This is a concluding reflection for the class “Throwing Branches into the Fire: Confronting Anti-Judaism in John and Anti-Semitism in Church” (John 9:1-7, 38-41), part of the Lenten series “Beholding the Lamb, Being Held by the Shepherd: Exploring the Question of Suffering in the Gospel of John” taught at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church on Sunday February 19, 2012.
“Abide in my love” (John 15:9)
Luther’s biographer Richard Marius points out that his treatise On the Jews and Their Lies was written within two months of the death of his beloved daughter Magdalena, who died at age 14. As she was dying, Luther held her in his arms and said to her, “Magdalena, darling daughter, is it not true that you would like to stay here with your father, and yet you want to go to your Father above?”
“Yes, dear father,” she responded, “just as God wills!” And she died in his arms.
As Luther gazed at her in her coffin, he exclaimed, “Dear baby girl, thou shalt rise again and shine as a star, nay, as the sun.” His biographer Marius writes, “Afterward his grief was intense, and he spoke feelingly of the terror before death while affirming his trust in Christ. This combination of woes may have driven him to lash out at someone, and the Jews were there, testifying to his worst fear, that Jesus had not risen from the dead, and that Christians would enjoy no victory over the grave.” Although there is no excuse for Luther’s virulent words against the Jews, I still feel a tug on my heartstrings when I read about Luther’s tragic loss. His daughter’s death was deeply troubling to him and the beliefs of the Jews (whom he initially respected) had forced him to question the one source of comfort he had left in the face of such loss: that is, the hope of the resurrection. “This combination of woes” according to Marius, “[had] driven him to lash out at someone.”
When we experience great tragedy in our lives, a very human response is to “lash out at someone” or at some group of people, to cast the blame, to scapegoat. I know this is the case for me whenever I experience great difficulty or loss. From a psychological and emotional perspective, I think that a lot of Christian anti-Semitism has sprung (and continues to spring) from the human need for someone to blame. Because the Jews can easily be read as the “bad guys” in the New Testament, they quickly became the target of Christian blame whenever difficulties arose. It is no surprise that pogroms and expulsions against Jews were more frequent during times of crisis. Like Luther, Christians experienced a combination of woes that drove them to lash out at someone, and the Jews were there as an ideal target.
The need to find someone to blame and scapegoat is human but the act of actually blaming and scapegoating others is the “branch” that our divine vinegrower seeks to throw into the fire and burn. The divine vinegrower does this by inviting us to direct our anger and frustration towards him. God invites us to blame and scapegoat Him! This is how we abide in God’s love: by directing our anger towards God. And in doing so, we are like little children throwing punches at our parent, who holds us lovingly through our violent outburst, until we finally melt into his arms. Through this process, God gradually prunes away our violence and our need to blame and scapegoat others.
This is what it means to both “behold the Lamb” and to “be held by the Shepherd,” to lash out all our anger and violence at the same one (the Lamb) who holds us with pastoral compassion (the Shepherd) while gently saying to us, “Abide in my love.”