claims to the right to destroy her?
By not making attempts to stop this, by closing their eyes to persecution of the Jews, even as it occurs today. Fackenheim, a Jewish philosopher, is most famous in the popular press for adding another mitzvah or commandment to the 613 that Maimonides compiled; the 614th commandment can be summed up as thus, “Jews are forbidden to grant posthumous victories to Hitler.” It is attached to the ideas of survival, to wit, the survival of Judaism, of the Jewish People and of the Jewish State of Israel. All three are important, each forming part of the tripartite; the omission of one weakens all.

This cannot be overemphasized, requiring understanding and recognition of the church at large. Some do, such as when one prominent Christian broadcaster and journalist, Earl Cox, says in Breaking Israel News: We are now standing quietly by as America’s only friend and ally in the Middle East – Israel–stands alone in the battle against the spread of radical Islam.” In doing so, in their silence, Christians are repeating the same mistake that was made during the Holocaust, yet this would be a denial of responsibility, Cohen says in the same 2001 paper cited earlier:
If the Jews killed Christ then they are forever like Cain, a marked people, a people of evil, deserving of contempt. If the Romans killed Christ, then one can still flee from their tyranny into a safe haven of sentimental spiritual salvation, as the Jews fled to the desert leaving Pharaoh’s Egypt behind and intact. In both cases, someone else is responsible, not me but him, not us but them. They are damned but we are saved. But if, to the contrary, the Christians killed Christ—like the ancient Israelites who after receiving God’s revelation at Mount Sinai nonetheless, in less than two months, erected and worshipped a Golden Calf, thereby committing, they themselves, their greatest sin, for which they themselves have forever thereafter taken responsibility—then Christians, too, can begin to accept culpability and take responsibility for their greatest sin. The true image of the Christian, then, is not the opposite of perfidious Jews or the cruel Romans, of Pilate the Roman or Judas the Jew. Rather, and precisely, like all the disciples of Jesus, it is the image of Judas the Christian.
That the Jews, by dint of Judaism’s long and powerful narrative, defy the demands of Christians, have historically made the Church more hostile to the Jews and any political or religious representation of the Jewish People, which includes the state of Israel. A failure of the Christian Church to not act on its teachings of love, forgiveness and compassion is a failure in need of acknowledgement. All the more so if there exists within Christianity, its history, its narratives and its understanding of its theology, particularly as it applies to Christ, a particularly hostile view of Jews and Judaism and sometimes, Israel. So much poisonous language and pernicious lies have been aired, that it will take some time for the greater part of Christianity to have a clear view of history.

Even so, there is no time like the present to begin the task at hand. The hostility needs to end and be replaced by acceptance and tolerance of Judaism and its people. Ideas, whether dominant or subtle, like Christian supersecessionism and replacement theology can never be acceptable. These only continue to poison the air.

To be sure, there is hope, not only from within American evangelical circles, who have shown themselves as longstanding loyal supporters of Israel, but, more recently, from the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis. For example, the Pope’s recent statement to Jewish leaders is commendable and a step in the right direction. We accept what is delivered to us today, but continue to hope for more. Now, if only this message becomes normative in the Christian Church and a large number of its members agree with its current views.

Suggested Reading

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison. Enlarged Edition, Eberhard Bethge, ed. London: The Folio Society, 2000

Carroll, James. Constatine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews. N.Y.: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2001

Fackenheim, Emil L. The Jewish Return Into History: Reflections in the Age of Auschwitz and a New Jerusalem.  N.Y.: Schocken Books, 1978

Gilbert, Martin. The Righteous: Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust.  N.Y.: Henry Holt & Co,, 2003

Johnson, Paul. A History of Christianity. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1990

Johnson, Paul. A History of the Jews. London: Orion Books, 1995

Lewis, Bernard. The Middle East: 2000 Years of History From the Rise of Christianity to the Present Day. London: Phoenix Press, 1995

Nirenberg, David. Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition. N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Co., 2013

Oren, Michael B. Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present. N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007

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