Instructive Parallels between the Early Church’s Hostility to the Jews and Contemporary Evangelical Attacks on Islam
by Paul Williams
Why do so many Evangelical Christians expend so much effort disparaging Islam and Muslims? I am rereading From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus by Paula Fredriksen, Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture at Boston University. Unwittingly she provides a possible answer to this question by describing the persistent attraction of Judaism for Gentiles in the early centuries after Christ. Curiously, the early Church fathers most often expended their energies criticising Judaism (see example below), rather than the idolatry of the Roman Empire, or its brutal abuse of power. Fredriksen identifies the reason why: Judaism represented an attractive alternative to the new religion of Pauline Christianity. Similarly, for many thoughtful people in the West, Islam represents an attractive alternative to the illogicalities of Trinitarianism. Evangelicalism’s prime directive therefore is to eliminate its principal rival: Islam. An ironic goal, as followers of the latter religion believe in Jesus the Christ and the prophets sent to Israel as well.
Judaism was more than a standard challenge to Christian identity; it was also a competitor for Gentile adherents. During this period [1st and 2nd centuries] and long after, Gentiles continued to attach themselves to the synagogue for the same reasons that had always drawn them before: Judaism’s monotheism, its antiquity, its articulated ethics and strong community, its claims to revelation, and its prestigious sacred text. The rise of the Gentile Christianity is itself the best evidence of Judaism’s appeal: the church, though it repudiated the synagogue, also used it socially and religiously as a model. Christianity thereby offered to Gentiles fewer of Judaism’s disadvantages (circumcision for adult males; association with a nationality implicated, after the bloody revolts of 66, 117, and 132, in anti-Roman activity) but many of the same attractions (strong community, revealed ethical guidelines, and the scriptures themselves – already available, thanks to the Hellenistic synagogue, in Greek).
But the churches competed for these Gentiles against a religious community both better established and more broadly recognised. Here Christianity again offers the best evidence of Judaism’s abiding appeal. Christian invective, from the gospels through the writings of the second-century fathers and beyond, most often and most energetically targeted Judaism. Why? If its goal were to wrest Gentiles from the errors of paganism, one would expect more attention to polemics against idolatry; if its goal were to condemn the unethical exercise of power, one would expect stronger criticism of the empire, which after all had executed the Saviour and continued, sporadically, to persecute his followers. Why expend so much effort disparaging a community ostensibly engaged in compatible activity, turning Gentiles from idolatry to the worship of the God revealed in scripture? Because, to those Gentiles drawn to such religions and such communities, Judaism represented an attractive alternative to the church.
From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus by Paula Fredriksen, Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture at Boston University
The new ‘anti-Semitism’
It may be illuminating by way of example to cite recent statements of what I call the new anti-semitism: disparaging rhetoric now emanating from evangelical circles about Islam. Notice how it parallels the toxic anti-Jewish rhetoric that was virtually ubiquitous in the early church.
Nabeel Qureshi is an outspoken member of the resurgent Christian anti-Islam movement in the United States. On the Answering Muslim website he recently wrote: “Muslim terrorists are just that, the embodiment of Islam” (blog entry February 2010).
Rev Franklin Graham (son of evangelist Billy Graham) told the press that “Islam as a very evil and wicked religion.” On a radio broadcast he said: “Islam is a terror organization.”
Televangelist Rev Pat Robertson on Muslims and their faith: “These people are crazed fanatics, and I want to say it now: I believe it’s motivated by demonic power. It is satanic and it’s time we recognize what we’re dealing with.”
As is well documented, virulent anti-Jewish rhetoric has been the besetting sin of Christianity. Here are two representative examples from prominent and hugely influential Christians of the past.
John Chrysostom (c. 347–407), was an important early church Father. The Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches honour him as a saint and Doctor of the Church. Chrysostom preached: “The Jews … are worse than wild beasts … lower than the vilest animals. Debauchery and drunkenness had brought them to the level of the lusty goat and the pig. They know only … to satisfy their stomachs, to get drunk, to kill and beat each other up … I hate the Jews … I hate the Synagogue … it is the duty of all Christians to hate the Jews.”
I quote a longer extract from the most famous of the Protestant Christians and Father of Protestantism, Martin Luther. I warn the reader that his words are extremely offensive. In 1543 he wrote:
“What then shall we Christians do with this damned, rejected race of Jews? Since they live among us and we know about their lying and blasphemy and cursing, we can not tolerate them if we do not wish to share in their lies, curses, and blasphemy. In this way we cannot quench the inextinguishable fire of divine rage nor convert the Jews. We must prayerfully and reverentially practice a merciful severity. Perhaps we may save a few from the fire and flames [of hell]. We must not seek vengeance. They are surely being punished a thousand times more than we might wish them. Let me give you my honest advice.
