Imagine if a new religious group told a story on a particular holiday that depicted first-century Christians as fanatical, arrogant, disruptive followers of a cult leader named Jesus. Their story tells how these deluded followers stubbornly refused to believe the truth about their leader and kept on teaching he was Messiah.
Those telling the story point out how the Christian religion is superseded by their own faith, even though Christians obstinately dismiss this claim. The religious group makes this story into plays, movies and books distributed worldwide, and enacts the tale in congregations during this holiday.
Imagine that, when Christians protest at this portrayal (as they surely would), leaders of this new religion reply: “We aren’t talking about 21st century Christians; these are events that happened in the first century. Don’t be so sensitive. And this is our story, our theology. Who are you to tell us how to run our religion? We have no anti-Christian sentiments at all–we never bombed your churches or discriminated against you in any way. We respect your right to worship any way you please.”
Would you find this an adequate response to your concerns?
I find myself imagining this scenario in the midst of Holy Week, between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, as Christians the world over remember and tell the story of Jesus’ passion and crucifixion.
Jewish people are caught up in the story we tell this week, as surely as Christians are caught up in the imaginary story above.
Can we tell the story of Jesus’ passion in a way both faithful to the Gospels and sensitive to Jewish concerns? When my Jewish neighbors overhear me telling the story of Jesus, I want them to see themselves represented in a respectful way.
I believe it is possible to tell the Christian story without defaming Jews. It may require some careful reflection on our part, as we sift through the imbedded traditions of our storytelling. A deliberative, intentional telling of the Christian story can be truthful, aware and loving in its treatment of Jewish characters. (Of course, almost all the characters in the stories of the Gospels are Jewish, including Jesus. But I particularly have in mind those characters that are not followers of Jesus, and especially Jewish religious leaders.)
The Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Jews states: “Because the Church and the Jewish people are ‘linked together at the very level of their identity,’ an accurate, sensitive and positive appreciation of Jews and Judaism ‘should not occupy an occasional or marginal place in Christian teaching,’ but be considered ‘essential’ to Christian proclamation.”
I suggest three modest principles for accurate, sensitive and positive storytelling:
–Tell the story truthfully. Judaism was not a dead legalism in the time of Jesus, nor were Jewish leaders merely bloodthirsty power-mongers. First-century C.E. Judaism was a lively assortment of groups, all wrestling with how to be faithful to Torah under Roman oppression. Broad strokes simply won’t do in describing Jews in this era, because there were a great diversity of perspectives, parties and platforms within Judaism and its leadership.
–Tell the story with an awareness that the telling has a history in Jewish life as well as in Christian life. Study the history of Jewish persecution by Christians and resolve not to contribute to anti-Judaism. Most Christians would not consider themselves overtly anti-Semitic, but note carefully how more subtle anti-Judaic sentiments may lurk in Christian teachings and portrayal of Jews.
–Tell the story in the spirit of Christ. Jesus did not treat people as labels or stereotypes or according to social convention. Don’t make the Jewish characters in the New Testament, such as “scribes and Pharisees,” into caricatures. Look for more complex characterizations rather than painting Jewish leaders as the villainous “guys in black hats.”
Hillel (60 B.C.E. to ca. 10 C.E.) was a Jewish teacher who was challenged to teach the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”
Another first-century Jew said the same thing: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Mt 7:12). When I tell his story this week, I want to be certain that I take care to love my Jewish neighbors as myself. (Lev 19:18; Rom 13:9)
Some helpful resources:
An essay on how mainline Protestants are seeking more positive understandings and teachings about Judaism, including re-thinking the doctrine of supersessionism:
James Browning is senior pastor of Englewood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.