Reading from a different position (Lamentations and Christian anti-semitism)

There is a need for Gentile Christ-believers to hear Lamentations as a word addressed, in the first instance, by the people of Israel to Yhwh, and written down for the people of Israel. Christians instinctively read the texts as insiders – we hear our own voices in the anguished words of those in pain. This is right but I want to propose that there is a place for a different, far more unsettling reading stance vis-à-vis the text.

The book speaks of the brutal violence of the nations against Israel and it is sobering for Gentile Christians to read the text not from the position of suffering-Israel, but in the role of the oppressive nations. Read in this way the book serves to invite the communities that have persecuted Israel to listen to the voices of their victims. Even a glancing familiarity with the shocking treatment of Jews by Christians through the ages goes a long way towards indicating the potential power of such a reading strategy.

But, someone may protest, surely this is not to read Lamentations as Christian scripture for it puts Christians on the outside looking in. So long as this is not the only stance that Christian readers take to the text I must beg to differ. In this dangerous, almost prophetic, mode the word of God functions as a harsh word of rebuke; as a shocking exposure of an oft forgotten crime; as a call to the painful task of listening to one’s victims, and as an invitation to repentance. Christian oppression of Jewish people may have been at its worst in times past but it is certainly not a thing of the past. Christians live with the ever-present temptation to think that since the Messiah came God has abandoned the Jewish people in favour of the church. This, to my mind, represents a fundamentally unbiblical ecclesiology but it has been the theology at the root of a lot of anti-Semitic attitudes and actions over the centuries. Hearing Lamentations as a text by Jews and for Jews in which Gentile Christ-believers have often shamefully played out the role of the destructive nations would actually be one very constructive, chastening reading strategy. The text of Lamentations strikes a very different sound in the context of the Church when heard in such ways. Consider these words:

Lam 1:2b-c
"Among all those who loved her
there is none to comfort her.
All her friends have betrayed her;
they have become her enemies"

These words concern Israel's allies who had bound themselves to come to her aid if she was attacked. But when Babylon attacked they stood aside and did nothing. One need only think of the 'response' of the churches to Hitler's anti-semitic policies to find oneself unconfortably amongst the cowardly nations here.

Or ponder the image of exiled Israel dwelling amongst the nations but finding no resting place (Lam 1:3). Then consider the way in which Jews were expelled from various 'Christian' countries in the past.

Or think on the image of the nations 'raping' Israel and enriching themselves on her wealth (Lam 1:10). Or the use of lethal violence against the Jewish people followed by rejoicing in their plight (Lam 1:15, 20).

As such Christians would be wise to pay careful attention to traditional Jewish readings of the text on the 9th Ab as a prism for understanding a wide range of Israel’s sufferings. We need to hear that and acknowledge the legitimacy of that interpretation – a legitimacy retained within a Christian theological frame of reference.

I think that it would be perfectly appropriate albeit sobering for such unnerving use of the text to take place in the context of Christian public worship.

If we are not prepared to face our history and to allow Scripture to expose our infidelity then what claims do we have to honour God's word?


Anonymous said…
"Christians on the outside looking in."

Thank you for these thoughts, Gregory (I use your honorary title!).

Until we are in the New Jerusalem, there is always a sense in which we are on the outside, I suppose. So may be it's good to remember that.

In any case, good not to be in denial about certain parts of Christian history, as you say.

Now if I can just work out when the 9th of Ab is, I'll consider using some of your thoughts in public worship -- unless you've got copyright on this, or there is an embargo until sunset on the 9th Ab?
Robin Parry said…
Sorry - 9th Av is a date in the Jewish liturgical calendar which commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples as well as a host of Jewish suffering throughout history. It is a day of mourning and the book of Lamentations is central to the day.

The next day marks a movement away from mourning and towards divine consolation and comfort.
Anonymous said…
the Ab is really an Abh, or as you have it "Av".

Funny language, Hebrew!


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