First, their synagogues should be set on fire, and whatever does not burn up should be covered or spread over with dirt so that no one may ever be able to see a cinder or stone of it. And this ought to be done for the honor of God and of Christianity in order that God may see that we are Christians, and that we have not wittingly tolerated or approved of such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of His Son and His Christians.
Secondly, their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed. For they perpetrate the same things there that they do in their synagogues. For this reason they ought to be put under one roof or in a stable, like gypsies, in order that they may realize that they are not masters in our land, as they boast, but miserable captives, as they complain of incessantly before God with bitter wailing.
Thirdly, they should be deprived of their prayer-books and Talmuds in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught.
Fourthly, their rabbis must be forbidden under threat of death to teach any more…
Fifthly, passport and traveling privileges should be absolutely forbidden to the Jews. For they have no business in the rural districts since they are not nobles, nor officials, nor merchants, nor the like. Let them stay at home…If you princes and nobles do not close the road legally to such exploiters, then some troop ought to ride against them, for they will learn from this pamphlet what the Jews are and how to handle them and that they ought not to be protected. You ought not, you cannot protect them, unless in the eyes of God you want to share all their abomination…
To sum up, dear princes and nobles who have Jews in your domains, if this advice of mine does not suit you, then find a better one so that you and we may all be free of this insufferable devilish burden – the Jews… Let the government deal with them in this respect, as I have suggested. But whether the government acts or not, let everyone at least be guided by his own conscience and form for himself a definition or image of a Jew. When you lay eyes on or think of a Jew you must say to yourself: Alas, that mouth which I there behold has cursed and execrated and maligned every Saturday my dear Lord Jesus Christ, who has redeemed me with his precious blood; in addition, it prayed and pleaded before God that I, my wife and children, and all Christians might be stabbed to death and perish miserably. And he himself would gladly do this if he were able, in order to appropriate our goods… Such a desperate, thoroughly evil, poisonous, and devilish lot are these Jews, who for these fourteen hundred years have been and still are our plague, our pestilence, and our misfortune. I have read and heard many stories about the Jews which agree with this judgment of Christ, namely, how they have poisoned wells, made assassinations, kidnapped children, as related before. I have heard that one Jew sent another Jew, and this by means of a Christian, a pot of blood, together with a barrel of wine, in which when drunk empty, a dead Jew was found. There are many other similar stories. For their kidnapping of children they have often been burned at the stake or banished (as we already heard). I am well aware that they deny all of this. However, it all coincides with the judgment of Christ which declares that they are venomous, bitter, vindictive, tricky serpents, assassins, and children of the devil, who sting and work harm stealthily wherever they cannot do it openly. For this reason, I would like to see them where there are no Christians. The Turks and other heathen do not tolerate what we Christians endure from these venomous serpents and young devils…next to the devil, a Christian has no more bitter and galling foe than a Jew. There is no other to whom we accord as many benefactions and from whom we suffer as much as we do from these base children of the devil, this brood of vipers.”
Translated by Martin H. Bertram, On The Jews and Their Lies, Luther’s Works, Volume 47; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971.
The question remains therefore: how can Muslims constructively respond to this resurgent ‘new anti-semitism’?
Firstly, there is the important Qur’anic principle of responding with what is better, and not being dragged into the abusive slanging matches so often seen on the Internet (and elsewhere). Secondly, despite the apparent predominance of evangelicalism in the world there are important points of discussion that can be had with committed Christians who do want to engage in respectful dialogue.
These points might include the fact that all religious traditions emphasise God’s love for the poor and outcast; the importance of understanding the Islamic belief that God’s love makes redemption available throughout history, not only during a defined period two thousand years ago; the urgent need to deconstruct the media stereotype often imposed upon Muslims (as on Jews in the past) as being violent and legalistic.
Our contribution as Muslims to this ongoing discussion is that we worship a God who while being the source of justice, is nevertheless absolutely free in His love and mercy to forgive whom He chooses. To Christians we say that this appears to us considerably less legalistic than a theology that considers mankind’s sinfulness a debt that He must collect. Finally, we ask evangelicals to acknowledge the ‘Judaeophobia’ to be found in the New Testament itself (see for example John 8: 44,47), and recognise how it has generated hatred towards the Jews throughout nearly two thousand years of Christian history. This acknowledgement (belatedly made by many non-evangelical Christian theologians) might lead to a greater evangelical sensitivity to how the early Christians demonised Jews and the Jewish faith, and lead, inshallah, to a much needed reappraisal of the current disparagement of Muslims and Islam.
© Paul Williams February 2010
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