Anti-Semitism at Easter: What Would Jesus Do?

But we humans are masters of rationalization, and we convince ourselves repeatedly with arguments that are narrow, negative, or self-serving. I suspect quite a few people would agree that it's really no big deal to broadcast the Petursson Passion Hymns—and many would put the issue in terms of the Icelanders' "right" to broadcast and listen to works from their cultural heritage. The language of rights is powerful and compelling today. American libertarians, including Christian and Jewish ones, might well agree that passages from the Hymns are anti-Semitic, but nevertheless defend the Icelanders' right to air them.

To me, this issue throws into relief something Jesus advocated, and, with his atoning death and resurrection, made possible. Our human ideas of law and fairness always have us triangulating against each other, reverting to the language of "rights," adhering to rules, and struggling to look past the standard that is required of us. But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his followers that they would have to be "more righteous than the Pharisees and teachers of the law"—and he laid out a remarkable picture of what that would look like (Matthew 5:20-48; all citations NIV). It's clear from what follows that Jesus did not mean the teachers of the law were unrighteous. He meant that the law they studied and sought scrupulously to follow was not enough; that to transform ourselves and our relations with each other, we have to go beyond the requirements of the law.

We tend to forget his stark description of how that works. In addition to the passage in Matthew 5, Luke 6:27-41 admonishes us to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, forgive unstintingly, and avoid passing judgment on our fellow men. It was in this context that Jesus presented the Golden Rule: "Do to others as you would have them do to you" (Lk. 6:31). This was not a negative but a positive command: it is not about refraining from hurting others, but about actively seeking to do them good, no matter how they behave.

Jesus' concept of "doing to others," and of surpassing the righteousness based on the law, is something that can't be bounded by our impulse for measurement and reciprocity. The point here is not that Jews need the forgiveness of Christians (the historical reality is more nearly the opposite); the point is that Jesus' approach is unnatural for us, because it is limitless and open-ended. We crave defined limits to our obligation. We can't come to the conclusions of Jesus' philosophy on our own. Our nature resists it, always seeking perfectly rational justifications to do less.

The legalist would point out, for example, that God never told Cain he was his brother's keeper (Gen. 4:8-10), nor did God establish that particular principle in the Law. But with Jesus, the whole proposition is different: it's not about obligation but about love and giving. What Jesus said was: "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (Jn. 15:13).

Sometimes I think we have no concept of the liberty—the enlargement, and the power for good—that we have in Jesus Christ. But the generations on earth today may well be the ones that begin to truly grasp it. We live in difficult, unsettling times, and our complacency about the solutions of secular statism is faltering—as a similar complacency about divine-right monarchy once did. I think we are increasingly ready to learn something new.

When it comes to anti-Jewish sentiment in the cultural heritage of a people, organized humanity has limited options: it can either affirm a "right" to offensive broadcasts, or seek to prohibit and control the people's intellectual activities. Suasion, moreover, based solely on secular principles and legal definitions may or may not work. A people's cultural heritage is an important thing—and few of us propose to give up our beliefs or practices, after all, when others find them offensive.

But Jesus' legacy to us isn't about weighing competing claims of "right" and coming up with a correct solution. It is about how we are empowered to treat each other. It is about the intentions of our hearts as we live in the presence of God. In this Easter season, it's good to remember that the "Jesus question" is not "What action is right according to the principles of law?" It is, rather, "What action shows that I love my neighbor as Christ loved me?" As regards the anti-Semitic elements in the heritage of the European peoples, I don't think there is really much question what the answer is.

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.