Historically, Christians have used some verses from the gospel accounts of Jesus’ suffering to figuratively bludgeon Jewish people. But does our awareness of this historical misuse of Scripture make any difference in the way we plan and lead worship, especially during Lent and Holy Week? Can we apply some principles to dealing with those “troubling tellings” while still taking the Scriptures very seriously?
“God is murdered. The King of Israel is destroyed by an Israelite hand.” —Melito of Sardis
“The Jews nailed Jesus onto the cross and thought he was dead. He is risen. They nailed Germany onto the cross and thought it was dead and it is risen.” —Julius Streicher
It’s hard to imagine how the preaching of an early Christian pastor (Melito of Sardis, quoted by Richard A. Norris Jr. in The Christological Controversy) and the writing of a twentieth-century raving anti-Semite (Julius Streicher, quoted in the Nazi newspaper Der Stuermer, April 1933) have anything in common with each other, much less with twenty-first century Christians. And for those who plan and lead worship, it may seem virtually impossible to imagine their contemporary importance.
Yet it’s important to remember that some of the pages of the history of Christians’ interaction with Jewish people have been figuratively written in blood. The sentiments expressed in Melito’s and Streicher’s venomous words have all too often typified some Christians’ attitudes toward Jewish people.
As Union Seminary professor Mary Boys notes in her unpublished manuscript “Redeeming Our Sacred Story: The Death of Jesus and Jewish-Christian Relations,” some seeds of the Crusades, pogroms, and the Holocaust lie in the slanderous accusations Christians have made against Jewish people. In fact, hostility toward Judaism marked some New Testament apocryphal literature as well as parts of the writings of early church fathers, including Justin Martyr and John Chrysostom. Later Christians accused Jewish people of desecrating the elements of the Lord’s Supper and ritually crucifying Christian children in order to use their blood in Passover celebrations.
While such slander may seem like nothing more than misguided ancient history, the temptation for Christians to mistreat those who practice other faiths remains. Anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism seem to be resurgent, even among some Christians who claim to follow the Jesus who was born to Jewish parents. Other Christians are quick to label all Muslims as terrorists or misogynists.
Those who plan and lead worship understand that corporate worship has great power, through the mighty work of the Holy Spirit, to shape Christian faith and stimulate discipleship.
How, then, might worship planners and leaders formulate worship services that can be used by the Spirit to stimulate love rather than hostility toward Jewish people? How can our worship services display and promote sensitivity to Christians’ historic mistreatment of the Jews whom we so easily blame for Jesus’ death? How might we think especially about worship services during Lent that focus on Jesus’ betrayal, suffering, and death?
For some of the following suggestions and principles I owe much to Professor Boys as well as to participants in the United States Holocaust Memorial seminar “Transforming Troubling Tellings: The History of the Deicide Charge and the Holocaust.”
Focus on the Role of the Roman Empire
While Christians tend to view Jesus’ death as the result of the opposition of Jewish religious leaders or Jewish people in general, the reality is far more complex. Boys suggests that we focus our contemplation of Jesus’ suffering and death on the clash between the reign of God as embodied in Jesus Christ and the reign of mighty Rome. Although Roman governors like Pilate often formed alliances with local religious and political leaders, those governors alone had the power to crucify people.
So those who plan and lead worship during Holy Week, for example, might focus far less on the role of the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ execution and more on the role of Pilate and Israel’s Roman occupiers. After all, while Pilate tried to absolve himself of responsibility for Jesus’ death, history does not let him off so easily. It was the Roman soldiers who flogged, stripped, spit on, and taunted Jesus; the Roman soldiers who guarded Jesus at his crucifixion.
Acknowledge Our Own Culpability
But Pilate and the religious leaders in Jerusalem were not the only ones responsible for Jesus’ death. Scripture makes it clear that Jesus died for the sins of all of God’s children—both Jews and Gentiles. Christians see Jesus’ death as partial fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities . . . the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:5-6). As a result, those who plan and lead worship do well to focus on the responsibility all of us bear for Jesus’ death. We write liturgies, choose songs, and preach sermons that remind God’s people that, in Paul’s words, “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin” (Rom. 3:9).
Juxtapose Scripture Passages
We may also want to think creatively about deliberately juxtaposing troubling Scripture passages with passages that are deeply suffused with grace. How, for example, does Jesus respond to people’s calls for his crucifixion? “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” When the crowd calls for Barabbas’s release, doesn’t Jesus, by his refusal to contradict them, essentially show that he agrees with them?
Gain Insights from Historical Sources
Consider how extra-biblical sources might inform our appreciation of the Scriptures’ accounts. For example, find a way to contrast Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday with Pilate’s entry into David’s city, perhaps just days earlier. Jesus enters Jerusalem from the eastern villages of Bethphage and Bethany, riding on a colt. In their book The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan invite us to imagine Pilate entering from the west, perhaps on a stallion. Jesus’ procession is simple, surrounded by common people. Pilate enters with much fanfare, probably surrounded by Roman cavalry and infantry with leather armor, gleaming helmets, and unfurled banners. Jesus’ welcome is enthusiastic; Pilate’s is likely far more subdued.
Treat Inflammatory Texts Carefully
Some Christians, as we’ve seen, have used Scripture verses that emphasize Jewish culpability in Jesus’ death to bludgeon Jews. So handle very carefully any texts that are potentially inflammatory—texts such as the crowd’s plea to let Jesus’ “blood [be] on us and our children” (Matt. 27:25). In light of past Christian mistreatment of Jewish people, worship planners are reluctant to emphasize Jesus’ insistence that the Jewish leaders “belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire” (John 8:44).
“Remembrance is fundamental to the Jewish and Christian traditions,” notes Boys. So even as we read the accounts of Jesus’ suffering and death, we remember that some Christians have used them to justify either passive acceptance of or active participation in Jewish persecution. Find ways to challenge worshipers to honestly examine whether they too have passively or actively participated in such persecution.
Show Grace and Love
Perhaps recognizing the Christian misuse of the Scriptures to persecute Jews can also lead to deeper dialogue between Christians and Jews. Seeking to let the Holy Spirit transform us more and more into the likeness of Jesus Christ, worship leaders and planners can look for ways to actively engage with Jewish leaders and encourage all Christians to show concrete love for their Jewish friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Christian leaders may also want to explore ways to partner with synagogues and Jewish relief agencies in ministry among society’s most vulnerable citizens.