Jacques Maritain Center : The Range of Reason

Chapter Ten


This chapter is made up of a letter directed by the author to Mr. Hayim Greenberg, editor of Jewish Frontier, and published in the August, 1944, issue of this periodical, under the title A Catholic View of the Crucifixion. It refers to the Letter to a Christian Minister, which Mr. Hayim Greenberg had published in the August, 1939 issue.

I THANK you cordially for having sent me your moving and inspiring "Letter to a Christian Minister." Not only did I read it with the keenest interest, but I greatly admire the way in which you have expressed the Christian understanding of the mystery of Christ's crucifixion by God's people. I cannot help thinking that in the very fact that a Jewish scholar, acquainted with the purest and deepest insights of his tradition, has come "from the outside" to such a grasp of the Christian point of view, there is an invaluable sign of the kinship between the Christian spirit and the Jewish spirit. In any case, for a Christian aware of the significance of his own creed, Christ's condemnation and death are a divine mystery, the most awesome irruption of God's secret purposes into human history, a mystery which can be looked at only in the light of supernatural faith, and you are perfectly right in stating that "as long as your pupils will think of this problem in terms of a lynching party or of a judicial frameup, they will remain on a low, non-metaphysical plane that has nothing to do with Christianity."

Precisely because I am so profoundly in agreement with you on the fundamentals of the question, I think you will allow me to add a few remarks. And first, a criticism: the expression of "tragic guilt" is only an approximate and deficient one, for it deals with the basic concept of fate. Now from the Christian outlook (as well as from the outlook of the Old Testament) guilt is not made inevitable by fate. It is involved in the unbreakable plan of eternal wisdom, yet human freedom stays real under the will of God, and does freely the good which God has eternally decided to predetermine, the evil which He has eternally decided to permit.{1} (In the same way, Christ did not choose Judas as the betrayer. He knew those He has chosen -- the Greek text uses the plural, John 13, 18. "I speak not of you all. I know [those] whom I have chosen." Judas was not among them, he was known as the non-chosen.){2} Nowhere more than in the condemnation of Christ did the exercise of human freedom appear supremely dominated by the transcendent power and foreseeing mercy of God, in a way infinitely more pathetic than Greek tragic destiny. It made Paul bend his knees in adoration. Yet freedom and responsibility remained, and therefore, guilt.

This guilt was that of a few persons, the princes of the priests, and, to a certain extent, the mob of those days, blind and cruel as the Jailers of the prophets had been. The Christian, knowing that Christ is the Second Person of the divine Trinity, has good reason to call this guilt a crime of deicide. It was so in fact. But it was not so with regard to the conscience of the judges. If they had known He was the Son of God, they would not have condemned Him; for their fault was essentially lack of faith and blindness of heart, and so they did not recognize the One whom the prophets had announced. At this point, Christian teachers should emphasize the saying of St. Peter: "I know that ye did it in ignorance, as did also your rulers"{3} as well as the words of Jesus on His cross: "They know not what they do."

Moreover, it is obvious, when we read the Acts and St. Paul's Epistles, that the apostles' reproach to the Jews was not so much the crucifixion as their failure to believe in that very Christ Whom their priests had crucified, and Who had risen from the dead. Their reproaches to the Jews were no more anti-semitic -- and no less vehement -- than those of Moses.

Now here takes place, from the Christian point of view, another mystery, the mystery of the solidarity of Israel as a people with its spiritual leaders, for whose fault the people were to pay for centuries. For the people of Israel is a corpus mysticum, a Church-nation. The Christian believes that by reason of this paramount of all clerical crimes -- the blindness of their spiritual leaders -- Israel failed in its mission, and the Jews were deprived of the actual exercise of their privileges, and were abandoned to the world, and will remain thus dispossessed as long as they do not believe in their crucified Messiah. The ordeals suffered by a nation as a result of the faults of its political leaders are but a weak and watered-down image of such solidarity. Here, in the eyes of a Christian, it is with the spiritual mis-step of a consecrated people, and with the consequences inevitably involved, that we are confronted. And because God is the supreme ruler of human history, such consequences -- the temporary dispossession of Israel -- may be viewed in the line of those "chastisements" which God never spared His beloved people. Yet this concept is only valid from the highest metaphysical and transcendent standpoint, and divine punishment is only the normal, mysterious fructification of human deeds, and the patience of God waiting for man's return. Not only must we point out, as you rightly do, that every Jew of today is as innocent of the murder of Christ as every Catholic of today is of the murder of Jeanne d'Arc or the imprisonment of Galileo. But over and above all it must be stated that those who want to "punish" the Jews -- who are in the hands of their and our God -- for the murder of Golgotha, make themselves guilty of blasphemy and sacrilege; they stupidly encroach for the sake of their own human wickedness upon the hidden purposes of God, they flaunt the love with which He waits for His people, they offend with their bloody hands eternal Wisdom itself.

