This is a continuation from my last post about why I write about religion, but from a slightly different angle. While it was mentioned in the press, and Cardinal Pell responded to criticism of his comments about the Jews, and about the dire suffering of the Germans (believe it or not!), it seemed to me worth thinking about for a few more minutes, at least. Something like this should not be allowed to slip quietly under the radar. When cardinals make anti-Jewish remarks — that is, Christian ones — it may seem like a slip of the tongue, but it goes much deeper than that. It’s a bit like when Margaret Somerville says, without any tongue in cheek, that the only reason people are concerned about assisted dying is the intense individualism of contemporary Western society. That, of course, is the flip side of the pope’s concern about relativism. Relativism happens when you don’t agree with the pope. Individualism is intense when individuals claim rights the church is not prepared to countenance.
However, to the point. The epigram in the title (“How odd of God to choose the Jews”) is attributed to William Norman Ewer (1885-1976), one time foreign affairs correspondent for the London Daily Herald. Doubtless in intent an anti-Jewish witticism, it was countered, according to Wikipedia, by equally witty replies:
Not odd of God. / Goyim annoy ‘im
– attributed to Leo Rosen. Or:
But not so odd
As those who choose
A Jewish God
Yet spurn the Jews
– written by either Cecil Brown or Ogden Nash.
Why this sudden burst of interest in anti-Jewish wit and repartee? Well, as I said above, simply because Cardinal Pell, in his debate with Richard Dawkins on Australia Broadcasting Corporation’s “Q & A” the other day, lapsed into some surprising antisemitisms of his own, without any apparent reason or justification. Apparently, this Prince of the Church has apologised, but this should not mean that he should be given a free pass just because he has made pro forma apology. What he said was said before a TV audience and a viewing audience of hundreds of thousands if not millions, and now it’s posted on Youtube for all to see and hear. It was clearly unrehearsed, and thus it would seem expressed a view readily accessible to memory, no doubt because not seldom repeated. And saying that Jesus was the greatest human being who ever lived doesn’t do a thing to qualify the harm, because, for Christians, Jesus was rejected by the Jews, who thereby took the blame upon themselves and upon their children and their children’s children. But couple these remarks about the Jews with his comments about the suffering of the Germans and you end up with the obvious fact that antisemitism is a deeply rooted part of his mental economy.
Let’s start with the cardinal on the Jews.
For someone who claims to follow a Saviour who was not only a Jew, but who claimed that the last shall be first, and the lowest shall be the highest of all, this is an astonishing betrayal of his own faith. Only something as deep-rooted as racism can explain this extraordinary burst of amour propre, this disturbing tendency turn Jesus upside down. Yes, of course, I know that the last shall be first is hard to square with being a “prince” of the church, but at least you’d think he’d pretend, just to encourage us to think that he was sincere.
Now, let’s hear the cardinal on the suffering of the Germans.
Given that it was the Germans who almost succeeded in exterminating the Jews of Europe by cruelty and mass murder, how was it possible for the cardinal — who in a few moments, explaining that Catholics do not of course hate homosexuals, will say that Christians love everybody – to express the view that no one suffered so terribly as the Germans? He assigns Hitler a place in hell, and while we may not want to consign the whole German people to hell as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen would have us do (see his Hitler’s Willing Executioners), it is hard to believe that Hitler was solely responsible for the Nazi state’s horrendous “final solution to the Jewish problem,” and the suffering and slaughter of so many innocent people, whose only offence was to have been born to Jewish parents. (It is arguably significant in this connexion that a large number of SS members were not only Catholics, but communicating Catholics. Does the cardinal’s concern for German suffering reflect the fact that the present pope grew up in the shadow of Nazism, in an Austria that had become part of the greater German Reich?) Christianity itself has never taken any responsibility for the Holocaust, and yet as Hitler correctly stated, he never did anything to the Jews that Martin Luther had not recommended.
It is worth considering that last point in some detail. In his treatise “On the Jews and their lies,” Luther demanded the following treatment be accorded to the Jews:
First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians. …
Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the same aims as in their synagogues. Instead they might be lodged under a roof or in a barn, like the gypsies. This will bring home to them the fact that they are not masters in our country, as they boast, but that they are living in exile and in captivity, as they incessantly wail and lament about us before God.
Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.
Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb. …
Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside, since they are not lords, officials, tradesmen, or the like. Let them stay at home. … For you, too, must not and cannot protect them unless you wish to become participants in an their abominations in the sight of God. …
Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping. … Such money should now be used in no other way than the following: Whenever a Jew is sincerely converted, he should be handed one hundred, two hundred, or three hundred florins, as personal circumstances may suggest. With this he could set himself up in some occupation for the support of his poor wife and children, and the maintenance of the old or feeble. For such evil gains are cursed if they are not put to use with God’s blessing in a good and worthy cause.
Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam (Gen. 3 [:19]). For it is not fitting that they should let us accursed Goyim toil in the sweat of our faces while they, the holy people, idle away their time behind the stove, feasting and farting., and on top of all, boasting blasphemously of their lordship over the Christians by means of our sweat. No, one should toss out these lazy rogues by the seat of their pants.
But if we are afraid that they might harm us or our wives, children, servants, cattle, etc., if they had to serve and work for us — for it is reasonable to assume that such noble lords of the world and venomous, bitter worms are not accustomed to working and would be very reluctant to humble themselves so deeply before the accursed Goyim — then let us emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., compute with them how much their usury has extorted from us, divide, divide this amicably, but then eject them forever from the country. For, as we have heard, God’s anger with them is so intense that gentle mercy will only tend to make them worse and worse, while sharp mercy will reform them but little. Therefore, in any case, away with them!
In view of this kind of deeply entrenched antisemitism, is it any wonder that Hitler’s Endlosung should have met with such favour and fervour amongst the German people during the period of Nazi rule? And is it any wonder that Cardinal Pell, notwithstanding his statement that he did not wish to offend Jewish sentiments, should have expressed himself in the way that he did? I am not at all surprised. What should surprise us is that someone like Martin Luther, capable of expressing such deadly prejudice against the Jews, should still be so highly regarded as a Christian reformer. Should someone express these views today, any other opinion that he might have would be instantly nullified. His status as a thinker of value and repute would be immediately and irremediably lost. Yet there are still Christian denominations that call themselves by his name!
The fact dawned on me late, perhaps somewhere in the mid-nineties. I was delivering my homily one Sunday morning, and I stopped, hesitated, fumbled some words, and realised, in a flash of recognition, that every time I used the Pharisees as a foil to Jesus’ sincerity — as the gospels do – I was actually using Christian antisemitism to make my point. In the gospels the Pharisee as hypocrite is the religious and moral background against which Jesus is presented and judged as transcendently superior to the Jews. In the Christian context the rejection of the Jews as legalistic and insincere and hyocritical is standard fare; very few recognise the antisemitism that it fed and still feeds. After his election and consecration as Bishop of Nova Scotia, the man who went on to become the primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, in his visitations throughout the diocese, used a sermon which was supposed to encourage Christians to see themselves as “living stones,” each person as part of the structure of the Church of God. It was based on this passage from the second chapter of the Letter of Peter:
Come to him [Jesus], a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture: “See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner [the keystone of the arch?],” and “A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. [NRSV]
Christians are those who have inherited the promises given first to the Jews. The Jews have stumbled and fallen, because of disobedience, and have lost their inheritance; and a new people, God’s own people, a holy nation, has arisen to take their place. I do not think that once, in all the times that Bishop Hiltz repeated his sermon, there was any recognition of the essential antisemitism of those words. And this continues as a normative part of Christianity.
Jews are dismissed daily, even now, as legalistic and insincere — and not, therefore, as living parts of a spiritual house – bound by laws that impose hypocrisy as a way of life. But no one takes note of it, for it seems that it is only first century Jews who are being dismissed, but that is only a paper thin disguise. For the Christian, Jesus is the moral standard in Christianity, and so the law-observant Jew is still the object of oprobrium. The New Testament text is riddled with this antisemitism — about this Goldhagen is unquestionably right. Even some nonbelievers, many of them Christian by upbringing, reflect some of the same values, since the qualification is often added that they do not mean to impugn the higher morality displayed by Jesus in the gospels. Seldom revealed is the fact that rabbinic Judaism, which had its origins around the time of Jesus, was a form of progressive, meticulously intellectualised religion, that displayed the very same kind of biblical revisionism and wit revealed in some of Jesus’ sayings, such as, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” The Talmud is full of such wisdom. Antisemitism is so deeply embedded in Christianity that it is often not noticed that simply separating Jesus from the Jews in the way that the New Testament does is a characteristic antisemitic move.
So, of course, the cardinal is antisemitic. It’s a part of his inheritance. It would be a mistake, however, to see this kind of intolerance as confined to Christianity. Religion itself is deeply compromised by its implicit intolerance. Faith itself is essentially intolerant, because, as Feuerbach said, “with faith is always associated the illusion that its case is the case of God, its honour his honour.” (quoted by Lüdemann, Intolerance and the Gospel, 22) No one who believes that his values are the same as his god’s can allow that the values of others are tolerable, let alone superior. Thus, for Islam, the Qu’ran and Sharia contain the blueprint for the perfect society. It may be, as Sadakat Kadri says in his book on Shariah law (Heaven on Earth: A Journey through Shari’a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World), that “Mortals can only fail when they play God.” (see the NYT review here) But that’s just the problem, isn’t it? If you play religion, then you end up playing God. That means that religion can only fail. That seems about right to me, and it was vividly on display in Cardinal Pell’s attempt to defend religion from its despisers.