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SIDIC Periodical XXXIV-XXXV - 2001-2002/1.3
The Gospel of John. Conflicts and Controversies (Pages 19-23)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Religious Intolerance, Bach, St. John's Passion
Leighton, Christopher M.


A theologian and ordained minister reviews the legacy of religious hate which imbued the culture within which Bach lived and wrote his music, and which is still embedded in our culture today.

What are we doing here, I am asked. Is this discussion necessary or even warranted? Are we unwittingly magnifying and distorting the very problem of intolerance that we intend to clarify and remedy? Two prominent members of the Baltimore community, one a brilliant lawyer at a major law firm, the other a distinguished Reform rabbi posed these questions to me several years ago the first time we configured a program on this subject. Their questions have dogged me ever since. Let me elaborate.

The talented lawyer insisted that efforts to overcome anti-Semitism backfire when people slide into paranoia, when they find evidence of bigotry lurking behind every cultural artifact. It is one thing to note that John’s Gospel delivers a negative portrait of “the Jews”. It is another to project this problem onto an exquisite musical masterpiece. We live in a nation that protects and honors religious diversity. To suggest that we are made more susceptible to anti-Semitism in virtue of listening to some of the best Choral music ever composed is condescending and insulting. My friend the lawyer encouraged me to give it a rest. He assured me that many of the people who will attend the concert have little interest in religion, and therefore are not susceptible to the excesses of religious zealotry. And, as for the vast majority of Christians, the painful tensions that have their roots in the first centuries of the Common Era no longer characterize our own social milieu. Antagonisms between Christians and Jews no longer determine the apocalyptic horizon. So, this kind of program about religious intolerance polarizes the city by highlighting conflicts between Christians and Jews, believers and non-believers. We need to be constructively engaged in the present, not frozen into a distant past that puts us on the defensive.

In sharp contrast, my rabbinic colleague maintained that John’s Gospel is infused with an anti-Jewish polemic. Whatever the historical and literary conditions that shaped the composition of this Gospel, and the scholarship of people such as Paula Fredriksen plays a vital role in explaining the original circumstances, you and I are left with a religious masterpiece that seeks to discredit Judaism as a dynamic and ongoing religious reality. And this Gospel is very much with us today. John the Evangelist, argued this esteemed rabbi, implants images in the western psyche that contribute some essential building materials for anti-Semitism. The Gospel is easily fused with an ideology that advocates the elimination of the Jewish people through conversion, assimilation, expulsion, or even physical annihilation. As a consequence, the rabbi insisted that any presentation that pumps this animus into the public’s bloodstream is to be avoided, especially when the toxic imagery is conveyed through the genius of Bach’s music. It is precisely the naiveté of an audience that comes only for the music, and has little or no interest in the religious content, that is particularly susceptible to the anti-Semitic undertones. It is the audience that compartmentalizes the world – one slot for music, another for religion, a third for politics – such an audience worries him because it fails to comprehend the power and the reach of our religious narratives. This audience naively assumes that we can keep religion confined to the private, individual, subjective realm. Yet, the good, the bad, and the ugly broadcast to our living rooms and lived in the streets, day in and day out, demonstrate that our religious loyalties are much more than matters of personal taste and opinion. And so, my rabbinic colleague concludes: the driving passion of Bach’s rendition of John’s Gospel is more powerful than any words that the three of us can speak, more forceful than any explanation we can offer, and more seductive than any remedies we can propose; therefore he advocates that we keep Bach’s music in the church where it was intended to be performed, and where Christians can hopefully learn how to neutralize their anti-Jewish tradition. Nix the public forums and keep the music out of the Kraushaar Auditorium.

So, what are we doing here tonight in this public forum? To be sure, we are confronting the task of learning to place John’s Gospel in a larger historical and literary context, as Paula will help us do. And we will learn to listen to music with an ear that can discern Bach’s spiritual as well as artistic genius, thanks to Michael. But, above and beyond the specific interests that bring us to the table, the driving purpose of this forum is to help us make two seemingly contradictory moves at once: on the one hand, we want to develop a self-critical aptitude, an ability to identify and confront the shortcomings of our cultural traditions. On the other hand, we want to help one another enter more fully into the beauty, the goodness, and the truthfulness that our ancestors delivered to us. So with one foot in and the other out, we turn an inquiring eye to aspects of our culture that generally escape our gaze.

The polls indicate that we Americans are among the most religious people in the world. We cruise the spiritual highways at high speeds in surprising numbers. And yet, most of us cannot fathom what leads devout, faithful people into fever-pitched battle. Most of us are confounded by the depths of religious antagonism that polarize Serbs, Croats, Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo; Tamil Hindus and Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka; Protestants and Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland; and especially Jews and Palestinians in Israel, the Middle East, France, England, Germany, and elsewhere. Those of us who hold tolerance as one of the highest of civic virtues are often mystified that religions that proclaim love manage to produce such devout practitioners of hate. The challenge that keeps me up at night and which obliges us to study this is this: how can we come to terms with a legacy of religious hate that is deeply embedded in our culture, and from whose touch none of us, neither Christian nor Jew not Muslim, neither devoted believer nor committed non-believer, can escape?

