By Michael Hakeem, Ph.D. | December 1992
The clergy’s claim that atheism accounts for the evils of Communist Russia has been shown to be insupportable. Are the clergy ready to argue that the Nazi horrors could occur only because Germany was permeated with atheism? In fact, pre-Nazi Germany was permeated with Christianity. It is no exaggeration to say it was one of the most Christian nations in the world, if judged by the usual indexes. Just a couple of decades before Hitler started his ascent to power, 90 to 95 per cent of Germans were members of Christian churches; the Protestant church press was flourishing, publishing some 600 independent church papers with a circulation of 17,000,000; theology students numbered 5,500; and the presence of some internationally famous theologians kept interest in religious concerns prominent.
Nazism arose in the bosom of a pervasively Christian society. More than this, the Holocaust was a product of certain Christian doctrines. If the American clergy don’t know that there is an intimate relationship between the Holocaust and the Christian faith, some Nazi officials and military leaders did. A German general replied, when asked at the Nuremberg Trials, how such a thing could happen: “I am of the opinion when for years, for decades the doctrine is preached that Jews are not even human, such an outcome is inevitable.” He, of course, underestimated the duration of such preachment, which, as will be seen, started with Jesus. Julian Streicher, chief Nazi ideologist of anti-Semitism and founder of Der Sturmer, the most notoriously vile anti-Semitic publication, recommended “the extermination of the people whose father is the Devil,” recalling Jesus’ attribution of such parentage to Jews.
Hitler, whose virulent hatred of the Jews he frequently voiced with frenzy, saw the killing of the Jews as a sacred mission: “Today, I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord [italics in the original].” In response to two bishops who questioned the Nazi race policy, Hitler said that he was only putting into effect what Christianity had preached for 2,000 years.
Hitler is wrong. Christianity does not preach that all Jews should be exterminated here on earth. What Christianity did was to invent religious anti-Semitism which sometimes spills over into massive slaughter of Jews. In addition, what Christianity preaches is that Jews, and all others who do not believe in it, should, after death, be punished by horrible torture and ultimate destruction, whereas believers could qualify for a life of everlasting bliss. Christianity provided a system of thought, a climate of opinion, that made possible the dehumanization of whole categories of people, particularly the Jews. The Nazis referred to the Jews as devil, bacilli, vermin, worms, rats with human faces, filth, insects that lived in the darkness, and worse. Before Nazism, German literature contained vicious degradation of the Jews.
That is the bedrock Hitler could exploit with impunity. A historian, Victoria Barnett, writes: “The very fact that the persecution of the Jewish people could reach genocidal proportions, without massive outcry from their fellow citizens and with participation of the thousands of Germans who worked in the camps, reveals how deeply anti-Semitism was embedded in the hearts and minds of ordinary Germans.” It was so deeply embedded in the German psyche that it was possible to hear anti-Jewish diatribes from Christian pulpits, the court preacher in Berlin in the Weimar period was a rabid anti-Semite, there existed pre-Nazi anti-Semitic political parties, and a League was formed to promote hatred of Jews. Professor George L. Mosse, a Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin and one of the most expert, probing, and prolific students of Nazism, says: “German anti-Semitism is a part of German intellectual history. It does not stand outside it.” Mosse quotes Nietzsche: “I have never yet met a German who was favorably inclined to the Jews.”
A combination of Christian anti-Semitism, racist theories, and Germanic super-nationalistic ethnocentrism reached its zenith in the Nazi era, forming a mixture of lethal volatility that exploded in the flames of the Holocaust. Its foundation was Christian anti-Semitism, in the view of some scholars, Professor Yehuda Bauer’s being representative: “Without Christian, or traditional anti-Judaism, modern nationalistic and racial antisemitism would have been impossible.”
Basic to an understanding of it all is the inherent intolerance of Christianity, a truth noted by the Encyclopedia Britannica:
“Christianity from its beginning, tended toward intolerance that was rooted in its religious self-consciousness.” It is possible to cite many authorities who confirm that intolerance of Jews is part and parcel of Christianity. Professor Rosemary Radford Ruether can represent them all: “Is it possible to purge Christianity of anti-Judaism without at the same time pulling up Christian faith? Is it possible to say ‘Jesus is Messiah’ without, implicitly or explicitly, saying at the same time ‘and the Jew is damned’?”
Many students of the subject see the Holocaust and Christian ideology as twins. As one researcher notes: “Almost without exception, general histories of National Socialism and especially of the Nazi policies concerning the ‘Jewish question’ begin with the story of nineteenth-century anti-Semitism. Conversely, most works on anti-Semitism in pre-Nazi Germany see in it a prelude to the Holocaust.” Barnett provides a specific example: “The Holocaust … posed a direct challenge to Christians throughout the world. They were confronted with the consequences of the anti-Semitism that had been supported by Christian churches for centuries, and which made the Holocaust possible.”
