April 21, 2009, is Holocaust Remembrance Day, in Hebrew Yom haShoah. A time to remember the 6 million Jews who died in Nazi Germany, the day is a national memorial day in Israel and is observed around the world.
For Christians, the contrast between Yom haShoah and Easter (observed just a week and a half before) is stark. The beauty of Easter–the lily, the butterfly, the chorus of alleluias-is assaulted with images of emaciated children, piles of bodies, and smoke rising from the crematoria.
But the Christian Easter needs Holocaust Remembrance Day. It serves as a reminder that theology can kill as well as bring life. In the history of Jewish-Christian interaction, more pogroms and other anti-Jewish violence have taken place during Holy Week than during any other time of the year. Throughout history, the claim that Jews are Christkillers has fueled not only anti-Jewish sentiment but also anti-Jewish violence. Elie Wiesel’s Gates of the Forest weaves a compelling story of how this happened in the past. A quick look at neo-Nazi websites confirms that it does the same in our own time.
Problematically, Christian anti-Judaism finds its roots in the Bible itself. In Matthew’s passion narrative (ch 27), the Jews are reported to have willingly accepted the guilt for Jesus’ death-for themselves and for their children. In Matthew, Pilate, the only one with the legal authority to sanction a crucifixion, tries but fails to talk any angry mob out of sending Jesus to his death. The same Pilate that Luke describes as “mingling the blood of Galileans with sacrifices” and who other sources describe as brutally squashing any rebellion, is described by Matthew as so afraid of the crowd that he relinquishes his power and washes his hands of responsibility.
Some scholars attempt to take away the scandal of Matthew’s account by setting it in the context of 1st century Christian attempts to avoid the wrath of Rome. They see in Matthew the beginning of a trend toward shifting blame from the Romans to the Jews. They remind us that the gospel writers had political as well as religious motives, and that biblical language about the Jews (as well as about everything else) reflects as much the concerns of later Christian communities as those of the time of Jesus.
But understanding Matthew historically doesn’t the power of its words away. Rather, it calls interpreters to take responsibility for the implications of the texts they read. For Christians, it calls for taking ownership of the power of our texts and for finding new energy and new energies for eradicating hate. Good beginning reading includes Rosemary Radford Ruether’s Faith and Fratricide and Clark Williamson’s Has God Rejected His People?
One complication of attention to the Holocaust is that it has made it difficult for many Jews and Christians to question the policies of the state of Israel or to acknowledge the claims of Palestinians. Marc Ellis’ Unholy Alliance traces this problem within Judaism, and Palestinian authors talk about the problem as well, such as Mitri Raheb.
In my judgement, combating anti-Judaism doesn’t demand uncritical support of the state of Israel or denying the claims of Palestinians. Rather, the goal is to counteract hate wherever it is found.