On Saturday, October 27, 46-year-old Robert Gregory Bowers shot eleven Jews dead and wounded nine at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue. As he started his twenty-minute shooting spree, Bowers shouted, “All Jews must die!”
Many Americans are numb to mass shootings, but this one was different because of its heinous anti-Semitic character. There have been three other recent anti-Semitic shootings in America (in 1999, 2006, and 2014), but this was the most deadly. How should Christians, who are historically and theologically related to Jews, respond?
I suggest we begin by remembering that the Jews are God’s beloved people. Most Christians know this is the teaching of the Old Testament, but few Christians realize this is taught in the New Testament as well. St. Paul's most mature reflection on God and the Jews, written toward the end of his life, states that the Jews are “God’s beloved because of their fathers” (Romans 11:28). Even if many had not accepted the gospel, they were still “chosen” by God and that chosenness is “irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). Paul might also have known Jesus’s reminder that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22).
There were tens of thousands (myriades) of Jews in Jerusalem alone who accepted Jesus as Messiah (Acts 21:20), even if most had not. No matter, Paul wrote. God still has a special love for them. They are “beloved,” chosen to be a light to the nations, and their special “calling” to be God’s chosen could not be revoked (Rom 11:28–29).
Most Christians between the fourth and late twentieth centuries ignored or forgot these statements by Paul. They generally referred to Jews as “Christ-killers”—even though the gospels show Jesus was popular with most Jews in ancient Israel. It was only the Temple establishment that turned the Romans against him. They missed the Bible’s warning not to hold the sons responsible for their fathers’ sins. With these sorts of misconceptions, Christians killed Jews in the name of Christ by the hundreds of thousands before the twentieth century.
Then came the Holocaust. It was a wake-up call for Christian scholars and leaders after World War II. Scholars, wondering how this could happen in Christian Germany, looked again at Romans 9–11. The great commentator on Romans C.E.B. Cranfield concluded, “These three chapters emphatically forbid us to speak of the church as having once and for all taken the place of the Jewish people.” Other scholars pointed to Paul’s statement that “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (Romans 11:2). Distinguished New Testament scholar W. D. Davies observed, “Paul never calls the Church the New Israel or the Jewish people the Old Israel.”
The Catholic bishops at Vatican II learned from these minds. Nostra Aetate declares that the Jews “should not be presented [by Christians] as rejected or accursed by God.” Instead, Christians should remember that “God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers.”
Protestant theologians such as Karl Barth and Robert Jenson taught similarly. God’s covenant with non-Christian Israel is still in place, they wrote, and Christians should heed Paul’s warning not to become “arrogant,” recalling that Jewish Israel is the “root” that still “supports” the gentile Church (Romans 11:18-20).
Ironically, Bowers, whom police wounded multiple times, was saved at the hospital by (among others) three Jewish doctors and a Jewish nurse. Christians ought to reflect that just as Jews brought life to the man who tried to take theirs, Jews brought to Christians eternal life in the olive tree of the God of Israel (Romans 11:17–24).
If God has a special love for Jews, so should Christians. We should grieve the innocent Jewish victims in Pittsburgh and pray for the loved ones they left behind. We should regard an attack on Jews as an attack on our spiritual cousins, God’s beloved people who gave us our Messiah and salvation. Let us reach out to our Jewish friends and neighbors, expressing our grief and love. Let us tell them that anti-Semitism is an evil we must fight together.