Friday, April 1, 2011

The Road from Constantine to Oberammergau

          With April usually come the holiest days of two of the three Great Faiths of Western civilization: Passover in Judaism and Easter in Christianity. As we approach this season, historical questions of the relationship between the long and involved relationship between these two faiths lies never far from the surface. And any discussion of that relationship leads almost immediately to a consideration of the long and tragic heritage of anti-Semitism in the West.

          Where does anti-Semitism come from? Why, throughout history, have the Jews been so hated by others? Why do the rushing currents of prejudice and hatred seem to flow, never too far beneath the surface of Western civilization?

            There are theories for why Jew-hating has come lurching down through Christian history, “like a drunk who can’t quite find his way home,” as one writer has put it. The grand-daddy of all these theories—the one that seems to hold on most virulently--  tells us that so many (supposedly) “good Christians” hate the Jews because the Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus. “His blood be upon us and our children,” the crowd at Jerusalem—representing the Jewish people as a whole—are said to have exclaimed, just before the crucifixion of Jesus.

            All of these theories have resonated within the addled mind of the West to one degree or another over the years, and they have produced, throughout history, a most unsavory brew.

            By the time of the Roman emperor Constantine in the fourth century, Christianity was declared the state religion. But under Constantine and his successors, Jesus the man—the teacher, the moral example, the great prophet—became less and less important. What mattered now was not his life, but his death—his crucifixion, his blood sacrifice, his execution (at the hands of the Jews, of course, and not at the hands of the Roman emperor and his minions). The Cross of Jesus became the predominant symbol of the Empire, and so often, of course, the Cross was set on its side to become a weapon, a sword, “Constantine’s sword” of power and conquest, as James Carroll has characterized it.   

            The emperors declared that only those who accepted Christ—only those who were baptized—would be saved. They were not just talking about salvation after death, in heaven, either; they were talking about being saved (or not) in this life, too. Accept Jesus—or die: that was the choice the subjects of the Emperor, including his Jewish subjects, faced.

            The first mass slaying of Jews by Christians occurred in the year 414 in Alexandria in Egypt. An entire Jewish community—one of the oldest in the world--  was massacred by an “unruly mob”. The Church didn’t condone the violence, but it didn’t condemn it either; it just sort of looked the other way.

         Around the same time, the Bishop of Milan, hardly a random member of an “unruly mob”, declared that he  was ready to burn down synagogues in his diocese, if need be—so “that there might not be a single place where Christ is denied.” A synagogue, this “man of God” declared was a “haunt of infidels, a home of the impious, a hiding place of madmen, under the damnation of God himself.” If one were to rebuild a synagogue that had happened to be burned down, the bishop said, that person would be committing “an act of treason to the Faith”.

            So it was in the name of the Christian God that the great Crusades were launched to wrest control of the Holy Land from the Infidel. When we hear the word “Infidel”, we usually think of Muslims, but of course, the term also meant the Jews as well. In 1099, the Pope declared that Crusaders who died in the act of killing an infidel were automatically guaranteed salvation, guaranteed eternal life in paradise. During the First Crusade in Jerusalem, all of the Jews that could be found were herded into a single synagogue and burned alive. In 1449, “Jewish blood” itself was declared dangerous, polluting, defiling; the very state of “being Jewish” was a crime. (I suppose when a Jew converted, that all of the taint and poison in his blood was miraculously removed, perhaps?) During the Inquisition, anti-Jewish mania reached an even hotter fever pitch. Jews were herded into ghettos throughout Europe, lest they “infect” the rest of the population with their Jewishness. (James Carroll calls the Jewish ghettos of Europe the “ante-chambers of the concentration camps.”)

            “The Jews are condemned to eternal slavery,” Pope Leo XI declared in 1555—in language strikingly similar to Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws of four hundred years later:  “They are to own no real estate. They are to attend no university. They are to hire no servants. Their roles in society are to be strictly limited… They are to wear distinctive clothing and badges. Jews are not to be addressed as 'sir' by Christians…”

            Undergirding these official pronouncements was a foundation of popular lies. The Jewish community was accused of killing children; of mixing human blood with their matzo at Passover; of desecrating the Eucharist; of poisoning the wells; of spreading the Plague (even though as many Jews died, proportionally, in the plagues that swept Europe as non-Jews did).

