For Easter and Passover Holy Days: who crucified Jesus?

Preaching about love in the churches is not enough, as long as the words the worshippers read in their Bible turn them against people of other faiths and fill them with suspicion, dislike, loathing, hatred, aversion or revulsion. It is not enough to talk about tolerance as long as the holy scriptures set us apart.

László Bitó
8 April 2012

The celebration of Passover, the freeing of a nation from slavery, and Easter, the resurrection of Jesus and the rebirth of nature, always reminds me of the spring of 1946 when, in preparation for confirmation, I realized that I could not retain the naïve faith of my childhood years. As it began to become increasingly clear that not tens of thousands had been gassed and cremated, as we had been told when we emerged from our shelters in the spring of ’45, but millions, including hundreds of thousands of Jews who were deported from my country, Hungary, in cattle cars to so-called labour camps, never to return - I needed to find answers to questions that were overwhelming me.

Hoping to restore my faith in a just God, I asked one of my priest-teachers how God could have allowed all this to happen. I realized only later that everyone was asking this question, as we slowly came to a realization of what had taken place in the shadow of the war. Seeing my despair he gave me the “God works in mysterious ways” answer, which all the priests gave after the war, unless they resorted to talking about the “Mysterious Ways of God’s Love.”

When he saw that I was not satisfied by that kind of answer, and knowing how much I liked books, he gave me a leather-bound missal. This is how I came to follow the liturgy of every mass and the teachings of Jesus began to restore my faith in the goodness of God, even if I still could not reconcile what had happened during the war with the teaching of His omnipotence.

I began to hope that my faith in a loving God could be restored, until Good Friday came around and the altars were covered in black, confronting me with the teaching according to which the God in whose love I had to believe made us humiliate, scourge and crucify His son.

With trembling hands I held my gilded missal to follow the words of Hoseas, Habakkuk and Moses and the supplication of the Psalms chanted by the priest celebrating mass: “Keep me, oh Lord, from the hands of the wicked.” I had reason to feel the full weight of these words, for wickedness was about to overwhelm us under Soviet occupation as the procurator of Moscow was becoming the Lord of Life and Death. I had to fight off images of people being tortured by the secret police, and all the things I was told never to speak of after my father had been taken away for three days and returned a shadow of his former self.

Keep us oh Lord, from the hands of the wicked, I prayed. But then the words of Caiaphas, Pilate, Jesus and the people from the Passion floated down to us from the choir as if from heaven: words from the Gospel of John, according to which Pilate, Rome’s proconsul, had wanted to release the accused because he judged Jesus to be innocent. But, the reading went on, the Jews, who just a few days before had greeted Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem with heartfelt hosannas, now chanted that instead of the common thief Barabbas, Pilate should crucify their kind-hearted, loving Master.

In earlier years, I had felt sorry for the intimidated Pilate, whom the Jews had blackmailed, saying, “If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend”, who worriedly washed his hands, hesitant to condemn an innocent man. But that was before we learned about the arrogant omnipotence of commanders of an occupying force, whether it was the Prefect of Rome or the Commissar of Moscow. Men who have power do not let themselves be intimidated. Before I experienced the ruthlessness of the procurators of Berlin and Moscow, I might have doubted John’s words, according to which, “When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he was the more afraid.”

Maybe I doubted John’s words, before I learned that there are such things as ideologically shaped history and show trials. And mass demonstrations of people who are told what to shout.

The fact is, it never occurred to me to doubt that the Jews had demanded the death of Jesus from the Roman procurator, until the day when the procurators of Moscow forced us to demand Cardinal Mindszenty’s death, whom not long beforehand we had followed in the Easter processions celebrating Jesus’ resurrection on the streets of a Budapest that still bore the wounds of war. As a child I managed to escape this betrayal, but thousands were forced to demand the death of the man to whom we had turned as our saviour when Stalin’s boots lay heavy upon us. But when many who refused to take part in the crucify him! chorus began to lose their jobs, I began to question who had shouted those words two thousand years previously under occupation by a different empire, and why they had done so.

