Let's Be Better Neighbors

November 5, 2018 by Erin Palmer

Regrettably, I am desensitized to mass violence. This became clear to me on October 27 when I learned of the massacre at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—my home state. I moved on with my day and reengaged in the conference I was attending and the work I did that night. I have not always been this way. I have grieved for days in the wake of other mass shootings. But as the frequency of acts of mass and public violence increases, I find it harder to emotionally engage with each one. 

Though sheltered from much of the world’s violence, the threat of violence has always been normal to me. I am of the first generation of Americans—Gen Y, Millennials, or “the Columbine generation”—to have regularly participated in active shooter drills in school. My desensitization began when my high school used unannounced drills as opportunities to search for drugs. My classmates and I assumed every unannounced drill was a drug search—until one day it wasn’t. And even that day, no real violence followed the real threat from an angry young woman who wrote a hit list on a bathroom wall to scare her classmates.

I only allow in the emotional reaction when mass violence becomes personal. The massacre at Pulse night club was personal because two of my friends in Orlando had been to Pulse. The Tree of Life Synagogue shooting became personal when I learned the shooter had announced his intention to “go in” to the synagogue from a social media profile that included a reference to John 8:44. His translation and use of the scripture took this verse out of its context as part of a chapters-long debate between Jesus and other Jewish leaders of his time. The Gospel writer includes this story as he engages in the first- and second-century debate over what it means to be a Jesus follower and how that might be different from other ways of following God. I could no longer stay checked-out emotionally, personally, or professionally from this mass shooting; the assailant used Christian scripture—texts sacred to me, my family, and my work—to support his anti-Semitism. It was personal.

As much as we might like to ignore or deny it, anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish sentiment arises throughout Christian history, tradition, and Bible interpretation. It shows up in obvious and subtle ways. We are often good at engaging it, dealing with it, and working through it when it is obvious in our scriptures. Many commentaries clarify that the text the synagogue shooter cited is often taken out of context and used against modern Jews. Wesley Hill, a professor who lives and teaches just outside Pittsburgh, struggles with the verse’s long and too-recent history. (Click here for the article.) Many New Testament scholars with teaching posts at colleges and universities abandoned their lesson plans and sat down with their students to discuss this verse and its textual and historical context on Monday. Yet we often ignore the harm our subtle anti-Jewish interpretations do to our Jewish friends and neighbors.

As an editor for a Christian publishing house that is a well-respected institution of Christian spiritual formation, I consider it part of my daily work to eradicate subtle anti-Jewish sentiment from Christian teaching and interpretation. I am thankful for mentors who instilled in me the importance and ongoing nature of this work. There is always more to learn about the ways Christians across history, Christian traditions, and Christian interpretations of the Bible—both New Testament and the scriptures we have carried over from the Hebrew Bible as our Old Testament—hurt our Jewish friends and neighbors or belittle their traditions.

From its beginning as a movement of Jesus-following Jews and, later, Jesus-following Samaritans and Gentiles, what we now call Christianity has always interacted with and differentiated itself from Jews and Judaism. It is part of the difficulties of being the younger sibling to another religion, and it is part of the context of John 8. Who among us has not said hurtful things to our older siblings or parents as we carve out our identity as separate from theirs? Yet as we grow, we learn two things: 

  1. We cannot fully separate ourselves from those who have come before us; and 
  2. When we do find it necessary to claim our own identity, we can do so without disparaging or hurting those from whom we wish to differentiate ourselves.

At The Upper Room, my colleagues and I work on this task every day. We learn from one another how to handle sensitive conversations with each other and with our authors. This part of our work is an ongoing process of learning how to be more loving neighbors to our closest siblings in faith. I want to understand where Christian anti-Jewish sentiment and interpretation comes from and learn new—and sometimes old—ways of interpreting scriptures that are not harmful to others.

I work with my authors to understand and revise “acceptable” Christian anti-Jewish interpretation in almost every project. None of the authors know that their initial interpretations could be considered anti-Jewish. They are eager to learn and be better. Most anti-Jewish interpretation of Christian scripture is done without malice; it is out of unawareness on the part of the writer and negligence, lack of nuance, or unawareness on the part of the author’s teachers and popular and well-respected Christian resources. Preachers and teachers who rely solely on these resources then pass along subtly anti-Jewish interpretations to congregations and students, who then go on to hurt Jewish friends and neighbors.

I believe Christians can be better neighbors than harmful interpretations of scripture allow us to be. In striving to be better, we will have to be honest and humble, even when it is hard. This work likely will never be done. I am grateful to work in a place that believes in prayer as one of our best avenues for loving and forgiving ourselves and loving and forgiving our neighbors. So today I invite you to pray with The Upper Room for the victims of Christian anti-Semitism. We invite you to pray with us for our Jewish siblings whose beings reflect the image of God and whose bodies and hearts are harmed by violence against them. We invite you to pray for us and for Christian leaders who unintentionally perpetuate anti-Jewish interpretations of Christian scripture. We ask you to pray with us that we might all be open to the ongoing process of learning to be better neighbors. When you are ready, we invite you to pray for Christians who perpetuate anti-Jewish sentiment or anti-Semitism that they might be led by God to understand how their words and actions hurt their fellow children of God.

God of us all, help us to love one another as you love each of us. May we be open to your guidance as we go forward together. Amen.

Erin Palmer serves as an Assistant Editor for The Upper Room with a focus on The Upper Room Disciplines.

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