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Here's what this Utah study group did to address antisemitism this Easter season

A local group of Episcopalians has spent Lent studying the antisemitism that can come with the story of the crucifixion of Christ.

A local group of Episcopalians has spent Lent studying the antisemitism that can come with the story of the crucifixion of Christ. (Jonathan Thorpe, Shutterstock)

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SALT LAKE CITY — A group of local Episcopalians at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark has spent Lent studying the antisemitism that can come with the story of the crucifixion of Christ. The members have worked to acknowledge the harm done, make plans to do better and move forward in love.

During Holy Week as part of Lent, Episcopalians and many other Christian denominations study and reenact the Passion of Jesus Christ from the Last Supper to the Crucifixion, often through a dramatic reading of these narratives from the four canonical Gospels.

However, countless historians have noted that these same narratives have been used to justify antisemitism and violence for centuries, by labeling the Jews as killers of Christ.

Daniela Lee, a seminarian and postulant for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Utah and facilitator of the group, grew up in what she describes as a "fairly antisemitic household" in Romania.

"I myself am from Eastern Europe. I have to come to terms with the way my country has persecuted and killed Jews," she said.

Although many Christian leaders, including multiple popes and historians have stated that Jewish deicide is false, there are still people who continue to preach the belief in order to justify anti semitic behavior.a rabbi.

The book's summary describes it as a compilation of the words of religious scholars who "address the historical, theological and exegetical considerations to be addressed by every Christian in order to move beyond this toxic history."

Others, including Provo resident Steven Nordstrom, joined Lee and formed a study group. He explained that before he started meeting with this group, the language of these Passion plays didn't particularly bother him, but now he sees the perpetuation of antisemitism and harm that can come from these narratives.

"I just received those scriptures sort of blithely without a lot of spiritual discomfort," he said. "I accepted out of hand that the scriptures were telling me the truth. Now I'm broadening my understanding in a way that helps me remember that these people were not all Jews, and this is not a Jewish problem.

"I'm recognizing that the scriptures themselves are deep and rich and often have unspoken assumptions, which opens the door for more humility and care for all humans."

The belief that the Jews are collectively responsible for killing Jesus is called Jewish deicide. Early Christians propagated this idea, leading to expulsion, violent acts and mass murder of Jewish people.

Nazi propaganda also often alluded to these passages in the New Testament in order to characterize Jewish people as "Christ-killers."

"The power of these ideas, that somehow God thinks certain people are better than others, and it's worth removing those other people from the planet — that's an idea that doesn't go away. It becomes articulated really clearly in Hitler's movement and persists with us today to the point of justifying huge amounts of violence," Nordstrom said.

Although many Christian leaders, including multiple popes and historians have stated that Jewish deicide is false, there are still people who continue to preach the belief in order to justify antisemitic behavior.

"Christianity itself isn't the issue. It's the way we've interpreted something that's blatantly obvious. We've misinterpreted it for centuries," Lee said.

The Passion narratives typically say that the Jews say, "Crucify him," but she said the text is referring to humanity in general.

"If we don't understand that, then we misunderstand the scripture," she said. "The point of the Passion that's made in church is that the whole congregation are the ones saying, 'Crucify him.' You yourself contribute in the Crucifixion. You yourself cannot bear the gift of God and push it away."

"None of us are perfect. Each one of us has internalized ideas that are wrong. You can't look at the world. You have to look at evil and then look at yourself and then think, 'I want God to make me better,'" she added.

This religious introspection is particularly significant when antisemitic incidents are on the rise. Putin, a self-described Christian nationalist, justified his invasion of Ukraine by claiming he is "denazifying" the country, even though its Jewish president's great-grandparents were killed during the Holocaust.

"In historical terms, it feels that the Holocaust was just yesterday. And yet we see a Jewish president invaded by a dictator and accused of being a Nazi. It feels surreal that this discourse can exist in the world," Lee said.

Between an upswing in violence in the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict and conspiracy theories that blamed Jewish people for the coronavirus, 2021 was "the most antisemitic year in the last decade," according to a joint summary from the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency.

A report from the American Jewish Committee stated that, in 2021 alone, there was an average of 10 antisemitic incidents a day nationwide, with one in four American Jews experiencing at least one antisemitic incident in the past year.

Utah is far from exempt from these incidents.

In January, David Bateman, co-founder of Utah tech company Entrata, sent an email to elected officials, state leaders and other tech executives claiming that "the Jews" were behind COVID-19 vaccines as part of an effort "to euthanize the American people."

In February, a Jewish teacher in Park City found a swastika and the N-word scrawled on the bottom of a desk in his classroom.

This study group from the Cathedral Church of St. Mark's decision to tackle antisemitism in this way was in part inspired by these incidents, but it's also part of a larger movement within the congregation to focus on racial reconciliation.

However, they repeatedly clarified that they don't want this work to be performative.

"I don't want to make this sound like something extraordinary," Lee said. "It's not a merit of ours. It's the bare minimum. We are responsible for so much oppression of Jewish people, and we don't want to pat ourselves on the back now or take any attention away from Jewish people."

"There's no easy fix or easy answers. It has to be ongoing and has to be a work rooted in love. We cannot exist as an isolated congregation. It's great to do all these works and read all these books about racial reconciliation. It's great to be educated, but we have to move past this stage where we're just educated," Lee said.

Nordstrom said antisemitism is usually indicative of broader problems of scapegoating, hypernationalism, and every-person-for-themselves mentalities.

"It's easy for us to pull the wool over our own eyes and say, 'That's not my problem,'" he said. "My existence is not under threat every day. If I think it's not my problem, I'm losing an opportunity to enrich my connections and understand my humanity better."

In a Good Friday sermon, Rev. Tyler Doherty, the priest in charge of the Cathedral Church of St. Mark, stated that this kind of introspection brings repentance for former ways of thinking, but it also brings an opportunity for progress.

"Contemplating the cross, we look in the mirror and see our own entrapment in unconscious patterns of scapegoating violence. We see violence unveiled once and for all, but we also glimpse a glimmer of possibility, the hope of a new way of being human," he said.

Instead of stating that their group holds all of the answers, Nordstrom invited people to "do the work themselves" and "meaningfully build bridges, not walls."

"This type of study opens a window into our own consciousness. What is our relationship to our neighbor? What are we going to do about it?" he said.


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Jenny Rollins is a freelance journalist based in Utah and a former reporter. She has a bachelor's degree from Brigham Young University and a master's degree in journalism from Boston University.


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