In connection with the anti-Judaism project of the SCLM, we have invited the Rev. Susan Auchincloss to contribute an article for our blog. Susan has an excellent blog on Jewish/Christian issues which is read widely in the Episcopal Church: faithnotfault.org. Readers of this SCLM blog may have noticed that I have not accomplished my goal of posting materials on this subject at regular intervals. The problem is that I have been dealing with medical issues for the past few months, and this has dominated my life to a substantial degree. So I welcome with great enthusiasm Susan’s willingness to allow us to post this article for our readers. — Louis Weil
Christian Anti-Judaism by Rev. Susan Auchincloss
How can we correct a mistake if we cannot see that we are making it? Anti-Judaism runs so deep in the Christian faith that we honestly do not hear ourselves when we spread it. We need more than vigilance; we need education and above all we need others to call us on false preaching.
Barbara Brown Taylor speaks to this still-current concern in the “Faith Matters” column in the August 24, 2004, issue of the Christian Century. Titled, “Teaching Contempt,” she writes:
Last month I received a letter from a doctor in California who had recently listened to some of my sermons on tape. He had borrowed one set from the rector of his Episcopal church, he wrote, and had liked it well enough to order an older set. The difference between the two made him want to share a few thoughts with me.
“I think you’ve come a long way,” he wrote, adding that he knew that sounded presumptuous but asking me to let him explain. “I’m a Jew,” he said, “and although my core identity is still as a Jew, in other ways I’m a happy convert.” Active at every level of parish leadership, he also actively pursues friendship with Jesus. “Still,” he wrote, “when I listened to the earlier set of tapes, there were times when I cringed to hear echoes of the old ‘teaching of contempt.’ It seemed like you looked underneath the surface of everyone in the gospel stories, showing complex motivations and spiritual struggles—yet your portrayal of Jesus’ opponents and the Pharisees seemed one-dimensional and lacking in sympathy.”
As graciously as this was couched, it was like hearing that I had been caught strangling kittens while walking in my sleep. Me? Engaging in the teaching of contempt?
I set down the letter and went to find the sermons in question. Before I had read two pages, I was staring at a dead cat. In a sermon on the “easy yoke” passage from Matthew 11, I had helped Jesus make his case by nailing the Pharisees as self-righteous prigs. Reducing them to cardboard cutouts of everything I found despicable in religious people, I was not only able to blow them away handily. I was also able to congratulate myself for doing so.
All these years later, it is clear that I did Jesus no favors by lampooning his opponents. His ministry involved engaging real people with real concerns, not defeating cartoon characters. It is even clearer that I maligned observant Jews everywhere by painting those who love Torah with the same old scorn-full brush. While my California correspondent was kind enough to note some progress in my preaching, my penance has involved trying to figure out what I was thinking in 1990 as well as why my thinking has changed.
Fourteen years ago, I believed that the New Testament told me the whole truth about Pharisaic Judaism. Nothing in my church or seminary education led me to believe otherwise. None of the commentaries I used to prepare my sermons challenged the traditional story of Christian origins. I do not remember whether it was Jack Spong or Marcus Borg who first raised serious questions about that story for me, but they led me to Jewish teachers such as Jacob Neusner and Paula Fredriksen (as well as Christian ones such as E. P. Sanders and Mary Boys), who have enriched my reading of the New Testament by helping me recognize the nature of its polemics.
Simply to find those teachers changed the way I preached about Torah, Talmud and Judaism. Then a man in my congregation married a Jewish woman who sometimes came with him to church. When she did, I heard the slurs in familiar passages. I tasted the razor blades in beloved hymns. Before long, she had changed my sermons even when she was not there. If what I said did not sound like good news to her, I decided, then it was not the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In an essay on Mel Gibson’s movie earlier this year, Rabbi Michael Lerner said that if Christians have not confronted anti-Judaism as effectively as they have tackled other “isms,” then that is because doing so requires them to question the historical truth of their own scriptures. I believe he is right. Yet even without such questioning, those same scriptures call me to love my neighbor, and in that I find no room for the teaching of contempt.
This article pleases me for many reasons. First, Barbara Brown Taylor’s story parallels my own. A parishioner of mine married a Jew, and when he joined her in church one Sunday I listened to the readings for that day with his ears… and squirmed.
I, too, thought I knew about Judaism from reading the Old Testament; and like Taylor, nothing I had learned in seminary, church, or biblical commentaries caused me to question that. James Carroll launched my quest for better understanding when I read his Constantine’s Sword. That was a few years ago. Now I have a shelf of helpful books, including Preaching Without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism, by Marilyn J. Salmon. Others are listed on my web site, http://www.faithnotfault.org, under “Resources.”
The best aspect of this article comes from recognizing the author. Barbara Brown Taylor’s books have brought new life to my faith. I feel unqualified respect for her; and yet even she did not hear what she was doing. That helps me feel less callow.
Above all, it shows how subtly the threads of anti-Judaism are woven into our faith. We are like fish in water, too immersed to perceive it. As a consequence, we must acknowledge our need for each other, for calling each other to account.
Self-education about the roots and fertilization of Christian anti-Judaism should be the number one topic of adult education forums. Along the way we will learn a proper respect for another great religion and that will, in turn, add to the richness of our own faith.