One of the ugliest blights on Christianity's history has been anti-Semitism-certainly an ironic circumstance, since Jesus was Jewish and claimed to be the long awaited Messiah of Israel and the world. His disciples were Jewish, and Jews also wrote the entire New Testament, with the exception of Acts and the third gospel, which were authored by the physician Luke.
In 1998, the Roman Catholic church apologized for "errors and failures" of some Catholics for not aiding Jews during the Nazi Holocaust, while Cardinal John O'Connor of New York expressed "abject sorrow" for anti-Semitism in churches through the years, saying, "We most sincerely want to start a new era."24
Woodbridge readily conceded that, regrettably, anti-Semitism has soiled Christian history. The key question was why it happened in the first place.
"One factor was this: most Jews didn't think Jesus was the Messiah. The Jews' refusal to accept him often transformed Jews in the minds of some Christians into foes of Christ," he said. "Add to this that the Jews were thought to be responsible for Jesus' crucifixion and you have two powerful components of 'Christian' anti-Semitism."
That wasn't sufficient for me. "There has to be more to it than that," I insisted.
"Yes, I believe there is," he replied. "Heiko Oberman, the distinguished historian at the University of Arizona, has tried to identify a number of the other factors. For example, by the time you get to the Middle Ages and the Reformation, there were abundant false rumors about Jews that even added more fuel to the anti-Semitic fires."
"What kind of rumors?"
"That they had been involved with the poisoning of wells at the time of the Black Death of 1348, that they desecrated Christian sacraments when they could, that they privately had sacrificial deaths, that they tampered with Christian Scriptures, and so forth. Now, keep in mind that these accusations weren't true. Nevertheless, they did stoke feelings of anger and resentment."
Yet that didn't seem to satisfy Woodbridge. He gazed off to the side as if he were searching for another explanation, finally turning to me in obvious frustration.
"It seems to me that this doesn't totally handle the issue," he said. "One would have thought-or, should I say, one would have hoped-that Christians by the Middle Ages and going up to Martin
Luther's day would have realized that the teachings of Jesus absolutely forbade them from doing and saying some of the things that were said and done in his name."
"You mentioned Luther," I said. "His own anti-Semitism is well-documented. Where did that come from?"
"Obviously, he knew some of the rumors about Jews. Early in his life, however, he was apparently philo-Semitic-a lover of Jews-and because of this love he hoped there would be a mass conversion in which they would embrace Jesus as their Messiah. When they didn't, particularly as Luther became more irritable in his later years, he said some very ugly things about them."
His answer puzzled me. "I was under the impression that his anti-Semitism was a lifelong affliction," I said.
"Some scholars contend there's a continuity of his views about Jewish people all through his life, but I would argue that Luther's most virulent statements of hostility come towards the end of his life. Perhaps he was saying them out of deep-seated frustration because they didn't come to Christ.
"All that being said, though, some of his statements are so horrific that it is totally appropriate for Lutherans to repudiate them and for all Christians thoroughly to reject them. Christians simply cannot be anti-Semitic. It should be unthinkable to any follower of Jesus.
"Now, on the other side of the coin, in contemporary times, evangelical Christians have often been some of Israel's greatest friends. And the general attitude I see in many churches toward Jewish people today is one of respect."
"What do you say to a Jewish person who says to you that he or she could never even consider Christianity because of its anti-Semitic history?"
Woodbridge nodded slightly. "I've been hit by that before," he said with sadness in his voice. "I was teaching at a secular university and a young Jewish student said, 'I want to do a paper on Luther. My grandmother told me he hated Jews. Is that true?' I said, 'It probably is, but go ahead and do the paper.' She came back with research that just made me weep. She found things I didn't even know Luther said; it's that bad."
"What can you say to someone like her?"
"That I'm very, very sorry for what Luther said; those things are absolutely out of line with the teachings of Christ, and this is one of the problems that we, as Christians, face-we don't always live up to the ideals of Jesus. And I would say, 'I realize how difficult this is, but I hope you would think through what Jesus said and did and examine Christianity on the merits of what it actually teaches."'
Woodbridge tried to elaborate but apparently could think of nothing else to add that would be very helpful. "I'm afraid that's not very elegant," he conceded. "But that's what I'd say from my heart."
"Some Jewish people believe Hitler was a Christian-," I began, but Woodbridge jumped in and cut me off.
"Oh, yes, that's exactly right," he said. "Again, that's why we have to make the distinction between cultural and authentic Christianity. During the rise of the National Socialists, Hitler tried to wrap himself around Christianity and Martin Luther. It was a clever ideological ploy. But Christian critics, like Karl Barth and others, didn't buy for a moment that Hitler represented orthodox Christianity.
"Let me give you another historical illustration. Many Jewish people in 1665 and 1666 believed that a certain individual was the Messiah. But then he converted to Islam, which dashed the aspirations of a lot of Jewish folks. Now, if I said to a Jewish historian today, 'Do you want to identify that man as the Messiah?' He'd say, 'Of course not. He was a fraud.'
"Well, in a similar fashion, we Christians would say that Hitler was not any sort of Christian Messiah. People often claim things that are false. He was a fraud, an evil individual, who could not have been an authentic Christian, much less a representative of true Christian teachings.
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