“Jesus” Is Not a Dirty Word

Sermon given March 2, 2001, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Susannah Heschel, the noted Jewish thinker, has remarked that, for some Jews, when we look at a cross, we see a swastika. In other words, Heschel fears that too many of us equate Christianity with Anti-Semitism. That’s another way of saying that Jews are often prejudiced against Christians.

This statement undoubtedly causes us discomfort. It should. We Jews, so often the target of discrimination and persecution, think of ourselves as open-minded and accepting of others. We are commanded to remember the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. How could we be prejudiced?

The tragic truth, though, is that Jews have good reason to associate Christianity with Anti-Semitism. Shall we forget the Crusades? Are we not aware of the Spanish Inquisition? Even though the Holocaust itself was not an act of Christian Anti-Semitism, can we ignore the Church’s apparent indifference to Hitler’s final solution?

When I teach Jewish history, I ask my students to think about the Middle Ages, from the seventh century to the seventeenth. Throughout that time, Jews lived either under either Christian or Moslem rule. I invite my students, usually adults, to speculate about whether life for Jews was better in Christian countries or Islamic ones. Most imagine that Moslems would have oppressed the Jews more. That’s reasonable, given the difficulties in the Middle East today, and especially because Jews enjoy magnificent relations with our Christian neighbors in the United States.

The truth, though, is more difficult to swallow. Despite the terrors of Islamic Fundamentalism today, Jews lived comfortably and prosperously in most Moslem countries, throughout much of the Middle Ages. The Golden Age of Jews in Spain flowered under Moslem rule.

In Medieval Christian Europe, though, Jews suffered pogroms, expulsions, and blood libels. We were accused of having killed Jesus, and we were forced to live behind ghetto walls. We could neither own nor work the land, and our means of survival were sharply limited. Our very presence was considered an insult to Christianity. After all, Jews were monotheists, the people of Jesus, no less, who did not believe in Jesus. That affront often cost Jews their lives, or at least their homes. When Catholic rulers conquered the Moslems, and gained dominion over Spain, not only did our Golden Age end, the Inquisition began.

These painful facts of history shape Jewish-Christian relations today. However, past persecution does not tell the entire story. In recent years and decades, countless Christian churches have undertaken wrenching, heart-felt self-examinations, confessing their past Anti-Semitism as a sin, and charting a more tolerant future. While many of us wish that the Roman Catholic Church would go farther in acknowledging its complicity in the Holocaust, that Church has been among the leaders in seeking reconciliation in other ways. Specifically, Rome has repudiated the charge that the Jews are Christ-killers.

The result is a great deal of ambivalence in Jewish-Christian interactions today. We cherish our Christian friends. We delight in our Temple’s good relations with Christian churches. We enthusiastically participate in interfaith endeavors. And yet, if we hear a Pastor mention Jesus in a prayer, many of us are enraged. If we look at a cross, most of us don’t see a swastika, but too many of us do regard the cross negatively. If we see the fish-like symbol for Jesus on the back of an automobile, we may imagine a desire to convert us.

Given our history, our fears are understandable. However, they are also prejudiced. The time has come for us to get over our fears of the cross, our suspicion of Christianity. “Jesus” is not a dirty word.

We Jews are used to preaching tolerance. We’re not used to having it preached to us. Some may especially not like to be hear this message tonight, in the presence of more than a few Christian friends and loved ones. And yet, I am confident that these words can be spoken without fear. Jews and Christians and people of countless other faiths and no faith share life in this community in peace and harmony. We cherish one another, and we respect one another. We care enough about each other even to hear the painful facts of history together, and to confront the other’s internal challenges together. We are boundlessly blessed, to live in America at the dawn of the 21st Century, in a time of greater understanding than history has ever known.

Today, we Jews should show our deep respect for Jesus, as the object of worship of another great religion. I have heard some Jews refer to Jesus as a rabbi, or a great teacher, or even a prophet. Personally, I don’t use those designations, because Christians consider Jesus to be God in human form. If we assert that he was merely a rabbi, teacher, or prophet, we trivialize both Jesus and Christianity. Jews also do not use the term “Christ,” because that Greek word means “messiah,” which we do not believe Jesus to have been. We Jews should not characterize Jesus, but regard him with the awe due to our neighbors’ God concept.

With that new view of Jesus may come a new tolerance among us. We may be able to hear the name of Jesus, even in prayer, and not be put off by it.

