The Subtle Problems in Affirming Christianity Without Offending Others


"Let his blood be on us and on our children!"

Ah, yes, the "blood curse." Jesus of Nazareth was innocent of the charges against him, according to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. But when Pilate tried to reason with the Jewish mob, he got nowhere. At last, in exasperation, washing his hands, Pilate cried: "I am innocent of this man's blood. It is your responsibility."

"All the people answered, 'Let his blood be on us and on our children!' " (Matthew 27:25).

Words to launch pogroms. The Jews went down in Christian history as "Christ-killers."

But almost 2,000 years have passed since the events recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Do we believe today that this account is historically accurate? And even if we accept the story as literally true, was it Jewish blindness or human nature that cried out for blood?

The questions came to Baltimore last week with the monster musical "Jesus Was His Name," a $24 million extravaganza in the midst of a 32-city North American tour. (The show's final performance is at the Baltimore Arena today.)

The play is a multi-media story of the life and death of Jesus, blending 58 live actors with 70mm film clips projected on an 80-foot screen. One of its authors is Robert Hossein, co-creator of the great hit "Les Miserables." "His Name Was Jesus" was a smash success in France before Radio City Music Hall mounted the present production.

Yes, but is it anti-Semitic? That's the first question that has to be asked about any Passion play -- a dramatization of the death of Jesus.

"At least the blood curse ['Let his blood be on us and on our children!'] has been deleted," says Arthur J. Dewey, professor of religion at Xavier University, a Roman Catholic college in Cincinnati. Yet, he concludes, "This work plays upon the unconscious prejudices of the Christian audience without challenging them to reimagine or re-evaluate the Passion material."

So, one thumbs-down. . . .

Another Roman Catholic perspective comes from John Cardinal

O'Connor, archbishop of New York: "As one who abhors imputing guilt to the Jewish people for the crucifixion of Jesus, I do not find in the text of . . . [the] play . . . any support of such a charge."

Note the nuances of the both statements. Professor Dewey doesn't call the play anti-Semitic, but thinks it is not radical enough. Cardinal O'Connor confines his judgment to the text; if the overall impression turns out to be offensive -- well, he never actually endorsed anything but the written script, which consists entirely of Biblical quotations.

Jewish watchdog groups are similarly nuanced. The program distributed to those who attend performances of "Jesus Was His Name" contains a carefully qualified endorsement by the Anti-Defamation League:

"We take note that Radio City Music Hall Productions was sensitive to these issues and actively initiated meetings to seek the advice and judgment of responsible agencies within the Jewish community in order to assure understanding of their intention to deliver a message of tolerance for our troubled times."

But last month in Cincinnati, where the show made its second stop on the current tour, the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee, joined by Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars and clergy, expressed its "considered judgment [that] the production fails to reflect recent New Testamant scholarship. It also ignores many of the guidelines for dramatization of the life of Jesus of both the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Conference of Christians and Jews."

Again, what does that mean? Is this a play that misrepresents Christianity and offends Judaism -- or just one that "ignores guidelines" and "fails to reflect scholarship?"


Here is my confession: I have written a Passion play.

It was only a little one, acted by 9th- and 10th-graders in a Sunday school class I taught. Still, it may be that I have more experience with Passion plays than some of the scholars and moralists pronouncing on the profound issues of Christian-Jewish relations.

And a further confession: I deliberately included the "blood curse."

A problem common to great auteurs staging "Romeo and Juliet" or "King Kong" and to meek Sunday School teachers whipping teen-agers through a dramatization of the Passion is this: How do we tell a story that everyone knows in a way that will cause a torpid audience to bestir itself and say, "Geez, that's fascinating; I had never thought of it that way"?

Not by following some authoritative body's guidelines, I think.

I organized my play around the Roman soldiers who actually carried out the crucifixion. Of course, we don't know much about them from "recent scholarship" or "guidelines for dramatization." But I served in the Army; I know something about soldiers. One of the things I know is that there is much truth in the "Beetle Bailey" comic strip. To dramatize the Passion from the point of view of a group of apathetic, goof-off soldiers highlighted (so I thought) the obscenity of the crucifixion. Also, that year I had mostly boys in the class.

