There is no doubt that many, perhaps most, Christians through the centuries were taught that the cry of the mob, "His blood be on us and on our children," has a bearing on the long history of troubles visited upon the Jewish people. In Pembroke, Ontario--a small town with only a few Jews, and they were respected community leaders--I was taught that in Lutheran catechism class. Over the years, I have talked with many Christians who said they had never heard of such a teaching. In my childhood training, it was mentioned only in passing, and without any animus to Jews living or dead. It was noted with sadness as an instance of the sad consequences of making such a big mistake in not recognizing Jesus as the Christ.
Kirsch writes that, after the Holocaust, Christians "have made the accusation of deicide taboo." "Even the Catholic Church has repented of its traditional depiction." The "even" is a nice touch of nastiness. In fact, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in Nostra Aetate is hardly a public relations fix under the pressure of post-Holocaust guilt. It is, rather, a profound reflection on how, as the Church more deeply explores her nature, she discovers the inextricable link with the people of Israel. The implications of this are far-reaching, as I elaborate in an article in First Things, "Salvation Is from the Jews."
The "Big Screen" in Cohen's subtitle refers, of course, to the film The Passion of the Christ, which, says Kirsch, was "so luridly threatening to Jews." For a very different take on that film, see First Things here and here. Hirsch's review is illustrated with a large detail from Hieronymus Bosch's Ecce Homo, which contains a lot of very ugly faces that are presumably Jewish. Almost all of Bosch's faces are ugly, and he also painted the Passion of Christ set in medieval villages where the perpetrators are indisputably Christian. In fact, that is his point, which is a point that also runs throughout Christian teaching and iconography, namely, that we are all guilty of crucifying the Lord.
The tendentiousness of Kirsch's reflection--and, if he accurately represents it, of Cohen's book--is utterly conventional. As, increasingly, is the solution offered by Kirsch. He writes:
Finally, Mr. Cohen reminds us that the hoariest medieval libels have found new life in the Arab world, where they are happily adduced to prove the unchanging wickedness of the Jew. This durability is what makes the Christ-killer myth so menacing. Even in our own age there is no escaping it; it lurks in the pages of the Gospels like a time bomb, always ready to be set off. Mr. Cohen's book, with its chronicle of 2,000 years of hatred, leaves the reader with an unhappy suspicion that, as long as the Gospels are taken to be the literal word of God, Jews and Christians might never be permanently reconciled.
The solution proposed is for Christians to recognize that the gospel accounts do not tell the truth about the crucifixion of Jesus. Presumably he was not killed as a consequence of the animosity of religious leaders in collusion with Roman imperial authorities. Mr. Kirsch does not suggest an alternative account of his death.
These questions are likely to come in for more attention with the publication next month of Peter Schafer's Jesus in the Talmud (Princeton University Press). Schafer is head of Judaic studies at Princeton, and his book studies references to Jesus in both the Palestinian and Babylonian versions of the Talmud (around 500 A.D.), some of which have been excised from subsequent editions over the centuries. There is, for instance, the assertion that Jesus is being punished in hell for all eternity by being forced to sit in a cauldron of boiling excrement. More to the point of the present discussion, a text of the Babylonian Talmud offers a brief account of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus by the Jewish Sanhedrin and not by the Romans. Schafer's book aims to serve the cause of historical truth and, while some worry about its potential for complicating Jewish-Christian relations, we should not be surprised that, in the relationship between these two communities, polemics have not been entirely one-sided. Nor should we draw an easy moral equivalence between polemicists. After the destruction of Temple Judaism by the Romans in 70 A.D., the contest between the two traditions of Judaism--Rabbinical Judaism and the Church--had, by the fourth century, overwhelmingly turned to the advantage of those who believed Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel's messianic promise.
There is much in the history of Christianity, including chapters of the relationship with Jews and Judaism, that is shameful. This has been acknowledged by Christians in great detail and many times over, not least during the long pontificate of John Paul the Great. Nor should Christians say, "Enough already." It is true that the Holocaust was not a Christian crime. As the late Milton Himmelfarb succinctly put it in a famous essay, "No Hitler, No Holocaust." But it is also true that the crime of Hitler and other anti-Christians would not have been possible without the widespread "teaching of contempt" with respect to Jews and Judaism for which Christians are responsible.