Paula’s remarks enable us to see a dynamic within the emergent Christian tradition that continues to influence us today. Religions born in the heat of passionate conflict, and the identities of most religious communities take their shape in the struggle with the surrounding culture. The polemical assaults on the Jews indicate the vulnerability and insecurity of the beleaguered Christian community to which John wrote. These followers of Jesus fight to make a place for themselves and they do so by trying to displace their opponents. If we consider the hypothesis proposed by biblical scholars like Raymond Brown and J. Louis Martyn more than twenty-five years ago, we can see a religious community undergoing a traumatic social dislocation. John describes a community that has been expelled from the synagogue. Since Johannine Christians can no longer claim the synagogue as their home, they must develop a new basis for their identity, one that does not depend upon the religious affirmations that evolve into Rabbinic Judaism. The vitriolic attacks upon the Jews in John’s Gospel reflect an intense struggle to disconnect from the synagogue and to establish a religious platform that can stand independently. The result of this struggle is a lamentable paradox. In the words of Professor Robert Kysar, “The community that was founded on the sacrifice of an innocent person for their salvation now sacrificed their former Jewish brothers and sisters for the sake of securing their own identity.”

This practice of gaining elevation by standing on the backs of one’s competitors is an old, indeed ancient, habit that echoes down the corridors of history. This strategy of displacement is known as supersessionism, and it defines an ideological pattern that has profoundly skewed the relationship between Christians and Jews for almost two thousand years. The dynamics of supersessionism are etched into John’s portrait of Jesus as the one who embodies, indeed fulfills the covenantal promises once delivered to the Jewish people. In chapter 6, shortly before the Passover, Jesus multiplies the loaves for a multitude, substituting the bread of heaven for the manna of the Exodus. The freedom from Egyptian tyranny that was granted to Moses and his followers is represented as paling in comparison to the promise of spiritual freedom offered by Christ. The pattern in chapter 7 where Jesus eclipses the significance of the Feast of Tabernacles, and again in chapter 10 where the messianic promise delivered by Jesus overshadows the feast of the Dedication or Hanukkah. Indeed, the meaning of the Temple is transposed from a geographical place to the person of Christ, whose own sacrificial death is subsequently understood, especially in the book of Hebrews, as rendering the Jerusalem Temple obsolete.

According to supersessionism, Judaism simply prepared the way, set the stage for something better. As the overriding thrust of the New Testament suggests, Jewish life and practice were temporary – incomplete, inadequate, a fading reflection of a fading truth. In the words of Arnold Toynbee, after the birth of Christianity, Judaism becomes a “fossilized religion.”

With the conversion of Constantine and the elevation of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, supersessionism was turned from a defensive strategy into an offensive ideology that imperiled the survival of the Jewish people. If the promises of Judaism were fulfilled in Jesus Christ, as the Church maintained, then Christians were left wondering what possible purpose Jews might serve in God’s grand plan. Should Judaism even be tolerated?

Augustine, the most influential of the Church Fathers, developed a response to this question at the conclusion of the fourth century, and his view shaped the church and state policies for centuries to come. Augustine interpreted the Jews in terms of the figure of Cain. Cain, you remember, committed the first murder in the Bible by killing his brother Abel and in similar fashion the Jews committed another epoch-making crime when they brought about the crucifixion of Jesus. And just as Cain was marked and sentenced to a life of homelessness, Augustine argued that a similar destiny should be visited upon the Jewish people. They must be protected from murderous vengeance, but they should also be consigned to a condition of degradation that would serve to remind the world of the consequences that follow from the rejection of Christ. It is their status as a “negative witness” to the gospel truth that provides a warrant for disenfranchising the Jewish people. And so, during the Middle Ages, church and state legislation continues to push Jews to the margins.

With the first Crusade and the massacre of Jewish communities along the Rhine valley, the strains between Christians and Jews worsen. Increasingly, the Jews are subjected to expulsions, forbidden from various occupations, particularly those involving civil leadership. In Western Europe they are forbidden from owning land. The Talmud is put on trial and burned. Violence mounts with the dissemination of conspiracy theories. The Jews, it is widely believed, kidnap Christian children. They poison wells and spread the bubonic plague. They desecrate the sacred Communion wafer. In league with the devil, they seek to take over the world.

These bizarre fantasies find their way into literally thousands of ballads, folktales, paintings, etchings and stories. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice are but two of the more enduring examples of literature that perpetuates the stereotypes behind the myth of ritual murder. The blood libel accusations are exported from England and planted firmly on the soil of continental Europe. In German-speaking lands alone, there are at least 15 instances in the 13th century of Jews accused of kidnapping Christian children and engaging in ritual murder, 10 in the 14th century, 14 in the 15th century, and 12 in the 16th century. These episodes enshrined insidious portraits of Jews within the Christian imagination, and time and time again deadly pogroms and the expulsion of Jews from their homes were the result.

