Facing Anti-Semitism

Apology, yes; apostasy, no

In the January 21 issue of the New Republic, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners (Knopf), offered a sizable chunk of his new book, A Moral Reckoning: The Catholic Church during the Holocaust and Today. While I agree with those who think the Catholic and other Christian churches were more often than not cowardly, if not complicit, during the Nazi era, the Goldhagen piece is selective in its marshaling of the facts, and bigoted in its presentation. Goldhagen, for example, says that the church of Pius XII was "an institutional culture centrally animated by the notion that all Jews were Christ-killers and responsible for many of the perceived evils of modernity." He likes things central: he says that "the disparagement of the Jews became central to Christianity." Vicious as Christian anti-Semitism often was, it was hardly central. At another point he calls the parable of the Good Samaritan an assertion of the superiority of Christian morality over Jewish morality. I had never noticed that the Samaritan was Christian-Goldhagen is, at least, a novel exegete. In discussing the canonization of Edith Stein, he writes, "The Germans killed her not because she was Catholic or a nun, which they deemed irrelevant, but because she had been born a Jew. So the church has sent her on the path to sainthood under the false pretext that she was a Holocaust martyr to her faith." He seems to expect the church to accept the German reasoning in this case.

Goldhagen predictably offers James Carroll as his kind of Catholic. In Constantine’s Sword (Houghton Mifflin), Carroll suggests that the cross itself is a problem, and that it became an important symbol in Christianity only after Constantine made it so. While it is true that the cross was not a major part of the earliest Christian iconography-there are relatively few early images other than the good shepherd and the Greek pun present in the symbol of the fish-the cross was central to Christian theology from the start, and not primarily as a sign of what the Jews had done to Jesus, as Carroll and Goldhagen suggest.

The whole controversy and the replies it generated in the New Republic (Andrew Sullivan took issue with Goldhagen in the January 28 issue, and was in turn challenged in the February 4 issue by Leon Wieseltier) suggest some of the difficulties that surface at various points in what, in this instance, cannot really be called the Christian-Jewish dialogue. It is unfortunate, because in so many ways that dialogue has gone well, with all its hitches. There is certainly more Christian respect for Jews than there was before the progress made by the ecumenical movement and after Vatican II. At times, though, the progress is made in ways that are really not progress.

I am thinking of the tendency of some Christians to be so apologetic for the Christian claims that they effectively rescind them and move toward a view of religion that is relativistic in a way Christianity never has been. A Christianity without the cross is a Christianity without the resurrection, which is not Christianity; but this is what some relativists want: a Christianity reduced to some inspiring stories about a man who was admirable, something like a Jewish Gandhi.

Nor is it Christian to imply that Christianity may be good for Christians, but that other people have equally valid paths to salvation. We must assert that, while the seeds of the Word can be found in many religious paths-and so can authentically holy men and women-the fullness of God’s relationship to the world is revealed in Jesus. This is not a new teaching; it can be found early on, in Saint Justin.

Goldhagen-and Carroll-object to "supersessionism," the belief that Christianity is the fulfillment of what is looked for in the Old Testament. Christianity is not only necessarily supersessionist in this regard; it also asserts that Christ is the fulfillment of what Buddhists and Hindus and Taoists seek.

This is not to say that nothing can be learned from other traditions, or that proselytization should replace true dialogue. I have long believed that Buddhism (to take one example) offers a serious challenge to an idea of the self that is widely held by Christians, one that must be dealt with honestly. And the claim of the divinity of Jesus, which is so offensive to Jews and Muslims, is truly scandalous. If we are wrong about it, we are truly blaspheming the Lord of Hosts. It should shock us more than it does. At the same time, it seems to me that Christianity comes down to what we see in the earliest Christian writings, the letters of Paul. Either Paul was crazy, or he was not. If what he says is true, it changes everything, for everyone. Without in any way arguing that the Christian churches have not often contradicted the gospel it was their duty to preach, especially in their persecution of those who (Paul makes clear in Romans) are still the chosen people, this is what we must say to the world if we are not to betray what we have been given.  

Published in the 2002-03-08 issue: 

John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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