And so it happened that I discovered I had family at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. My cousin and her family were not at the synagogue the day, of the shooting, and we went offline to talk at greater length. She explained to me that “the people in the synagogue on that day, a non-holiday, were the ‘dailies.’ The old people, the devout. The mentally challenged (the two brothers were long time family friends of my husband's, and we will be going to their funerals and Shiva once the bodies are released from the crime investigation). In the Catholic church from my experience, they would have been the daily mass goers, the rosary leaders, the lectors….”
A little later she offered me this thought: “Hi Tom, a little more on the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings, that I thought you might want to hear ... Someone on twitter mentioned that the neighbors of the shooter said, "he just seemed normal." I wonder if "normal" included the basic, low-level, racist crap that you and I both were exposed to growing up. The point from the twitter post was - this is the elephant in the room. This is the underlying cancer that grew into this tragedy. How do you cure racism? Maybe the "broken window" approach from law enforcement - if everyone starts calling out the day to day "cringy" comments/jokes, maybe it starts to make a difference….”
It would be a wonderful thing if American Catholicism had responded with more outrage to the events of Squirrel Hill, if catechists had set aside the prepackaged curriculums for last week, if preachers had torn up the usual bland offerings from the pulpit for some very candid talk about the sinfulness of racism and antisemitism, if Knights of Columbus chapters across the country as a whole had volunteered to assist with security in what is now open season on God’s Chosen People. Incidence of both on-line threats and physical vandalism, such as Friday’s desecration of the Union Temple of Brooklyn, should rouse some sort of reaction from all individuals and congregations that call Jesus Christ their Lord and Savior.
The older I get, the more I read and see, I am coming to the conclusion that “the elephant in the room” in my own Roman Catholicism is our failure not simply to speak out against words and deeds of anti-Semitic mindsets, but our reluctance to acknowledge our own history, that as a Church we have a long history of denying our role as agonists and perpetrators of hatred of Jews. Dissection of the rage borne by the anti-Semitic rabble among us is complex, though it probably stems from an internal conflict in first century synagogues between those who believed that Jesus was the anointed savior and those who could not acknowledge that the Almighty would subject himself to the ignominy of the cross. Expressions of this gulf find their way into the Christian Scriptures themselves. Honest Catholic Scripture scholars have conceded that there are several instances where anti-Semitic sentiment has impacted the very words of the Gospels, notably Matthew 27:25, “his blood be upon us and upon our children."
The perpetuation of the unfortunate term “deicide” or “God killers” served as a pivot for a faulty theology and social segregation and degradation amount over two millennia. In the classroom I constantly remind catechists that the two prominent religious denominations in Hitler’s Germany were Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism. To be honest, this does not get much of a rise in the classroom. I can only attribute this in my religious community to a woeful lack of understanding and emphasis; Catholics—at least in many of the blogsites I encounter, worry more about the means of spacing births by married couples that the preservation of our mothers and fathers in faith, the people of Abraham, Moses and the Prophets.
In 1965 the Catholic Church’s reform council, Vatican II, took modest steps to counter Scriptural justification for hatred of the Jews. Modest steps were the most possible for the world’s bishops raised in an anti-Semitic world, but this statement, from the Council proclamation Nostra Aetate, was a definitive start: “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. The Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.”
My cousin is correct that we grew up with “the basic, low-level, racist crap” that today continues to show its ugly teeth. I recall that after the election of President John Kennedy in 1960, a joke circulated in my extended family that we must all “work with vigor or be replaced with a n-----.” As an altar boy in the late 1950’s the official Catholic formulary for the Good Friday service referred to the Jews as perfidious. We know from the entire body of Scripture, the Hebrew and Christian texts, that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, without distinction. But for those of us who are baptized Christians, when we love Christ, we are loving the Jew, for that in fact is who Jesus is.
Again, I refer to this from time to time in class or here in the blog, and the reality seems foreign even to lifelong Catholics. Modern catechesis has dropped the ball here in its discussion of Jesus as the “first Christian” who came to promote a new “branding” at the expense of his family, his soul, and his tradition. Antisemitism in any form is a rejection of the Word made Flesh and a willful rejection of God’s Word. Catholicism’s long culture of anti-Semitic speech and behavior is a sin that that has greased the skids for other lies in our history up to and including the present day. The lack of institutional honesty in the matter of clerical child abuse comes immediately to mind.
No one is adequately catechized in the Catholic tradition without immersion in our Judaean roots, and any attempts to rally faith in Jesus cannot succeed without holding dear what he held dear—his religious identity. When it came time for his disciples to defend him, they ran away. When our Jewish brethren in faith are under assault—in Pittsburgh, in Brooklyn, in a nationalist gang meeting, in subtle “jokes”—do we drop our swords and run, continuing the Christian tradition of the original sin?