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An Open Letter to Evangelicals

My fellow evangelicals: we are missing the boat! In our understandable enthusiasm for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, we are missing an historic opportunity: to acknowledge and confront the reality of anti-Semitism in the church throughout history. Instead, we are simply being defensive toward concerns raised by the Jewish community: “Of course the movie is not anti-Semitic. Of course we are not anti-Semitic.” If we believe in a Messiah who understands us sympathetically, we might work a little harder at understanding the concerns of the Jewish community surrounding this film. As Americans, most of us are not exactly students of history, even though our faith is historical. We forget that some early church fathers were anti-Semitic in their teaching. That the hero of the Protestant reformation, Martin Luther, wrote a tract entitled, “The Jews and their Lies.” We don’t identify, perhaps with the sins of the Crusaders against the Jewish people. Or the Papal States which as recently as the mid-nineteenth century held Jewish people in ghettoes, forced them to wear identifying armbands (sound familiar?) and to attend sermons by priests on a rotating basis after their Sabbath services.

Like the reality of evil itself, which we understand to be at root a profoundly spiritual presence, anti-Semitism cannot be so glibly dismissed by saying, “We’re not anti-Semitic! That was then, this is now. That was them, this is us!” Anti-Semitism, like other pervasive forms of evil, if we believe our Bibles, is like an opportunistic bacteria, all around us, simply waiting for a cut, or a weakness in the immune system to take root.

I received a wake-up call recently when I read the transcripts of the Nixon tapes in which my hero, Billy Graham, was ingratiating himself to the President by going along with one of Nixon’s anti-Semitic diatribes. To his credit, Billy Graham apologized. But the lesson for us all should not be missed: we too are vulnerable.

And so rather than simply rallying around this movie as if it were the “Authorized Biography of Jesus” on film, we might also take the opportunity to remind ourselves of the painful reality of anti-Semitism in the church, whose Name and shame we also bear.

The movie itself is a kind of metaphor for the gospel we love in the world we are called to love as well. Here we have a powerful story (the film) told by a storyteller (Mel Gibson) whose father is an avowed anti-Semite. The storyteller, much like the church, is having trouble disavowing the sins of the father he loves. In the same way, we are perhaps reluctant to own up to our history and disavow the sins of our fathers, which if we understand sin biblically, has a way of crouching at our door, seeking to master us.

As we see this powerful film, let us remember Jesus, who looked over Jerusalem and wept over an opportunity missed, and not miss the opportunity we have to walk in the humility of the Christ who carried our shame.

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