And I included gratuitous anti-Semitic slurs. The soldiers, as I conceived them, had not the faintest understanding of what they were doing. Some Jew had to be put to death, so they crucified pTC him, and joked about it while they were at it. That was their job.

And I cast a girl as Jesus, to highlight the contrast between the sweet innocence of the victim and the knockabout indifference of the crucifiers.

The rest of the kids in the class were the howling mob that shouted "Let his blood be on us and on our children!" But they weren't playing Jews, or at least the play didn't identify them as such. They sat in the audience and shouted, making the point that we -- we Christians -- by our sinful self-absorption crucify Jesus all over again in every generation.

My Passion play was certainly "ahistorical" (a girl as Jesus?). And paid no heed to the guidelines of the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Was it therefore anti-Semitic? I say not! Was it successful? Was it offensive? One middle-aged woman told me she thought it was blasphemous (bad language), but she was going home to think about it some more. That's all I ever wanted -- to make her think new thoughts about a story she had known since childhood.

But if Christians cannot explore their faith without offending other Christians, what hope is there that they can they do so without offending Jews?

... It's a problem that preoccupies the Rev. Christopher M. Leighton, who directs the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies.

"Can I be true to my faith in a pluralistic world?" he asks. It is a different question from "Can I get along with those of different faiths?" Prayer breakfasts specialize in bringing together those of different faiths to mumble anodyne words about how it's all the same God anyway.

Dr. Leighton's search is for something different: He wants to profess an uncompromised Christianity, without "building my faith on the back of other people's beliefs." For "other people," read Jews.

Fortunately, Jews as well as Christians share Dr. Leighton's preoccupation. The Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies was founded in 1987. Operating out of a Bolton Hill office, it asks Jews and Christians, both clergy and lay, to confront their differences and "develop the resources within their respective communities . . . to appreciate the legitimacy and distinctiveness of each religion."

It shouldn't be so difficult. Jesus was an observant Jew, and Christianity began within Judaism. Although Christians and Jews had their sectarian differences (as sectarianism affects both religions today), the fundamental codification of the Christian faith in 325, the Nicene Creed, which is still used today by both Protestants and Roman Catholics, did not blame Jews for the death of Jesus; it blamed the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) said that guilt for the crucifixion "seems more enormous in [Christians] than in the Jews, since . . . we profess to know [Jesus], yet deny him by our actions." This is the current teaching of practically all Christian denominations; it is the way I was taught as a child, and it is why, "guidelines" or no, I incorporated the "blood curse" into my Passion play -- as an indictment of ourselves.

But of course, history will not so easily be dismissed. Ancient creeds, sometimes for centuries at a time, suffer the fate of blue-ribbon presidential commissions: Everyone quotes them and then ignores them.

In every Christian country in practically every century, including our own, Jews were accused falsely of ritual murders, of desecrations, of drinking the blood of Christian babies. Holy Week, the week leading up to the commemoration of Jesus' death and resurrection, became a particularly dangerous time for European Jews. In some places Jews would be seized and ritually struck on the face in retribution for the crucifixion.

And then came the Holocaust. Hitler did not claim to be acting in the name of Christianity; but neither did many Christians stand against him.

To combat this legacy of hatred and mistrust, the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies has engaged the nine largest Christian denominations in Maryland and the four branches of Judaism in a variety of programs. The grand strategy, according to the institute's prospectus, is to "pull the best scholarship out of the ivory tower and translate academic insight into the life of the church and synagogue, seminary and university, school and community center."

In one program, scholars wrote commentaries on the Biblical texts used by Christian ministers in preaching on the Passion events, warning them of possible anti-Judaic traps in the scriptures.

In another, members of Jewish congregations attend courses to examine misconceptions Jews may have about Christian belief and the development of Christianity.

The institute has developed a program to guide seminary instruction on Jewish and Christian traditions; and Presbyterian, Lutheran and Episcopalian groups have undertaken denominational projects on Jewish-Christian relations.

"Memories," says Dr. Leighton, "contain a power which can drive people apart or pull them together. Whether our religious and ethnic allegiances contribute to the building up or the tearing down of our society will in large measure depend on our ability to decipher the meaning of religious rhetoric, identify explosive stereotypes, disarm ancient hatreds and deal creatively with our diversity."

Hal Piper is editor of The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.

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