Was it possible that the Catholic hierarchy was so blind to the affairs of the world that they never realized that the oppressed do not always speak or shout their own minds, and that scribes do not always write down what actually happened, regardless of whether they serve princes of state or church, or whether they are bound by a secular ideology or sacral dogmas?

If not beforehand, they should surely have seen the light, when in the first half of the last century murderous ideologies falsified history and propaganda machineries brainwashed half of the world with falsified history and promises of a worker’s paradise or a Jew-less Canaan.

How could they not see the light, when anti-Semitism began to flourish again after the war and neo-Nazis began to be brought together by the common desire to finish the task the past two millennia have left undone, the task not even Hitler, armed with modern industrial technology, was able to complete. But who was Hitler? A creative thinker who dreamt up anti-Semitism entirely on his own? Or a golden-tongued prophet, born to do the calling of a Voice? No, he was born like all of us, with a mind like a sponge, ready to soak up every word that was floating around in his surroundings. Because the child learns not only words, but also their meaning, and he learns the meanings of the words from the way they are said. It is worth trying to see how many ways we can say: he is a Jew. Is the fourth word said with angst? Surprise? Disbelief? Anger? Disgust? Fear? Or with a tone of love, trust, admiration?

A child can become a budding philo-Semite or anti-Semite before ever having met a Jew. And in our world he may meet a Jew for the first time in a biblical story. Maybe in the Gospels of Matthew and John telling us that it was a crowd of Jews who demanded that Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, crucify Jesus, the kindhearted prophet of love and compassion. These stories of Jewish deicide became a poisoned fang of Biblical anti-Semitism for almost two millennia. Which is why many people were relieved when Pope Benedict XVI once again confirmed, a few weeks before Easter last year, that the Jewish people do not hold collective guilt for the death of Christ.

Insufficient healing

That was not enough for me, because I have heard the similar statements made during the Second Vatican Council in 1965. And even after the Vatican explicitly rejected anti-Semitism in all its forms, it did not abate at all. On the contrary, at least in some countries, it seems to have worsened in the ensuing decades. Maybe it will not vanish until the Catholic hierarchy convenes to retract and counteract the teachings of their Church that have fed the abominations that have pitted the younger brother against the older brother for almost two millennia now.

The declaration of last year can even be read as a retreat from the `65 stance of the Vatican, as Pope Benedict did not absolve the Jews of deicide, but rather simply placed the blame for the crucifixion of Jesus on their leaders. But we have heard this kind of bad Jew/good Jew talk before…

Even if not only the Pope but all the bishops and cardinals apologised every day for the age-old anti-Semitism of the Catholic Church, it would not bring back the innocent faith of my youth.  They could apologise for the silence of their predecessors, when, in the name of an ill-conceived ideology based on canonized misconceptions, millions were stripped of their dignity, worldly goods, and lives over the centuries. And then millions more of their lives in just half a decade. They might affirm a thousand times that the Jews are absolved of the accusation of deicide. For me, even that would not be enough.

The Vatican could declare that from now on every bishop and cardinal must make a pilgrimage to at least one altar of the twentieth century Moriahs, the steeples from which black smoke rose over the now silent death camps. The Pope may declare ex cathedra that the white smoke cannot rise from the chimney of that chapel, to which the eyes of the world will turn again some day, until the person chosen by the cardinals pledges to fight with all the means of his office against all forms of hatemongering. Particularly against the anti-Semitic teachings of the Catholic Church, which have made a ready scapegoat for anyone needing to distract the masses. The hatemongers don’t even have to reiterate the crucify him chant from the gospel of Matthew and the Ecce Homo scene of the gospel of John, as the accusation of deicide has been incorporated into western culture through legends, literature, passion plays and all the arts, and has been absorbed into the subconscious or unconscious of each generation, where it will continue to flourish as long as we do not develop an antidote of different narratives.

