Moral Culpability and the Blameworthiness of the Christian Church

What is posted below is sort of a joining thread that runs through a few discussions that I've had explicitly on anti-semitism over the last four years, and several more that I have had on the failures of theories of group identity and morals in Christian theology. Hopefully this ties those two problems together nicely, as I think that the two are deeply connected.

I've been engaging with a few Christian friends about the illocutionary force of a post-Holocaust Christianity. The reality is that the condition of Jewish persons in Hitler's Germany was dictated in enormous part by the positions of the greater Christian Church in Europe, both Catholic and protestant. I've outlined the historical overview elsewhere. The point is not seriously disputed.

The question I want to raise is the moral culpability of the contemporary Church and that it should hold itself accountable for the instantiation of anti-semitism throughout Europe and United States during the period [up-and-through today, for that matter, as it still plays a role, though less exclusively]. The question that I've raised to Christian friends, and they give the answers I expect, is how one can take the moral authority of contemporary Church leaders and theologians seriously when the lineage that they explicitly identify with is actively complicit in the dehumanization and oppression of an entire ethnic groups.

Their point, which I think is well taken, is that a group cannot be held totally accountable for the behavior of its individual members. There is a sense in which I believe this a credible sentiment; there is a sense in which I don't.

The first sense is the one in which each individual action is meant to be seen as clearly distinct from group identity. That is to say, just because Brian stole a Snickers bar and goes to NYU does not mean that the whole body of persons at NYU is responsible for Brian's moral failure. The sense in which his failure is independent of his membership of the group, where he has to take ownership alone, is well established.

The second sense requires some explanation of the general moral theory of accountability of groups, because that's the only way to make sense of it.

I used to grant a sort of ethical particularism [that stemmed from my general libertarianism] where the moral value of the acts of an individual person were laid on the shoulders of that person alone, and only ever on a single actor, but the fact of the matter is that sometimes the moral acts of a particular person are not sensibly spoken of in their entirety without the recognition of moral complicity by a group. The example that jumps immediately to mind is the Nazis, but since we're lingering on anti-semitism for the bulk of this post, let us look somewhere else for a moment.

In the mass murders perpetrated by communist regimes throughout Asia during the 20th century, the sorts of crimes were not sensibly spoken of as perpetrated by individuals, despite the fact that there was a series of acts carried out by a group of individuals. Someone issues the command to an officer, the officer instructs the soldier to fire on the civilian, and any number of steps before, after, and in between. The reality is, though, that because the moral reprehensibility of the act is only established with the fulfillment of the necessary condition of each particular act, the culpability of the group as a moral body, an actor itself, is established. [Moreover, it is important the group self-identifies as such, as is the case with both communist revolutionaries and anti-semitic Christians.]

Now, this becomes much more complicated in the case of anti-semitism in Europe, because any particular case of anti-semitism is not a clear case of a necessary condition for the whole of the condition. However, the doctrines of the Church as widely practiced on the continent constitute a necessary condition for the state of anti-semitism as it persisted from the middle ages through the Holocaust.

Imagine the use of deicide as an explicit trope in the portrayal of the crucifixion, explicit and implicit rhetoric identifying the contemporary Jews with the pharisees of the Bible and the persecutors of many disciples and early Church fathers. Imagine discussion of Jews kidnapping and butchering Christian infants, poisoning town wells, and practicing sorcery and extortion and general criminality at the expense of the good Christian folk in the pews. This is the sort of thing to keep in mind.

The question is whether we ought to allow that moral identity to persist into the future, whether the accountability for the crimes of the past still exists. Obviously the Church and individual churches are responsible for many contemporary instances of anti-semitism. I heard them sitting in the pews when I went to visit evangelical campus ministries at Fresno State, and in visits to local churches; there needs to be accountability there. But should there be similar account for the incidents prior to the second world war?

The reason that I've cited in my argument with some Christian theists is that the Church itself, by virtue of most theologies, claims to have a contiguous identity. Why moral features of that identity should be exorcised seems the object of special pleading for those theologians to engage in. Frankly, I think it is inescapable, as the moral value of the Church as a whole matters a great deal in the explicit discussion of its status in the Christian cosmology described by Paul.

The purpose of the exercise, then, is for Christian theologians and leaders, acknowledging this alleged contiguity of identity, to acknowledge as well that there are severe moral imperfections in the history of the Church for which they ought to be held accountable by society as a whole and, given their theological view on repentance, ought to repent of.