It all began with Jesus. Bishop John Shelby Spong indicts him: “Jesus is … depicted, especially in the Book of John, as being guilty of what we today would surely call antisemitism. Indeed, the hatred of the Jews that has been the dark underside of Christianity for two thousand years is fed by the pejorative attitudes found in the Christian Scriptures and even in the supposed words of Jesus. It has led to pogroms, ghettos, segregated housing and clubs, defaced synagogues, Krystallnacht, and Dachau.”
Through the ages, the Gospels have furnished abundant ammunition to the anti-Semites. Professor Alan Davies, writing in Eliade’s sixteen-volume Encyclopedia of Religion, comments: “Today, even Christian scholars generally concede that the Gospels and other sections of the New Testament are colored in some measure by hostility toward the Jewish antagonists of the apostolic church in the troubled milieu of the first and second centuries.” He goes on to give details of the material in each of the Gospels that has gone into the structure of anti-Semitism. He points to the Gospel of John as an extreme example of Jew-baiting: “So negative and intense is the Johannine image that John has sometimes been regarded as the ‘father of anti-Semitism’.” But that infamy is pinned on the Apostle Paul by Professor Hyam Maccoby: “If Paul was the creator of the Christian myth, he was also the creator of anti-Semitism which has been inseparable from that myth.”
The Church Fathers—Chrysostom, Ambrose, Jerome, Tertullian, Cyprian, Ephrem, Augustine, for example—topmost Christians all, fashioned an image of the Jews concocted of superhuman malevolence, hopeless totality of spiritual blindness, and every nameable evil. Look at this tiny sample of Chrysostom’s thunder, taken from eight sermons devoted to the same theme: The Jews “are inveterate murderers, destroyers, men possessed by the devil … debauchery and drunkenness have given them the manners of pigs and lusty goats. They know only one thing, to satisfy their gullets, get drunk, to kill and maim one another. They murder their offspring and immolate them to the devil…. The Jewish disease must be guarded against. The Christian’s duty is to hate the Jews.”
This image of the Jews spun by these Christ-possessed notables of the early Church has been transmitted throughout the Western world through theological works, sermons, the mystery and Passion plays, folklore, and the arts.
The Middle Ages, spanning several hundred years, was a very bad time for Jews. The Popes were ruthless in their condemnation of them, treated them with extraordinary contempt, stimulated hatred toward them, and were instrumental in getting them slaughtered. Professor Raul Hilberg, in his encyclopedic research, The Destruction of the European Jews, presents two parallel columns, one setting down indignities, disadvantages, deprivations, prohibitions, restrictions, special penalties, and stigmatizing garb and insignia imposed on the Jews by the Catholic Church in Medieval times and the other listing their counterparts enacted by the Nazi regime.
What did the Christians have against the Jews? Professor Friedrich Heer reports that blame for everything deemed evil, from aborted human or animal birth to the plague, was laid at the door of the Jews in the Middle Ages. But above all, Christians charge the Jews with being “Christ-killers.” Did the Jews kill Christ? Ignorance leads to an unhesitating affirmative response. Yet the Gospels themselves are confused and contradictory about the crucifixion, Mark and Matthew pinning it on the Romans, Luke and John on the Jews. Historians say crucifixion was never a Jewish method of execution but a Roman one. Many scholars make the case for the Romans’ execution of Jesus as a political rebel.
Howard Teeple, after a painstakingly detailed analysis in his recent, impressive volume, How Did Christianity Really Begin?, concludes: “Who was responsible for Jesus’ death, Jews or Romans? Neither Jews as a whole nor Romans as a whole, but the Sadducean priests, the Sanhedrin, Judas, and Pilate.” Then there are those scholars who insist that there existed no historical Jesus to be executed.
Think of the millions of Jews put to death by Christians unable to reason logically about their beliefs. If they could reason correctly, they would have nothing but boundless gratitude for the Jews, had they indeed crucified Jesus. Isn’t it at the core of Christian doctrine that it was foreordained that Christ was to be put to death? To talk like Christians do, didn’t God send his son here, for that express purpose? If salvation was to come into being, wouldn’t someone have had to crucify Jesus?
Michael Hakeem, a longtime supporter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and professor emeritus of sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, died on 2 November 2006. He was one of several key state employee-plaintiffs who successfully sued to end Good Friday as a mandatory state holiday in FFRF v. Tommy Thompson (1996).
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