Against Forgetting

A theology divorced from living Judaism is not only dangerous to Jews, but confronts Christianity at its heart.



Against Forgetting

Martin Stöhr

How Germans talk – some examples

  • A professor writing in a Christian journal seeks understanding for the active memory of the Jewish people. They can’t forget. “Since the Jews are not Christians forgiveness does not come easily to them.”
  • A Lord Mayor opens a Jewish Christian celebration. When he reaches his fifth sentence he fixes the party political representatives with his eye and reproaches them with Pharisaism ...
  • A Green politician regards the scud rockets as the logical consequence of Israel’s political stance towards the Palestinians. He makes use of the Biblical sentence “His blood be upon us and upon our children” as the pious basis for his figure of speech: the victim has only himself to blame. 
  • An open-minded student reflects that there must be some basis for the isolation of Israel and for antisemitism. “But make no mistake”, he says, “personally, I am against it. Still, there must be something in it.” 
  • A parliamentary representative from Bavaria declares, “Where money is involved, there you find Jews.”
  • A conservative politician justifies his militaristic security doctrine with the information that one of his friends is an officer in the Israeli army. 
  • A pastor preaches on a Pauline text and sets the Jew, Paul, in critical and liberal opposition to the legalistic Jew, Peter. The pastor speaks of typical Jewish legalism and of the superiority of Christian freedom. I hear this sermon in the company of two Jews. We speak to the preacher: “Oh”, says he, taken aback, “had I known that Jews were there I would not have said it.” 
  • A historian of German Literature in Exile notices from the name of a Jewish scholar, who takes an opposing view to his own, that she is the daughter of a Rabbi. “True to the Old Testament principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, Israel hits back.” The journalist who writes this sentence has no idea what he is talking about. His inadequate Biblical education becomes the soil in which stereotypes can grow.

Baleful consequences

As soon as one scratches beneath the surface of the concepts which underlie these statements, the religious die in which these prejudices are cast, stands revealed. What used to be thought religious remains effective and usable in secular society, minus its original religious foundation.

A theology divorced from living Judaism is not only dangerous to Jews, but confronts Christianity at its heart. This twilight period, in which a conventional but no longer living Christianity reigns, is long drawn out. What was once rooted in Christianity persists in it, at once worldly and pious.

Everyone would like to solve “the Jewish problem” at long last. Did they not openly describe it as a historical task to “purify” society by means of discrimination, defamation, deportation and murder? The “Jewish question” is, however, not a Jewish problem. It is the problem of why the majority community finds itself incapable of living together with a Jewish minority.

It used to be the case that a majority within our society was Christian. Even if they didn’t live as good Christians they at least had a Christian upbringing. Both theology and piety are open to secularization in their positive as well as their negative consequences. That is why we must make it clear that popular, racial, political, national, legal or scientific legitimation for antisemitism has found fruitful soil in which to grow in our land.

The restraints on opposition were in proportion to the deference towards ruling authority.

Theology and Church, Christian men and women, must critically examine their own theory and practice to see how they contribute to, or at least tolerate, antisemitism and indifference. Indifference, like its partner incompetence, kills.

And the Church, in common with legal and scientific institutions, industry, government and education must be aware of the painful question of how all these human institutions were absent precisely where their presence should have been felt. Why did they allow themselves to become the accomplices of a murderously efficient power?

Only a new beginning will do

The insights of the theological dialogue between Jews and Christians which the working group of Jews and Christians have conducted for the thirty years of the Kirchentag are of a critical nature. A major element in what is too often regarded as innocuous Jewish Christian dialogue is the critical examination of the contents of faith and of its consequences which, whether passively or actively, helped build the path to Auschwitz.

I mean:
  • all theories which speak of an inheritance of Israel through the Church, or of Israel’s disinheritance; 
  • all positions which define their identity by a negative characterization of the Jewish people, whether in the State of Israel or in the diaspora; 
  • all constructs which appropriate the Jewish Bible, God’s covenant with his people, God’s gracious instruction to the Jewish people.

Christians and Church participate in these things only through and together with Israel, never in opposition to or without Israel. The Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, never broke with this people and their service of God. His path leads not away from Israel but towards Israel, for it is only along this path that the nations can find the God of Israel, that one can journey meaningfully through the breadth of scripture, drawing living inspiration from its account of the origin and aim of creation and history. Only on this path can one learn to make firm decisions for the implementation of justice, freedom, happiness, love and truth in human life and society.

Instead of this Christians and Church too often concern themselves with power and numbers, with dogma and escapism, blaming Israel for the death of God and regarding the history of Israel as finished. They pronounce judgment on Israel and boast that they are their bailiffs in history.

Are we to take the Jewish people with their vulnerable state, their human resources, the diverse expressions of their faith and life, as they truly are and as they understand themselves, or are we to fabricate our own image of them and thereby not only break the second commandment, but also cast aside God’s first address, namely Israel?

A new beginning between Jews and Christians is only just on the horizon. It is perpetually in danger of being destroyed:

  • by our desire as Germans to talk less about our failures and more about our economic performance and our idealistic world;
  • by the opinion of the perpetrators and their descendants that only the victims and their descendants need remember what happened and indeed that memory may be relegated to the scientific archives;
  • by treating history pedagogically, creating didactic models of what Jews were and of what they are ostensibly supposed to be today; 
  • by forgetting Israel, together with our own history, thus allowing a majority of our people to harbor the wish to keep Israel, more than any other state, at arm’s length.

An enlightened theology reviews the whole of history, whether ecclesiastical, political, economic or cultural, not through rose-colored glasses but ruthlessly. Only in this way can we construct a new path for the future which will degrade and deny neither humanity nor the house of God.

Translation of an address delivered before a gathering in the Old Synagogue at Essen, Germany, on June 4, 1991. Prof. Dr. Martin Stöhr is a former president of the International Council of Christians and Jews.    top of page