Jews and Christians: a brief history of frequently contentious brothers

North Texas Catholic
(Nov 7, 2018) Feature

A makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

A young man reacts Oct. 29 at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. (CNS photo/Cathal McNaughton, Reuters) 

That’s not Christianity, we say. The Tree of Life killer had as part of his social media profile: “jews are the children of satan. (john 8:44) [sic].”

But looking at 2,000 years of Christian history, we must admit that the Jewish people have good reason to mistrust Christians. Even to fear us. We should be grateful to our Jewish friends for not holding our history against us, though they remain understandably very cautious.

A rabbi I knew in New York told me as we walked to the subway after a meeting that he loved his Christian friends. But that wasn’t the reason he spent so much time in Jewish-Christian groups. He spent so much time with Christians because he needed to know what was happening in the Christian world, because it could be good or bad for Jews.

Here’s just one horrifying story from our history. In the later Middle Ages, Catholics finally retook Spain from the Muslims. The new rulers gave Jews a choice of converting to Christianity or leaving the country. They defied Church teaching to do this. Most Jews converted because they couldn’t leave.

Things got worse. In later decades, these converts and their descendants were suspected of secretly continuing to practice Judaism and persecuted for that. The infamous Spanish Inquisition put many on trial and burned many at the stake. Christians killed Jews who did what Christians had forced them to do.

Christian history is filled with stories of Christians persecuting Jews or standing by silently while others did so. With some heroic exceptions, the Christians of 1930s Germany offer a famous example. Even in the Church today, we can still find old-fashioned anti-Semites. We can find even more soft anti-Semites, like the very nice Catholic woman who told me she thought Jews are “funny” and she didn’t like or trust them.

But standing against anti-Semitism is the Church’s teaching and enumerated in the many statements from her popes. It would be hard to find one thing more condemned in the last 50 or 60 years than anti-Semitism. No one is spoken of more warmly than our Jewish brothers and sisters. I can only give a very small selection of quotes here.

Back in 1938, Pope Pius XI declared the hatred of Jews “alien to us, a movement in which we Christians can have no part.” Then he said the often-quoted words: “Spiritually, we are Semites.” Pope Francis recently said the same thing: “Inside every Christian is a Jew."

At the Second Vatican Council, the Church declared her love for the Jewish people and their continuing place in God’s plan. The 1965 declaration “Nostra Aetate” denounced anti-Semitism and the idea — horribly popular even then — that the Jews can be blamed for Jesus’ death.

Pope St. John Paul II famously called the Jews our “elder brothers.” He also spoke of “our common spiritual inheritance.” We share “faith in a single God, one, good, and merciful, who loves men and leads them to love Him, the master of history and of the destiny of mankind, who is our Father and who chose Israel, the cultivated olive-tree onto which has been grafted the wild-olive branch of the gentiles.”

Pope Benedict XVI told French Jewish leaders that the Church “respects the children of the Promise, the children of the Covenant, as her beloved brothers and sisters in the faith.” He has thought as carefully as anyone about the relation of Jews and Christians.

There are still stresses, because Christianity claims to develop Judaism in ways Jews don’t accept. They believe Christian teaching can express a threat to their existence as a faith and as a people. They see how many people, including self-confessed Christians, distrust or hate them. And the theological issues are difficult and delicate.

That creates the calling. “Dear friends,” Benedict said to the French Jews, “because of that which unites us and that which separates us, we share a relationship that should be strengthened and lived. And we know that these fraternal bonds constitute a continual invitation to know and to respect one another better.”

Francis said “I believe that interreligious dialogue must investigate the Jewish roots of Christianity and the Christian flowering of Judaism. I understand it is a challenge, a hot potato, but it is possible to live as brothers.”


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