Last week. Freya wrote about how her Jewish heritage and current events have prompted her family to make plans to leave the United States. As I noted then, her post originated with a fascination of other cultures on my part. Months ago, I expected to see something interesting and learn more about other people. Months ago, I did not expect her to have to make such a dire announcement.
That’s exactly because I understood so little about Jewish culture outside of stereotypes and punchlines.
Let’s take a step back, though. Let’s take a look at what I’ll admit I once considered racism’s pernicious little brother: anti-semitism.
I don’t need to reflect on how violent anti-semitism has proudly existed for thousands of years.
I don’t need the Bible’s depictions of oppression and hate to believe.
I have the privilege(?) of having many Klu Klux Klan members in my family. I can hear all the anti-semitism I can tolerate (and much more) at a family reunion.
Yet for all the glaringly acute cases like the Holocaust or much of the Middle East’s hate for the state of Israel, I’ve spent most of my life considering those to be occasional flare-ups, like questionable moles that need to be removed from time to time.
In recent years, I’ve come to see anti-semitism as what it is: a malignant undercurrent that occasionally manifests in horrible ways but never really goes away.
The apparent resurgences are strictly that: apparent. Satan’s plans and the sin of Man combine to nourish racism even when we do not see it. Scenes like those that played out weeks ago in Charlottesville (and which are promised to occur elsewhere) do not happen overnight.
Even the extremes of the Holocaust aren’t an overnight thing. In recent decades, countless people have asked questions like “How could everyday Germans put up with that?” Well, I think anyone with enough of a brain to ask such a philosophical question would know the answer cannot be simplistic.
It’s worth noting the mindset of German culture at the time. In a couple years, we’ll be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles which officially ended World War I. Such a thing could not be celebrated in Germany though not because of sore loser syndrome.
The Treaty was notoriously one-sided. Germany’s military was functionally neutered, their economy was crippled by reparations ($442 billion in modern USD), and territories containing millions of would-be taxpayers were surrendered. It’s easy for us Allied Powers to look back and say, “Serves you right for starting a war.” But imagine being an “everyday” German at the time.
In any other country in the world, patriotism was plausible. Germans could not raise an army to defend themselves from those who could seek vengeance. They had to tolerate foreign military occupation for over a decade. The paid out so much in reparations that even foreign economists considered them counterproductive. A defeated bully felt bullied.
Germans were a prideful sort and could not numb to the League of Nations continuing to kick them while they were down. They were the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation, some of history’s greatest composers (Beethoven, Mozart, Bach), recent memory’s great minds (Planck, Gauss, Nietzsche), and the Holy Roman Empire. They were failing to achieve traditional German excellence, and it seemed like the rest of the world was working actively against them.
And thanks to the dolchstosslegende, many on the political right laid the blame for all this squarely on the shoulders of Jews. Germany, you see, could not have failed. It must have been non-German influence like those “dirty Jews”. In later years, Nazi propaganda would only stir up the antisemitism that was already in place.
Thanks in large part to the strong religious tradition set forth by Martin Luther, the German Evangelical Church’s strong handhold in the culture posed a challenge to Nazi ideals which ran counter to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
With a subtle and “tolerable” insertion of the Aryan Paragraph in the midst of ecumenical efforts, German Christianity as a whole unified under a patriotic path that just happened to have a small but only mildly inconvenient hint of official anti-semitism (Jews could not become clergy). Confessing Church members like Dietrich Bonhoeffer worked against it, but most German Christians preferred to align with mainstream ideals of God and Country.
Those who might have been on the fence fell to propaganda fueled by the national hero Luther’s late-in-life ramblings that delved into downright racism in his On the Jews and Their Lies, where he encouraged people to “set fire to their synagogues or schools” and demanded the end of Jewish teaching “on pain of loss of life and limb”. His younger self called such people “absurd theologians”, but this was conveniently left out by Nazi propagandists.
With strategic prodding over time, German Christians started aligning anti-semitism with Christianity itself.
Let’s be clear, though. The majority of the country was not anti-semitic. Rather, they were tolerant of the occasional outspoken anti-semite. The country as a whole did not embrace anti-semitism. Rather, they embraced anti-semites and propagated their ideals.
In the mind of the common German, Hitler wasn’t a Jew hater. He was a charismatic, brilliant, inspiring man who promised to restore Germany to its former glory. And who, they learned, just happened to distrust Jews.
I hate how political aligning this becomes, and I’m really trying not to draw parallels to current events. Yet there’s an undeniable pattern. I recently read “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” and it was difficult to not connect the dots to modern events.
