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Wrestling with faith texts, the crucifixion and anti-Semitism

Easter brings up a difficult piece of Christianity's past

Eileen O'Brien Special to the American-Statesman
An afternoon mass is celebrated at Cristo Rey Catholic Church on Easter 2017. The texts of Easter can present a complicated history of anti-Semetic interpretations. [TAMIR KALIFA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN 2017]

I grew up always having a foot in two households: my own, an Italian-Irish Catholic family, and my best friend’s. By some peculiar circumstance, my three closest friends growing up, Amanda, Alexis and Abby, were Jewish. Having a foot in two households, one Roman Catholic and one Jewish, I remember feeling utterly torn apart by the drama and trauma of Holy Week, the time when Christians recount the strange and violent story of Jesus’ last days culminating in the shocking and joyful proclamation of the empty tomb.

It hit me hard one Palm Sunday when we heard Matthew’s Passion read aloud in church. Matthew 27:23-27 portrays the Roman Pontius Pilate washing his hands of responsibility while “all the people” cry out for Jesus’ death, claiming it, saying “His blood is on us and on our children!” Without even knowing anything of the deadly ways this passage has been used to justify anti-Jewish violence, I thought of my best friend and her family and just started bawling.

That was the first year that my mom sat me down to have “the talk” during Holy Week. The talk started with the admission that our scriptures contain difficult texts that have been used to hurt people. Jesus, charged by Roman authorities with sedition, dies on a cross, a thoroughly Roman instrument of public punishment designed to terrorize the local population. And yet, a painful legacy of our traditions remembering Holy Week is that for centuries Jewish peoples have been haunted and terrorized with the erroneous label, “Christ-killer.”

Each time we had “the talk”, my mom would introduce me to a little more of that painful history while striving to locate Jesus and his early followers in their Jewish context. Each time we had “the talk,” I would wonder: what kind of gospel of love is this, when it can be heard as supporting hatred of Jesus’ own people?

One year I was brave enough to bring to my best friend into “the talk”, and she memorably pointed out that just because she celebrates the Passover Seder, remembering the time “when we were slaves in Egypt,” does not mean she should hate Egyptians.

We resolved to start looking at our difficult texts together. In doing so, each of us refused the other the easy way out. There was no ignoring the text by dismissing it, historicizing it, or romanticizing it. These texts loomed too large and threatening in the history of interpretation, and often they occupied a central space in our faith narratives.

Different Christian communities will deal with the difficult texts and liturgies of Holy Week in different ways, but we will be doing future generations a disservice if we do not have “the talk.”

At a time when anti-Semitic hate crimes are on the rise, “the talk” reminds us of the painful history and estrangement that we bear together. It also reminds us of our common past and our common call, to love God and neighbor.

When we include people of other faiths in “the talk” and grapple with our various difficult texts together, we begin to recognize what a powerful thing language is. We learn to be honest about the violence inflicted upon each other in the name of what we think is holy. And, I think, we discern God’s spirit calling us beyond the human cycles of violence, tribalism, and retribution into something more whole and life-giving.

The Rev. Eileen O’Brien serves as the rector of St. James’ Episcopal Church, an inclusive and multicultural congregation in East Austin. Doing Good Together is compiled by Interfaith Action of Central Texas,