To whom they ought to repent given this line of argumentation [whether God or Jewish persons] is a reasonable question. I think the best answer is both, but that's tangential at best.

Only once have I ever heard such an acknowledgement from a Christian [a wonderful woman named Francine], and it was in the context of a session on anti-semitism awareness, where I was invited to speak.

If there are other instances, I would love to hear them, or read them, or recognize them in whatever form they come, but the reality is that the ones we get are weak-assed. John Paul II publicly apologized in 2000, so it only took the Church nearly-six decades after the Shoah to get there, and then Benedict reinstated a Bishop who claims that the Holocaust is part of a global Jewish conspiracy to manipulate historical consciousness. So there's certainly a mixed message there, though I do think that John Paul II was headed in the proper direction, clearly the current head of the Catholic contingent of the Christian Church does not agree.

The protestants claim that because of the disparity in the groups throughout Christian history, they cannot be held accountable as a particular group. For the reasons above, hopefully it will become clear why this is obviously wrong. If not, let's hammer that nail down a bit harder.

Given that the Church regards the identity of professing Christians as something that should be taken morally seriously, and that we should consider the acts of the apostles as something of theological and moral significance, or the writings and acts of Paul, we ought to expect that subsequent instances of Church groups which behaved morally reprehensibly should not be exorcised from the moral standing or social consciousness of the group.

The historical appropriation of Christian historical and theological teachings for either the explicit or incidental purpose of fomenting anti-semitism ought to be a part of the historical consciousness and moral identity of "the body of the Church" and something explicitly addressed in a time when individual churches and individuals within the Church are continuing to wrestle with anti-semitism as an issue. But, of course, for many preachers the issue remains one where the question of their own culpability is treated as irrelevant and the importance of their own action on the subject is not taken seriously.

There are many reasons, I think, why contemporary leaders in various churches, and many who claim to be theologians associated with or independent from a church, should not be taken intellectually seriously. This is not one of them. This, rather, is a reason why they ought not to be taken morally seriously.

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  • 9/25/2012 1:01 AM Mackman wrote:
    Antisemitism is an ugly fact of church history, and I, for one, would not hesitate to apologize on behalf of the Church as a whole, and I know that many of my friends would be there right beside me.

    I would say that much reluctance to take responsibility likely stems from ignorance about how bad it actually was: This is no excuse, but I think it must be noted that such ignorance does not, in and of itself, constitute antisemitism. Before I went to college, I did not know what the church had done: When I learned about it, I was horrified.

    That is clearly something the Church needs to do better. We should better learn where the Church has stumbled, so that we can help to explicitly and purposely put it right, where we can.

    I do want to say one thing: These anti-Semites were clearly acting in an UN-Christian manner. It was morally and theologically inconsistent with Christianity, and the fact that it achieved official support from the leaders of the church does not erase that fact (such inconsistency is easily seen even in Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice").

    I find antisemitism laughable in theory (as something utterly without basis) and horrifying and disgusting in practice. I would truly question the Christianity of anyone who didn't share that view.

    But to end: I am sorry. I am sorry the Church was used by evil people to bring pain and suffering on the Jewish people. I am sorry the Church tries to forget about it and allows ignorance to flourish, rather than teaching us how to right the wrongs we have committed. I am sorry that we still allow agents of hate to use our name to further harm the Jewish people.

    I am so, so sorry.
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    1. 9/25/2012 2:44 AM SamMunson wrote:
      Unfortunately it is not the case that anti-semitransparent is "un-Christian". Even in the Gospel of Matthew the deicide charge is leveled at the Jewish people and viscerally stated as "blood on their hands". This is not and interpretive problem. There is a problem with the text clearly.
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      1. 9/25/2012 2:48 AM SamMunson wrote:
        Sorry *that anti semitism is apparently "un-Christian"
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      2. 9/25/2012 9:36 AM Mackman wrote:
        I'm sorry, but that is simply not true.

        Matthew takes great pains to establish that not only is Jesus Jewish himself, he is extremely Jewish: The very first verse identified him as "the son of David, the son of Abraham." The genealogy Matthew provides is a Jewish genealogy, meant to convey significance to its Jewish readers.

        In Matthew, Jesus is the Jewish Messiah of the Jewish people in particular. His birth comes as the fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures (1:25, 2:6, etc.), as does his entrance to Jerusalem (21:5).

        Jesus associates himself with David (22:4), laments over Jerusalem (23:37), and quotes Jewish scripture as he is on the cross (27:46).

