The Legitimacy and Distinctiveness of Religions

March 28, 1994|By TIM BAKER

Christianity's holiest week has begun. The daily scripture readings follow the story of Christ's death and resurrection.

On Good Friday all of Christendom will hear again how Jesus was arrested, tried and crucified. This year many Protestant and Roman Catholic congregations around the world will read the account of his death that is found in the Gospel of John, Chapters 18 and 19. The words are very familiar. Those of us raised in the Christian faith have heard them over and over again ever since we were children. This year, listen to them carefully.

In the words of John's Gospel, Jesus was arrested and taken before Pontius Pilate by soldiers and the officers of the Jews. At first, the Roman governor suggested that they judge Jesus themselves. But the Jews said that under the law they couldn't. After Pilate had questioned Jesus, he went out to the Jews again, told them he found no crime in the man, and offered to release him in accordance with the Passover custom. But they demanded that he release Barabbas instead.

Pilate then brought Jesus out before them. The chief priests cried out, ''Crucify him, crucify him.'' When Pilate sought to let him go, the Jews threatened to report the governor to Rome. Pilate backed down. He said to the Jews ''Here is your King!'' They cried out, ''Away with him, away with him, crucify him!'' Then Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.

When you listen to the account in John's Gospel, what you hear is a relentless hammering: The Jews! The Jews! The Jews! When you read it, the message is inescapable. The Jews did it! They were the ones who crucified Christ!

Biblical scholars question the historical accuracy of the account in John. It was written at the end of the first century by a Jewish-Christian who belonged to a small, besieged Christian community in Syria, Palestine or Trans-Jordan. The group had apparently been expelled from the synagogue and was engaged in a bitter and defensive polemical struggle with the local Jewish majority which the gospel writer regarded as the enemy.

His sweeping anti-Judaic accusations reflect that animosity. But they are contradicted by other details in the same text and by the accounts in the other gospels. It's clear that the charges against Jesus were initiated and pursued only by some of the temple priests, not by the Jewish people as a whole. Jews didn't actually crucify him. Roman soldiers did. Some Jews cheered. Others wept. Two of them took down his body and buried it.

For centuries, however, the words in the John account have been used to sanctify a frightful retribution on the Jewish people. After all, Holy Scripture itself condemned them. Following Good Friday services in Europe, worshipers used to leave church and rampage through Jewish ghettos. The Nazis used the gospel to justify their atrocities. Hate mongers today continue to use it.

Of course the devil can quote scripture. But organized Christianity itself has a long and shameful history of anti-Judaism which has legitimized everything from anti- Semitic diatribes to Jewish pogroms. From St. Augustine's elaborate formulations to Martin Luther's rabid rantings on the subject of the Jews, Christian churches have too often propagated theological teachings about Jews and Judaism which at their best are contemptuous and at their frequent worst, demonizing.

The horror of the Holocaust has been forcing almost every major Western Christian church to re-examine and repudiate doctrinal bigotries. Today no respectable Christian theology blames the Jewish people, then or now, for Christ's death. But the words in the Gospel of John are still read on Good Friday. We still hear them in the magnificent music of Bach's ''St. John's Passion.'' The message still resounds. It's still a damning condemnation of the Jews.

Perhaps in these enlightened times, most of us don't pay any attention. Maybe we don't even notice. After all, you and I are tolerant and educated. We aren't persuaded by ugly words. But words can be insidious. They're dangerous. They carry ideas. Ideas incite. The contemptuous ideas in this and other passages in John's Gospel can fall like sparks in a world where religious differences easily and often flare into hatred and violence. Bosnia. Northern Ireland. Kashmir. Lebanon. Jerusalem. Hebron.

Protestant and Catholic leaders are coming to see that an overwhelming numerical and cultural predominance imposes a special obligation on the Christian majority to promote and protect our precious religious pluralism. They also realize it's going to take more than merely eradicating overtly disparaging and bigoted doctrines. Centuries of enmity have left Christians and Jews today with a legacy of distrust. If they are to overcome the most intractable pathology in the history of Western civilization, they will need to pursue bold initiatives.

To confront this challenge, a group of Marylanders founded The Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in 1987. This unique organization addresses the challenge of religious pluralism by trying to shape a new relationship between Christians and Jews. The Institute encourages and enables clergy and lay leaders to do three things: ''to re-examine the meaning of their religious assumptions, particularly about one another; to question the theological distortions and misconceptions which have contributed to historical conflict between Christians and Jews; and to develop the resources within their respective communities which inspire both Christians and Jews to appreciate the legitimacy and distinctiveness of each religion.''

For Christians, in this season of resurrection and renewal, these are words and goals worthy of a God of Love and a Prince of Peace.

Tim Baker writes from Columbia.

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