Forgive me, an atheist student of Christianity, for intruding in your affairs. But what am I saying? You guys just forgive everything, don’t you? That’s what I want to talk to you about.
The case for Christian activism is well known. When Jesus says, ‘resist not evil’, He does not mean that you should ignore the evil men to do other men:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
To many interpreters, He seems here to be speaking of personal life, and how to respond to personal injuries. He is not, say the activists, counseling passivity in the face of injustice to others. As a man He was not passive, but drove the moneychangers from the temple. And John says to the church of the Laodiceans:
I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. (Revelations 3:15-3:16)
So to many, it seems unlikely that Christians are to do nothing about evil.
The doctrine of Christian activism has certainly been put into practice, and applied to the Israel/Palestine conflict. There are Christian activists in Palestine, and another, quite different kind of Christian activist cheering on Israeli crimes.
But of course the activists don’t differ only in their choice of causes. Christian support for Israel is so overwhelmingly dominant that the words “Christian” and “Israel” invariably bring to mind the Christian right. And the difference is not simply a matter of numbers or influence. The Christian activist right is vigorous; the Christian activist left is consistently hesitant, wimpy and paradoxically almost passive. Its passivity takes the form of bearing witness. One bears witness in one’s conscience, not one’s actions. (Romans 2:15) While this can certainly lead to overt action, it need not do so, and Christian activists nowadays often simply talk to one another, or take actions whose value by their own admission is primarily symbolic. (From here on, “Christian activist” refers to Christian leftists.) Christian activism is a shadow of what it was in the civil rights era.
The feebleness of Christian activism in defense of the Palestinians doesn’t seem to stem from indifference. Christian activists seem about as appalled as they ought to be at Israel’s race war. The explanation usually given for their weakness and hesitation is that they are afraid of being, or being considered, antisemitic. Or to put it a bit differently, Christians are soft on Israel because they are intimidated by the Jews, who make them feel guilty and/or antisemitic when they criticize Israeli crimes.
This can’t be quite right. It really is elementary and obvious that opposition to Israel and Zionism isn’t antisemitic. Too many Christians know too well how to refute the charge; it cannot be the source of their intimidation. In fact, the reverse must be the case: if the charge of antisemitism is enough to stifle Christian protests, it must be because Christians are already intimidated. And it does seem to me that a great many liberal or left-wing Christians show signs of this. They already know that the Jews who shush them up are wrong to charge them with antisemitism. Still they do not dare to refute the false accusations, or else feel some moral obligation not to question the judgements of the accusers (or both).
Other activist Christians really do seem to doubt themselves, suspecting that when they criticize Israel, perhaps they are indeed antisemitic. But I have met this type of activist and feel that, deep down, they know they are nothing of the sort. They would not doubt themselves so easily unless they too were intimidated already. In other words, it is true that Christians are intimidated by Jews, but not that, in most cases, they are intimidated simply by the charge that, in criticizing Israel, they are being antisemitic.
Suppose then that Christians are already intimidated before being labeled antisemitic on account of their opposition to Israel. What has intimidated them? I think it has to do collective rather than individual guilt. It stems from Jewish charges that a deep strain of antisemitism runs through the Church, and manifests itself in a long and shameful history of libel and persecution against Jews, to say nothing of indirect complicity in horrible massacres and outrages. Protestant denominations are caught in the fallout zone of these charges. Theirs is usually guilt by association, though in other cases it is said that Protestants have been directly involved in anti-Jewish crimes. As far as I know, the charges are all correct.
But why should this intimidate Christian activists, or make them feel guilty? Are they responsible for the history of Christianity? I believe that on this matter, Christians have taken a position which is, if not strictly incompatible with Christianity, at least inappropriate to it.
The question here is how far Christians should accept the notion of a collective responsibility, passed down from generation to generation, whether for crimes against Jews or for anything else. Inevitably the theological questions are contentious. There is little doubt that collective responsibility is fundamental to the Old Testament. The relationship between God and humans is contractual, a covenant between Him and a collective entity, His chosen people. The notion that Jews are collectively obliged to obey His laws, and collectively punished for disobeying them, is pervasive. Judaism without collective responsibility is inconceivable.
