Guest Column: Brokering the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 18 May 2005 0 Comments
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I belong to a church that has a fairly sophisticated membership. We are inclusive and pride ourselves on our openness to diversity of race, socio-economic background, ethnic background and sexual orientation. It's a warm, comfortable atmosphere in which to worship, and people remark on the welcoming nature of our congregation.

I cringe, however, every time we enter the Lenten season, especially as we get closer to Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Some of the references to the Jews clearly foster an anti-Semitic atmosphere. There are Jews in the choir and some in the congregation as well. While sophisticated people realize there is a 2000-year span of time between the Crucifixion and today, still there are people who succumb to literalist interpretations and justify their own prejudices. I am especially concerned about the impression this makes on children and for the feelings of the Jews who sit in the pews and listen to these readings. How can we address this and still read the accounts in a faithful manner?


I share your concern. The greatest source of anti-Semitism derives from Christian liturgy and from Christian Sunday School material where the phrase, the Jews, is almost always said with a negative ring. Anti-Semitism is a product of the Christian West that we need to face with overt honesty.

Where do we start the task of correcting these injustices? One place would be to force into the Christian consciousness the fact that Jesus was a Jew. He was probably brown skinned with jet-black hair, as were almost all Middle-Eastern people. Likewise all of the disciples of Jesus were Jews, plus Paul and Mary Magdalene. The 9th decade introduction into the Christian story of the Virgin Birth narrative has been used to de-emphasize Jesus' Jewishness. Even Adolph Hitler spoke of him as "an Aryan." Second, we need to recognize that Christianity was born in the Jewish Synagogue and did not break from the Synagogue until 88 C.E. Most of the people in the first generation of Christianity were Jews. This means that what we read in the New Testament, as overt anti-Semitism was in fact a reflection of the tension between the revisionist Jews who were the followers of Jesus and the Orthodox Jews who were not. It was a fight within the Synagogue. That does not excuse the hostility, but it is nonetheless true that most of the biblical hostility toward Jews, actually was leveled by Jews. Unfortunately, today we tend to hear these words today as a battle between Jews and Christians.

One further thing that we must begin to do is to challenge every religious system the world over that claims to possess the ultimate and final truth of God. That is sheer religious propaganda. It is also the seed of an eventual religious imperialism. If I possess the truth as these churches claim, anyone who disagrees with me disagrees with God because I am the only one who understands God perfectly. It is a strange argument but a version of that argument is reflected in the various church claims of having such things as an infallible Pope, an inerrant Bible or that a particular is the "only true church" That irrational mentality leads first to expansionist and conversion activities, then to religious intolerance and it finally expresses itself in religious persecution. That is the fatal religious flaw that drives so much of the religious anger in our world today.

We Christians have spawned more than our fair share of this and we need to own it first and to seek to confront it second. Thanks for raising the issue.

—John Shelby Spong

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Exposing the Bible's Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love
"The Sins of Scripture challenges Christians to look beyond the myths of their faith into the heart of the matter."




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