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Re-Thinking the Traditions: Reading John 8 and Exodus 3 Together after the Shoah. Introduction
Moore, James F.
Violence on Children: A Memory for the Future
A gunman enters a Jewish day school and community center in southern California and randomly opens fire wounding several including five young children. Which of the images is more frightening to us – the children in pain shot for no reason that makes sense to them or the children running for their lives not knowing who will be shot next? Just a little more than a month later children of a black man, a former basketball coach at Northwestern University witnessed their father gunned down. What of the memories of these children?
Amid all the talk about hate crimes we begin to shape stories of the gunmen rather than the victims as we try to understand. We have come to see events as hate crimes. We remember with great clarity the images of the Shoah that remind us that hate exploding in violence is all too real, all too possible. And despite our desire and efforts to prevent such things happening again, the daily news reminds us of the futility of these efforts. A closer look at events such as these reveals that the perpetrators acted in a calculated way. The words of hatred that marked their activity were words that are written and spread by groups, hate groups, whose existence and identity and purpose is hatred of a very specific form. This is the hatred that can isolate targets, particularly Jews, and identify them as the enemy, the scourge of the earth, the devil in disguise. The strangeness of this line of thinking and acting still boggles our minds a full 50 years after the Shoah. This is not random hate but well organized and clearly aimed hatred.
These stories are the background that shows the urgency of our efforts to expose the sinister nature of John 8 and its use in the history of a religious tradition that becomes sinister in the forms that are these hate groups but is hidden and yet clearly present in all forms of Christianity.(1) It is still our obligation to humanity to strip our thinking, teaching and acting of all hatred toward the “other” especially the Jew – to overtly and explicitly reshape the religious spirit of Christians and Christianity in all its forms into a teaching of respect for all others. It is not enough to decry the militant hate groups and to shout that they are not authentic Christians when the very words they spout are a replica of the words the gospel of John puts into the mouth of Jesus. The following interchange will look deeper into this text and explore how teaching can be altered. The real goal, however, is action to challenge and change all forms of hatred spread in the name of Christianity. That is a different task than re-thinking the tradition. It is the task of recreating the tradition.
The gunmen mentioned above – like so many others – act “righteously” because they hear unmistakably the following words from Jn 8:44-45 and other such texts:
You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell you the truth, you do not believe me.
This text thoroughly illustrates the tradition of a teaching of contempt and reinforces this with the authority of Jesus and, through him, God. It is worth our consideration and thus becomes our focus. In our dialogue four scholars – two Jewish and two Christian – follow the pattern of a midrashic reading in several ways. First, we take the text of John 8 as a Midrash on both Exodus 3 and Genesis 12, 15. We read the Johanine text as an interpretation of the Torah. Second, we read John 8 as a text that still shapes Christian attitudes in spite of efforts to eliminate the explicit teaching of contempt. Third, we read this text as a means for re-thinking not by offering a preferred Christian meaning but by throwing the text into the plurality and ambiguity of meaning suggested by both the text itself and the history of interpretation. That is, we aim to challenge any secure use of this text as a means for authorizing action. But fourth, we aim to initiate a new ethic that moves beyond a Christian ethic toward a human ethic that is authorized not so much by texts but by the dialogue on texts that we exemplify in our discussion
The Text as Midrash
The connection of the Jn 8:44-45 text to the Abraham cycle in Genesis 12-22, together with a number of allusions to other texts is the apparent background for the charge that the Pharisees who have come to dialogue with Jesus are children of the devil. Nevertheless, the larger context beginning with Jn 8:12 far more likely presents the real issue: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” This passage represents a series of similar claims based on the Greek ego emi, I am. It is to this claim that we will turn for a reading of Jn 8 as Midrash. While our reading is not Midrash in the strict sense – following the rules of interpretation of the Rabbinic literature – we claim that the whole of Christian scripture is a commentary on the Torah tradition and will assume that this text is yet another example of this.
When the debate in John is acknowledged as an internal Jewish debate the teaching of Jesus becomes a legitimate alternative to other rabbinic interpretations (pre-Talmudic). This assumes that the argument is truly open and Jesus’ words are not an effort to dismiss the Pharisees but to invite, indeed, challenge them to an honest re-thinking of their positions. Nevertheless, the text of John 8 is a series of harsh accusations built on to each other. Taken out of the context of an intra-Jewish debate, the words become the foundation for real contempt. By taking the words to be midrash we are forcing the conversation back into the Torah tradition and reversing the pattern of Christian interpretation in order to strip Christian theology of its anti-Jewish bias and show real ambiguity in Jesus’ understanding of Torah. The shift changes the focus from the words of Jesus to the words of Torah, essentially Exodus 3:14. Jesus’ words offer a reading of this text. Above all, John 8 appears to be a quintessential example of the sort of interpretation that Jesus was to offer. At least it is for the gospel of John.
1. Among many who assert this approach to post-Shoah theology is: Johann Baptist Metz, The Emerging Church (New York: Crossroad, 1986), pp. 20ff.