As for Christianity, one must be careful. Christian theologians never tire in their attempt to reconcile the Old and New Testaments, to say nothing of the tension between revolutionary and evolutionary approaches within the New Testament itself. But it’s pretty clear that, after the coming of Christ, there is a shift in emphasis. What the individual feels and does takes on central importance:
For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law;
and The Sermon on the Mount speaks at least as much to individuals as to a people. Any reconciliation between the Old and New Testaments cannot help but liberate Christians from the very notions of collective innocence and guilt that lie at the core of Judaism. That’s why “The Catholic Faq” carefully defangs the Old Testament conceptions:
As for the sins of the fathers being visited upon their children down to the fourth generation, you’re misapplying a general observation about how sinful behavior (and divine punishment) can be and often is passed down to descendants. (http://www.newadvent.org/faq/faq005.htm)
…so that collective guilt now becomes, in effect, transmissible individual sin, incurring repeated and related but separate individual instances of individual guilt and punishment. All bows to ecumenism aside, this reconciliation is seen as an important progression, if not from the Old Testament itself, then from the unforgiving and unyielding collective condemnations found in Judaism to a more modern notion of responsibility.
Progressive Jews would doubtless be willing to move some distance in the same direction. But what matters here is that Christian guilt about the Jews inappropriately adopts, as if out of politeness, a strict, almost parodic version of the Jewish conception of collective responsibility. Christians rush to accept something they would reject in the ordinary course of moral argument, something which they would most likely deplore. Christians would not hold Hitler’s great-great-great grandchild responsible for his acts, and I hope they would not hold Germans even born in the Nazi era responsible for anything the Nazis did. Irony of ironies, it is precisely by rejecting strong notions of collective responsibility that Christians have become so firmly resolved to exonerate Jews of responsibility for the death of Jesus. Nor will it do to say that Christians, given their bad record, should be especially vigilant about antisemitism, even if they are not actually responsible for past antisemitic outrages. ‘Christians’, that abstract collective entity, may have a bad record. Individual Christians do not, nor do Christian activists, so there is absolutely nothing for them to be vigilant about.
Christian guilt about historical antisemitism is not only foolish; it borders on reprehensible. When Christians buy into the notion that they owe ‘the Jews’ something for the sins of Christianity, they buy into more than a theologically dubious concept of responsibility. They also buy into the notions of collective spirit and will that permeate a dangerous strain of 19th century nationalism, one that gave rise, not only to unobjectionable movements, but also to Nazism and Zionism itself. They endorse the idea that ‘peoples’ have some historical destiny, complete with historical grievances. Their endorsement invests individuals who have never suffered with a victimhood borrowed from generations long past, usually and not coincidentally packaged with extensive, disruptive and ambitious land claims. Christians then come to accept, not only responsibility for crimes they never committed, but also a premise that undermines their opposition to the crimes of Israel: that spoilt, sadistic, heavily armed Jewish cowards from Brooklyn are somehow victims of eons-long persecution, and deserve to become ‘settlers’ in the ‘homeland’ which ‘their people inhabited long ago’. And by wallowing in their own imagined guilt or fearing Jewish recriminations, Christians are buying into the very strain of racial thinking that produced the violent antisemitic acts of which they so absurdly stand accused.
And it is odd. Christians are so eager to beg and borrow shame from past crimes they did not commit, yet they seem to have little shame for the reputation of their own religion. Pride is a sin when it is celebrates one’s own excellence and puts the individual ahead of God. But it is no sin to have more pride in one’s faith than to let it be hijacked by blue-rinse ‘fundamentalists’ who cheer the destruction of the Palestinian people. And it certainly no sin to help an oppressed people, not apologetically, but loudly and aggressively, and angrily: anger at personal affronts is a sin, too, but not the righteous anger that was no stranger even to Jesus Christ. Nor is courage a sin. Christian activists should have the courage to reject, not humbly but with strong outrage, the stupid, dishonest charge of antisemitism. America is still overwhelmingly a Christian country. Is it so hard for Christian activists make themselves heard when it counts? They will do no service to their faith or to those in need if America’s Christians go down in history as avid collaborators with such as Israel.
MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org