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Christian antisemitism and opposition to homosexuality: Heeding the Warnings of the Past

According to yesterday’s New York Times report on the opposition to same-sex marriage in France, a movement that was initially inspired and led by religious figures has been embraced by conservative politicians eager to use the issue to discredit socialist French President Francois Hollande. This has been good for the campaign in terms of numbers. On Sunday some 45,000 protestors marched peacefully in Paris against the bill (which gained final parliamentary approval yesterday).

Unfortunately, the surge in opposition to same-sex marriage has spawned new levels of vitriolic anti-homosexual rhetoric, as well as violence.

At the margins, the demonstrations have also become more violent and homophobic, with a series of nightly demonstrations last week around Parliament that resulted in clashes with riot police officers and a number of arrests. Even opposition leaders have bemoaned the way harder-right groups have infiltrated the demonstrations, and there has been a small surge in violence against gay men and lesbians, with some beatings and angry, offensive words on social media.

Two weeks ago, a Dutch-born man walking with his partner in Paris was beaten up. The man, Wilfred de Bruijn, posted a photograph of his bloodied face on his Facebook page, calling it “the face of Homophobia.” It has been shared thousands of times. Last week, two gay bars, in Bordeaux and Lille, were attacked, and a same-sex couple was attacked Saturday in Nice outside a gay nightclub.

These sorts of developments are a nightmare for conservatives who oppose same-sex marriage but who believe gays and lesbians bear the same rights and the same human dignity as do all human beings. There is no better way to discredit a moral tradition than to show that it inevitably leads to bigotry. Unfortunately, when a religious tradition is embraced almost universally on a cultural and political level, it is inevitable that that tradition’s teachings will be directed in ways hostile to its fundamental character. Although Jesus associated with the sexually deviant and taught love for one’s enemies, throughout Christendom people and societies who claimed the name ‘Christian’ have responded to those deemed ‘sinners’ with precisely the opposite attitude.

The problem has become all the more acute during the modern era, as societies that still conceive of themselves as broadly Christian are shaped by forces and ideologies that have little to do with historic Christianity and that are often openly hostile to it. Inevitably Christian teachings and symbols are politicized or hijacked for other purposes, often with tragic consequences, but generally with the cooperation of many Christians themselves. Bewildered, those who understand the true teachings of the faith, or the example of Jesus, mourn the perversion of the faith. Yet far too often the efforts of such individuals and groups to reclaim their faith comes too late.

Perhaps the best example of this is antisemitism. As I argued in a recent essay at Patheos, many Christian pastors embraced Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 because they believed that he would restore Germany to its national glory and to its Christian heritage. These Christians associated liberalism, democracy, socialism, and Jewish emancipation with the decline of Christianity. Though they had no desire to return to the violent persecution of false religion that characterized Christendom through the 16th and 17th centuries, they did want Germany to be a ‘Christian’ nation, in which national identity, political power, and Christian faith went hand in hand.

As Jonathan Steinberg writes in his powerful biography of Otto von Bismarck,

The impact of the defeat of Prussia in 1806 and the occupation of the kingdom by the ‘godless’ Napoleon had driven many of the great Junker landlords back to Christianity. They rejected Enlightenment rationalism, the horrors of Jacobin fanaticism, the doctrines of equality, the guillotines, but also Frederick the Great’s cynical contempt for religion. (57)

One of these men, Friedrich Ruhs, declared in 1816 that “a Christian state can therefore absolutely not recognize any other members than Christians.” In a speech in June 1847 General Ludwig August von Thile, president of the Berlin Mission to the Jews, an evangelistic organization, rejected talk of granting full political rights to Jews on the basis that the state had to remain Christian:

I have also heard today that Christianity and even religion should play no role in the discussions of the state; but one of the Honor delegates put this in words which I could heartily endorse when he said ‘Christianity should not be constituted within the state. It should be above the State and should govern it.’ With this I heartily agree … He [a Jew] may be the born subject of another nation, he may out of private interest or out of a feeling of general love for humanity make great sacrifices to the circumstances in which he lives, but he will never be a German, never be a Prussian because he must remain a Jew.” (80)

Such sentiments are properly understood in relation to older (though not so old as Jesus!) Christian convictions regarding the nature of the state rather than to later figures like Hitler. Unlike their Nazi descendents of the next century, 19th Century German antisemites accepted that conversion enabled a Jew to become a Christian, and therefore a German. Nevertheless it is easy to see how this sort of Christian antisemitism could easily evolve into a more radial antisemitism in the context of secularization, modernity, and human sin.

Think about it. If you emphasize too much 1) the hostility of Christianity to a particular religion or practice, and 2) the necessarily Christian character of the state, it is inevitable that people devoted to the welfare of the state, whether Christian or not, will turn themselves in strident opposition to the religion or practice in view. Once Christian views have been thus politicized within a broader culture, the results are entirely unpredictable. If it turns out well, expect Christians to take the credit. But if it turns out tragically, as in the Holocaust, or in the cases of anti-homosexual violence mentioned above, don’t expect nonbelievers to let Christians off the hook. Nor should they.

As Christians we need to be aware that any principle we bring into politics – any idea or symbol we seek to integrate into a broader culture – will be politicized and manipulated for other ends. This should caution us against being too quick to slap the label ‘Christian’ on a movement or policy we happen to support. We must always carefully distinguish between the principles of our faith (i.e., Jesus is the Messiah long promised to the Jews; sexual intercourse outside of marriage is unjust) and political policies deemed by some people (perhaps including ourselves) to be logical extensions of such principles (i.e., non-Christians shouldn’t have the same political rights as Christians; homosexuals should be punished).

Just as importantly, we have to make sure that we are as committed to defending the rights and dignity of our fellow human beings as we are to opposing what we regard as unjust or unrighteous. We are, at least to a certain extent, responsible for the ways others abuse our arguments, especially if we are silent at the abuse. We should be horrified by the violence committed against homosexuals in France. We should be wary of any religious rhetoric that so denigrates other human beings, turning them into such ‘Others’ that we no longer see them as those whom we are called to serve and with whom we are called to suffer, after the example of Jesus.

Christians convinced that the true religion must be advanced by the sword have done inestimable damage throughout the turbulent years of Christendom and modernity. That’s not what Jesus called us to do. Let’s heed the warnings of the past.

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