Thursday, April 11, 2019

Words Matter

This post is also part of this week's newsletter from St. Paul's in Fayetteville. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.

You may have heard Barbara Brown Taylor’s interview on NPR’s Fresh Air a few weeks ago. If not, you can listen to it here. An ordained Episcopal priest who left parish ministry to become a religion professor and author, Taylor reflected on what she has learned about God from exploring the world’s religions alongside her undergraduate students. I do not share all of her conclusions, but the insight she offered that has had the biggest impact on me was her perspective on Good Friday. While she acknowledged its centrality in the Christian story, Taylor admitted that she no longer goes to church on Good Friday. For her, as one who believes in God’s unconditional love for all people, the gospel’s portrayal of Jesus’ execution at the hands of the Jews is too painful and incongruous with the faith of Jesus—not to mention an example of historical negationism.

I have been sympathetic to that perspective for several years. The historical and textual evidence surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion demonstrate beyond a doubt that Jesus was executed by Roman imperial authorities as an insurrectionist. Although the gospel largely portrays the issue as a conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities over religious views, the conflict that led to his arrest and death was political. Evidence of this is found in all four gospel accounts, which recall the titulus that hung above the cross, proclaiming the powerless, visibly defeated Jesus as “the King of the Jews.” Crucifixion was Rome’s grotesque and brutal way of warning other would-be rebels that the Empire always wins. (Of course, at Easter God reveals something else.) Even the gospel account itself acknowledges that the cross was an inappropriate method of punishment for a religious dispute, as seen in the words of Pilate: “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.”

Historical accounts show that, in the century after his death and resurrection, the way of Jesus became a source of increasing conflict within the wider Jewish community. As Christianity became a predominantly Gentile religion, synagogues expelled the followers of Jesus, exposing them to persecution by the Roman authorities. The Christians, in turn, attacked the Jews, initiating a conflict between the adherents of the two religions that sadly continues to this day. The gospel accounts, which were written in their present form in the latter part of the first century, absorbed this anti-Judaic sentiment, shifting primary blame for Jesus’ death from the Roman authorities to the Jewish leaders, going so far as to literally wash Pilate’s hands from any stain of responsibility.

In every generation since, followers of Jesus have used these anti-Judaic elements to fan the flames of anti-Semitism, and Holy Week has become an especially dangerous time for Jewish people who live among Christians. John’s gospel account, which was the last to be written, is the primary text we use on Good Friday, and it gives Jesus’ opponents the imprecise and misleading label of “the Jews,” perpetuating our confusion by associating the violence against Jesus with all descendants of Abraham. Jesus himself was Jewish, as were his disciples, so to portray him as a victim of the Jews not only fails to convey the role of the Roman Empire in his death but mistakenly lays the blame at the feet of all Jewish people, which is historically and theologically inaccurate.

In an attempt to respond to that discrepancy as Jesus might, we will use a different translation of the Bible during Holy Week. Published in 2011, the Common English Bible is a careful, accurate, contemporary translation that makes several clarifying substitutions, including, where appropriate, “Jewish leaders” for “the Jews.” This switch has a few notable consequences. First, we must recognize that using a different version, while a step in the right direction, cannot undo centuries of misuse and abuse. As Christians who have a role in telling and interpreting the story of Jesus’ death, we must use our voice to do more than fix a few misleading labels and instead take every opportunity to set the record straight. Second, some of the words and phrases with which we are accustomed will be different. For example, the CEB uses “the Human One” instead of “the Son of Man,” which, although perfectly reasonable and accurate, does not yet roll off our tongues quite as easily. Finally, using updated language to articulate a deeply familiar story gives us the opportunity to hear something new within this ancient but living text. Starting this Sunday, let your ears and your mind latch on to what sounds different, and trust the Holy Spirit to use it to draw you more deeply into the life of God.

Although I respect her decision and that of anyone else who feels as she does, I disagree with Barbara Brown Taylor’s decision to avoid church on Good Friday. Of all days, this is a day when I need to be in church to confront the fullness of my sin, including those institutional and systemic sins of which I am a part. Among them is the anti-Semitism that has infected the faith to which I have given my life, and I come to church on Good Friday to repent of it. Maybe a simple change in translation will open further the door for all of us to repent more completely.

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