The Reformation, for all its revolutionary theologizing, left the demonic portrayal of the Jews intact and the logic of supersessionism remained a fixture within Protestantism. Indeed, Martin Luther’s rhetoric intensified the animus, most especially in his 1543 screed “The Jews and Their Lies.” There Luther advocates, among other things, that their synagogues be set on fire, their homes broken down and destroyed, Jews should be deprived of prayer books and Talmuds, passports and traveling privileges should be absolutely denied to the Jews, and “if we are afraid that they might harm us personally, let us apply the same cleverness (and proceed with expulsion) as the other nations, such as France, Spain, Bohemia and others.” (Cf., The Jew in the Medieval World, ed., Jacob Marcus. Harper Torchbook, 1965, pp. 167-169)

Although the historical record involves complexities well beyond the scope of this brief sketch, we need to bear in mind that Bach composed his music against this anti-Jewish backdrop. The depth and breadth of this bias is difficult for contemporary Americans to grasp. Contempt for the Jewish people was etched into the teaching and preaching of the church, carved in the portals of the cathedrals, sanctioned by the greatest Christian theologians and philosophers, reinforced by legal codes including political, social, economic practices. This prejudice was amplified in much of the sacred music. And let there be no mistake about this: the hate was not neutralized with the so-called Enlightenment and the birth of modernity and secularism.

The Christian legacy of hate was readily absorbed by fascist and totalitarian ideologies that had severed all ties with traditional religion. The ancient animus weathered the storms of revolutionary politics and provided the seedbed out of which modern anti-Semitism grew. Without the long history of Christian anti-Judaism, the virulent hatred of the Jewish people in Nazi ideology could not have taken hold. And it is only in the wake of the Shoah that Christians have begun to recognize the seriousness of the challenge. We are not talking ancient history, as a careful analysis of the rhetoric coming out of the Middle East and much of Europe makes painfully clear.
So I conclude by noting two key challenges for us to ponder.
The first is the challenge that faces Christians. The arduous task of confronting and disarming Christian supersessionism demands educational daring that has not been the hallmark of most churches. We Christians need to see ourselves through the eyes of the other, most especially the Jewish people. We need to learn how to tell our stories without laying claim to the whole playing field; we need to learn to sing our songs without drowning out every other melody. This is no small thing, because the major religions of the world have not learned how to engage one another constructively. Christians, Muslims and Jews have only begun to acknowledge that the old patterns that sanctioned ignorance, hostility, indifference, and avoidance have failed us. We have yet to recognize that our diversity is a blessing, and so it is little wonder that our religious communities easily slip into the deadly rivalries of the past.

The starting point for Christians is grounded in a core theological affirmation. God keeps God’s promises. If God were to abandon the Jews in favor of Christians, on what grounds could Christians maintain that God has not grown tired of our failures and passed the torch to Muslims or, for that matter, the Moonies. If God entered into a covenantal partnership with the people of Israel, as our scriptures declare, then God will remain faithful to this commitment. The covenant with Israel has not and will not be replaced, and that fidelity ought to register as good news for Christians.

The second challenge pertains to those who may think that they are immunized from this problem because they are not interested in religion. If the gospel of love can be twisted and placed into the service of hate, what then of art, architecture, music, drama, and literature? I was educated to believe that the humanities humanize…that the encounter with our cultural treasures expands our moral horizons, deepens our awareness of ourselves and broadens our sensitivities toward others. Yet how is it that the most advanced university system in the world could turn out so many technically competent barbarians? How are we to account for the fact that dedicated Nazi leaders could relish Dante in the evening, delight in the genius of Bach and Beethoven, and come morning go out about the business of murder with untroubled efficiency? In the words of the literary critic George Steiner, “when barbarism came to twentieth century Europe, the arts faculties in more than one university offered very little moral resistance, and this is not a trivial or local accident. In a disturbing number of cases the literary imagination gave servile or ecstatic welcome to political bestiality. That bestiality was at times enforced and refined by individuals educated in the culture of traditional humanism. The most refined aesthetic values and the utmost of hideous inhumanity could coexist in the same community, in the same individual sensibility.”

We live in a society that believes that it can buy and consume most anything. And much of what we swallow leaves us numb and distracted from the rugged, demanding realities of this world. As it turns out, the one thing that we cannot afford is complacency. We need to recognize that it is not just video games and Hollywood that present a challenge. Even our love of God or our love of Bach can be coupled with individual and institutional sadism. Therefore we must ask ourselves what our culture, in all its varied manifestations, is making of us. And what we in turn are making of our culture, Bach and John’s Gospel included.


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