        Matthew may have been against the Jewish leaders of his particular time and place: But to say that the Gospel as a whole is anti-Semitic is, quite frankly, absurd. It is a gospel written FOR Jews, BY a Jew, and it inseparably links Christ to the Jewish people.
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        1. 9/25/2012 11:25 AM SamMunson wrote:
          My research on Matthew has lead me to really believe that the author was probably trained in Jewish Law. There is such a thing as an anti-Semitic Jew. Usually they are self-loathing. Many bible scholars would characterize Matthew as anti-semitic in addition to being the "Most Jewish" of the Gospels. The charges of deicide are really quite prevalent, and in that charge, against the Jewish as a people, the Gospel disavows it's Jewish identity.
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          1. 9/25/2012 12:03 PM Mackman wrote:
            If you're going to call Matthew antisemitic, you may as well go ahead and throw Isaiah and Hosea in there as well. All of these say extremely negative things about the Jewish people. Are they then antisemitic as well? When God says that Israel is a whore in Hosea, is He being antisemitic? In Isaiah, when God accuses Israel of being a "sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers," is he being antisemitic?

            Matthew says negative things about particular Jews, specifically the pharisees and their sect of Judaism. But for the writer of Matthew, to be antisemitic would be the same as being anti-Jesus: Jesus is an extremely Jewish Jew, who came to fulfill the Law, not abolish it.

            To say negative things about certain Jews is not the same as being antisemitic. If Matthew wishes so much to disavow his Jewish identity, why does he spend so much time setting up Jesus' identity as the Jew who has come to save the Jews according to Jewish scripture?
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            1. 9/25/2012 2:31 PM SamMunson wrote:
              It's not my fault if you equivocate Israel with Jewishness. What's clear is that is not the case. Israel is a geographical space biblicaly, not a people. The condemnation for Jesus's death is not on a particular group but a people. Israel contained gentiles in addition to Jews. That means that the conversation happening in the old-testament is a non-sequitor relative to Matthew.

              Here is a particularly troubling passage in the narrative:
              "When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. 'I am innocent of this man’s blood,' he said. 'It is your responsibility!' All the people answered, 'His blood is on us and on our children!' "-Matthew 27:24-25

              This a particularly ugly deicide indictment that Matthew purports, comes from the mouths of the people in Jerusalem. This is a clear generational condemnation of a people not a observation about the general population of a geographical space.
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              1. 9/25/2012 2:49 PM Mackman wrote:
                Really? God is clearly speaking to the Jews in Hosea and Isaiah. God doesn't have a covenant with Gentiles, but with Jews: That's what it means to BE a Jew in that time. When God says "Israel," he is speaking to the Children of Israel, the Jews. You might as well say that when Jesus addresses Jerusalem, he's talking to a city, not the people in it.

                As for the deicide: Matthew makes it clear that it was the result of a very specific group of people: The chief priests and elders. If Matthew truly wished to convey an anti-Jewish sentiment, would he not have insisted that it came about naturally, without any manipulation or goading on the part of the leaders?

                This is my last post to you: Matthew goes out of his way to explicitly and inseparably link Christ to the Jewish people. This was an intentional decision on his part: Jesus is a descendant of Abraham and David who comes to the Jewish people from a Jewish family, serving the Jewish God and fulfilling Jewish prophecy.

                All of this is explicit in Matthew, and it makes NO SENSE if Matthew's goal is to disown the Jewish people.

                To see all of this evidence and still insist that it is an antisemitic work means that you are not interested in evidence, but merely upholding a preconceived notion.
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                1. 9/25/2012 3:36 PM SamMunson wrote:
                  I don't have nearly enough knowledge about the way Israel is used in Hosea and Isaiah. So I'll drop that point on the grounds I can't really debate across the Old Testament...yet.

                  Pilate is NOT talking to a "specific group of people" My understanding of the situation is that the people gathered are demographically synagogue-goers and the Jewish population of Jerusalem who is interested in the Messiah claim...

                  The Messiah claim is in itself difficult to understand from a perspective outside of a framework of prophecy. That claim links Jesus to the Jewish people. His Jewishness is necessary for him to be the Messiah.

                  The problem I am stating with the baptism information is that the historical reading has been that the Jewish people were responsible for Jesus's death in accordance with the Pilate quote. That is just a fact.

