When I was in seminary and doing field education at my first church, I was handed a script for a Good Friday service a few minutes before we were to begin. And it went something like this:
Me: And then the Jews said...
Congregation: Crucify him, Crucify him!
I heard myself say the words and take part in this ritual and it made me physically sick. I couldn't believe that this was the liturgy that this kind, little church had been using for the past decades, maybe longer. But even worse, I found myself participating in it; perpetuating an anti-Jewish theology of deicide that I knew was wrong, but feeling helpless to do anything about it.
I swore that I would never be a part of such a service again. And I wasn't, until I went to a Good Friday service at my progressive church last year that has a penchant for high liturgy and a reputation for superb music. They sang -- in beautiful tones, in a lovely sanctuary -- the same crucifixion narrative told in the Gospel of John that claims that Jesus was crucified by the Jews, and the blame is upon them. To make matters so much worse, the liturgy was followed by a sermon that never mentioned the anti-Judaism in the liturgy, as if it didn't warrant a correction.
And I felt betrayed by my church all over again.
It should not matter that I am from an interfaith family and my closest cousins are Jewish. All Christians should be disgusted by the continued use of this kind of language in our liturgy that blames the Jews for Jesus' horrific death on the cross.
Stating that the Jews killed Jesus is untrue, it has led to violence against Jews over the last two thousand years, and it betrays Jesus himself on the very day when we observe his crucifixion.
I spoke to Professor Mary Boys who teaches at Union Theological Seminary and recently wrote a book called Redeeming our Sacred Story: The Death of Jesus and Relations between Jews and Christians. Professor Boys explained that, "the Gospels are not a playback documentary of what happened two thousand years ago."
Professor Boys emphasized to me what crucifixion really was: "Crucifixion functioned as a state sanctioned punishment to terrorize and pacify the population for Roman rule." In other words, Christians need to understand that crucifixion was simply not something that the Jews could order.
Ignorant or willful misunderstanding of the death of Jesus has led to horrible oppression of Jewish people over the last two thousand years. Christians celebrating Easter should remember that Good Friday was a day when Christians went on rampages against Jews often leading to their deaths. If you need any proof there is a fun lemonade drink popular in Spain around Easter called "Matar Judios" or "Kill Jews."
Of course, the most obvious reason to get rid of this horrible language is because it obscures the fact that Jesus was a Jew, and that all his followers were Jewish, every disciple, all the early people of the Jesus movement were Jewish. To say Jews killed Jesus erases Jesus' true identity -- which was as a Jew.
I asked Professor Boys what we should do about the problem of anti-Jewish narratives within Christian churches and she was very succinct: "We have to change the liturgies. The passion narratives should not be read without commentary on who Jesus was and what his wider ministry was about."
Now I should interject here that most religions have passages that foster animosity towards outside groups. Certainly Judaism has passages in their liturgies that are similarly uncomfortable. What I am calling for, in a broader sense, is an educational effort across the board on these difficult and often violent passages in our scriptures, and to develop some consensus on how to deal with them.
The great scholar of the Gospel of John Raymond Brown was acutely aware of the presence of anti-Jewish language in the text having spent his life studying it. Here are his thoughts:
An initial response is... to omit the anti-Jewish sections from the public reading of the passion narrative. In my opinion, a truer response is to continue to read the whole passion, not subjecting it to excisions that seem wise to us, but once having read it, then to preach forcefully that such hostility between Christian and Jew cannot be continued today and is against our fundamental understanding of Christianity.
I have to say that this seems like probably the best solution. We can't pretend like these texts don't exist, but we can explain why it is impermissible and a betrayal of Jesus to use these texts to continue the horrible anti-Jewish sentiment that has plagued Christianity.
For more resources go to Critical Reflections on the Passion Narrative of the Good Friday Liturgy by J. Frank Henderson.
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