Holy Week and the Label “Christ-killer”

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This is Holy Week which takes Christians to the heart of our faith and so comes each year as a time for turning to God (repentance), reflection, grateful humility, and rededication to the self-sacrificing love in which Christian faith is rightly grounded and from which its words and actions are to flow into the world God loves. We need also, I believe, to realize and remember that from the time of the Roman Emperors Constantine and Theodosius and throughout the centuries of Christendom, Holy Week was also an annual time of inflamed hatred for Jews. Passion plays and sermons added fuel to the fires of hate and persecution.

The religious basis for anti-Semitism in Christendom was derived from the accusation, as it appears in the Gospels and as it was unquestioningly accepted by all Christians, that the Jews were to blame for the crucifixion of Jesus. The epithet “Christ-killer” became a synonym for “Jew,” and subsequently was bandied about with unthinking ease through the ages by countless Christians, including popes, theologians, philosophers, and poets. (Ausubel, Nathan, The Book of Jewish Knowledge, p. 113)

More recently, some Christians have sought to exonerate the Jews by blaming the Romans instead. Jews do not need such exoneration, and the effort is misguided because it offers only another way of avoiding our responsibility by finding some group “not us” to blame.

Not the Jews, not the Romans, but I am responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus—I, the church, and the humanity in which the church and I both participate. The church is the communion of faith in Jesus that accepts this responsibility in hope for the salvation we believe his crucifixion brings, but the church is not the exclusive recipient of the love and mercy of God Jesus embodies in his brokenness on the cross. He suffered and died because God loves the world. By accepting ourselves as the people for whom, because of whom, and so by whom Jesus was crucified, we commit ourselves to living as the people of the crucified Christ and following him in the way of the cross. We, therefore, are committed, not to the way of power and prestige, but to the path of a love that is willing to suffer for others who do not appreciate it. The church should always be a servant people and should stand before the crucified Christ as the humanity responsible for his suffering, shame, and death.

By choosing a scapegoat to hate and persecute for the crucifixion of Jesus, Christians deny their own belonging to him in his crucifixion and renounce their own salvation. By teaching contempt for Jesus’ own people, the Jews, Christians heap their contempt upon him. Ridding ourselves of the label “Christ Killer” and all it represents as it has been applied viciously to the Jewish people is not just a matter of tolerance, kindness, or open-minded pluralism; it goes to the very heart of our confession of faith in Jesus and to being his people, his church. If he did not suffer and die for us and because of us, then we have no place in him. If we do not bear that responsibility before him by representing our shared humanity in need of forgiveness, then we are not embodying and representing in the world the hope for salvation.

The Christian hymn, “Ah, Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended,” expresses the confession of those who find salvation through Jesus’ suffering and death. The second stanza declares:

Who was the guilty? Who brought his upon Thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee!
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied Thee:
I crucified Thee.
( Johann Heermann, c. 1630, translation by Robert Bridges, 1899)

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