                  As for your charge that I have "made up scripture": I never stated that I was quoting verse, but going by implication. I didn't represent that the book of Matthew invented this concept, but that is how it was read. There is clearly a statement here. The blood is on the hands of a large-majority Jewish-population. This had serious implications in the medieval. I meant no harm by my reading...It's just one of the readings. My particular reading has lead to horrible atrocities against the Jewish people (not limited to crimes in the Crusades), but that does not invalidate it as a reading, it problematizes those who accept it as an accurate characterization.

                  I think the blogpost demands that you do what you are doing right now and rejecting that reading as anti-semitic, but that reading doesn't evaporate with time. The reading is a direct result of the text and the uncertainty about the reading. It is still disputed whether the Pilate passage is anti-semitism or not. The way in which Matthew describes Jewish law gives me the impression that it is. I respect and acknowledge your reading and for 18 years of my life I understood it from the same perspective you do, but time has changed my understanding of moral atrocities (and there genesis) and this reading does not go away. It persists because there is something there.
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            2. 9/25/2012 2:47 PM SamMunson wrote:
              Additionally, the quoting of Jewish law is clearly an attempt to reinforce the Messiah claim. This is the thing Matthew by implication condemns Jews that refuse to convert to the Church. The only way, for Matthew, that you can wash yourself of the blood is the anointing through baptism. There is this staining that happens in the verses I mentioned. This is the culmination of the Book of Matthew. It demands that the Jews repent for killing the Messiah. That is abundantly clear.
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              1. 9/25/2012 2:55 PM Mackman wrote:
                You're flat-out pulling the statement about baptism washing them clean of the blood out of thin air. Are you serious?

                Were you just hoping I wouldn't take the time to turn to Matthew and read it? There is no staining mentioned, no need to wash it through baptism.

                But let's just say that maybe it is. In that case, the WHOLE WORLD is guilty, because that's who Christ sends them out to baptize.

                This was a freebie: I'm done now. You're outright fabricating scripture for your own gain, and that's uncool, dude.
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    2. 9/25/2012 9:37 AM Joshua Stein wrote:
      While I will say that I agree with Sam's express concern that it is not as incompatible with Christian thought and theology as you might think, and that you take seriously the idea that it is a part of early Church doctrine as well, given the discussions of non-Christian Jews that exist in Paul [and discussion of pharisees, who are more-or-less direct spiritual ancestors of contemporary rabbinic Jews]. I appreciate the comment, and I think the appreciation ought to be emphasized first and foremost.

      However, I think that given the acknowledgement that you make of large scale ignorance in the Church, the question needs to be asked: What is your role as a member of the Church community in holding the leadership and community as a whole responsible for their ignorance, and how is this best rectified?

      The post is largely polemical, to try to instantiate an acknowledgement of the problem, but I really don't want it to terminate with acknowledgement and apology by those who read the post. Rather, the goal is that this start a discussion that churches really need to have, so that they can understand the history and feel the need to do something about extant instances of anti-semitism, and understand the historical scope and scale in such a way that it has some weight on the collective conscience.
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      1. 9/25/2012 9:56 AM Mackman wrote:
        I will do what I can. I write for a larger blog besides my own, and as soon as I read your post I began planning a post on that site to open up discussion about it.

        That said, I have to ask: What extant instances of antisemitism do you have in mind? And what do you mean, "weight on the collective conscience?" The Church is (unfortunately) fractured, and the Evangelical community especially lacks any sort of official leadership.

        However, I will do what I can. I will direct others here, and I will write about it myself.
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      2. 9/25/2012 10:16 AM Joshua Stein wrote:
        At the risk of oversharing the contents of a future post or series of posts that I think are valuable, I have in mind two very common problems. The first are uses of what I would call "traditional" [and stupid] interpretations of [Trito] Paul's view of Jew-gentile distinction and a theological condemnation of pharisees in particular, which is often seen as holding a contiguous identity with contemporary Jews by both church leaders and laypeople.

        The second is the general understanding of a sort of "pop"-anti-semitism, which includes conspiratorial understandings of a nefarious Jewish role in political affairs. [I strongly recommend the subsections of the history I like to at the top of the post that deal with weak and strong ZOG to get a sense of what I'm concerned about; particularly weak ZOG.]

        Those are the two worst offenders in the contemporary Church, and they're both pretty bad.