            Nor are such calumnies against the Jews merely the product of an overactive medieval imagination. They continued into the Modern era:

            During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther (later lauded by Hitler himself as “the greatest German reformer of all time”) wrote a book titled The Jews and Their Lies (the title sort of gives away Luther’s main point). He wrote of the Jews as “a brood of vipers”. “This miserable, blind, and senseless people,” Luther continued. “Their arrogance is as solid as an iron mountain.” Luther’s solution? Burn their synagogues, of course!

            Then came the Enlightenment—which wasn’t really so “enlightened” as far as the Jews were concerned. Voltaire, especially, hated the Jews because they wouldn’t let go of their tribal God (as he saw it) and their “cultic” superstitions. Later, even Karl Marx (hardly a Christian saint; a Jew himself actually, and the grandson of two rabbis) seems to have drunk the anti-Semitic Kool-Aid. Marx, too, ranted against “the insipid vapor of Judaism” and the need for “the emancipation of humanity from Judaism”. Even Darwin’s theory of evolution—that basic, scientific building bock of modern society—was used by some to justify the extermination of older (supposedly) more “savage” races—like the Jews.

          Perhaps it took the horrors of the Holocaust – which can, in some ways, be viewed as the logical culmination of 2000 years of anti-Semitic poison in the Western bloodstream—to wake Christianity from its deadly trance, and to set the Christian faith on a new and different path, as far as its relations with the Jews were concerned.

            Could it be, too, that the twisted, difficult road to right relations takes us a highly beautiful, but (given its own history) highly unlikely place, high in the mountains of Bavaria?

            Oberammergau is a town of a little over 5000 people in southern Bavaria, nestled in the valley of the Ammer River. It’s about 60 miles south of Munich, and only about 15 miles from Germany’s border with Austria.

            Oberammergau is most famous, of course, for its Passion Play, which the townsfolk have been performing since 1634. In that year, the bubonic plague threatened the region, and the townspeople, it is said, swore a holy oath to God that, if their town was spared, they would perform a production of the Passion of Christ every ten years. Apparently, the plague by-passed Oberammergau, because the Passion Play (Passionspiele in German) has been  performed once per decade since then.  (It was cancelled only once—in 1940, due to the Second World War; with special performances added in 1934 in honor of the 300th anniversary; and in 1984, in honor of the 350th).

            One of the observers at that special performance in 1934 was none other than Germany’s Chancellor (soon to be Fuhrer), Adolf  Hitler, in power only about a year. The Nazis exploited the production for their own ends, and Hitler himself praised the Passion Play for showing “the muck and mire of Jewry”. In Oberammergau, the Nazis had found precisely the sort of grass-roots peasant drama that was ideal for their racist ideology. It is true, too, that, through most of its 300 year run, the play had hewn pretty closely to the anti-Semitic tenor of traditional Christianity.

            But after the Second World War and the horrors of the Holocaust, a group of American Jewish intellectuals, including Arthur Miller and Leonard Bernstein, signed a petition condemning the play’s portrayal of the Jews. They were soon joined by well-known intellectuals within Germany, including Heinrich Boll and Gunter Grass. With the Second Vatican Council, the Church itself got into the act. The Council’s Nostra Aetate proclaimed that the Jews, as a people, were not responsible for the death of Jesus. Church authorities asked the directors of Oberammergau to change their script to reflect the Church’s revised opinion; when they did not, the Vatican withheld its canonical approval from the 1970 production of the play. Then, in the 1970s, representatives of various Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, were invited to Oberammergau to enter into dialogue about the Passion Play’s content.

            Those early dialogues represented an early planting that took years—even decades—to bear fruit. The first thing to go, in 1984, were the horn-shaped hats worn by the High Jewish Priests, that made them look more like Norsemen (or—more to the point—Devils) than Jewish holy men. The blood oath from Matthew-- “His blood be upon us and our children”—was excised from the script in time for the year 2000’s production.

In 1870, King Ludwig II of Bavaria visited the Passion Play himself and was so moved that he commissioned a large marble Crucifix to be placed top a hill overlooking the town.

