Every time we go through Holy Week, there is a difficulty that comes up. In addition to the sorrow and sacrifice of Jesus, there is also a part of the reading from the Gospel of John that is problematic. The author of the Gospel regularly refers to “the Jews” as the group that is responsible for the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. As we read or hear the passage, it is all too easy to pass over this phrase thinking that all Jewish persons or the Jewish faith bears brought about the death of Jesus.
This year, Holy Week was followed by yet another mass shooting event, this time taking place in a synagogue in Poway, California. One person was killed and two people were injured by a man who had written a seven-page letter spelling out his core beliefs that Jewish people deserved to die. The shooter was a member of a congregation in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a small evangelical denomination. His father was an elder. He attended regularly. And he used certain parts of scripture and the teachings of the church in a way that justified his hate and violence.
Having read the letter, The Rev. Mika Edmonson was stunned. “It certainly calls for a good amount of soul searching.” Edmonson is a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. “We can’t pretend as though we didn’t have some responsibility for him – he was radicalized into white nationalism from within the very midst of our church,” Edmonson said. (“Evangelical pastors reckon with the anti-Semitic manifesto” The Washington Post, May 4, 2019).
Sometimes, words and messages that are intended in one way can be used in quite a different way. That’s true even with words and messages found in the Bible. When the writer of the Gospel wrote “the Jews” he was referring to a specific group of people that lived 2000 years ago in Palestine which rejected Jesus. He was not condemning all Jewish persons. After all, Jesus himself was a Jew as well as all of the disciples and initial followers. They never rejected their Jewishness in following Jesus.
This is an extreme – and very troubling – example of how scripture can be used to do harm. As important as scripture is to us, we also need to bring something to our reading of it. There are at least two good tests we can use to minimize the risk. First, we can consider the Great Commandments as the core principles for all of the Bible: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:36-40). Our belief and actions should always line up with those two commandments. Second, we can borrow two of the three General Rules that were put forward by John Wesley. First, do no harm and second, do good.