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Confession and Pardon Holy Days lent Liturgy My poetry Reflections for worship services

Combatting Antisemitism on Good Friday: An Alternative to the “Solemn Reproaches of the Cross”

Oh my church, my hands and feet on earth,
why do you not heed me on the cross?
Answer me!

From the moment I shaped humanity from the mud
and gifted you with my own Breath
I delighted in you, and called you good,

invited you to serve my diverse Creation,
promising that as long as you cared for it,
it would care for you  –

yet you trample my good works under your feet!
You consume and consume and consume beyond your need
even while many of your siblings starve.

In sentencing your siblings and the land
to a torturous death,
you sentence me.

Holy God,
we have no defense.

Holy God,
do what you deem just.

Holy God,
redeem and renew us!

Oh my church, my hands and feet on earth,
why do you not heed me on the cross?
Answer me!

I chose the children of Israel as my own
not despite but because Jacob dared to wrestle me;
I chose the enslaved Hebrews as my own
not despite but because of their littleness,
the way their neighbors sought to dominate or destroy them.

My covenant with them is eternal;
My Torah instructs them well on how to love me
by loving the stranger, the Other, the defenseless –

Yet you claim your relationship with me negates theirs!

You call their testament “old,”
and claim the God you find there
is bloodthirsty, barbaric, not the same God;

Across the centuries you have listened to the story
of how I was charged by Roman powers with sedition,
died on a Roman cross –
and then went out and blamed “the Jews” for my death!

You have coerced conversion,
enacted or enabled hate crimes against them;
you have shunned and slandered them
when you ought to have
embraced them as your kin!

When you reject and persecute my Jewish people,
truly, truly you reject and persecute me.

Holy God,
we have no defense.

Holy God,
do what you deem just.

Holy God,
redeem and renew us!

Oh my church, my hands and feet on earth,
why do you not heed me on the cross?
Answer me!

I so loved you, I wrapped my divinity in frail flesh
so I could share with you
both joy and pain, feast and famine, friendship and loss;

I so loved you, I accepted Rome’s cross
to show my solidarity with all
whom worldly powers crush —

But still you idolize the very forces
that brutalized my body unto death!

When you regard a flag above a life
and let your siblings perish
on the other side of a border you invented;

when you wage war against Black and Indigenous peoples
or look away as they are killed
you also kill me.

Holy God,
we have no defense.

Holy God,
do what you deem just.

Holy God,
redeem and renew us!

Oh my church, my hands and feet on earth,
why do you not heed me on the cross?
Answer me!

Why do you not help me when I cry out
in thirst and hunger, or nakedness?
Why do you not welcome me when I come to you as a stranger?
Where are you when I am sick, but can’t afford care?
Where are you when I am abused or contracting COVID in prison?

Oh, my church! when will you truly become
my hands and feet on earth?
Answer, answer me!

Holy God,
we have no defense.

Holy God,
do what you deem just.

Holy God,
redeem and renew us
and we will be your hands and feet.

We will care for your Creation
and show gratitude for its care of us.

We will respect your Jewish people,
repenting of and uprooting our antisemitism;
we will learn to recognize your face
among persons of all faiths.

We will care for the most oppressed among us,
joining in solidarity with Black, Indigenous people of color,
with the LGBTQA+ community,
with the disability community, and all the disenfranchised,

uplifting their voices
and making good trouble
until the needs of all are met.

Truly, then, you will be my church
and I will give you strength, 
and you shall journey in the name of
God Who Draws All Peoples To Themself. 


You can hear me read this piece and explain it in other words in episode 39 of my podcast – find links here.

I wrote this piece to be used as an alternative in churches that on Good Friday traditionally read the Improperia, the “Solemn Reproaches of the Cross, the original version of which you can read here. My intention is to encourage Christians to examine our antisemitism during this week, rather than fueling it with language that blames the Jewish people past and present for Jesus’s death.

Holy Week has long been a dangerous time of the year for Jewish persons (See this article for the history of antisemitic hate crimes on Good Friday in medieval Europe; and this article arguing that “Centuries of Christian Antisemitism Led to the Holocaust“). The scriptures and liturgy that we choose to read in our churches during this time fuels that antisemitism not only this week, but the whole year round. 

As Jewish woman and New Testament professor Amy-Jill Levine writes in this article,

“Jesus of Nazareth, charged by the Roman authorities with sedition, dies on a Roman cross. But Jews ― the collective, all Jews ― become known as “Christ-killers.” Still haunting, the legacy of that charge becomes acute during Holy Week, when pastors and priests who speak about the death of Jesus have to talk about “the Jews.” Every year, the same difficulty surfaces: how can a gospel of love be proclaimed, if that same gospel is heard to promote hatred of Jesus’s own people?”

