For this Friday’s devotion, I had written a reflection on the history and meaning of the beloved Christmas carol Silent Night. However, I awoke this morning to news that Temple Emanuel, a synagogue in Davenport, was vandalized overnight. Specifically, on the first night of Hanukkah, someone spray painted a Bible verse citation: “JOHN 8:44.”
As Christians and as Iowans, we need to talk about this. At a bare minimum, we need to reject hate. That is the very lowest bar. Jesus calls us to more than the minimum, however. Jesus tells us that the twin great commandments are to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. I know I say this often. Since Jesus says that love of God and neighbor are the greatest commandments, I figure that means it’s worth repeating.
How do we love our neighbor whom we do not know? It’s hard enough to love some of the people we do know. What does love look like for strangers? One good place to start is with understanding. Hanukkah is a festival celebrated each December in memory of the rededication of the Temple in 164 BCE. Candles are lit for eight nights to remember the miracle of the Temple lamps burning for eight days with only one day worth of oil. It is a celebration of liberation from oppression. To learn more, check out https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hanukkah-101/.
One other thing that we have to understand is that anti-Jewish violence has, historically, increased around Christian and Jewish holidays. For reasons I cannot begin to understand, Christians have used these holidays as an excuse to stir up prejudice and violence.
This violence often stems from an idea called “supersessionism,” which means that although the Jews were God’s chosen people up until Jesus, God replaced them with Christians, who now “supersede” Jews as the chosen people. Supersessionism is sin. It fundamentally misunderstands God’s character.
Just think about it for a moment. We often talk about God’s faithfulness. We give thanks that God keeps God’s promises. What sort of God would we worship if we believed that God could just abandon all the promises made to Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Moses, Hannah, David, Elijah, and the rest of God’s people in the Old Testament? Even Paul, when he wrote to Christian communities in the New Testament, reflected that Christians were like a branch grafted onto the tree established in the Jewish people, not that a new tree was being planted to replace the old one.
So let’s go back to what happened last night in Davenport. “JOHN 8:44” was painted on the wall of Temple Emanuel. In that part of the gospel, Jesus and his disciples are arguing with some Jewish leaders. There are some observers, described as “the Jews who believed in Jesus.” Every single person in the conversation is a Jew. In the verse painted on Temple Emanuel, Jesus says, “Your father is the devil. You are his children…. He’s a liar and the father of liars.” Associating Jews with the devil and deceit is an old, reprehensible pattern for those who wish them harm. We are called to reject sin, including the sin of antisemitism.
I believe that this abuse of his words brings grief to Jesus. Bible verses are not meant to be hurled like bricks through a window. The words of our faith are meant as encouragement, comfort, challenge, command, and promise. They are not a weapon to wage war against our neighbors.
Instead, we must reject hate and violence wherever it appears. We must cherish our Jewish neighbors, siblings in our human family. We must stand with our neighbors out of love.
God, we are troubled and grieved by evidence of hate. We ask that you cleanse our hearts from all unrighteousness, so that we may live as you have called us, in righteousness and holiness. We reject antisemitism, hate, and violence against our Jewish neighbors. Help us to live in understanding and peace with one another. Amen.