On Thursday, President Obama used the National Prayer Breakfast to speak about Christianity in a technically correct but completely useless manner.
Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history referring to the ennobling aspects of religion as well as the tendency of people to "hijack" religions towards murderous ends.Obama's right. Terrible things have been done in the name of Christianity. But with the issue of slavery and civil rights in general, while it is true that some used their church to justify those immoral acts, it was it is true an even larger contingent of Christian leaders led the anti-slavery abolition movement and fought for equal rights along side the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.
During the period of the Crusades Christian's committed horrible atrocities against Jews. For example the 30-40 Jews of Blois France were accused of using a Christian Child's blood to make Matzoh, something European priests warned about in Church sermons. The town's Jews were locked into a house that was set afire. As the story is told, as they were engulfed in the flames to death, they chanted the hauntingly beautiful melody of the prayer Aleynu " our obligation or duty to praise God," which until then was only chanted on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. After the massacre at Blois the prayer was added to the liturgy of each and every Jewish prayer service 3x a day, seven days a week, perhaps because of the very "un-Jewish-like" passage below:
It is our duty to praise the Master of all, to ascribe greatness to the Author of creation, who has not made us like the nations of the lands nor placed us like the families of the earth; who has not made our portion like theirs, nor our destiny like all their multitudes. For they worship vanity and emptiness and pray to a god who cannot save.In modern times the sentence in bold above has been removed from the prayer in most congregations (including where I worship).
As a Jew I can relate to what the President said. The very-ISIS like actions of medieval Christians during the crusades, the inquisition, and later years is always in the back of my mind as a BOLO (be on the look out), not because any legitimate Christian Church would sanction vile acts such at the one at Blois, France today. Like the modern Jewish liturgy which removed that line from the prayer Aleynu, the vast majority of priests and ministers sermonize against hatred of any group, including Jews.
The President's false equivalency was wrong because of its irrelevance. The crusades and the inquisition were hundreds of years ago, Christian theology has grown and "matured" way beyond that hatred. Just as Jewish theology has evolved past that line putting down Christendom in their prayer.
The President wasted what could have been a valuable lesson. If he had gone on to say, "Yes Christianity had done horrible things but it learned and evolved, and now Islam must do the same thing," it would have been a brilliant and relevant lesson. Instead he seemed to excuse the violence by radical Muslims today because of the violence of Christians six to ten centuries ago.
Three years ago my friend Rabbi David Nesenoff and his son, Adam made a movie of their travels across the country to ask different people about tolerance. One scene filmed at my back yard table and featured me responding to a question about why it seemed that sometimes violence was so prevalent in Islam?
I opined that a religion acted its age-- divided by 100.
Islam is approximately 1,400 years old and has the traits of a 14-year-old, a bit immature, easy to anger, sometimes using its fists instead of its words. And while the majority of Muslims, don't believe in the violence, most of the clerics are silent on the issue, instead of preaching against it.
At age 20 Christianity is like a young adult setting out on its own--more mature. Centuries ago they were just like the Muslims are today violent, intolerant, and too many of its priests either preached hatred or were silent about the hatred. But now they generally acting in a rational mature manner, sometimes there are a few violent crazies (Rev. Al Sharpton) but the leaders of most Christian churches preach against violence and for tolerance and good will toward men. And since Pope John XXIII the Catholic Church which is the largest Christian denomination in the world, and the one that incited the Crusades and the Inquisition, has made a special effort to reconcile with, and teach its flock tolerance of the Jews.
The Jews, well we went through our killing stage, just read the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel. and Kings. (Although the Prophet Elisha unleashing the bears to kill the ruffians who mocked him for being bald was totally justified). Today we are like a 58-year-old. Yeah there are some cranky old men (who are generally ignored but we have to invite them over for passover anyway), but the vast majority of Judaism just wants everybody else to play nice and keep off our lawn.
If the President had started with the Christian massacres and ended with saying, they moderated and now teach peace, and now Islam should do the same he would have made a magnificent point. Instead he made a political point that is being ridiculed on both sides of the aisle.