Local Christian leaders discuss, ‘reckon with antisemitism’
Sacred workFaith leaders shine mirror on their traditions

Local Christian leaders discuss, ‘reckon with antisemitism’

“I grew up in a space,” she said, where, “if you weren’t with Jesus, you weren’t in the right place.”

Noah Schoen, (right) and Rev. Liddy Barlow facilitated the program “Reckoning with Antisemitism as Christians” that included Rev. Leeann Younger, Greta Stokes Tucker and Bishop Kurt Kusserow (left). (Photo by David Rullo)
Noah Schoen, (right) and Rev. Liddy Barlow facilitated the program “Reckoning with Antisemitism as Christians” that included Rev. Leeann Younger, Greta Stokes Tucker and Bishop Kurt Kusserow (left). (Photo by David Rullo)

The Rev. Liddy Barlow and community organizer Noah Schoen understand that wrestling with antisemitism as a Christian can be hard. The process involves confronting sacred texts and personal interactions in a way that might be uncomfortable.

So, the pair were pleasantly surprised when more than 80 members of Pittsburgh’s Christian community, including nearly 50 clergy leaders, registered to attend “Reckoning with Antisemitism as Christians” on June 27, a program created by the Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania’s program and the Holocaust Center of Greater Pittsburgh.

Barlow, executive minister of Christian Associates of Southwestern PA, and Schoen, the community outreach associate at the Holocaust Center of Greater Pittsburgh, facilitated the night’s discussion, which included Bishop Kurt Kusserow of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod; Greta Stokes Tucker of the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education; and the Rev. Leeann Younger of Cityview Church, an Evangelical Covenant Church.

Barlow opened the conversation by recognizing that reckoning with antisemitism as Christians might involve examining cherished texts “with a critical lens that can sometimes make us squirm.”

“It can be hard,” she said, “to discover ways that which is most precious to us has been used as a weapon against our neighbors. It can be hard to discover that this ancient form of hate has been mixed up in a tradition that we understand to be all about love.”

This discovery, she noted, can be all the more difficult in light of the war in Gaza.

The program, held in the John Knox Room at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, began with each participant introducing themselves and explaining how they first became aware of Jews and Judaism.

Speaking from a spartan stage adorned with a minimal cross, Younger said that she grew up in a Baptist, evangelical home.

“I grew up in a space,” she said, where, “if you weren’t with Jesus, you weren’t in the right place.”

At the time she was growing up, she explained, Jews were often seen as the bad guys in the New Testament. As she got older, Jews were people who were loved but didn’t believe the right thing.

“So, we prayed for them to get right,” she said.

Tucker — who retired from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh’s office of cultural diversity and persons with disabilities — said she grew up Baptist in a small town outside of Philadelphia and had a cross-section of friends who were Black, white, Christian, Jewish, Protestant and Catholic.

She learned about Judaism in Sunday school, she said, but, to her, Jews weren’t simply figures in the Old Testament — they were her friends.

The son of missionaries, Kusserow’s childhood was spent in Malaysia and Singapore among people who were ethnic Chinese, ethnic Malay and ethnic Indian, and he was taught to identify Chinese temples, Buddhist temples and mosques.

“But I don’t ever remember encountering Jews in Malaysia or Singapore,” he said.

As a result, Kusserow said, “The stories of the Bible were where I met Jews and my understanding of them was reading the holy scriptures. It wasn’t until coming back to this country I began to even imagine and contemplate that there were people living in our communities that were Jews.”

“My upbringing,” he offered,” was almost as if Jews were literature.”

Barlow asked the panelists how they believe antisemitism takes shape within the Christian tradition.

Younger said that Jews are represented as bad people in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, and that he and his disciples aren’t represented as members of the Jewish community.

“I think that antisemitism and othering the Jewish people became a tradition, something that’s in our bones. It’s in the air we breathe,” she said.

Tucker remembered that during college, one of her religious professors said something profound: “Jesus was a Jew.”

She recalled an Easter service where a priest told congregants they had to emphasize the Jews calling out to crucify Jesus. The experience made her wonder what clergy are taught.

“I’m not suggesting we change and rewrite scripture, but how we provide commentary on what we are saying and doing,” she said.

Schoen asked what part of reckoning with antisemitism in the Christian tradition the participants found challenging.

Kusserow used the question to confront the antisemitism of Martin Luther, the founder of Lutheranism, who continues to be one of the most influential figures in Western and Christian history.

Luther denounced Judaism and called for the harsh persecution of Jews. His writings on the subject include “On the Jews and Their Lies” and “Warning against the Jews.”

Kusserow said he was uncomfortable with both the writings and the belief that Luther’s writings are central to the Lutheran church.

“It makes me want to be honest about this so that we can talk about it and not have it unspoken,” he said. “But it remains a place of deep discomfort for me.”

Throughout the program and the question-and-answer session that followed, the panelists expressed discomfort at texts and traditions that lend themselves to antisemitism.

The program wasn’t strictly an interview session; at one point, those in the audience broke out into small groups, discussing what they had heard.

Schoen said that Sister Gemma R. Del Duca inspired him and Barlow to create the event.

The nun founded the National Catholic Center of Holocaust Education at Seton Hill University in 1987 after living in Israel for more than three decades.

The pair originally hoped that Del Duca, 90, would participate on the panel. She was unable to, although she did attend the event.

“We said, why don’t we put together some people, instead of telling people, ‘Here’s how you get rid of antisemitism,’ who will model how Christians have been reckoning with this in a meaningful way,” Schoen said.

The program concluded with Del Duca offering the priestly blessings found in Numbers as a closing prayer. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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