In its first official statement about the Holocaust, the Church of England admits that Christian teachings and attitudes were significant factors in anti-Semitism, stereotyping, and Jewish persecution. Last week, the church’s Faith and Order Commission released the landmark document “God’s Unfailing Word: Theological and Practical Perspectives on Christian-Jewish Relations.” The 105-page report, representing three years of work, urges Christians to reflect on “the cruelty of our history” and to challenge current attitudes.
“Regarding the Jewish people as collectively guilty of rejecting God’s anointed made it natural for generations of Christians to regard Jewish suffering as divinely willed punishment,” which “contributed to fostering the passive acquiescence if not positive support of many Christians in actions that led to the Holocaust,” the report states. As a result, Christians “have a duty to be alert to the continuation of such stereotyping and to resist it.”
Report: Beware of Christian Anti-Semitism
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Christopher Cocksworth, Bishop of Coventry and chair of the Faith and Order Commission, calls the Christian-Jewish relationship “a gift of God to the church”—one that needs to be “received with care, respect, and gratitude.” Various assumptions about Judaism and Jews have affected “Christian approaches to preaching, teaching, evangelism, catechesis, worship, devotion, and art,” he says, and the entire church must test those assumptions and explore them theologically.
If the church refuses the “gift” of Christian-Jewish relationship, warns Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the body will be “less than its true self.” Honest reflection, he adds, first requires feeling “the cruelty of our history.” Previously, Welby called anti-Semitism a “virus” that infected the church and “something of which we as Christians must be deeply repentant.”
During World War II, Nazis exterminated about 6 million Jews, plus another 5 million people they labeled as “undesirables.” According to the “God’s Unfailing Word” report, awareness of Christian participation “over the centuries in stereotyping, persecution, and violence directed against Jewish people, and how this contributed to the Holocaust,” should lead today’s believers to “be sensitive to Jewish fears.”
One example the report cites is hymn lyrics that “convey the teaching of contempt” of Jews for their role in killing Jesus. Charles Wesley’s “Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending,” for example, contains the words “Those who set at nought and sold him, pierced and nailed him to the tree, deeply wailing…shall the true Messiah see.”
Although England’s Labour Party has dealt with accusations of anti-Semitism, the report doesn’t directly address the country’s politics. It does, however, seem to condemn opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn by warning that “some of the approaches and language used by pro-Palestinian advocates are indeed reminiscent of what could be called traditional anti-Semitism.”
Regarding Israel, the report acknowledges the land’s significance for both Christians and Jews. But it says, “It is inaccurate and unhelpful if Christian theological support for the continuing existence of the State of Israel, whether or not it would describe itself as Christian Zionism, is simply treated as a form of fundamentalism.”
About Palestinian Christian liberation theology, the report states, “The Church must be clear that there can be no justification in Christian doctrine for setting aside the ordinary requirements of justice for the sake of supposed prophetic fulfillment, when justice is at the heart of God’s promises for us.”
UK’s Chief Rabbi Decries Conversion Efforts
In an afterword, Ephraim Mirvis, the United Kingdom’s Chief Rabbi, praises the Anglican Church for “owning the legacy of Christianity’s role in the bitter saga of Jewish persecution.” But he expresses “substantial misgiving” because the report doesn’t condemn the efforts of today’s evangelical Christians who “dedicate themselves to the purposeful and specific targeting of Jews for conversion to Christianity.”
Mirvis applauds a 2015 Vatican statement promising that the Catholic Church will “neither conduct nor support any specific institutional mission work directed toward Jews.” It also said, “A Christian can never be an anti-Semite, especially because of the Jewish roots of Christianity.”
Even in the 21st century, warns Mirvis, “Jews are seen by some as quarry to be pursued and converted.” A continued approach within the Anglican Church that permits such behavior, the rabbi adds, “does considerable damage to the relationship between our faith traditions.”
In the report’s foreword, Archbishop Welby says although sharing the hope of salvation—“a hope coming from Jesus Christ”—is “core to what Christians do,” we must proceed with gentleness and grace. “Any sense that we target Jewish people must carry the weight of…history,” he says.