Antisemitism and the Gospel

What We Can Learn from the Pittsburgh Massacre Three Years Later

Three years ago on this day, Robert Bowers went into a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh and opened fire on the congregants during their Sabbath morning service. The attack left eleven people dead and six others wounded.

Prior to the deadly attack, Bowers had been active on social media, where he was known for his white supremacist, antisemitic, and neo-Nazi views.

Ratcheting-up the Antisemitism

Bowers’ murderous rampage, which was the deadliest attack on Jews ever in the United States, was the culmination of mounting antisemitism in the public discourse and especially on social media.

Eight months before the 2018 attack, I had raised concern on my personal blog about the rising antisemitism I had begun experiencing:

“A few weeks ago, a friend of Jewish ancestry told me how alarmed he was when, about a year ago, his Facebook feed began regularly to be flooded with pictures of the swastika and inflammatory rhetoric about needing to drive the Jews out of America. The other day, I was shocked when someone announced to me that Hitler was actually “a good leader” and had to send Jews to camps in order to protect the Germans from their influence. Someone else who claimed to be conservative informed me that the holocaust never happened and went to great pains to list for me all the good things Hitler had done. These examples could be multiplied endlessly.”

Three years down the road, things are hardly any better. Around Coeur d’Alene Idaho where I live, I am routinely shocked by the intensity of the antisemitism, which I fear may lead to more atrocities. A few anecdotes will be helpful to illustrate the severity of the problem.

Just last week I was sharing with a friend about my article on Dr. Seuss that appeared in Salvo #58. When mentioning that Dr. Seuss had been concerned by what happened to the Jews in Nazi Germany, my friend quickly exclaimed, “they deserved everything they got.”

A few months prior I had the opportunity to go on a hike with the same friend, who invited a young man from his church to join us. In the course of our walk, this young man, who I will call Trevor, told me that he sometimes prays the rosary while listening to speeches from Hitler.

“That doesn't sound like a good idea,” I warned. “Hitler's speeches inflame the passions, encouraging vices like pride and anger.” Immediately Trevor retorted, “But we should be angry...against liberals.”

Hoping to bring him to a better mind, I began contrasting the character of Hitler with that of the Blessed Virgin Mary. “She should be our model when we are praying, not Hitler,” I said. “The Blessed Virgin shows us humility, gentleness, and submission to the will of God, as embodied by her words, ‘Be it unto me according to thy word.’ (Luke 1:38). By contrast, Hitler shows us the way of passion, pride, and the will to power.”

But Trevor remained obdurate and began recounting all Hitler's qualities that he hoped to emulate. Trevor seems to be succeeding in his goal to be more like the Führer, for he followed up this conversation by texting antisemitic vitriol to my phone rivalling anything found in Mein Kampf. “Death and hellfire to the lying contemptible, vile, sociopathic, satanic, foul big noses,” he wrote, adding that the Jews “cannot ever gain trust or be allowed to live.”

I told Trevor that this combination of death wishes (“they cannot ever...be allowed to live”) with racial slurs (“foul big noses”) runs counter to the Christian imperative to love, including Christ’s injunction to love our enemies (Mt. 5:43-48). But while Trevor considers himself a Christian, he remains unconvinced. Try as I might, I cannot convince him to abandon his antisemitic views, nor to destroy the neo-Nazi paraphernalia he has collected.

Although Trevor is a hothead, his antisemitic views are fueled by his church, which is a seedbed of holocaust denial and right-wing identity politics. This church is not an outlier. I have had run-ins with members of other churches in North Idaho, who are stockpiling weapons in preparation to enforce what they describe as a type of right-wing identity politics.

It would be a mistake to treat my experiences in North Idaho as representative of America as a whole. Yet even in mainstream discourse, it is now routine for “conservatives” to employ polarizing rhetoric that both hinges on, and accelerates, division between groups. Often this rhetoric feeds group-based victim narratives similar to those that, historically, have created conceptual space for antisemitism.

Identity Politics is Not the Answer

The left would have us believe the answer to antisemitism is some form of identity politics, critical race theory, or “antiracism,” all of which repudiate classic liberal approaches to battling antisemitism.