Perhaps you think I’m defending the ministers who offered the invocation and benediction at President Bush’s Inauguration, or the Rev. Billy Graham, who delivered those prayers at President Clinton’s Inaugurations, or the scores of Christian clergy who have given Inauguration prayers in Jesus’ name for two centuries or more. No, I will not defend them, because what they did was wrong. Praying exclusively in Jesus’ name, at a historic moment meant to include all Americans, they excommunicated Jewish Americans; they wrote off Moslem Americans; they excluded Buddhist and Hindu Americans; they wrote off Americans who practice Native American religions.

The sad thing is that those Protestant clergy did not have to be so exclusionary. Their prayers could have been inclusive. They could have invited all Americans to pray in the name of the Higher Power worshiped by each. They could even have mentioned the name of Jesus.

Not long ago, my friend, Rev. Thurman Walker, of Antioch Baptist Church, was invited to offer the Benediction at the Brotherhood/Sisterhood Awards Dinner of the National Conference of Community and Justice, formerly known as the National Conference of Christians and Jews. When I walked into the room, and saw Rev. Walker on the dais, I was suddenly struck with panic. Rev. Walker and I have discussed this matter on several occasions, and I know that he believes that he can only pray if he uses the name of Jesus. I wondered: How exactly would he pray at this interfaith gathering?

Rev. Walker offered a beautiful prayer, as he always does. Though I can’t quote him exactly, he ended his prayer like this: “We pray in the name of God, we pray in the name of Elohim, we pray in the name of Adonai, we pray in the name of Jesus, Amen.” Now, I must admit, I would have preferred that Rev. Walker say that “some of us” or “many of us” pray in the name of Jesus. And yet, his intent was clear: Rev. Walker protected his own integrity, by mentioning the name of Jesus. By not praying only in the name of Jesus, he respected our principles and included us.

Jesus is going to be on the top of our minds at Temple Beth-El in the year ahead. As you know, historic restoration will begin in our magnificent Temple Sanctuary on June 4. Throughout the summer, and into the early fall, our Sabbath services will be held in Parish Hall at Christ Episcopal Church, our neighbor up the block on Belknap Place. Then, when we return to worship in the Sanctuary in October, the Barshop Auditorium and our classrooms will continue to be under construction. While we will pray in the Temple, our Oneg Shabbat receptions, Bar and Bat Mitzvah luncheons, family dinners, Wednesday classes, and a variety of other events will be held at the Church. Other events will be held elsewhere – at San Antonio College, Congregation Agudas Achim, and the Jewish Community Campus, to name a few – but our primary home away from home will be Christ Episcopal Church.

Our Christian neighbors across the street have been incredibly hospitable and welcoming. In fact, they were not the only ones who wished to accommodate us. Trinity Baptist Church was also eager to move heaven and earth to have us there, but the proximity of Christ Episcopal made that option more practical. Members of Christ Episcopal have invited us into their home as friends. Though we fully expected to rent the spaces we will be using, they refuse to accept payment. Church officials are eager to scurry around, removing crosses and pictures of Jesus that will not be appropriate for Temple events. They could not be more gracious or understanding of our needs. The Church Administrator, Phil Raymond, has devoted countless hours to making us feel at home, and the real work has barely begun.

When we go to Christ Episcopal Church, crosses and Christian iconography will not be visible in the rooms where we gather. And yet, we would be naive to think that we will never see a cross, or the face of Jesus, when we worship or study at our Temple away from home. We may pass a crucifix in the lobby. On the bulletin board in a classroom we are using for Hebrew, our kids may find a child’s drawing of Jesus. Somebody will definitely peer behind a drape and look at the magnificent tapestry of Jesus with children, in one of the rooms we will use for receptions.

Hopefully, we will take these encounters with Christian symbols in stride. We will all have to be flexible during the construction.

My prayer, though, is that our reaction to these signs of Christianity will be positive, and will last for many years, beyond our months at Christ Episcopal Church.

When we look at a cross, may we see it for what it is: a Christian symbol of salvation.

When we gaze at the face of Jesus, may we see it for what it is: a Christian representation of the love of God.

When we hear the name of Jesus in a prayer that also includes us, may we hear that name for what it is: the source of faith for so many of our friends and neighbors, and for the members of many of our families.

When our Christian friends, relatives, and neighbors value our faith, as almost all do, we may return their love with ours. Let us hold them in esteem, even as they honor us. Let us cherish their faith, just as they revere Judaism. Let us appreciate their Churches, even as they admire our sacred Temple. Let us respect Jesus, as the object of their worship, and may we all bless God together

Amen.