Anti-Semitism at Easter: What Would Jesus Do?

Easter and Passover coincide this year, as they do fairly often. Perhaps the coincidence has served to heighten the concern of both Jews and Christians about an Easter tradition observed in Iceland. I wasn't aware of it until I saw a post at the Tundra Tabloids blog, which I follow for political news about Europe. The subject is an annual Lenten tradition of the National Icelandic Broadcasting Service (NIBS), involving a series of Easter poems, the "Passion Hymns," composed by a 17th-century writer and clergyman. Icelandic celebrities read the poems for the broadcasts.

The temptation to ignore this issue is powerful. One doesn't want to be a killjoy, and there's a strong likelihood that at least some readers will think modern concerns about the centuries-old verses of Hallgrimur Petursson are overblown.

But leaving the issue doesn't seem to be an option this week. I have the sense that Christians are being challenged to think about it: right now, in this generation, perhaps as a defining topic. For those who object to the Icelandic Passion Hymns, the point of concern is the verses' repetition of invective about the guilt and shame of Jews. Themes of this kind—e.g., the disparagement of Jews as "Christ-killers"—were a perennial factor in the gross mistreatment of Jews in Europe over the centuries.

Christian ears are not necessarily attuned to hear lines like Petursson's as anti-Semitic. For good reasons, however, Jewish ears are. To my ear, the series of lines cited at the Tundra Tabloids post comes across as overheated: zealous, accusing, pointed. There is a note of ecstatic, righteous passion against the Jews in the Hymns, and an un-Christlike triumphalism in the passage excerpted from page 132 (see the post):

And on the gentiles God will pour
The boundless riches of His grace.
What the Jews foolishly foreswore
He makes of us—a chosen race.

Writing poetry and hymns is all about picking words and choosing emphases. The Gospels and Paul's letters are one thing; I read the Gospels and do not come away with a sense that the Jews are uniquely culpable or uniquely accursed. But the writings of a 17th-century clergyman, who chose to emphasize certain ideas with emotive language, are another matter. I do come away from the available excerpts of Petursson's Passion Hymns with a sense of the Jews as villains.

Along with the leaders of our secular culture, modern Western Christians have repudiated our forebears' accusatory and often vicious attitude toward the Jews. The Catholic Church has vigorously rejected anti-Semitism, as have Protestant denominations (e.g., here and here). This conscious and determined repudiation has made a difference, perhaps especially in the United States. Today, it doesn't occur to America's mainstream Christian poets or songwriters to commemorate Easter by dwelling on the acts of the Jews. The focus is on Jesus and his triumph over death and the sins of all mankind.

It may be that the official repudiation of anti-Semitism by the leaders of Western culture has made our post-Holocaust generations complacent about echoes of anti-Jewish contumely from the past. Certainly the director of NIBS couched his public comments on the Passion Hymns controversy in those terms. "The hymns," he points out, were "written 350 years ago and they describe the poet's feelings about events that supposedly took place around 2000 years ago." In other words, the sentiments in the Passion Hymns are irrelevant to social or political reality today.

His justification for continuing to air the verses is that they are "a valued and cherished part of Iceland's cultural history and heritage." This consideration is not to be dismissed; the real question is whether it ought to be the decisive consideration. The argument can certainly be made from the secular, empirical perspective that with anti-Semitism on an alarming rise in Europe (see here and here as well), broadcasters ought to err on the side of greater caution about content that can be seen as anti-Semitic.

4/8/2012 4:00:00 AM
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    About J. E. Dyer
    J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval intelligence officer and evangelical Christian. She retired in 2004 and blogs from the Inland Empire of southern California. She writes for Commentary's CONTENTIONS blog, Hot Air's Green Room, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.