The classical liberal approach to combating antisemitism was incapsulated by the children’s author Dr. Seuss, who wrote the story The Sneetches to show the absurdity of race-based discrimination in general, and antisemitism in particular. Earlier this year, Seuss’ classic story came under criticism from the left, as part of the "antiracist" backlash against tolerance and race neutrality.

According to the left’s new orthodoxy, groups are locked in intractable conflicts, so that while we might be able to escape our biological gender, we can never escape whatever racial group defines us. Consequently, race neutrality is neither possible nor desirable. Moreover, group-based discrimination is not a problem to be avoided, but a positive good to be sought, if pursued as a way of redressing historic oppression. As antiracist activist Ibram X. Kendi put it, “The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination."

These new ideas offer lawmakers and pundits the intellectual cover for pigeon-holing people based on race and leveraging racial stereotypes for political gain. As race is being weaponized by unscrupulous politicians, those on the extreme right may react with more antisemitic violence, as both extremes ping-pong off each other’s excesses in a vicious cycle of provocation.

The Gospel is the Answer

The answer to antisemitism is not identity politics, nor CRT, nor the reverse racism of the “antiracist” movement. The answer is the gospel.

The gospel proclaims that Jesus Christ, a Jewish man, created one family out of all the warring tribes and nations of the earth, so that our primary identity is no longer ethnic (Gal. 3:28). No longer do human beings need to be defined by Babel, the time when various groups became lost in confusion and competition. Instead, human beings can begin being defined by Pentecost, the time when the Holy Spirit brought all nations together in Jesus Christ.

At a minimum, this means that while Christians will appropriately be opposed to Judaism (the Jewish religion with its rejection of Christ as the Messiah) they are not opposed to Jewish people; rather, they welcome Jews into God’s new creation.

The gospel also invites us to rethink what racial justice looks like. Living in a society shaped by Christianity, it is easy to overlook how revolutionary Christian teaching on racial justice was in the ancient world. Ancient paganism took it for granted that each tribe, ethnic group, and nation would be locked in a zero-sum conflict with other groups. This pagan outlook entailed an unavoidable struggle for domination among the races, as each group used violence to prove that their god was supreme over the gods of other groups. This perspective brought very specific ideas of guilt and expiation, whereby one group could only have their guilt expiated by becoming the target of cathartic rage from their rival group, much like Robert Bowers tried to triumph over Jews by opening fire on them three years ago. In this primitive perspective, there is no concept of the common good that can unite people across groups; all races and tribes are locked in inevitable conflict, and therefore justice for my group can only be achieved at the expense of your group, and vice versa.

The doctrine of Christian justice—rooted in the Old Testament but coming into full blossom with the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost—challenged the pagan concept of justice by showing that God’s justice is aimed at achieving the right ordering of the world and human communities. As Biblical scholar, Fr. Stephen De Young, pointed out last year, God’s justice is one of the divine energies and focuses on the restoration of order, and the ongoing work of creation against the forces of chaos and division, including division between peoples. God’s justice brings people of different tribes and nations to live in harmony with His order, so that by living in harmony with God’s order, we live in harmony with one another. Although the reality of worldwide harmony will not be realized until the New Heavens and the New Earth, Christians anticipate this by following Paul's injunction in Romans 12:18 to try to live peaceably with all men.” (To read more about how Christianity disrupted divisive conceptions of race in the ancient world, see Joshua Mitchell’s book American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time.)

One person who put this theology into practice was the German Lutheran theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945). In the 1930’s Bonhoeffer spent considerable time in America, including taking a road trip from New York City to Mexico. His time in America, prior to the Civil Rights Movement, led to great concern about the plight of the African American community. When, later in the decade, German Jews began to suffer similar bigotry and discrimination, he did everything he could to combat it, even at the cost of his own life. (To learn more about Bonhoeffer's story, see our feature from Salvo #19, "Believed & Deceived.") I will leave you with Bonhoeffer’s exhortation against judging, a fitting antidote to America's rising antisemitism:

“Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”

is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020) and writes for a variety of publications. He has a Master's in history from King’s College, London, and is currently working on a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is editorial assistant for the Fellowship of St. James and a frequent contributor to Salvo and Touchstone magazines. He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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