Rector's Blog: Sibling Rivalry
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There are no wounds like family wounds. When families fight, the stakes are higher, the passions run hotter, the love, hate, resentment, and care all run deeper. This is the way of things. There is nothing quite like the pain we can inflict on someone when we belong to them and they belong to us. We see evidence of this kind of family discord in the Biblical portrayal of the relationship between the Samaritans and Jews. These enemies were not strangers. They both worshiped the God of Abraham. Their shared ancestry was found among the 12 tribes of Jacob.
Though sources differ on just when the split occurred, the Jews and the Samaritans came from the same family. Even the fact that there are different versions and understandings of the fracture sounds like family, doesn’t it? The Samaritans, like the Jews, were colonized and subjugated by the Romans, and just like their Jewish siblings, they were waiting for a messiah at the time of Jesus’ arrival. Knowing how close they were, how much they shared, how slight were their differences, their rivalry makes more sense to me – not less. Nobody can push your buttons like those to whom you are closest. The strength of their anger testifies to the depth of their connection.
The first Christians were Jews. I wrote about this last week, but it bears repeating, that the first Christians were in fact Jews that followed Jesus, who is Jewish.
And yet no group of people in the history of the world have been as destructive to Jews as Christians have. There’s no escaping this fact. Christians have othered and marginalized and oppressed and murdered Jews on a level that would horrify the Pharoah of Exodus – and we’ve done it in Jesus’ name.
Christians often use the Bible when we target Jews. We are able to do this because of the amount of polemical and extreme language in the New Testament pointed towards those Jews who rejected Jesus and denied the claims of his followers. Throughout various books, we have examples of painful and difficult language – perhaps most notably in the Gospel According to John, in which it seems Jesus’ main adversaries are “the Jews.” Anti-Jewish rhetoric is not exclusive to John however, and is found littered throughout Christian Scriptures.
As Christians, it makes sense for us to take issue with this language which has led to so much damage in Jesus’ name. And, in light of Jesus’ Jewishness, it makes sense for us to be frustrated and puzzled by the presence of words that can be weaponized against our Jewish siblings. And yet, as Christians, these are our Scriptures: We have a responsibility to at least try to make sense of them.
Which brings me back to the Samaritans. Because we reserve our strongest language and deepest frustration for those to whom we are the most deeply connected.
The New Testament is a collection of writings – letters, prophecies, and narratives – written by Jews. Some of the authors – such as those who wrote the four Gospels, and the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews – are anonymous. And sometimes they are writing to predominantly Gentile audiences. But their knowledge of and connection to Jewish practices, beliefs, culture, and Scriptures are so strong that it is difficult to ascribe authorship to any Gentile writer. Furthermore, they were all written in a time of great struggle between the Jews who believed in Jesus and the ones who didn’t.
The polemical language of the New Testament is not a Gentile Christian condemnation of Jews: it’s an inter-Jewish conflict. It’s a family fight. We are seeing the elevated passion and polemical language of a protracted and painful quarrel between people who belong to each other, deeply connected people who seek unity but are experiencing schism. The New Testament, for all its beauty and hope, is laced with the fevered sorrow of divorce, a fracture in God’s ancient covenantal family.
In those formative years, while Christianity still thought of itself as a branch of the olive tree Israel, something fateful took place. The Jews who followed Jesus – led primarily by the apostle Paul – began to intentionally convert Gentiles. They began to create Christian communities made up of Jews and Gentiles sharing life across historic cultural and religious boundaries. This was beautiful. But it had an unforeseen side effect. As Christianity spread among Gentiles, and the Christian faith began to be treated as separate and distinct from Judaism, Gentiles became the majority in this clearly Jewish religious expression. As time went on, Gentile Christians began to interpret the writings that became Christian Scriptures as if the Jew/Gentile split was already present at the time of their writing.
One marginalized Jew criticizing another marginalized Jew in the midst of a family fight is profoundly different from a Gentile belonging to the dominant culture criticizing a marginalized Jew. And yet the history of Christian interpretation of Scriptures is rife with just that: Gentiles seeing the Bible as God’s critique of Jews; Christians using the Bible to justify antisemitism.
This is a sin against our Jewish siblings and a crime against God. Antisemitism is evil in any context, but its frequency and acceptability in Christianity is particularly monstrous. It is a gross misunderstanding both of Jesus and of the writings seeking to proclaim his lordship that comprise our New Testament.
I believe in Jesus. I understand that as a Christian and a Gentile, I am not a Jew. I see the Bible as authoritative within the Christian community. And with all of this in mind, I have a responsibility to recognize and respect the innate and inextricable Jewishness of Jesus and the Bible.
This week we observed National Holocaust Remembrance Day. Any remembrance of the Jewish Holocaust must include an acknowledgement of the weaponization of Christian Scriptures against our Jewish siblings. Any real remembrance of the Jewish Holocaust requires awareness of the failure of Christians to live in love and charity with our Jewish neighbor. The dehumanization and genocide of Jewish people – as sanctioned by countless Christians – is not ancient history, and is not myth: it is real, it is recent, and there’s no reason for Jews to think it could never happen again.
Whenever Jesus encounters or mentions Samaritans in the Biblical narrative, the Samaritans are humanized, loved, elevated – their dignity defended and restored by Jesus. He knows Samaritans are distinct and separate from Jews. And he sees God in them. He sees their beauty and their belongingness. He pushes beyond the polemics of the sibling rivalry and he loves them as they are.
Christians, we have this example. We can see Jews as distinct and separate, and still recognize our shared history, our belongingness to one another. We can listen to our Jewish siblings and seek to understand. We can see God in them exactly as they are. And we can be honest about the ugliness and atrocity of which we are capable when we deny our fundamental connectedness and the human dignity of the Jews in our midst. On the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance, may we remember our Jewish roots, and may we honor them with all our hearts.
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