Thursday, 22 January 2009

Jesus & anti-semitism

I was in school last week and asked what I thought of the first episode of "Christianity: a history". I had to confess that I hadn't seen it, but they were keen to give me a synopsis anyway. I gave my initial responses, which seemed to go down well, but I've watched it now online and here is my more considered reaction:

Its a programme about the role of Christianity on anti-semitism: the Jews, we are told were persecuted and murdered throughout the middle ages and beyond because they killed Jesus. The programme explores the responsibility of Christianity for the ill-treatment of Jews.

Of course, the fact that Jews could be persecuted or killed in the name of Jesus is very disturbing for anyone with any kind of sensitivity. It really is a shame that Christianity could not have more universally deplored the treatment of Jews as another example of scapegoating, on a par with the scapegoating of Jesus.

On the other hand, I have long been convinced that ideology (whether Christian or not) simply doesn't have that much power to control people's behaviour. I'm not saying that we are not influenced by our faith position - of course we are, but we also shape that faith position. I'm pretty confident that the persecution of any group occurs primarily for social, political and economic reasons, and ideologies are shaped to support what people want to do, rather than the other way around.

Anyway, on to the programme. It has, of course, all the typical hype of religious broadcasting - pretty conventional ideas (like Jesus was a Jew or baptism was originally a Jewish rite) are heralded as though they were groundbreaking new discoveries! I like its desire to restore Jesus to his original Jewishness. The programme asks:

"How does it harm a Christian's faith to restore Jesus to the jewish world in which he lived? Jesus never once expressed the intention of starting a new religion. His ambition was to renew Judaism, to reawaken it to its own grandeur, not to abolish it."

It was pretty poor, though, in its presentation of Paul. It presented now discredited scholarship as though it were accepted fact. Paul we are told was anti-Jewish. No quotes or evidence were given and I presume the TV makers weren't thinking about "There is no difference between Jew and Gentile we are all one in Christ Jesus". It is now commonly accepted that Paul wasn't critical of Jew per se (in Romans, for example), but Judaizers (Jewish Christians who claimed Gentile Christians should be circumcised etc). Paul was as thoroughly Jewish as Jesus was, and like Jesus, was not trying to start a new religion, but seeing the true expansion of Judaism to the whole world. Christianity wasn't a religion at all until some time after Paul's death.

Hints at animosity to some Jews is evident in the New Testament - I don't deny that. Post 70AD texts were written just as Judaism was throwing Christians out of the synagogue. But anti-semitism itself is a creation of the Middle Ages and served the political and social agenda of the middle ages.

Will Christianity, I wonder, ever recover its tarnished image or forever be seen as the tool of oppression? I wonder if Channel 4 will show the other side of Christianity - the way it has been a tool for liberation and equality as much as oppression. What can Christians do today to present an alternative vision of what Christianity is all about?

The programme can still be watched here.


rache said...

I watched that programme too, Mark and I was pleased to read your comments because they reflected some of my own thoughts which in my case were rather tentative being based more on common sense understanding of the biblical story than knowledge of biblical scholarship. I.e. how could Paul possibly 'anti-semitic' in the way we understand that term (which, even if that is not exactly what was being said in the programme, I think that's an impression it gave)? As you say he was as Jewish as Jesus was.
I did find the descriptions of the extent of christian anti-semitism quite shocking, even though it's something I was aware of.
How ironic and depressing that we can now find in some quarters anti-Islamic feeling in a context of christian zionism. What a bloody mess it can be. . . .

Yesterday evening I watched a film from the 80s called Salvador which is a drama based on real events during a popular uprising in El Salvador in late 70s/early 80s I think. It portrayed during the story, the assassination of Archbishop Romero who had been a voice speaking for victims (killed, tortured, disappeared, terrorised, poverty-stricken) of the oppressive regime in that country. Besides showing graphically the extent of man's inhumanity to man, this film included a churchman who behaved in a way you might hope a follower of Jesus would.(Incidentally if you thought you might watch this film it's not for the faint-hearted or indeed under 18s).

Tit for Tat said...

"Will Christianity, I wonder, ever recover its tarnished image or forever be seen as the tool of oppression?"

Im curious, other than inside its own community, when do you think Christianity ever had a good image?

mark said...

Thanks for these comments.

"I'm curious, other than inside its own community, when do you think Christianity ever had a good image?"

hmmmmm... interesting question. Having read your blog (which I very much enjoyed, by the way), I'd say you have some positive things to say about at least some aspects of the Christian heritage... which is probably where I am too. It has been some very good stuff and very bad.

I think your question is difficult beacuse whenever Christianity has a good image, people join up in large numbers, so to ask when it has had a good image besides within the community is hard to assess.

Certainly, I'd say it had a pretty good image from around 1740 to 1820ish in Britain and America, if the number of new recruits to the faith during that period are anything to go by.

Also, sometimes it has a bad image for the wrong image eg. the slave owners in the American south who didn't want their slaves converted because of the egalitarian consequences of Christianity!

I don't know whether you find my answers satisfactory. Feel free to argue back.

Thanks, Rache, for the reminder of Oscar Romero. His life sometimes reminds me of the advantages of being a celibate priest. I'm sure having no family responsibilities makes it easier to make the kinds of stand he did - or is that just a cop out?