Jews and Christians have had a history of difficult relations. What started in the first century as an internal squabble amongst Jews over the messiahship of Jesus became a split into two separate religions both struggling to survive under the brutal Roman Empire. Once Christianity became the official state religion in the 4th century AD, anti-Jewish theology paved the way for centuries of degrading laws and state-sanctified persecutions, ghettos, and expulsions of Jews.
The Protestant Reformation produced more of the same. Martin Luther is best known for the 95 Theses that he nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church birthing the Protestant Reformation—a return to the Bible as the source of religious authority. Unfortunately, in his later years, Luther turned bitter toward the Jews and in his writings outlined specific ways to persecute and degrade the Jewish people. He ended with a plea for a solution “that we all may be free of this insufferable devilish burden—the Jews.”
It is no coincidence that 400 years later, in Luther’s Germany, Hitler came up with his solution for “the Jewish problem.” He leaned heavily on one of Luther’s works, On the Jews and Their Lies, to create his own “solution” when crafting his autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf. Hitler then reprinted Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic writings for distribution to the public.
To paraphrase Raul Hillberg in The Destruction of the European Jews, the early church declared: “You have no right to live amongst us as Jews.” The secular rulers who followed that era expelled Jews from their lands as though to say, “You have no right to live amongst us.” Then Hitler later decreed: “You have no right to live.” The Nazis were just one more step in the progression of anti-Semitism beginning with the planting of theological seeds of hatred in early church history.
To be clear, Christianity did not cause the Holocaust. But Christian anti-Judaism which resulted in centuries of anti-Semitism made the Holocaust possible.
In recent history a tectonic shift has taken place within Christianity away from that anti-Semitic past, and Jewish-Christian relations have never been better than they are today. There are several reasons for this including the exponential growth of a more Bible-based Christianity over the last several centuries, the harsh lessons learned from the Holocaust, and the exposure of millions of Christians to the Jewish people and faith through tourism to Israel.
While this generation is privileged to be part of a historic correction in the church’s relations with the Jews, it cannot be taken for granted. Anti-Semitism is on the rise around the world, and dangerous trends within American churches need addressing to protect this budding relationship. It is the American Church that will keep anti-Semitism from gaining more ground in the country and it must understand the importance of doing so.