Among the most poisonous of liturgy read by many churches across the centuries is the “Reproaches.” As Elizabeth Palmer explains in her 2020 article “Thinking about Good Friday during a Pandemic,”

In the Solemn Reproaches, Jesus addresses people who have harmed him — and the text has a long history of stirring up violence against Jewish people. Many times over the centuries, in many places, Christians bowed before the cross on Good Friday and heard or sang some version of these words: “I led thee through the wilderness 40 years, fed thee with manna, and brought thee into a land exceeding good, and thou hast prepared a cross for thy Savior.” Then they’d leave the church, form a mob, and attack Jewish communities.

The “Reproaches” are coated in the blood of our Jewish neighbors. They should not be read or sung in our worship — but neither should they be hidden away outside of worship. We can’t pretend this text does not exist. We must grapple with it, guide congregations in understanding why it is so evil, and in doing so move towards acknowledging and dealing with our antisemitism, past and present.

My hope is that this alternative text, which includes a well-earned reproach for our antisemitism with examples of what that antisemitism looks like in our churches today, can be a jumping off point for conversations on this topic.

For more on antisemitism during Holy Week and what to do about it, I highly recommend Levine’s article ““Holy Week and the hatred of the Jews: How to avoid anti-Judaism this Easter.” In this article, Levine describes how the anti-Jewish language got into the Gospels to begin with; how interfaith conversations today help stem the tide of antisemitism; and explores and ranks the 6 strategies Levine has seen people use when trying to resolve these problems with the New Testament.

From least useful to most useful, she names these strategies as excision (just removing the problematic stuff and pretending it was never there); retranslation (changing up the way we translate problematic texts, such as changing “the Jews” to “Judeans”); romanticizing (this includes Christians holding their own Passover seders – read this part of the article to see why we should Not Do That); allegorizing; historicizing; and, best of all, just admitting the problem:

We come finally to our sixth option: admit to the problem and deal with it. There are many ways congregations can address the difficult texts. Put a note in service bulletins to explain the harm the texts have caused. Read the problematic texts silently, or in a whisper. Have Jews today give testimony about how they have been hurt by the texts.

Those who proclaim the problematic verses from the pulpit might imagine a Jewish child sitting in the front pew and take heed: don’t say anything that would hurt this child, and don’t say anything that would cause a member of the congregation to hurt this child.

Better still: educate the next generation, so that when they hear the problematic words proclaimed, they have multiple contexts – theological, historical, ethical – by which to understand them.

Christians, hearing the Gospels during Holy Week, should no more hear a message of hatred of Jews than Jews, reading the Book of Esther on Purim, should hate Persians, or celebrating the seder and reliving the time when “we were slaves in Egypt,” should hate Egyptians.

We choose how to read. After two thousand years of enmity, Jews and Christians today can recover and even celebrate our common past, locate Jesus and his earliest followers within rather than over and against Judaism, and live into the time when, as both synagogue and church proclaim, we can love G-d and our neighbour.’

For more resources for dealing with antisemitism within our Christian communities, see below.


RESOURCES:

First, let’s get educated on the basic facts about antisemitism in Holy Week’s typical scriptures, and alternatives to concluding that “the Jews killed Jesus”:

Next, let’s reimagine the stories we read during Holy Week in ways that don’t do harm to our Jewish neighbors!

  • I most highly recommend Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine’s book Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week.
  • Get a summary of and link to a pdf of her chapter on Palm Sunday and the “cleansing of the temple” (Jesus flipping tables) here
  • And if reading a whole book isn’t your thing, Levine also has a video series where she talks about the Passion story – here’s the first video, just 9 minutes long
  • And here’s an article interviewing Levine that sums up the purpose of her work with the Christian Gospels – “A number of Christian commentators feel the need to make Judaism look bad in order to make Jesus look good. Instead of portraying Jesus as a Jew talking to other Jews, he becomes in their views the first Christian, the one who invented divine grace, mercy, and love, and all that other good stuff. Such views neglect the presence of these same virtues within Jesus’ own Jewish context. There should be no reason this Jewish Jesus is used to promote anti-Judaism.”

Categories
Holy Days lent LGBT/queer My poetry

poem for Holy Thursday: Jesus, you knew isolation too

Jesus
you knew
isolation too.

not of closing walls and stale air
but of a horizon unreachable
beyond stretching dunes.

you who were so sensitive to touch
you’d notice a woman’s fingers barely brush
the hem of your cloak

went untouched
for forty days
forty nights.

after that
did cradling the feet of your closest friends
washing clean the sweat and sand
etched into the sole’s every callus
feel almost too intimate to bear?

gazing up into their questioning eyes
after no one but devils and dust to talk to for so long
did you have to stop and catch your breath?

