Last week The Church of England brought out a report about the history of Jewish-Christian relations entitled God’s Unfailing Word Theological and Practical Perspectives on Christian–Jewish Relations. The report contains an account of the history of Christian anti-Semitism. It also offers what it believes to be an appropriate response that the churches should take toward Jewish-Christian relations in the light of this history. The report was also a news item on yesterday’s The Sunday Programme. In today’s blog I shall comment both about the report, but also about its media coverage by the BBC.
My interest in this issue stems from research I undertook into the history of Christian anti-Semitism for Chapter 3 of my book Judging Religion A Dialogue for Our Time. I shall briefly comment on the character of that history and how well I believe that character was represented both in the report and in the Sunday Programme.
First, the report itself goes some way to acknowledge the anti-Semitic character of Christian theology and Church figures within that history. Inevitably the report has to be highly selective, but the question remains whether or not the selection of what is said is a fair representation of that history, and I think it does not go far enough. It neither points out the genocidal character of Christian anti-Semitism, nor does it draw attention to the relentless character of anti-Semitism throughout Christian history until the holocaust. Let’s take these points one at a time. First, as regards the genocidal character of Christian anti-Semitism; someone no less than the founder of Protestantism, Martin Luther, in his The Jews And Their Lies wrote: [the quotation is taken as I have quoted the text in Judging Religion P51]
‘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.  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 honour 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.  Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the same aims as in their synagogues.’
At the Nurenberg trials Martin Luther was quoted by perpetrators of the holocaust. He was cited as someone who justified what took place and who would have done the same if he had lived in their time. A passing mention of Luther within the Church of England report is not enough. There was room to say what I have said here.
My second point is that vicious anti-Semitism is unremitting throughout Christian history from the time of the Church Fathers. I was, myself highly selective as regards the history of Christian anti-Semitism in my book when I wrote ‘From the fulminations of the early influential Christian thinkers known as the Church Fathers, such as St. Augustine, John Chrysostom, Tertullian and Origen to the persecutions of Jews across Europe during the Crusades; to the visceral religious bile of reformist Martin Luther, significant aspects of church teaching had inspired vicious anti-Semitism throughout its history.’ [Judging Religion P50] St. Augustine is perhaps the most influential of all Christian theologians, of course. Again, in more recent times, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the enormously influential protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher described Jews as having a ‘pathological state of mind’. They should not be converted to Christianity for fear that they pollute the faith. In similar vein, Adolf von Harnack, regarded Judaism as a dangerous theological infection, and for this reason he rejected the Old Testament as not part of the canon of scripture.
My main concern in this blog is how the muted tones of the report itself were even further watered down on yesterday’s the Sunday programme. I understand that the murderous bile of Martin Luther is not what many want to hear early on a Sunday morning, but the price of this major omission perpetuates a lamentable and potentially dangerous ignorance. The report refers to Christianity colluding with anti-Semitism, as if to imply that for a time, or for long periods of time that the church acquiesced with something that existed independently of itself. This impression is a false one. Christian anti-Semitism has been a root and engine of anti-Semitism, if not the key root of it for the best part of 2000 years across Europe. Of course, anti-Semitism has not at all gone away within the Churches today. It is especially alive and well within aspects of the Russian Orthodox Church. This is a tricky but necessary issue that ecumenism and interfaith work should seek to address.