Hey Jews! Good news for you guys? Remember how generations of Catholic leaders said that you were collectively responsible for a murder that supposedly happened 2000 years ago? Pope Ratzinger is letting y’all off the hook:
A new book by Pope Benedict XVI offers a sweeping exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Jesus Christ, tackling one of the most controversial issues in Christianity. Wednesday, Benedict uses a biblical and theological analysis to explain why it is not true that the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for Jesus’ death. Interpretations to the contrary have been used for centuries to justify the persecution of Jews
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am no friend to the current pope, but I will always give credit where credit is due. First of all, it should be very clear that this is not a new pronouncement from the current administration that reverses Church policy. Jews were let off the hook for the murder of Jesus many years ago, and Church doctrine has been clear about that fact. Reminding Catholics of this fact is a positive step, and hopefully will help stem the tide of anti-Jewish sentiment around the world, at least from Catholics. There is nothing negative to be said about this announcement, which is simply an excerpt of a much longer work by the pope.
Having said all that, it is still a stupid thing to have to say. A group of people cannot be collectively responsible for the actions of a few of their ancestors. The very idea is ludicrous. First of all, there are strong reasons to doubt that the account of Jesus’ trial and execution is anywhere near accurate, or that Jesus as a single person even existed at all. Second, even granting the accuracy of the collective account in the New Testament, some of the Jews in the crowd were trying to secure Jesus’ freedom, a good many of them knew nothing about the case at all, and still thousandsfold more weren’t anywhere near Jerusalem at the time and couldn’t have done anything about it even if they wanted to. Third, even if they were responsible, Jesus’ death was part of the original plan of God, so their involvement was pre-ordained. Fourth and perhaps most importantly, the decisions of a group of people do not carry forward to their offspring. It is only the most profoundly evil mind that could possibly punish a child for the sins of its forebears (yes, apparently that is how the word is spelled).
I should, at this moment, attempt to stem the tide of “aha!” accusations from those who think that the above paragraph also applies to the issue of reparations, affirmative action, or white privilege. Reparations were a promise made on behalf of the Union government, which still exists as the United States government – promises made should be kept. Affirmative action is not punishing white people for the sins of their forebears, and I have explained in depth why this is so. White privilege refers to the fact that children of white parents start their lives with a set of assumptions that benefit them (or at least do not count against them) from day one, which means that they continue to benefit from the actions of their ancestors – Jews are afforded no such benefit, and are usually detrimentally treated for their religious/cultural affiliation (except within their own in-group, obviously).
It is perhaps not unique to religion, this punishing of children for things that their parents did, but it is certainly a hallmark of religious teaching. The doctrine of original sin, for example, is based on the slight disobedience of a fictional ancestor, and punishment is meted out against not only the species supposedly involved in the transgression, but against all other species as well. The Old Testament is replete with examples of innocents being punished for the actions of others. The Qu’ran treats nonbelief with torture – nonbelief which is surely the fault of whatever religious instruction one receives (unwittingly) as a child. Hinduism states that entire families are forever cursed to live as subservient to others based on nothing more than ancestry. The idea that guilt is a heritable trait is certainly one that, if it does not find its authorship there, certainly finds succor and support from theology.
The pope, by declaring that each individual Jewish person in the world is not responsible for the torture and murder of a person who a) may never have existed, b) even if he was, did not experience universal persecution at the hands of Jewish people, c) even if he did, whose persecution and execution were part of a divine plan… by declaring that this is not the fault of their two millennia distant descendants, the pope has basically come to the same realization that a normal and non-god-blinded person would have reached in about 5 minutes of reflection (if they were distracted). To treat this announcement as some kind of mercy or generous gesture is to grant license to the series of fallacies that the idea of deferred transgenerational responsibility requires to carry any force, not to mention the deep and abiding evil that is inherent in the idea of punishing someone for what someone else has done.
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