Adam Kirsch is right: If genuine and lasting reconciliation between Jews and Christians depends upon Christians repudiating the authority of their Scriptures, such reconciliation will never be achieved. The happy fact, however, is that such reconciliation can be achieved and is being achieved as Christians more fully explore the teaching of the New Testament with respect to the Church and the people of Israel, and as Jews more fully appreciate the significance of that exploration. On the latter score, see Dabru Emet (To Speak the Truth), a statement signed in 2000 by more than 170 Jewish scholars and published in First Things, which, regrettably, has been almost totally ignored by the several Jewish establishments.
As I say, I have not yet read Jeremy Cohen's Christ Killers. If it is as represented by Adam Kirsch, it is, along with Mr. Kirsch's argument, a recipe for the continuing mutual distrust that precludes the firmly grounded reconciliation between Christians and Jews for which we are all obliged to work.
Here's a peek at a whimsical item that will appear in "The Public Square" of the March issue of First Things, which will be in the mail in a couple of weeks. There is a new plaque in Rome with this inscription:
SEMPER MEMORIA SERVETUR
FAUSTI DIEI XII ANTE KAL NOVEMBRIS MMVI QUO
BENEDICTUS XVI PONTIFEX MAXIMUS
DECESSORUM SUORUM VESTIGIA SECUTUS
ACADEMICA COMMUNITATE SUMMA LAETITIA RECEPTUS
PONTIFICIAM UNIVERSITATEM LATERANENSEM INVISIT
UTI STUDIORUM ET INVESTIGATIONIS SEDEM
AD SACRAM TRADITIONEM ALENDAM BENEDIXIT
AULAM MAGNAM SIBI DICATAM INAUGURAVIT
CAMILLO S.R.E. CARDINALE RUINI MAGNO CANCELLARIO
ET RINO FISICHELLA
EPISCOPO TIT VICOHABENTINO MAGNIFICO RECTORE
QUI OPUS SUSCIPIENDUM AC PERFICIENDUM CURAVIT
Fr. George Rutler provides the translation: "May the memory always be preserved of the auspicious day of 21 October 2006 on which Benedict XVI, Pontifex Maximus, following the footsteps of his predecessors, and having been received with greatest joy by the academic community, visited the Pontifical Lateran University, blessed the new library as a seat of studies and research to foster sacred tradition, and inaugurated the Great Hall dedicated to himself. Accompanying him were Camillo Ruini, Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, the Grand Chancellor, and Rino Fisichella, titular bishop of Voghenza, the Magnificent Rector, who saw to it that the work was begun and completed."
Fr. Rutler also sends along this translation, from Fr. Tim Finigan's blog, as it might have been rendered by the old unreformed ICEL: "One day last year, the Pope came to our school. He made us all very happy when he said a prayer for the new bookcases and a big room with his name on it. Cardinal Ruini (who is very important) was there and so was Bishop Rino who got it all done."
It may be that, as the Gilbert and Sullivan jingle has it, everybody is born a little liberal or a little conservative, but it usually takes some time before one decides for oneself which it is, followed by some more time before one decides one got it wrong the first time. Such are the shiftings and switchings experienced by the contributors to Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journeys. Mary Eberstadt is the editor, Simon & Schuster is the publisher, and contributors are a motley crew, including P.J. O'Rourke, Richard Starr, David Brooks, and our own Joseph Bottum. There is also Rich Lowry of the National Review, who saved a lot of time by foregoing the above gyrations. His essay is titled, "I Was a Teenage Conservative." O'Rourke's "The Unthinking Man's Guide to Conservatism" contrasts sharply with Peter Berkowitz's history-of-ideas journey to conservatism as the defense of liberalism. Joseph Bottum's "The Events Leading Up to My Execution" suggests that becoming conservatism is not a great career move, although, truth to tell, he's not doing so badly.
The really decisive moment for Bottum was holding his infant daughter and realizing that it was his calling in life to protect her, if necessary, contra mundum. Which is not unrelated to the discovery of the "unthinking" P.J. O'Rourke:
I became a conservative at 11:59 P.M. on December 4, 1997, the way many people become conservatives. My wife gave birth. Suddenly all the ideal went out of any idealism for change. Every change reeked of danger or, in the case of diaper changes, just reeked. If the temperature in the nursery changed, I worried. If the temperature in the infant changed, I agonized. Changing my shoes became a point of anxiety. Better go to work in my slippers--any noise could wake the baby. I was tortured by the change from a child who sat up to a child who crawled. Was her speed of development too slow? Was her speed head-first into the table leg too fast? The change from crawling to toddling was purgatory. I wanted to stand with Bill Buckley athwart the tide of history shouting, "Don't swallow the refrigerator magnet!"
Why I Turned Right might also, maybe better, have been titled How I Was Turned Right.