Christians, Jews and faith today
It may seem the ancient rift between Jews and Christians has largely been healed. Reform Jews and mainline pastors gladly trade pulpits and attend social justice rallies together, while Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians work together to fund the settlements of Israel. Each alliance has its strengths and weaknesses. But Christians still carry the moral imperative to “never forget.”
We must continue to name publicly the savage slaughter of millions of Jewish people in Europe under the National Socialist Regime in Germany in the name of patriotism, family and moral values—a climate uncannily similar to our contemporary culture of fear. Who is to say the pendulum of religious hatred is not about to swing again? After centuries of violence visited on Jewish people in the name of avenging Jesus, and particularly after the inexplicable tragedy of the Shoah (“the burning,” the name that the Jewish people give to the Holocaust during World War II because a holocaust is a burnt offering to God, and this was no divine offering), Christians owe it to Jews—and to Jesus—to get our relationship straight. Not only our relationship to Jews, our spiritual siblings, and Muslims, our spiritual cousins, but to people of all religious and faith traditions—Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans and “spiritual but not religious” people—who are no longer strangers but live in our neighborhoods as well as around the globe.
In Acts 5, somebody is clearly concerned about this whole new Jesus thing, this radical doomsday cult that claims its founder was raised from the dead, these socialist hippies who pooled all their money and gave it to the poor, these threatening subversives who are so unafraid of political and religious power that they break out of jail and keep saying what they have to say. Who is this somebody? It’s certainly not the entire Jewish people; verses 12-16 say that great numbers of men and women came to believe in the Lord, those from Jerusalem and from the towns around it, responding positively to Jesus’ message.
Verses 17 and 18 go on to tell us who’s really freaked out by this mass popularity among the crowds: “Then the high priest took action; he and all who were with him (that is, the sect of the Sadducees), being filled with jealousy, arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison.” The Sadducees appear regularly in the Gospels, the radically conservative old guard in charge of the temple sacrifices. It was this group of religiously and politically powerful conservatives who found the new Jesus movement dangerous: for its blasphemous claim to resurrection (the Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection at all), for its attention to healing in violation of established moral laws, and most of all for its attraction to the outcasts and the poor.
It is their leader, the high priest himself, who brings Peter and the other apostles into the highest of high courts. The high priest’s statement contains two layers. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” the political layer, the clampdown on a mass movement that could control the headlock they have on religious expression. “And you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us,” the second layer, the fear of violent reprisal—one proven true unfortunately, if “us” is understood as the Jewish people. Even Martin Luther castigated the Jews as Christ-killers and oath-breakers, and this violence continues today.
Examine, however, Peter’s response: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”
The “us” the high priest refers to, and the “you” Peter refers to when he says “you killed by hanging him on a tree,” means the powers of the day, those forces more concerned about following the rules and maintaining the old customs than encountering the living God. It was those powers, the ones threatened by the upside-down Carnival parade that had marched into Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday such a short time earlier, that reacted with what they thought was the ultimate trump card at their disposal—the power of punishment and death, the “hanging on a tree” that was the ultimate curse of God according to Deuteronomy. It was not the Jews who killed Jesus any more than it was the Romans or any other ethnic or religious group.
Interestingly, it is the God of the Hebrew Scriptures that gives an answer to these powers of death. In the following passage, Acts 5:33-39, Gamaliel, a respected teacher (named later as the teacher of Paul), makes a striking argument. He says (I paraphrase here respectfully), “Look, gentlemen, think carefully before you punish or exclude people for their religious beliefs. There have been a lot of fanatics who rose up and got people to follow their crazy revolutionary schemes, and their followers all scattered after their leaders were killed.” (Those who led by the sword died by the sword, in other words.)
Quoting directly: “So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”
This religious and political leader, well steeped in Scripture, prayer and the history of his Jewish people, says to his fellow religious leaders and believers, “It’s not up to us to decide who is in and who is out, who is right and who is wrong. It’s up to God, and God will make happen what he will in the end, because we believe in a God of mercy and justice and steadfast faithfulness. It’s not up to humans but to God.” The Sadducees’ response to the new Jesus movement came out of fear and jealousy; Gamaliel’s came out of his faith. It is that response—to leave the judgment up to God—that shows true faithfulness to God and can show our true Christian faith today.
The challenge of our response to the Jewish people of our day, and to other religions as well—or to no religion at all—is the challenge of Christ to pick up our own crosses and preach the gospel of love. We can be like the Sadducees, sticking stubbornly to our Scriptures and looking for what is “true,” convincing ourselves that as long as we check off the right things we believe that we are being faithful people. We can also throw our faith to the winds, being seduced by the way things seem to be, wanting to hang on to our cushy jobs and our secure traditions, not wanting to rock the boat in case somebody gets upset at us. We can give up because we are discouraged by other Christian people who don’t see their faith the same as we do, or because sometimes it just doesn’t feel right to call ourselves Christian anymore. Or, most authentically, we can live the truth of our faith, like Gamaliel lived his, like the apostles lived theirs, like Jesus exhibited for all of us.
We all know examples of seeing God in people of other traditions and other faiths. Famous ones like Mahatma Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama, or not-so-famous ones like our devout Hindu neighbor, our Jewish co-worker working for social justice, or our atheist friend who marches for peace with us in rain or shine. Our experience and consciousness of value in other people and religious traditions should cause us to hold our convictions firmly but humbly.
As John Howard Yoder said, it is impossible for human beings to find some objective ground from which to judge the truth of any particular religious tradition. Our faith is chosen, but it is chosen in a limited space. By experiencing our faith as our conscious response to God working in our lives, we can proclaim Jesus Christ, who has healed our lives with new truth, who leads us to rejoice in the house of God and still have ears to hear the paths of healing and joy that others have trod.
Jeremy Garber attends Boulder (Colo.) Mennonite Church. This article is adapted from a sermon first given at Mountain Community Mennonite Church in Palmer Lake, Colo., on April 15, 2007.