Is Christianity anti-Semitic?

The recent synagogue shooting in Poway, California, has focused attention on an abiding question regarding Christians and Jews: Is Christianity inherently anti-Semitic?

According to The Washington Post, John Earnest, the young man allegedly responsible for the death of one Jewish worshiper and injuries to a rabbi, a child, and another synagogue-goer, was a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Escondido, a suburb of San Diego. And before he walked into the Jewish house of worship to open fire, he apparently penned a seven-page letter that, among other things, connected his murderous actions with traditional teachings of his evangelical church.

The particular teachings most relevant to the violence were two: (1) that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus Christ; and (2) that the promises made in the Old Testament to Israel have been transferred to the Christian Church, which supersedes the nation of Israel in God’s global plan of salvation.

By the middle ages, furthermore, teaching (1) had morphed into the idea that not only did the Jewish authorities of his day kill Jesus, but all Jews ever since collectively bear the guilt of that unjust and terrible act.

So let’s sort things out.

First, the New Testament makes it clear that Jewish leaders conspired with Roman leaders to do away with Jesus as a political annoyance. Pick up a Bible, read through the last third or so of any of the gospels, and you’ll find the same story. Jesus taught inconvenient truths, so the powers of his place and time opposed him. Thus has it ever been.

The larger theological point is that, from the Jewish point of view of the early church (and the early church was constituted almost entirely by Jews), there are only two kinds of people in the world: Jews and “the [other] nations,” or Gentiles. At that time, the Romans dominated those other nations as they dominated the (Mediterranean) world. So when the Jewish leaders and the Roman leaders together mistreated Jesus, symbolically the whole world did him in.

To specially blame the Jews, then, is a terrible and rather stupid mistake, a basic misreading of what happened. (Some anti-Jewish Christians through the centuries have fastened on Matthew 27:25: “Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’”—but “the people” in the story are just a mob marshaled by the Jewish leaders to intimidate Pontius Pilate. That rabble was hardly representative of the nation.)

Second, Christian theologians have differed over the centuries about the complex question of how Israel relates to the Church, even as they have differed over the complex question of how the Old Testament relates to the New. But here’s the point most pertinent here: even the strongest view of supersessionism—that Israel’s special place in God’s plan has been taken over by the Church—hardly gives license to kill. There is no Biblically mandated plan for, say, Japan or Australia, either—or the United States of America, for that matter—but that hardly means it’s therefore open season on Japanese, Australians, or Americans.

So for all the soul-searching apparently going on in evangelical circles in the U.S. about this horrible incident, theologically it must be said that you can’t get there from here. There is no legitimate and rational line of thought from the New Testament’s own teachings, nor those of any orthodox theology, to anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism is just racism. And racism, however much it has been defended by Christians over the centuries against African people, Asian people, native American people, Australasian people, or Jewish people, is simply the odious opposite of Jesus’s teaching to love your neighbour, even your enemy, as you love yourself.

Hunting Jews in their own synagogue is therefore not an “extreme version” of Christianity, but flat disobedience to its basic tenets. What happened in Poway, California, is not a “radicalization” of Christianity, but a denial of Jesus’s own most fundamental teaching.

Now, how a young man who grew up in such a family and such a church could become a murderous bigot—if what is alleged about Mr. Earnest is true—is a very good question. But it is a question that cannot be answered properly by searching Christian theology for anti-Semitism.

There is no Christian justification—none—for what happened in that synagogue.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).