By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson
World leaders gathered for a ceremony at the former concentration camp and human extermination center Auschwitz on Monday, Jan. 27. They came to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of this Nazi German death camp in Poland in 1945, five years after it opened.
More than 1 million people were killed in gas chambers and by other means at Auschwitz, the vast majority of them Jews. It was the largest of more than a thousand such camps in Nazi-held areas of Europe.
In total, the Nazi campaign to eradicate Jews from Europe claimed more than 6 million Jewish lives before and during World War II.
The hatred of Jews was a passion of German leader Adolph Hitler, who blamed them for the economic depression in Germany at the time. He persecuted them for being different than other German in culture, heritage, faith and appearance. And he held them responsible for the death of Jesus.
Anti-Semitism was around long before Hitler, however, and streams of it continue today. The recent stabbing attack on a group of Jewish people gathered in a home in New York, and the many shootings in synagogues in recent years reminds us that violent anti-Semitism is still rampant and sadly increasing at an alarming rate. The New York Times cites that in New York alone hate crimes against Jewish people are up by 23 percent in the past year.
As Christians we need to speak out against this terrorist trend and be quick to challenge racial slurs and all forms of discrimination and violence. Christians need to be careful not to blame Jews for the death of Jesus during Lent and Holy Week.
Be vigilant in your preaching and teaching as you work on the passages where Jesus is in conflict with the Pharisees of his day. The context is different back then, but it can create current ripples of distrust and hated if we don’t make the distinction.
Long ago I ran a deaf camp for children at a United Methodist Camp in Annapolis, Md. This camp continued for the 20 years I served that community, and attendance increased every year as families appreciated the programming.
I made it clear that we did have Bible studies but that children of other faith communities were not forced to attend our classes. They would be provided other activities if they chose not to participate.
One Jewish family sent their bright, capable deaf daughter to my camp and she insisted on coming to the Bible classes. I was teaching the parables of Jesus and thought these would be safe topics. The parable of the Good Samaritan was particularly fun to teach because we used drama and costumes to act out the story. All the children wanted to be the robbers and the donkey. I thought it went well.
I was surprised and horrified when the Jewish girl ran up to her father when parents were picking up their campers and exclaimed in very clear signs “Peggy is Anti-Semitic.” I rushed over and inquired further. I could not believe what I was seeing.
The child explained that when I taught the Good Samaritan parable I signed “The Jewish priest and temple helper (scribe) would not help the hurt man.” According to her that made the Jewish people look bad. I was totally clueless and had never looked at things that way before. I apologized profusely to the family but we never saw them again or their friends.
All this is to say: watch how you talk about people. Casting Jewish people in a negative light, especially as a part of our Biblical narrative, can help spread contemporary hatred, bias and discrimination against them and sadly, dangerous consequences, too.
Use your words instead to speak out against the sin of anti-Semitism and racism. Our words have power to hurt and to heal, to cast dispersions or to create community and grace.
Colossians 4:8 reminds us “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Speak with the salt of zest, preservation and healing.