The declarations of the popes do not suffice. Not for me. They have not restored the blessed faith of my childhood that my Church, the Roman Catholic Church, is the Church of Jesus. I cannot find my way back to that faith, because the image that my childhood’s catechism planted in my mind was not the image of a Jewish teacher, a rabbi from Nazareth, which, as I learned only much later, is who Jesus really was. And in my childish, brainwashed bias I couldn’t very well have imagined that the Mother of God, to whom I prayed by my bedside every night, was just as good a Jewish mother as the pregnant lady with the yellow star on her coat who scurried past me toward a house (also marked with a yellow star) at the end of our street, leading two little girls by the hand.

She crept by us to crowd into a house with many other families, though I have heard that she was a famous concert pianist once. Since she lived just a few houses from us, good manners dictated that I greet her with the usual respectful phrase spoken by children to adults (“I kiss your hand”), but the words got stuck inside me as she walked past me with lowered eyes, pulling her little girls protectively to her. Their eyes were also fixed on the sidewalk. It was the first time that in our little street a woman had failed to smile at me to encourage my greeting.This is why no apology is enough. Because no apology can bring back into this world that Madonna and her two daughters.

Not that I need an apology. Why should the Church apologize to me? After all, I did not protest either. I wasn’t even ten years-old, yet I knew that something infernal, something insufferable was taking place. I knew from the worriedly whispered words of the grownups and the silence that fell on them when I joined them. I knew that something even worse than the war itself was going on in its shadow, and by then I was beginning to know how terrible the war was. By then my parents could not turn off the radio every time they announced our losses on the Eastern front. And I knew that a man who died a hero’s death a thousand miles away was dead just the same, even if his widow received the medal of honor he had won for killing Russian solders who were defending their homeland.

I saw one such widow in the newsreel after the cartoons in which Woody Woodpecker stood up and ran off after having been flattened by a steamroller. I was allowed to watch the make-believe, but the real brutality of the war I could only imagine while I heard the cannons, the explosions of the bombs whistling through the air as the monotone voice of the commentator droned on about great victory or strategic retreat. I could not see anything, but I heard everything, as my mother could not cover my eyes and ears with her trembling hand at the same time. And what I imagined might have been worse than what actually happened. I knew that terrible things were happening, and not only on the fronts. Much more terrible than the war itself. But I was afraid to ask: what is happening? and why? What those lowered eyes were hiding must have been too terrible to behold.

There was no one I dared to ask as the whispers fell into silence. And then the silence was shattered by the shouts of young thugs intoxicated by hatred. Only much later did I learn how far the hatred inflamed by catchy nationalistic slogans carried them: those young men shot hundreds of innocent men, women and children into the icy waters of the Danube in the last days of the war.

It will not help me, no matter how sincere the Pope’s apology might be for his predecessors’ silence or their active anti-Semitism, which led over the centuries to deadly ideologies that fomented the murderous hate of civilized nations against their own citizens.

I was not deprived of my faith by the silence of the Church, but rather by its teachings. By the abomination that from the devotional picture of Mary, the mother of Jesus, that I pasted into the lid of my penholder it was not a kind, down-to-earth Jewish mother who smiled at me, but a snow-white, blue-eyed, ethereal virgin. And all the other misleading teachings robbed me of my faith.

That is why what the Pope said last year was not enough for me. It would have been better had he said nothing. Nothing at all, until he is ready to remove the offending words from the liturgy of Good Friday. Can we expect this from the Catholic Church, after it resisted the Reformation? True, it did away with indulgences sold for pennies to sinners and innocents alike to save their souls from eternal hellfire, but then the coffers of the Vatican, the Istituto per le Opere di Religione, the so called Vatican Bank, was enriched with billions of dollars worth of treasures looted from Jews of several nations by Nazis of different breeds seeking help to escape justice.

Learning this, how could I believe that the Pope is the successor of Peter, whom Jesus sent with his other disciples to go humbly to preach and teach all nations. The Master was saying to them: “Take nothing for your journey, neither staves, nor scrip, neither bread, nor money, neither have two coats apiece,” How could I believe that somebody surrounded by gilded riches, having wardrobes full of ermined coats, could represent Jesus, who thought his followers to be the humblest among the humble. But why do I bring this up? What does this have to do with the question of who crucified Jesus? 

