AN UNEASY TENSION: Jews And Christians Through The Ages Part Three
It is a sad fact to acknowledge that the “church” has been the biggest barrier between Jesus and the Jewish people. The medieval church assumed all of the promises to the Jews and left nothing for them but judgment and perpetual servitude. That attitude, amounting to nothing more than theological anti-Semitism, made life miserable for the Jewish people and obviously did nothing to endear the gospel to them. As we approach the modern times, we will see that most churches have inherited that medieval viewpoint. There are, however, some interesting exceptions to this dismal picture.
The coming of the Protestant Reformation in sixteenth-century Germany raised the hopes of many Jews of that period for a better situation. The great reformer, Martin Luther, initially was very sympathetic to the Jewish plight, in 1523 he wrote a little work entitled That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew. In this work he blamed the popes, bishops, and monks for so mistreating the Jews that they had actually turned them away from the gospel. He counseled the following approach of love and kindness. “I would advise and beg everybody to deal kindly with the Jews and to instruct them in the Scriptures. If we wish to make them better, we must deal with them not according to the law of the pope, but according to the law of Christian charity. We must receive them kindly and allow them to compete with us in earning a livelihood, so that they may have good reason to be with us and an opportunity to witness Christian life and doctrine. And if some remain obstinate, what of it? Not everyone of us is a good Christian.”
This remarkable counsel, certainty unique for its time, has to be contrasted with the attitude expressed by Luther twenty years later. In 1543 he wrote Concerning the Jews and Their Lies. In this vicious tract he condemned the “lying, blasphemy, and cursing of this damned, rejected race of Jews.”’ He advised that their synagogues should be set on fire, their homes destroyed, their religious books removed, their rabbis forbidden to teach, their traveling privileges forbidden, and their livelihood deprived. (The Jews had been forced into money lending in the early Middle Ages and were later condemned for practicing it!)
This ambivalent and contradictory attitude of Luther cannot be defended or even comprehended. It should be remembered, however, that in 1543 Luther was a disappointed, disgruntled, and physically sick man. The other works that he wrote during these last years of his life are also filled with vituperative attacks on all those he considered as enemies. The tragic fact about this unfortunate statement is how it was later used by the Nazis to show German Lutherans that Jew-hatred was sanctioned by the revered founder of their church!
Although Martin Luther and John Calvin introduced many reforms and brought much scriptural teaching to light which had been neglected over the centuries, they were not perfect theologians. The medieval attitude that the Church inherited the prophetic blessings promised to Israel while the Jews suffered the prophetic curses was adopted by Luther and Calvin. In England, however, a more thorough reformation took place. The Puritans emphasized the Old Testament and introduced Hebrew into their schools. Furthermore, there were many of them that held to a premillennial eschatology. Believing that scriptural terms such as Israel, Jerusalem, and Zion ought to be taken in their normal sense, they held to a future spiritual restoration of the Jewish people in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies, in the seventeenth century the country was flooded by a large number of books and pamphlets which taught this precious truth. By the middle of the century a new attitude toward the Jew had developed in the minds of many English Protestants. Many of them no longer believed that the Jew was the devil, but was again God’s chosen people who are to play a key role in God’s plan. Some maintained that those individuals and nations who persecuted the Jews will be held accountable for their misdeeds (cf. Gen. 12:3).
What practical effect did this have for the Jewish people? The entire Jewish population of England had been expelled from that country in 1290. Therefore, Jews had been absent for over three hundred years when the Puritans and Baptists began to exercise their influence. It is no coincidence that Jews were formally readmitted to England in 1664 as a direct result of this more positive attitude.
The sad observation that must be made, however, is that few modern countries followed the English example. In nineteenth-century Russia, for example, the Orthodox church clergy influenced the czars to enact the laws which made life miserable for the millions of Jews forced to live in the infamous “Pale of Settlement,”’ i.e. the Ukraine and Poland. One of the laws forced young Jewish boys to leave their homes at the age of twelve to serve in preliminary army service. Then at the age of eighteen the Jewish male had to serve an army term of twenty-five years! The avowed purpose of this conscription was to pressure the youth into conversion so the term of service would be lightened. When the infamous pogroms took place, which decimated Jewish life from 1882-1914, the Russian Orthodox clergy often stirred up the ignorant peasants to attack the Jewish communities.
Mention has been made of the Nazi atrocities committed in Europe from 1933-45. Many have asked the question, “Where was the church when Jews were being massacred?” The evidence both on the part of the Protestant and Catholic churches shows that there was a strange silence. In cases of individual believers, brave men and women risked their lives to save Jewish neighbors from the SS troops. Many of them are honored at the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem on the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles. In respect, however, to organized resistance and to prohibiting any Christian participation in the dirty work of human slaughter, the church was absent. This is a perplexing fact often mentioned by Jewish people today when they encounter the Christian message.
Some will say, “But those days are over and gone. Today, we are enlightened and in our ecumenical age love and toleration abound.” It is true that the Vatican II pronouncements of the Roman Catholic Church officially repudiated the medieval practices of the church in regard to the Jews. But thoughtful Jews still ask the questions, “Why has the Vatican never recognized Israel? Why does the Vatican constantly side with the Arab cause in the Middle East? Why would the Pope welcome the terrorist murderer Yassir Arafat with open arms?”
In regard to the Protestant Councils, the situation is the same. The National Council of Churches, while opposing anti-Semitism on one hand, stabs Israel in the back with the other hand with its many anti-lsrael pronouncements and its encouragement of P.L.O. terrorism. Both Catholic and Protestant leaders have repudiated evangelism of the Jewish people. In doing this they are not acting as friends but, in reality, are denying the Jewish people the greatest gift of all— life in the Messiah.
The true friends of Israel and the Jewish people are those millions of Bible-believing Christians who believe the promises of the Scriptures regarding Israel’s return to the land and to the Lord. These Christians believe that the prophetic promises of judgment have been fulfilled in Israel’s dispersions, and they also believe that the prophetic promises of blessing will yet be fulfilled literally to Israel.
These Bible-believing Christians are starting to stand up and be counted. All over America these “Christian Zionists” are standing up for Israel. But in standing up for the country of Israel, let us not neglect to stand up for the people of Israel as well. The Jewish people in Israel and throughout the world stand in desperate need of the gospel. We are not true friends if we deny them the truth about the Messiah.
Let us be thankful that the days of Crusades, Inquisitions, disputations, and forced conversions are over. Let us recognize that these awful events remain, however, in the Jewish psyche and are often an impediment to their listening to the gospel.
Let us, therefore, reach out to our Jewish friends in love with the message of life. They will not hear this message from most of the traditional “churches.” Only as true Christians share this message with them personally will they ever know that Jesus is not only the Savior of the world but is also the Messiah of Israel.