By Donna Tourneur
One of the most insightful and hopeful comments I’ve heard lately came from the mouth of a 14-year-old. In the middle of a conversation about things the church had done wrong, she said, “I don’t think we can ever be careful enough with our words about racism.” I whole heartedly agree. It is an exercise in humility and faithfulness to examine our history as a Christian church with a critical eye. Often, however, we assume an attitude of superiority that is not of Christ.
As we begin to prepare liturgies and services for Holy Week, I am reminded of our particular need to be careful with our words. Everything from the Gospel passages around the passion story to the hymns we sing are laden with several layers of history and interpretation. At the very least, they should be accompanied by words of introduction and explanation.
The United Church Study Document entitled “Bearing Faithful Witness” (available to download from the United Church of Canada website) describes the record of the passion story as telling one side of a family feud. We often forget that Jesus and all the apostles were Jewish. When the Gospel writers make reference to “the Jews,” it sounds to the untrained ear, as a reference to a group of people apart from themselves. The first followers of Jesus, and the early church as it developed, began as a movement within Judaism, with supporters and opponents. The movement grew to include those outside of Israel, and Christians eventually separated from the synagogue. After the destruction of the temple, around the year 70 of the Common Era, the Gospel stories were recorded. It became important to those who experienced Jesus’ crucifixion, and his continued presence among them, to leave an account for future generations. Thus, Christianity became an independent religion, apart from the synagogue but deeply rooted in Judaism.
This Good News would live for future generations as recorded, but the bias and experience of the individual communities and Gospel writers left its mark on each of the interpretations. Unfortunately, history has not remembered all sides of this family feud, and we are guilty, especially in light of the Shoah, of wrongful interpretations of these writings. We know this, and all Christian churches recognize the great wrong done to the Jewish nation in the horror of the Second World War. Yet, often we overlook the impact of our Holy Week liturgies and hymns in our modern day understanding and interpretation of the passion stories. As we remember the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection from a Christian perspective, it is important to remember that Christianity does not negate Judaism; indeed we have a shared story.
In “Appendix D” of Bearing Faithful Witness, Prof. Alan Davies reflects that antisemitism is not prejudice, but rather a “complex negative myth that took a long time to develop in the West.” A myth, writes Davies, is a story or fable, either good or bad, about the great stories of human existence. Myths have cosmic implications; they are about life yet they are larger than life.
In remembering and telling our story of faith, we run the risk of perpetuating a myth about Judaism. Modern day faithfulness calls us to begin the process of myth busting. Hear the warning from our 14-year-old… we can never be too careful… with our words…. The Good News points to our calling as followers of Jesus to do what is right, stand up for injustice, love our neighbour, and for Christ’s sake live within the God of Love.
Rev. Donna Tourneur is sharing ministry with the people of Trinity United Church in New Glasgow.