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Is the Church ever going to address the antisemitism in our liturgy?


Question & Answer

Q: By Terry
Is the Church ever going to address the antisemitism in our liturgy? The Jew hating is both blatant and subtle in the scriptures we read from Mark, Matthew, Luke, John and early Paul. You’d think 2,000 years of accusing the Jews of killing Jesus, being money grubbers, etc. was enough of this ugly stereotype. It is time the Church confronted its role in perpetuating all the antisemitism the first century Church created and the Church has perpetuated since.
A: By Rev. Roger Wolsey
Dear Terry,

Thank you for your question. It is a deeply pastoral one coming from a true place of awareness and concern. Indeed, many of the liturgies utilized in the regular worship services in quite a few denominations contain language that’s offensive to our Jewish friends. This is particularly noticed in certain Calls to Worship; Words of Institution and the Great Thanksgiving that are part of the sacrament of Holy Communion; and especially evident in many of the readings shared as part of special services during Holy Week prior to Easter Sunday. Good Friday most notably.

One piece of this is the readings from the Bible assigned on given days from the Lectionary. When the Gospel of John is featured, this is even more evident still.

The way John puts it, Pontius Pilate and Rome didn’t really want to kill Jesus, it was the Jews who wanted Jesus dead. As Dr. Elaine Pagels has indicated, as each of the Gospels were written chronologically they became increasingly more anti-Semitic in that they started shifting the blame away from Rome for the death of Jesus and onto the Jews. The Gospel of John is the zenith of this – with Pilate seemingly not really wanting to kill him – he’s portrayed as reluctantly allowing the execution due to the alleged pressure from “the Jews.” This is what led to Luther being so anti-Semitic. Which is in part what led Hitler to do what he did. This is demonstrated in several books and articles. For the record: Pontius Pilate was a ruthless killer and he wouldn’t’ve bothered to meet in person with anyone slated to be executed, let alone be concerned about any public pressures or preferences.

I know of quite a few progressive Christian congregations that are modifying the language used in liturgies – taking care to not blame “the Jews” for Jesus’ death. If they work with the texts from John for Good Friday, they’ll modify the wording to instead say “the public”, “the citizens”, “the mob”, “the masses”, etc. Some churches avoid using the texts from John re: Jesus death all together. In the same way that some churches modify the lyrics of old hymns to avoid condoning the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement, pastors and lay leaders should feel empowered to modify the texts for the Words of Institution and the Great Thanksgiving, as well as all denominational liturgies. Moreover, we’d do well to have a revision denominational liturgies all together, as well as calling for another revision of the Revised Common Lectionary.

~ Rev. Roger Wolsey
About the Author
Rev. Roger Wolsey is a United Methodist pastor who resides in Grand Junction, CO. Roger is author of Kissing Fish: Christianity for people who don’t like Christianity and blogs for Patheos as The Holy Kiss and serves on the Board of Directors of ProgressiveChristianity.Org. Roger became “a Christian on purpose” during his college years and he experienced a call to ordained ministry two years after college. He values the Wesleyan approach to the faith and, as a certified spiritual director, he seeks to help others grow and mature. Roger enjoys yoga; playing trumpet; motorcycling; and camping with his son. He served as the Director of the Wesley Foundation campus ministry at the University of Colorado in Boulder for 14 years, and has served as pastor of churches in Minnesota, Iowa, and currently serves as the pastor of Fruita UMC in Colorado, and also serves as the “CRM” (Congregational Resource Minister/Church Consultant) for the Utah/Western Colorado District of the Mountain Sky Conference.

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