So many today see anti-semitism as just another viewpoint, albeit an archaic, unfavorable one. At the risk of jumping on a bandwagon, we have a President who condemns the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides” (emphasis mine). And we console ourselves with thoughts that most of the torch rally were probably harmless, dumb frat boys and that antifa protesters were violent, too. It’s easier to place blame in a noncommittal way when we can blame both sides of an argument.
Actively combatting injustice is hard work, and we’ve all already got full-time jobs.
My favorite line from this World War 2 era anti-Nazi propaganda video: “Yeah, but he was talking about– well, about those other people.”
It’s easy to dismiss anti-semitism and other prejudices when it’s not you. If you’re an everyday German without Jews in the family, what’s the harm of a Nazi party?
Jews, though, are perpetually “those other people”. And this is what I did not truly appreciate. Jews were fathered by Abraham, but in many ways they were raised by Egyptian slavery.
The redemptive story of Jesus was received so well by Jews under the yoke of Roman oppression because they were conditioned to be redeemed. Through the Exodus, God used Moses to redeem the Hebrew people out of Egypt. God used Nehemiah to help Israel out from under Persian oppression. God even used the heathen Cyrus to free Israel from Babylonian oppression. Jesus was expected to repeat the pattern (albeit in a more direct manner).
We Christians often make the mistake of assuming Jewish prominence due to their “chosen people” status. In reality, Israel had a very very brief dominance of the region before splintering and eventually being swallowed by its neighbors. Jews have a long history beyond that, and the majority of that has been one of marginalization at best.
In reality, most ethnic groups experience bloodshed and prejudice. Few groups last so long and spread so far, though, and hate isn’t usually given the opportunity to simmer and stew for millennia as it has for the Jewish people. They have come to expect such things. Jews are, at their core, a people of remembrance. And perhaps that is why they have survived so long.
They never stop resisting anti-semitism. They never ignore it. They never pretend it’s not real or substantial. They cannot afford to. When possible, some experience a microcosmic exodus on their own to escape it. But they know it never goes away. To be Jewish is to know anti-semitism.
John, Clara, and I will miss Freya and her husband. And while I can’t fully comprehend the unease they must feel, I can listen and appreciate it. I can learn. I can hope to prevent seeing the future repeat itself. I can hope we prove Freya wrong.
Even if they realize later that this was all unnecessary, they’ll never feel silly for having taken this step. That’s not, as I’m seeing, Jewish. They can’t feel silly for caution. In a grimly Darwinian way, that’s been driven out of them as a whole.
As much as evangelicals lump “social justice warriors” into a bucket full of unrealistic snowflakes, we should recognize Jesus as exactly that. He fought for the physical health of those around him, worked against those who would condemn the downtrodden, and showed particular love to those that were outside popular culture. The more you study into His teachings and the New Testament culture, the more you see Him actively undermining prejudices left and right.
Jesus was a warrior for social justice. Paul described Him as one who makes all equal in Galatians 3:28:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
And as white Christians, I believe we must take clear steps to condemn things like this modern anti-semitism. We ask why everyday Germans didn’t reject the Nazis. We ask why everyday Muslims don’t condemn the extremists. All politics aside, we should never be in a place where someone could ask the same of us.
We have a Christian duty to love others and reject evil.
Where to start? Well, if you haven’t read Bonhoeffer’s biography, start there. It’s a fascinating story of an everyday German pastor recognizing evil and navigating a Germany he loved despite its leadership. From church politics to plots to assassinate Hitler, this near-pacifist had to reconcile his theology and his life in a world where good and evil often lived under the same roof.
Next, begin listening.
We don’t all have to agree, but if we’d set aside our political views and biases long enough to hear the pain, fear, and frustration in the other side’s voice, we might begin to appreciate their position. We’re under no obligation to agree with their politics or support their candidates or attend their rallies to appreciate their perspective.
This goes way beyond anti-semitism, but that’s a good starting point. When I hear Freya tell me it’s time for her to uproot and move her family, I can in my head say, “That’s a little extreme.” After all, as I’ve told Clara in response to this, Americans today just don’t tolerate that sort of nonsense. I can doubt whether I’d make the same call in her shoes.
Yet in my heart, I can say, “I love you guys; how can I help?” I can appreciate her uneasy tension, the sense of caution that’s something short of fear but is nonetheless actionable. I can understand that Hitler failed to rise once before in the Munich Putsch, yet later came to fame over the same people who imprisoned him. As I’ve said before that pop culture is fickle. I can doubt whether I’d make any other call in her shoes.
- Love leads to listening.
- Listening leads to appreciation.
- Appreciation leads to validation.
- Validation leads to trust.
- Trust leads to authenticity.
- Authenticity leads to truth.
- Truth leads to God.
- God is love.