Jesus,
did your beloved’s fingers brushing your palm
as you passed him broken bread
set your skin on fire
with an anguished sort of pleasure?

was his head resting warm in your lap
after the meal, the wine, the storytelling
heavier than the whole world
leaning on your back?

and after the wine-warm room
after isolation revisited
in a tear-soaked garden
where best friends slept oblivious
i wonder

were even the press of trembling lips
the hands that bound your wrists
the shoves of soldiers eager to get home for the night –
even these, were even these cherished
after weeks without the warmth of others’ skin?

…….

Jesus
you knew
isolation too –

know better than any
the devils that come to keep one company
when wandering alone from room to room
or over wasteland sands…

so come. teach us
to make an upper room
of any room we’re trapped in.

cook us a meal out of our distress
and break it like bread with us.
nourish our bone-deep loneliness
into a yearning deep enough to drink

so that when this is over, we never again
shirk the feet that await our washing
shun the hands outstretched for bread to share
shake off the cross a stranger needs help bearing –

and Jesus, as we wait out isolation
in temporary helplessness and fear
remind us there are some who dwell
always, always here.


This poem was written by Avery Smith and belongs to them. Please do not publish it anywhere, or use it in a service, without permission from the author. Reach out to Avery at queerlychristian36@gmail.com for that permission, or just to chat!

About this poem:

My prayer for Maundy Thursday, 2020, in the midst of pandemic: come, Jesus, teach us to make an upper room of any room we’re trapped in.

Categories
Holy Days My poetry

poem for Good Friday: Jesus, let me pray for you

my God,
would it be odd
if i prayed for you?

Jesus, heart of my heart,
heart of all the cosmos – your heart
struggled –
             stammered –
                                      stopped.

thank you.

(i am
so sorry.)

thank you.

when you walked the earth you lived to liberate,
to serve, to ease, to lead towards flourishing:

you broke down and sobbed
when those you loved were crying,
extended your hands to those
desperate for human touch,
invited the high-up
to come down and dine
with the ones you’d raised from the dirt –

and still, today, right now,
your very Breath rushes down
to comfort, to stir up, to galvanize:

unfurls Herself in hospital rooms
where breaths come labored – slow – and
stop;

gusts through grocery stores, buoys up
the worker with the fearful mind
and aching feet;

sweeps through power’s halls
upturning spreadsheets,
tugging at shirtsleeves.

but
just for today
the day you died

please

let me
pray for you

let me cry out with you
the cry ripped from your chest
as the cross claimed your breath,
dripped out your lifeblood,
throttled your lungs’ rising

My God! My God!…

Jesus, heart of my heart,
heart of all the cosmos!

will you take a little rest
in these hours your heart was stopped?

let us attend to the aching world
for just this little while.

how urgently i wish
i could stop your pain

pull out the nails my kin drove in-
to your skin and sinew

staunch the whole world’s bleeding
while you sleep the deep,
dreamless sleep of the tomb…

if i cannot do any of that,
then let me do this:

you who ache
with every broken heart,
who bruise alongside
every trampled body,

today
let me ache with you.


This poem was written by Avery Smith and belongs to them. Please do not publish it anywhere, or use it in a service, without permission from the author. Reach out to Avery at queerlychristian36@gmail.com for that permission, or just to chat!

About this poem:

This was my prayer for Good Friday, 2020: Jesus, every day of the year, every instant of eternity, you care for the oppressed, the sick, the despairing. You suffer alongside us. For just this day, let us suffer with you.

Categories
Holy Days LGBT/queer Liturgy My poetry Reflections for worship services

A queer reflection on the Agony in the Garden – Holy Thursday / Maundy Thursday

Tonight we follow Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane. 

As we kneel with him in the dark, see his hands clenched in prayer,
the blood on his brow, in his tears,
as we hear the cry wrench out of him, “Take this cup away from me!” 

…we hear also the cry of so many of our siblings.

“I cannot bear this part of myself, O God. Why are you calling me to this? Why did you make me to be this way, when all it has done for me is cause loved ones to abandon me? Take this cup away. Please take this cup away.”

Let us not be like the disciples who slept,
ignorant of Jesus’s agony.

Let us not be like them when they fled the scene
leaving him to the ones who chained him and dragged him away.

O God, set our hearts on fire with a fierce compassion for your oppressed children, so that we cannot sleep when they cry out. 

We go to them. We stay awake with them. We. stay.

We remember the one who broke bread and called it his body,
who knelt to wash our feet.
We remember the one who commanded us to love in such a way –
to serve and be served.

Let us go now into a world full of cries,
all anxiously awaiting a day that seems far off, a dawn past all suffering
when we will rise transformed,
when relationships will be reconciled
and all will know God’s love. 

In the meantime – this time of anxious waiting – we leave no one alone in their agony. We cry out with them.
We stay awake with them.
We stay.