When the great Jewish theologian and academic Abraham Joshua Heschel, who authored numerous classic books and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil-rights movement, was growing up as a boy in Warsaw, he was often sent out in the mornings by his mother to purchase bread for the day. Leaving the house, he would avoid taking the most direct route to the bakery, so that he wouldn’t have to pass by the city’s great Catholic cathedral. Were he to walk in its shadow, he had learned from experience, he would be seized with an uncontrollable trembling, invariably thinking of all his community’s rabbinic forebears who over the years had been summoned to meet with the Christian hierarchy there, whose declarations held sway, and often for ill, in his Jewish community.
As an adult, Heschel recounted this experience to the New Testament scholar J. Louis Martyn, his sometime Christian colleague at Union Seminary in New York, and Martyn, reflecting on it later, said this:
It was for me a highly affective and truly effective introduction to the degree to which the power of the Christian church hovered menacingly over the life of the largely powerless Jewish community in Warsaw and elsewhere. And, trying to see through the eyes of the frightened little boy, I had to ask myself whether the monolithic nature of that power—so well represented by the literal monolith of the cathedral’s structure—was truly separable from its various parts. Was the glorious church music implicated, the scriptural oratorios of Handel and Felix Mendelssohn? Did the Christian Scriptures themselves play a role in the persecutory shadow of the cathedral?
I thought of this anecdote the evening after Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh and opened fire on congregants there, killing eleven people before being shot himself by the police and taken into custody. I thought of it specifically after I saw Bowers’s self-authored tagline under his profile picture on the social-media site Gab. It read thus: “jews are the children of satan. (john 8:44) -------the lord jesus christ is come in the flesh.”
The verse from the New Testament’s fourth gospel to which Bowers’s profile alluded puts the following words into the mouth of Jesus: “You”—in context, it is clear that those whom the Gospel calls simply “the Jews” are the subject of the pronoun—“are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires” (NRSV). It is the same verse that Hitler’s mentor Dietrich Eckart, a fanatical anti-Semite who helped strategize the Nazi rise to power, approvingly cited. And, at least on a first reading and, admittedly, on a second and third as well, it is a verse that seems designed not merely to castigate Jewish actions but to condemn Jewish persons. The Christian New Testament scholar Richard Hays minces no words when describing the terrifying effects John 8:44 seems poised to unleash:
John makes a fateful theological step: from the empirical fact of the unbelief of the Jews, he infers an ontological dualism. The Jews who do not believe must be children of the devil…. One shudders to think of the ethical outworking of such a theological perspective on the Jews.
In the wake of the Pittsburgh shooting, one would have to be some sort of stoic not to shudder under the weight of Martyn’s question: “Did the Christian Scriptures themselves play a role in the persecutory shadow of the cathedral [in Heschel’s Warsaw]?”—and did the Christian Scriptures play a role in encouraging the gunfire that tore through a synagogue in twenty-first century America last week?