There are passages in the gospels which, as we read them today, can make us do a double take. One was in the reading we’ve just heard (John 6:51-58). It was subtle and you could easily miss it, but with the news over the past few weeks, any sentence that begins ”The Jews then…” can make us tense up and brace ourselves for what is coming. The Labour Party has been under the spotlight of the press for how it is dealing with anti-Semitism in the party, and in particular their non-acceptance of one or two of the examples in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism. The definition itself is quite simple, anti-Semitism is anything that shows hatred towards Jews, be it words, actions or images. It then gives some examples of what this can look like and it is one or two of these examples that have caused the problems.
Most are obvious and easy to sign up to. So, for example, blaming all Jews for the actions of some is regarded as dehumanizing and stereotyping. It is discriminatory and prejudiced. It expresses an inherent hatred of a people as a whole. There are two, though which cause more reflection, even debate. This has included some Jewish people themselves who find them controversial. There is nothing wrong with criticizing the State of Israel for a particular policy or action as we would criticize any state for a similar action or policy and that is made clear in the examples. This is not hatred of a people; it is criticism of an action. The challenge comes when it talks about the right of the Jewish people to self-determination and what that means. The challenge comes in how this is working out, not least for Palestinians who question this particular policy where they are not treated as being equal. All should be treated equally within a state, whatever their racial background. So this one is not quite as straightforward as the definition implies. It is disputed.
Also disputed is the drawing of comparisons between contemporary Israeli policy and that of the Nazis. This is crass insensitivity and would clearly cause offence given the Holocaust, but seeing it as hatred requires some explanation. It might be seen as an attempt to say, look the actions of the state are so oppressive and dehumanizing of Palestinians; the oppressed have become the oppressors. But it is a highly inflammatory way of saying it given the history. It will no doubt cause offence, and using that example shows a disregard for the other which could display anti-Semitic sentiments. It is unlikely that anyone with any level of sensitivity and regard would pick that comparison. So, some of the IHRA examples, which accompany the definition, have their critics, and some of those critics are Jews themselves.
And so we come back to the gospels. There are passages in them when if we are not careful we can find ourselves being asked to affirm comments that sound like they are attacking all Jews. And that should make us wince or at least put us on our guard lest they lead to a place we do not wish to go. When John’s gospel talks of ‘the Jews’, bearing in mind Jesus was a Jew, and so were the first disciples, he means something specific. He means the Jewish leaders and a particular group of them. This does not mean all Jews across all time and we need to be clear on that, especially in the light of so many centuries of anti-Semitism and reading the gospels this side of the Holocaust. As we have seen anti-Semitism is current and we need to be clear that these texts do not back it up; clear to our subconscious selves as much as anyone else.
Meanwhile, the Tory party has got itself into hot water over Islamophbia and the comments of Boris Johnson and others. There is a great line in the Church Times editorial this week. It says you can post a letter in a Burka, as long as you are wearing it as you walk to the post box. Again Boris’ comments on how a very small proportion of Muslim women dress were offensive. The same is the case with referring to nuns as penguins, which a writer in the Peterborough Telegraph this week seems to think is OK. No it’s not. That is offensive too. Good manners mean we treat everyone with respect, even if we think they are dressing oddly to our way of seeing things. If you don’t understand why they wear what they do, if you can, ask them. It is acceptable to say that you find it odd that you can’t interact with the people who are hidden behind their clothing and even that it seems to make their presence less present, but that is not ridiculing, it is engaging in debate, especially if there is an opportunity for the other to respond. We can also wonder at the cultural forces at work for them and on them. The same goes, though, for the forced uncovering of so many others from westernized dress codes and the body shaming that goes with it. This is severely affecting psychological health and wellbeing. And it is worth keeping a sense of balance here. It is estimated that only 1% of 5% of the population wear the Burka.
The more worrying aspect of the comments is that they have demonised a group, made them more vulnerable, and assumed they are a threat, all for political motives and personal ambition. This is where it ceased to be debate and became aggressive. As with the Nazi comment for Jews, it has crossed a line of insensitivity to display an underlying hatred or at least a view that they don’t matter.
Earlier this week the singer Aretha Franklin died. One of her songs was ‘R E S P E C T’ and it told us to ‘find out what it means to me’. It was a response to an Otis Reading song, where the man in his song made it clear he was boss and expected to be shown respect by the woman. Aretha Franklin’s response was ‘if you want respect, you had better shape up and show it to me’. Finding out what respect means to someone else is not a bad thing to do. Why do some people find words which don’t matter to others offensive? They will have triggers, which cause painful memories and associations, and so using them is regarded as lacking respect and not treating the other with full dignity and love.
The ‘N’ word for black people is widely known to be offensive and President Trump is being accused of having used it on his American version of the TV show ‘The Apprentice’. It is offensive because of its association with slavery and the way some refer to Pakistani people touches similar buttons of their humanity not being honoured. Then we hear comedians like Reginald D Hunter, whose Edinburgh Fringe show includes the ‘N’ word in its title, and the singer Kanya West who uses it in his songs. This is them making a point about how they are seen as black men, and not encouraging its use as a term of endearment.
Showing deep honour and respect for all people, whoever they are and whatever their background is one of the characteristics we see in how Jesus behaved towards people. Those who ‘eat his flesh and drink his blood’ are the ones who receive eternal life (John 6:54), and that is not limited to any group or background or culture. It is not affected by a dress code and we have come a long way from the days of Sunday Best and hats. We are to be careful how we live, as our Epistle reminded us (Ephesians 5:15-20), with sobriety, with thankfulness and making the most of the time we have: to be people of blessing to all we meet and encounter.
We have to treat with care a number of passages in the gospels where they refer to ‘The Jews’. These are not licence or encouragement for anti-Semitism. The writer has a specific group in mind, not a whole people. After all Jesus was a Jew, as were his first followers. And by extension today there is no excuse for using language which dehumanizes anyone. All should be honoured and treated with ‘R E S P E C T’. All are welcome, invited under the same terms by a Jesus who honoured and respected all people.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Trinity 12, Sunday 19th July 2018