        The individual Evangelical communities have formal leadership, and that leadership is often the absolute worst I've encountered on this issue, short of actual white supremacists; that sounds harsh, but it is true. The one thing that the Evangelical community does have is a sort of open acknowledgement that pastors will criticize each other for errant teaching, and that is one of the things that is shamefully underemployed in this issue in particular.
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        1. 9/25/2012 10:27 AM Mackman wrote:
          I hate to say it, but I feel as though you are overgeneralizing the actions of a few loudmouthed idiots as speaking for the church as a whole.

          Maybe I'm just rolling with a different crowd, but I have literally never seen antisemitism of the kind you describe here in the church.

          I literally don't know anyone who believes that Paul is anti-Jewish. How could he be? He affirms that the Jews and the original people of God, and that they remain so. I also have never heard this "pop" antisemitism seriously advanced by anyone I know or have personally heard speak.

          Also, as far as I'm aware of, the Evangelical community supports Israel exactly because it is Jewish.

          I guess I'm asking for concrete examples, because the scenario you describe--evangelical leadership being antisemitic--is extremely foreign to me.
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        2. 9/25/2012 1:10 PM Joshua Stein wrote:
          Alright, so here are a few more concrete cases. I'm hesitant to include names of people, though the folks who attended the public events with me know pretty well what particular incidents I'm talking about:

          I attended a meeting of a campus ministry at CSUF where a guest speaker spoke on Luke 11:37-54 and made a point about the necessity of the new covenant based on the failure of Jews [actually using that word] to fulfill the old covenant, implicitly on account of their greed as expressed in 11:39-41. I spoke with the leadership of the group afterwards and they hadn't realized that anything offensive had been said.

          I attended a meeting of the same campus ministry on another occasion, this time to talk about an interfaith event that I had put together with a few of the groups leaders, and they had another guest speaker who went on a long bit about the extensive legalism of the old testament with an off-hand joke about Jewish lawyers... that one actually mortified the leader of the group, especially following our previous conversation.

          Then we've got the incident outlined here dealing where the information was distributed by a professional educator in campus housing.

          I had several incidents in my last two years doing interfaith work at Fresno State where a small discussion with leaders of major Evangelical churches implied strongly that my work as a philosophy tutor teaching things they considered subversive, like introductory hermeneutics, was somehow related to my Judaism.

          I'm not sure what circles you're traveling in; maybe they don't have these issues [though I really doubt it]. But I would seriously consider whether their theological or political views are likely to create any of these colorations, and if you're not sure [and perhaps even if you are] you should bring it up with them.

          Also, support for Israel does not mean that someone is incapable of being an anti-semite. I've hand picked examples above where every single person involved in these situations in politically right-of-center to some degree or another and almost certainly strongly and explicitly supportive of Israel. I've dealt with instances with folks who are left of center, but I think the ones above will hit closer to home for the purposes of the conversation with you.
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          1. 9/25/2012 1:28 PM Mackman wrote:
            I don't know why to say, except that that makes me very disappointed in the Christians you've interacted with.

            I find those statements, and those assumptions on the part of these Christians, utterly absurd. I can only hope that much of the time, it stems from ignorance rather than genuine hostility.

            I genuinely don't understand how someone can be a professing Christian and be antisemitic. It requires an enormous ignorance of so many basic aspects of Christianity, including Incarnational Theology, Trinitarianism, not to mention the basic truth that all people are created in the image of God...

            I am truly shocked, and I am truly sorry. That's all I can say.
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          2. 9/25/2012 1:43 PM Joshua Stein wrote:
            I appreciate that, and I sincerely and deeply accept. Like I said, though, the fact that you find the acts repugnant and incompatible with the fact-of-Christian-ness of these people isn't really the point. The concern is that it persists until, at the very least, confronted.

            The apology is a great and important first step from the folks who are seriously intellectually engaged with the issue. The second step is engaging portions of the community that you have access to on the issue and actually helping to address the problem. Honestly, in lieu of these incidents, that is a bigger concern for me.

            I know you and many of my other Christian friends I've discussed the issue with well enough to understand the whole-heartedness of the apology when solicited. The goal now is to take a step beyond to genuine improvement of the condition.
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            1. 9/25/2012 1:48 PM Mackman wrote:
              As I said before, I'll try to construct a post addressing this for the blog I write for (Evangelical Outpost). In all honesty, that's pretty much my only platform right now, but I will bring it up at my church.

              When the blog is done, would you like me to email it to you and you can offer feedback on it before it goes live?
              Reply to this
            2. 9/25/2012 2:04 PM Joshua Stein wrote:
              Sure. Use my student email: That is probably the fastest way to get in touch with me right now, besides facebook.
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