The Christian Problem

The Christian Problem January 31, 2017

In nineteenth century Russia, and throughout Europe, the relationship between Christians and Jews were strained, not because Jews were causing harm to Christians, but because Christians consistently and unjustly attacked the Jews. Riots and pogroms killed many Jews falsely accused of ridiculous crimes such as blood libel. Claims of international conspiracy theories about the Jews and their desire to take over and destroy Europe were spread, and as a result, their rights and privileges in the societies they lived in were questioned, diminished, if not outright revoked. Paranoia fueled by propaganda justified grave evils done against the Jews. Anyone who spoke out against the evil would be given a litany of justifications, stating all the supposed evils of the Jews, all coming from twisted misrepresentation or outright creation of the facts.

This brought into political discussions the so-called “Jewish Problem.” How should the Jews be treated? What rights, if any, should they possess? Should they be forced to integrate into society and abandon their cultural and religious heritage? Why have they not been assimilated into the society and instead, have kept to themselves and their own traditions against the norm? What can be done to encourage them to become productive members of society by rejecting their own traditions when they came in conflict with the lands they live in? What should be done with them if and when they resist such forceful assimilation?

While the “Jewish Question” was sometimes raised by those who sought to defend the Jews from injustice, by focusing the question on the Jews, it put them on the defensive. The victims had to justify themselves instead of their unjust accusers. The victims were put on the dock, and as happens when the accused have to prove their innocence, the manner the question was raised made it nearly impossible for the Jews to defend themselves against their assailants.

Vladimir Solovyov See [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Vladimir Solovyov  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This is why Vladimir Solovyov saw the issue differently. He saw the question was fundamentally a question of Christians and how a society founded upon Christian principles should be run. The problem was not with the Jews, but with the Christians. They failed to lived up to Christ and Christ’s expectations. Their society was fundamentally unchristian, despite its invocation of Christian principles. The Jews were not the ones who should be put on the dock, the Christians were, and they had to accept not only the criticism of justice, which they failed, but of Christ and his new law, the law of love, which they denied in their actions. The opening of his “The Jews and the Christian Problem” demonstrated rather quickly the problem he thought Christians had to face:

The relations between Judaism and Christianity during the many centuries of their co-existence presents one remarkable feature. The Jews have always and everywhere regarded Christianity and behaved towards it in accordance with the precepts of their religion, in conformity with their faith and their law. The Jews have always treated us in the Jewish way; we Christians, on the contrary, have not learned to this day to adopt a Christian attitude to the Jews. They have never transgressed their religious law in relation to us; we, on the other hand, have always broken the commandments of the Christian religion in relation to them. If the Jewish law is bad, their obstinate loyalty to that bad law is, of course, regrettable. But if it is bad to be loyal to a bad law, it is far worse to be disloyal to a good law, to an absolutely perfect commandment. We have such a commandment in the Gospel. It is perfect, and for that very reason extremely difficult. Special help, however, is given to us – the help of grace which does not abolish the law, but gives us the strength to fulfill it. Consequently, if we first reject that help and then refuse to fulfill the Gospel commandment because we find it difficult, we have no excuse. The point is not whether the Gospel commandment is difficult, but whether it can be fulfilled. If it cannot, why should it have been given? In that case, the Jews are right in blaming Christianity for having introduced into the world fantastic ideas and principles which can have no practical application. But if the Gospel commandment is practical, if we can stand in a Christian relation to all, including the Jews, we are entirely to blame if we fail to do so. [1]

What Solovyov said about Christian relations with the Jews should not stop merely with the Jews, but should be true for all peoples, all nations, all religious groups and traditions. Christians are called to be Christians, to follow the Gospel commandments, in their treatment with anyone, Christian or non-Christian alike. They are not to act in accordance to how others treat them, but in how Christ told them to treat others: they are not to be like the non-believing Gentiles who treat others through selfish concern, but rather, to treat them as they would like to be treated, to love them, desiring just treatment for all. The Law is to be founded upon love:

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they came together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him.  “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”  And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:34 – 40 RSV).

All that is sin breaks the law of love. And that law remains with us, as Christians are expected to fulfill it. Christians are called to perfection, the perfection which is love, a love which manifests itself in seeing all as their neighbor. As to those who we can conventionally call our enemy, we must realize that our response still is the same, the response of love:

You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:43-8 RSV).

Christians should judge themselves in accordance to how they follow Christ, and what Christ told them to do, not according to the way they perceive non-Christians act. They cannot justify abuse of non-Christians because non-Christians do not hold the same faith as them. Nor can they justify mistreatment and bigotry against them merely because their ways can be shown to be in error. Christians cannot justify themselves on non-Christian grounds, for when they do, they repudiate Christ and affirm the non-Christians are fundamentally correct.  To see someone as an enemy requires us to love them, and so someone who is not seen as an enemy is also to be loved, for all to be our neighbor, as Jesus presented with the parable of the Good Samaritan.

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