Politically Correct Triumphalism


Luther burns the Papal bull in the square of Wittenberg year 1520
Karl Aspelin 1857-1922; WikimediaCommons

I have one request for my Protestant and Evangelical Christian friends:
When you remember the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation,

And talk about all the dirty, rotten practices and policies that were done in the name of the Catholic Church (and some that still continue to this day),

And triumphantly celebrate how the Reformers rose up out of it,

I ask that you keep in mind that in that Catholic Church there are real human beings with real feelings today. Catholics have great affection for their Church–it’s their home and family. They consider it sacred, beautiful and full of Mystery.

Catholics are having to learn this, too. We have been guilty of a bit too much triumphalism when talking about the Jewish tradition. You could argue that Christianity is, among other things, a reformation of Judaism. Jesus spoke out against many Jewish practices. We read in the Gospels how Jesus was treated poorly by his Jewish contemporaries–there was even a conspiracy to kill him which succeeded. It can be all-too-easy for Christians to conclude that much of the Judaism is obsolete, archaic and even harmful. It’s even in our language: Judaism represents the “Old Testament” and we are the “New.”

Just stop for a minute and think about how that might sound to a Jewish person.

Big-City Brother

Imagine you were born and raised on a farm in a small town and still live there today. Imagine you have a brother who moved to the city. Whenever that brother returns home for holidays, he continually talks about how much better city life is than the county and how glad he is that he left the farm. The impression he gives is that everything about city life is wonderful and sophisticated and everything about rural life is backwards and sterile. He can appreciate a few quaint details of farm life, but for the most part, he barely hides his pity for the people still stuck on the farm who haven’t experienced all the “great things” he has experienced in the city.

Certainly, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and every opinion has a history behind it–perhaps he was mistreated in that small town. However, he’s not just complaining about his own roots–he’s also criticizing your current home. He left many years ago and isn’t up-to-date on what’s currently happening–just because he left doesn’t mean that life and growth stopped happening on the farm. City living might work fine for him, but you may find farm life peaceful, healthy and enormously satisfying. You also wonder if, after a period of time, your brother may recognize that city life has problems of its own and come to appreciate rural life, again.

In the same way, Christians can act like Judaism is just a remnant of a bygone era that got surpassed by Christianity. Protestants and Evangelicals can think the same about the Catholic Church. We could easily appear to dance on the grave of these traditions.

However, neither Judaism nor Roman Catholicism is in the grave. The Jewish faith survived and even flourished after the birth of Christianity. The Jewish tradition is not where it was 2,000 years ago, and the Catholic Church is not where it was 500 years ago. Just because a group broke away does not mean that the original has completely stalled out. While some regard Jewish Law and culture as cumbersome and even unfair, others find it enormously liberating and reassuring. The same is true for Catholicism.

“The Jews”

For centuries, Catholics pulled no punches in their disdain for the way Jesus was treated by his Jewish contemporaries. That sentiment spilled over into disdain for all Jewish people in all times and places, with catastrophic consequences. The refrain “the Jews” echoes throughout John’s Gospel and rings like a battle cry–“the Jews” did this and “the Jews” did that, most of it with a negative connotation. That refrain haunted Medieval Europe and often erupted in epic violence. History is full of disturbing accounts of anti-Semitic prejudice, crippling segregation, torture, terrorism, imprisonment and the outright killing of Jewish people. The Inquisitions and Nazi holocaust are the most devastating consequences of centuries of bigotry and misplaced hatred. Anti-Semitism continues to have disturbing repercussions even to this day.

I’m not suggesting that Catholics are being persecuted as badly as the Jewish people. But I am saying that the way we all talk about each other has a real impact. Some of Europe’s bloodiest wars have stemmed from religious intolerance between Catholics and Protestants. In some parts of the world, this fighting is still very fierce even to this day. Many Catholics, Protestants and Evangelicals have experienced violence and even death as a result of this bigotry. Even when the bigotry doesn’t result in actual physical attacks, the psychological wounds can still be harmful.

The Catholic Church is learning how to be good neighbors to the Jewish people. We can celebrate the birth of Christianity while at the same time honoring and respecting the Jewish people and their incredible faith and tradition–a tradition which continues to produce amazing spiritual leaders and which brings inspiration to all of us worldwide.

Catholics are nowhere near done in our efforts to better relate to the Jewish people. We have documents of understanding. Popes and bishops work hard to promote reconciliation. Clergy are instructed in how to communicate respect from the pulpit. For example, check out this guide on the website of the US Catholic Bishops. It gives instructions for how to preach in relation to other faith traditions. Pages 3-4 give specific guidelines and stresses the importance of communicating respect and sensitivity about the Jewish history and faith.

It’s an ongoing process. One apology is rarely enough.

Ongoing Reformation for Us All

History can be a tough teacher for all of us. The Protestant Reformation has had its dark side. We could all easily look at the specks in each others’ eyes while neglecting the boulders in our own. Every church denomination has manifested the full range of human failings. Yes, the Reformers broke new and important ground that has enriched all of us; they also re-discovered many of the same sins all over again and perhaps generated new problems that were not there before. Every new moment begins with freshness and purity. After a while, we see the same old corruption, prejudice, appeals to power, gravitation toward money and political posturing creep into it. The act of reformation has to be ongoing.

Most educated Catholics are pretty upfront about the Reformation. We know there were embarrassing practices and much corruption in the 16th century. It was tragic to condemn the reformers who decided in their conscience to break away.

I believe the Catholic Church has done much to reconcile with the concerns of the Reformers. In fact, most (if not all) of Martin Luther’s concerns have been adopted by the Catholic Church in some fashion. We can now recognize the Reformation leaders like Martin Luther, Menno Simon and John Calvin as children of the Catholic Church–we can claim their influence and legacy as part of our own. In the same way, many Jewish people today can recognize Jesus of Nazareth and Paul of Tarsus as being great leaders that arose out of the Jewish tradition.

As a 41 year old raised in the Catholic Church, I cannot recall a single homily preached at Mass condemning the existence or practices of another religion or denomination. We’re not where we were 500 years ago. Perhaps, though, instead of patting ourselves on the back, we should instead ask the Jewish people, Protestants and Evangelicals if we have done enough to reconcile and soften our sharpness, rather than trusting our own judgment.


Triumphalism can feel good. It’s a great legacy when a group of people takes risks to stand up for what they feel is healthy reform. We all may be entitled to triumphantly celebrate from time to time. It’s good to savor those stories. Just keep in mind how your triumph might sound to someone who is being triumphed over.

Christianity started as a small movement that was often persecuted by the Jews and Romans. Eventually, though, Christianity became the big kid on the block. Unfortunately, Christians used a short period of mistreatment by Jewish people to justify 2,000 years of much more serious persecution in return. We can’t live in the past.

Likewise, a lot of Protestants and Evangelicals are living like it’s still the year 1517. By celebrating the reformation of the past, are we neglecting to see the need for a reformation today in our own home?

Lastly, though it’s not as much the focus of this piece, we should also remember that those who were left behind should also not be bitter or condemnatory. Divisions can hurt deeply, but people are entitled to follow their conscience and go their separate ways–especially when it may be your own narrowness and stubbornness that drove them to that decision in the first place!

Visit Frank Lesklo’s Blog The Traveling Ecumenist

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