Once upon a time, believing Christians could begin their observance of Holy Week with a spirit of detached consolation. Reliving the last days of Jesus Christ through liturgy, Scripture reading, and meditation could open into a hopeful realm apart, for these were days when the great mystery of the faith was meant to show itself: not that Almighty God wills suffering, much less causes it, but that, in Jesus, God joins us in it. Suffering is not thereby removed, but it is given meaning. The Passion brings forward compassion, which means in its root “to suffer with.” Humans, in their worst hours, are not alone.
But that was before the great 20th century interruption. The narrative of the death of Jesus can no longer be read, heard, or reenacted with such innocence. The wicked irony of Holy Week must now be acknowledged: Intended to transform suffering, these observances became, down through the ages, a transcendent source of suffering. The drama of God’s love became an immorality tale of hate.
“Let his blood be upon us and upon our children,” the Gospel of Matthew has the Jewish crowd cry out, forcing an apparently benign Pontius Pilate to murder Jesus.
Almost from then on, “the Jews,” as the Gospel refrain refers to them, were despised as “Christ-killers.” Just because this malign dynamic is well known does not mean it is finished with. It became, in effect, a bug in the software of Western Civilization, one that was finally laid bare by the great interruption — the Shoah.
Since then, Christians have sought to renounce the religious anti-Judaism that spawned the racial anti-Semitism that reached its climax in the Holocaust. Most notably, the igniting “Christ-killer” slander was repudiated by the Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council.
But this week, in churches across the globe, the Passion narrative will once again have the Jewish crowd forcing Pilate’s hand with a cry of blood thirst. From how many pulpits will Christian preachers preach that text against itself — insisting that the Gospels not be read as eye witness accounts; that the reported tension between Jesus and “the Jews” was not remotely what today’s Christians think it was; that Jesus, far from being against “the Jews,” was himself nothing but a Jew from start to finish? If that had not been forgotten, the history of the last two thousand years would be very different. All of this suggests that Christian preachers must insist that the Gospels, even taken to be the Word of God, are not innocent.
Because the post-World War II reconciliation of Jews and Christians has been so momentous, and so authentic, many people assume the problem of Holy Week anti-Jewishness is no longer urgent. How often are Jewish children harassed as Christ-killers any more?
Yet, tossing the barest glance at headlines today, who would claim that the moral software of Western culture has been fully and finally debugged?
Just as Europe was achieving its cohesive political, economic, and social unity, religious scorn for Judaism and for Jewish people served as a template for nascent European contempt for Islam and for Muslims. That positive-negative structure of mind — us against them — subsequently informed the attitudes and policies of European colonial powers, for whom an assumption of God-given racial superiority shaped encounters with indigenous peoples everywhere. Anti-Semitism is only part of the never-ending saga of unnecessary human suffering, yet, in the West, it is an essential part. That is why it must be more fully reckoned with still — a task belonging, especially this week, to Christians.
The misremembering of Jesus Christ did not cause all the world’s ills, any more than Christian anti-Judaism alone caused Hitler. But to read and hear the texts of Holy Week, with their relentless scapegoating of “the Jews,” is inevitably to confront the way in which a movement full of good intentions can go wrong. Wanting to alleviate suffering, the Jesus people compounded it. To reckon with that mystery is to confront a deeper one — that every human project can be complicit with the inflicting of hurt. If there is to be redemption, it begins in facing that.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.
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