At this point we must observe that certain rhetorical commonlaces -- such as the expression, "the deicide race" -- which have been for centuries in the vocabulary of Christian Gentiles, perhaps through some anti-Semitic motive, perhaps by mere coarseness of thought, are pregnant in any case with anti-Semitic potentialities, which may burst out into the worst feelings in the poisonous atmosphere of our day. Christian teachers have a duty to rule out such expressions which are definitely nonsense, as well as to purify carefully their language of similar improprieties due to human thoughtlessness and to the indifference of Gentiles heedless of what did not directly concern themselves.

Who killed Christ? The Jews? The Romans? I have killed Him, I am killing Him every day through my sins. There is no other Christian answer, since He died voluntarily for my sins, and to exhaust the justice of God upon Himself. Jews, Romans, executioners, all were but instruments, free and pitiable instruments, of His will to redemption and sacrifice. That is what Christian teachers ought to inculcate in their pupils.

Shall we look for the deepest impulse toward that monstrosity -- Christians who are anti-Semites? They are seeking an alibi for their innermost sense of guilt, for the death of Christ of which they want to clear themselves: but if Christ did not die for their sins, then they flee from the mercy of Christ! In reality they want not to be redeemed. Here is the most secret and vicious root by virtue of which anti-Semitism dechristianizes Christians, and leads them to paganism.

The golden rule of Christian teaching in this matter is perfectly simple: one need only cling to St. Paul. St. Paul has been especially commissioned to convey to us the enlightenment of divine inspiration, the views of our God on that subject; it is a shame that so many Christians do not know the statements of the Apostle to the Gentiles. Never did I realize so acutely the essentially anti-Christian madness of anti-Semitism as when preparing a book on St. Paul and gathering together his texts on the mystery of Israel.

St. Paul teaches that "the gifts and the call of God are without repentance," so that the people of Israel continue "ever beloved for the fathers' sake."{4} He would wish to be anathema himself from Christ on behalf of his brethren, "my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, whose is the adoption and the glory and the covenants and the legislation and the liturgy and the promises, whose are the fathers, and of whom is Christ according to the flesh."{5}

"I say, then, have they stumbled to their fall? Heaven forbid! But by their lapse salvation is come to the Gentiles, that the latter may `rouse them to jealousy.' And if their mis-step is the riches of the world, and their diminution the riches of the Gentile; how much more their fulness?"{6} (non conversio, sed plenitudo, not conversion, but fulness; Cornelius a Lapide, the famous commentator, stresses this point).

"If their dispossession hath been the reconciliation of the world, what will the reintegration of them be but life from the dead? If the first fruit of the bough is holy, so are the branches."{7} "If thou hast been cast off from that which is by nature a wild olive tree, and hast been grafted contrary to nature, into the good olive tree, how much more shall these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree! For I would not have you ignorant, brethren, of this mystery (lest ye be wise in your own conceits), that hardening in part has happened in Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be entered in; and thus all Israel shall be saved, according as it is written. . . Just as yourselves at one time disobeyed God, but now have found mercy through their disobedience, so they too have now disobeyed through the mercy shown to you, in order that they too, as it is, may find mercy. For God hath imprisoned all alike in disobedience, in order that He may have mercy on all. O the depths of the riches of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God! How inscrutable are His judgments, and how untraceable His ways!"{8}

That is the genuine Christian view, the only genuine Christian view, of the mystery of Christ's rejection of the chosen people. It is in this light, and with feelings of brotherly love for the branches of the olive tree of which Christian Gentiles have been made part, that the drama of the crucifixion should be told by Christian teachers. St. Paul goes on to say: "For Christ is our peace, He that hath made both one, and hath broken down the dividing barrier of enmity. He hath brought to naught in His flesh the law of commandments framed in decrees, that in Himself He might create of the two [the Jew and the Gentile] one new man, and make peace and reconcile both in one body to God through the cross, slaying by means thereof their enmity."{9}

{1} Cf. Existence and the Existent, chapter IV.

{2} He was known as the non-chosen for eternal life. With respect to the apostolate, Judas was chosen with the twelve; and Jesus knew from the very first that Judas would betray Him (St. John, 6, 65) . -- "Have I not chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?" (Ibid., 71). -- But Jesus chose him because He loved him, not because He knew that Judas would betray Him.

{3} Acts, 3, 17.

{4} Rom. 11, 28, 19.

{5} Rom. 9, 3-5.

{6} Rom. 11. 11-12.

{7} Rom. 11, 15-16.

{8} Rom. 11, 24-33.

{9} Ephes. 2, 14-16.

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