In January 2010 an Italian Jewish leader told Pope Benedict XVI that Pope Pius XII should have more vigorously opposed the persecution of the Jews in World War II. Some hard questions could be asked: 1. Should the church time and again be reminded of her role regarding the Holocaust? 2. Has the church done enough to confess her guilt and to repent? 3. What steps should the church take to go further?
While I was preparing this blog, I ran into an interview with the former Israeli politician, Avraham Burg, on his recent book (2007), The Holocaust is over; we must rise from its ashes. Burg argues that Israel finally has to free itself from the bonds of the Holocaust. Is that true? Is Israel caught in a national trauma, as Burg would say? And would then the inevitable conclusion be that the church is caught, too, in the same trauma?
Now I am not going to comment on Burg, or on the position of Israel, as tempting as it might be. But I would like to reflect here on the position of the church. Over time, the church has been mainly a church from the gentiles. She has for the most part forsaken or forgotten about her Jewish roots. By her ‘catechesis of revilement’ of the Jewish people, the church has contributed to anti-Semitism.
Some hard questions could be asked: 1. Should the church time and again be reminded of her role regarding the Holocaust? 2. Has the church done enough to confess her guilt and to repent? 3. What steps should the church take to go further? Of course, these questions will lead to a certain conclusion. But I think that we should also keep them as questions, without being satisfied too early by an answer. Maybe it is still even too early to have an answer in the first place.
1 The church and the Holocaust
I started with an example from Catholic-Jewish relations, because the news report concerning the Pope’s visit prompted this blog. That does not mean, however, that other churches have nothing to do with it. Every church and denomination, whether Catholic, or Protestant, or Evangelical, that wants to be serious about her relation to Israel and the Jewish people, has to confront herself with this burdened past. And every church, no matter what denomination, should be seriously concerned with her relation to Israel. For as Christians from the gentiles, we are engrafted into the noble olive tree and now share with the Jews in the nourishing sap from the olive root (Romans 11). Christians today may not be personally responsible for what happened in the past to the Jews in the name of Christ. But we have a responsibility to re-think the theology of the past that at least has contributed to the circumstances in which persecution of the Jews, culminating in the Shoah, could take place. Besides, the average Jew still associates Christianity and Jesus with Inquisition and Catholic Church.
If we want to be faithful to the name of Christ, then we have to get rid of the burden of the past, not by denying our responsibility, but by being fully aware of this burden. Our responsibility is then to create a new theology – I mean, to start reading the Bible again from the beginning as God’s word for our time, to get a new understanding of God’s ways with Israel. This is necessary to clear away the rubble, to remove the stones (Isaiah 40).
Because in the resurrection of Israel from the ashes of the Holocaust we witness a turning point in history. The restoration of the nation of Israel has literally caused a reorientation. The world is turning its attention to Jerusalem, for better or for worse. The question is: where does the church stands on this issue?
The church (again: no matter what denomination) stands for the immense task of reorienting its theology towards Jerusalem! Only the first shaky steps have been set on this path. We need the awareness of the past as warning signs not to leave the path and to go astray in the minefield of replacement theology and anti-Judaism. So we need to be reminded of the role the church played regarding the Holocaust.
Sure, many Christians have risked their own lives to save Jews from persecution. Sure, there are stories of bishops in Medieval Germany, who opened their churches for Jews to protect them against raging mobs. But this is no excuse to minimize the anti-Semitism which has pervaded Christian theology from a very early stage on, which fostered the Inquisition and the pogroms, and which at least reinforced a climate of Jew-hatred in modern Christian Europe.
2 Guilt and penitence
Has the church done enough? Has any church ever unequivocally confessed guilt about Christian anti-Semitism? There have been initiatives here and there to come to a confession of guilt. There have been ecclesiastical documents acknowledging the church’s responsibility for a climate in which anti-Semitism could rise. But I am not aware of any broadly carried confession. (Maybe somebody can help me?)
Is there a need to? When the church would confess her guilt to the Jews, a Jew would probably say something like: “Thank you, I am deeply moved. But I cannot forgive on behalf of all those millions of victims. And for the rest, the best thing the church can do now is to leave us in peace.” That is something I have often heard. I understand it and we have to accept it. But the example of the Jewish leader in Rome on the other hand shows that Jews still expect more than that. They have a right to our honesty. They want to see that the church comes to terms with her history.
This is the way of penitence, or teshuva in Hebrew. It is a sometimes painful self-examination, in order to return from ‘any offensive way in me’ to the ‘way everlasting’ (Psalm 139:24). From arrogance to fear and love (Romans 11:20). That is a process in which the church has taken only a first hesitating step. And many Christians haven’t even moved a foot!
3 What the church should do
First of all, as I mentioned before, history urges us to seek a new biblical understanding of God’s way with Israel. God has not forsaken Israel. He remains faithful to His people and to His word. That means also that Israel remains His primary instrument in bringing redemption to the world. In other words, for the church it is impossible not to be faithful to Israel.
What then? Preach the gospel to the Jews? Or criticize the state of Israel that it does not resemble enough the people of God? Too long the church has dictated her word to Israel. Today, the church should live the love of Christ and share it, probably more in deeds than by words. And all of a sudden she will discover that this love comes from the heart of Israel (John 4:22). The church shares in that love! ‘Love is patient, love is kind. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres’(1 Corinthians 13). That should be the attitude of the Church.