            Then, in preparation for this year’s production, an entirely new script, developed under the auspices of a council of rabbis and a theological adviser appointed by the archbishop of Munich and Freising, was adopted after heated discussion by the Oberammergau town council (who are the play’s official sponsors).

            From my experience at Oberammergau this past summer, the Passion Play itself is an almost other-worldy production of incredible power, stunning pageantry, and immense talent. It represents, in my opinion, a near-perfect balance between spectacle and piety; a merger both of intense drama and deeply held faith. It is one of those things everyone should experience at least once in their lives. (I feel truly privileged to have been able to have done so.) Christians, especially, will find it a deeply inspirational experience.

            But what about the theology? It’s a great production, certainly. But is it still held down by its anti-Semitic baggage? It is a fair question to ask. Art does not exist in a vacuum, and as moral men and women, we cannot detach a particular artwork from the ideas it represents. So does the Oberammergau Passion Play, as beautiful and well-crafted as it may be, simply perpetuate the anti-Semitic nightmare that has marked our common Jewish and Christian history?

            I think not. Rather, Oberammergau, to me, represents a great sign of hope, as far as religious dialogue and understanding are concerned.

           Of course, not everyone is equally pleased with what the Passion Play represents and the story it tells. It is a Passion Play, after all: the story of the final days of Jesus, from his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his Crucifixion on Good Friday (and, yes, his Resurrection on Easter Sunday). It is a distinctly Christian story; told from a Christian perspective; based upon Christian sources; aimed at a predominantly Christian audience. People who have problems with Christianity, for whatever reasons (and such is their right, absolutely) are not going to be satisfied with any changes the producers of the Passion Play might make.

            But for people genuinely interested in dialogue—not in changing one another’s minds so that everyone agrees with us, but genuine dialogue, where we hold out the possibility that we might be changed, as surely as the other—the results are heartening and deeply moving. In my opinion, they add a deeper resonance and a whole new level of context to the Biblical narratives.

          In previous productions, the Romans didn’t appear until the arrest of Jesus at Gethsemane. Now, they stand guard at the gates when Jesus makes his entrance to Jerusalem in the first scene, making it clear who is really in control. There are extended (maybe a bit too extended, dramatically speaking) theological debates between the members of the Sanhedrin, as well as an expanded role for Pilate, who now threatens Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, with the might of the Roman army should there be an insurrection. Along with Pilate, Caiaphas is clearly the main villain; but there are enough dissenting Jewish voices to make clear that the High Priest doesn’t speak for all the Jews.

          Perhaps most surprising is the amount of sympathy for Judas, who is portrayed as wanting to facilitate dialogue with the priesthood and is duped into betraying Jesus. When Judas understands that he has been manipulated, he storms the Temple, demanding Jesus’ release. During the wrenching suicide scene that follows, we are allowed to glimpse Judas’s deep humanity—and our own, when he struggle between good and evil, or when our own good intentions go tragically awry.

          Also remarkable is an undeniable Jewish sensibility that permeates the entire play. The scenes of the Passion are interspersed with scenes from the Hebrew Bible, showing the unmistakable link of the faith of Jesus with the faith of his ancestors. Christian Stuckl, the play’s director, also stressed the link to Judaism. “Jesus never lived as a Christian, but rather from the day he was born to the day he died he lived as a Jew,” explained Stuckl. Jesus enters the Temple holding high the Torah, as he recites the prayer “Sh’ma Yisrael,” which is answered by the entire crowd onstage in Hebrew. During the Last Supper, Jesus says the Kiddush in flawless Hebrew, and John even asks, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

            In his introduction to the text of the script given to each person who attends (and which, very handily, translates the German original into English) Luwig Modl, the theological adviser to the archbishop of Munich, summarizes the changes that have been made. The heart of the Passion Play, he writes is that “Jesus, the Jew, sought to renew the religion of his fathers, a religion built on the foundation of the law and the prophets.”

            And Modl continues:

            “This play of redemption seeks to capture the fears and longings of the people of our times and give them the kind of hope offered by faith… the play is not museum-like folk theater, it is a theater of the people for the people that reaches deep into life and seeks to convey hope.”

            A hope based on a true reading of history. But a hope which seeks to redeem our history through a fearless searching of the past, and a fearless commitment to the worth and dignity of all people with whom we share this planet.

At Oberammergau this summer.

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