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Thistlethwaite: A Christmas without antisemitism

It is the Christian season of Advent, the time of preparation for the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish baby boy.

Christians worship Jesus as divine. It is deeply disturbing, therefore, that when billions of Christians prepare to be thankful for the coming into the world of a Jewish baby boy, antisemitism is once again rising around the world, including in the United States.

Let me be very clear. I believe hatred of Jews, the very definition of antisemitism, is hatred of Jesus himself, a Jew who never abandoned his religion.

This is a very good liturgical season for Christians to deliberately, even worshipfully, reject the rising tide of antisemitism that threatens to drown the gains we have made as a democracy in dangerous intolerance.

From neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” to Donald Trump recently dining with rapper Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, who has been criticized for antisemitic remarks, and notorious white supremacist and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes, antisemitism is rising as a staple for right-wing hate groups. And these right-wing groups don’t have to look far for religious support for their hateful views. They can easily find plenty of material in Christian history.

Jesus the Jew never renounced his religion, and yet, once “Rome became Christian, Jews everywhere in all generations were blamed for the death of Christ,” writes Dr. Paula Fredriksen, Aurelio Professor of Scripture emerita at Boston University and Distinguished Visiting Professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Some twelve hundred years later, Martin Luther weaponized Christianity’s anti-Jewish hate speech against the pope — and mainstreamed it once again. The 19th century introduced the pseudo-science of “race.” And if current events are any indication, antisemitism, even after the 20th century’s atrocities, continues evergreen — racism reinforced by long theological tradition.

And now antisemitism is rising again.

Many Jewish friends sent me Dana Milbank’s Washington Post column “American Jews start to think the unthinkable,” which lifted up a sermon by his rabbi that included a quotation from the Jewish scholar Michael Holzman: “For American Jews, the disappearance of liberal democracy would be a disaster … We have flourished under the shelter of the principles behind the First Amendment, and we have been protected by the absolute belief in the rule of law. Without these, Jews, start packing suitcases.”

Is this the America you want? I know I don’t.

There is no way forward on rejecting a rising antisemitism without Christians being honest with themselves about the murderous effects of anti-Judaism in their religion and rejecting it root, vine and branch.

Part of digging up the roots of antisemitism is to take a hard look at how Christianity developed over the centuries with a craving to create “others,” the outsider who can never be a saint but must always be a sinner. This is, of course, a source for the deeply racist strain in Christianity that blessed the enslavement of millions of African people in the most horrific conditions. It is the root of homophobia, the sexual marginalizing of certain people, misogyny, the hatred of women, and it is certainly a big part of the demonizing of Islam.

Jesus the rabbi (teacher) loved all as he came upon them from the hated tax collector to the woman who was a sexual outsider to the racial other who was a Samaritan to the centurions who nailed him to a cross and many more.

Some dismiss today’s rising antisemitism as merely a rejection of the treatment of the Palestinians by Israel. Israel is a nation-state, and its politics can certainly be roundly critiqued. Israelis do it all the time. Those political differences are no excuse for the virulent hatred of Jews as a people.

As you pass the nativity scenes on the lawns of churches or homes, remember that the baby, his mother and father, and the shepherds were all Jews. The wise men from the “East,” according to later Christian tradition, were kings from Arabia or Ethiopia, Persia and India representing the world’s races and religions.

The core message is clear: every race and religion, every human being is sacred and valued.

Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is president emerita and professor emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary. She and her husband now make their home in the Vail Valley.

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