For me everything, because for me Jesus is not just somebody who died almost two thousand years ago, but also, or rather, the embodiment of his teachings of love and compassion. And this is not what I had heard in Pope Benedict’s reserved apology or in the silence of some of his predecessors. But maybe they convinced themselves that they did not have to stand up against Biblical anti-Semitism and all the other indoctrinations that are contrary to the teachings of Jesus, because the Holocaust was just an aberration that could only happen in the shadow of the war and could never be repeated.

This is absolutely true, it could not repeat itself, since history tells us that each epoch has its own way of turning on those who are marked as heretics or simply worship God in a different way.

Bearing witness

In addition to the one showing the ethereal Virgin, I grew up with pictures of martyrs being tortured in various ways. One showing a young Saint Sebastian with arrows piercing his body disturbed me the most. He did not look much older then I was at the time. Did we grow in love and compassion thanks to his bearing witness? True, he inspired many paintings that kept his memory alive over the centuries. Would I be remembered if I were to bear witness for… for what? And the six million martyrs? For what did they bear witness? Will we be better for their martyrdom, I asked then, in my youth. Now I know the answer: no. We are worse, for we tolerate hatred even now, when we know what it can lead to. And in spite of this hundreds of millions still hear on Good Friday that the Jews forced Pilate to crucify Jesus. And every day of the year Jews are abused somewhere in the world, perhaps simply by having to hear yet again that their parents or grandparents, who were taken away in cattle cars and did not return, did not bear witness, for there was no ‘Holocaust’.

Future generations will not be saved from repeating the past, even if the Church leaders give in to pressure by people of conscience and from time to time raise their voices against gross manifestations of hatemongering. The College of Cardinals would have to do more: they would have to excise from the Liturgy the stories that are still heard by every new generation on Good Friday. Along with all the other prejudiced, senseless and self-contradictory stories that have fanned the flames of hatred for centuries.

Preaching about love in the churches is not enough, as long as the words the worshippers read in their Bible turn them against people of other faiths and fill them with suspicion, dislike, loathing, hatred, aversion or revulsion. It is not enough to talk about tolerance as long as the holy scriptures set us apart. For it is not true that the past cannot repeat itself. True, the atrocity of the Holocaust cannot happen again, but whatever led to it can lead to other atrocities. Today not even the most extreme extremists believe that they can drive millions of Jews into gas-chambers to create a world that is jugendfrei. Nor would there be any need to gas them, nor to worry about the disposal of the corpses. With today’s technology pogroms can be conducted through the ether and via the internet, reaching millions in their homes to maim them psychologically and emotionally. True, occasional physical atrocity, for example the slaughter of a family (reported in gory detail to tens of millions), helps to plant fear into the hearts of the population that is targeted, but in general psychological warfare uses more subtle means.

Consciously or not, people consider their dignity to be their dearest personal treasure, a treasure life is not worth living without. Thus, for most haters it may even be more gratifying to see the objects of their hatred stripped of their dignity than to know them dead or driven into exile. For then who would they have to hate? They may not even mind sharing the streets with them as long as they scurry around with lowered heads, eyes glued to the ground, even if they don’t have to wear a yellow star, as that woman once had to.

Who crucified Jesus?

We crucify Jesus day after day by glorifying his humiliation and suffering, instead of following his example of love and compassion. By denying his teachings; listening to hatemongers; allowing them to spread their venom. And by listening to priests in gold embroidered vestments read his words, “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” We kill Joshua, the itinerant Rabbi from Nazareth little by little every day by calling him a name corrupted into the language of their oppressors and obscuring his true self by obscuring the Jewishness of his mother, as we mortify him by mortifying his people. But I believe in salvation: in the love and compassion exemplified by Jesus. And I believe in the coming of a world in which religions no longer stand in the way of faith and mutual understanding.

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