The Elim Community Church is a small walk from my house. I pass it on my way into the city centre. The church is close to the bus station and it uses this prominent position to evangelise via brightly coloured billboards placed at two of its corners. Everyone in Carlisle has seen these.
If you’ve ever made the mistake of accepting literature from a street preacher you will be familiar with the style of these billboards, which is as glib as it is dogmatic, often expressing its theological content in the form of a pun, for example. They change the posters regularly, and I am always eager to see what the new ones say, so I can have a little mental argument with them. I have often found these messages patronising and annoying, but they have never caused me to reel back on my heels.
Imagine my reeling, then, when in the run up to Easter I bimble past and see this:
The jews? (Uncapitalised too you’ll notice.) I was shocked because I thought Christianity had gotten over its tendency to mark the Jews out as Christ-killers. Most modern Christians, or at least so I thought, understood that crucifixion was a Roman punishment, carried out by Roman authorities, and that the various gospel writer’s crude attempts to absolve Pontius Pilate of blame, while shifting culpability for Christ’s death onto rabbinical authorities and Jewish crowds, was carried out for, shall we say, ulterior motives.
After posting my photo a Facebook friend, Mike Norman, told me he had also seen the billboard and was equally shocked, and that he had contacted the church to complain.
The journalist Francis Wheen, meanwhile, was so incensed on seeing this that he rang the minister, Alan Meyer, who repeatedly expressed “surprise” that anyone would think the billboard was stoking up antisemitism, as “that was not our intention”. Wheen asked Meyer what the intention of the poster was in that case, but, according to Wheen, “answer came there none”. He did, though, get Meyer to concede he would “probably” replace the poster the following day.
And, sure enough, on Sunday, it was replaced with this rather more benign alternative:
I’m glad the poster is gone, though I’m rather dismayed by Meyer’s casual acquaintance with the meaning of certain words.
Being implicated in deicide had terrible consequences for the Jewish diaspora. Bible verses that collectively blamed Jews in perpetuity (“His blood be on us, and on our children”), became the justification for over a millennia of persecution and pogrom. In the medieval era being a Jew in Christian lands meant enduring great peril, especially during Easter, as mobs riled up by antisemitic sermons on the death of Christ were apt to engage in post-sermon beatings, lootings and lynchings.
To not know this requires a level of ignorance remarkable in a minister of the church. Unintentionally reviving Christianity’s most toxic slander is only slightly less disturbing than deliberately doing so. For it shows how historical amnesia can leave us unwitting hosts to deeply embedded prejudices.