Last quarter, while studying the book of Hebrews, many members of my Sabbath school class commented on the unique influence the book has had on their Christian journey. This book/sermon, considered probably the most complete extant homily of the early Christian era, is indeed exceptional. Especially its mesmerizing chapter 11, opening with: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (KJV). If Hebrews had only this one chapter, it would still be a more worthy inclusion in the Bible than some entire books
But it offers much more, rightly serving as a touchstone in Christian theology. It is probably in the areas of kinship and encouragement that, through the centuries and despite the hurdles, many Christians are inspired to continue in faith: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” (12:1-2 KJV).
However, I would like to point out (and the Adult Bible Study Guide did not address the issue at all) that with the wrong mindset, Hebrews can have unintended and deleterious consequences.
Often it begins inconspicuously, with no specific intentions or incitements to harm others. So, we’re all seemingly caught by surprise, even dumbfounded, when the catastrophic outcomes become evident. In Rwanda, it began by simply “otherizing” an entire group. They threw in innocuous references to “cockroaches” and, with that, a quiet foundation for genocide was laid. What, after all, are cockroaches good for except being squashed under one’s foot? In the end, in just 100 days, close to a million people were dead. People who six months previously were close friends, neighbors, and fellow church members, dead at the hands of these same friends, neighbors, and fellow parishioners. I’m reminded of Louis de Bernières’s sobering book, Birds Without Wings, an artistic reconfiguration of the Turkish bloodbaths of the 1900s, which depicts in graphic detail the evils of war when religious intolerance and rabid nationalism are brewed in the same pot. The result is often an irrational hatred toward people who until recently lived together in harmony.
In recent years, we have sleepwalked through a dizzying array of indictments of whole groups for the perceived sins of their subsets. All Muslims for the behavior of ISIS; all Asians for the perceived role of China in the emergence of COVID-19; all Christians for the mendacity of some who stood biblical morality on its head in pursuit of personal gain; etc. In all these instances, seeds of the despisers’ resentments have usually lain dormant, compacted in pretentious hearts, until some brazen leader gives public permission to water and watch as our hatred blossoms. Then we surprise ourselves in our capacity to hate.
We often go back to innocent statements made in a previous era, pull them out of context and serve them up to feed our rage. This is how Matthew’s “let his blood be upon us and our children” (27:25) was used by some fundamentalist Christians and state actors like Hitler, who cloaked themselves in false religiosity to justify their anti-Semitic proclivities. With Hitler and his Christian-leaning Third Reich, the Holocaust will forever be the reminder that almost a whole nation slept when the moment called for vigilance. The Holocaust did not happen in a vacuum. It was nurtured by a lot of “good” people looking the other way as their erstwhile friends, neighbors, and coworkers were sent to the gas chambers for belonging to the wrong faith.
So how does the book of Hebrews become an unwitting purveyor of antisemitism and religious intolerance? Its central thesis is that Christ, and by extension Christianity, is superior to anything Judaism has to offer: Moses, prophets, priests, liturgy, imagery, etc. The author systematically compares everything dear and central to Judaism and trumps it with what Christianity proposes. The book even recalls Plato’s allegory of the cave and manages to make Christianity subsume Judaism as it is cast as the reality that Judaism foreshadowed. This will herald a later time when a largely gentile Christian population would claim to be better Jews than Jews themselves. The author’s conclusions point to Judaism as being transcended by Christianity, a notion that future zealot Christians would extend, discounting Judaism and Jews to the point of invalidity.
There is nothing more distressing than a faith community being accused of killing its own god. But it did not take long for some Christians to find the justification in Matthew, and encouragement in Hebrews, to charge Judaism with deicide. Within a century after Hebrews, Melito, bishop of Sardis in Asia Minor, would make this charge unambiguously in his oft-quoted Easter homily: “God has been murdered; the king of Israel has been put to death by an Israelite right hand.” Once this charge is put forward, Judaism’s religious validity is questioned. And this brings us even closer to the thin line between invalidation and attack. Then the question of a cockroach’s value is entertained so that many look away when the crematoria are erected. And we pretend the smoke rising from its chimneys are morning mists, benign vapors that somehow fail to dissipate with sunrise.
There has been a long ongoing debate about the speed of Christian Europe’s demise and capitulation to secularism. But when we consider that this seemingly overnight happening had as its backdrop the two brutal world wars, instigated by supposedly Christian nations, there is little mystery here. In this fashion, European leaders provided succeeding generations with the unfortunate reasons to step away from Christianity. Christian leaders across Europe could not resolve their differences. Failing at diplomacy, they seemed, on two occasions within a generation, to have the stomach for the awful carnage that ensued. And youth that grew up after the two world wars were left with no compelling reason to continue in their parents’ Christian footsteps.
And what were these wars all about, anyway?
Yes! It boils down to the notion of superiority, the feeling that we are better than those outside our camp. Just better, and please don’t ask why.
This competition for supremacy and the license to lord it over others manifests in many disguises: color, tribe, nationality, religion. And for some, the slow drift from a seemingly harmless feeling of pride in one’s uniqueness to acting on that feeling is a perilous movement. Then they convince themselves that their superior brand should prevail, leading to seeing those they consider inferior to be worthless, even like cockroaches.
History teaches that any time a group conceives of their religious brand as the chosen ones, the singularly blessed of God, they risk doing reprehensibly “bad stuff” as they start viewing those outside the gate as unfavorable. Think of the Crusades, the Jihads, and more recently, the Bosnian war. Humans in religious clusters seem almost incapable of enjoying diversity for its own sake before preferring one individual rainbow color over and above the brilliance of the whole.
Our religion is better than their religion, our God better than theirs. To some extent, that is the unintended message of Hebrews for Christians who act on their perceived superiority and perpetrate evil toward those considered “other.” We Christians should at least recognize this potential and be vigilant. Then we might speak up when others, under cover of their perceived superior religion, target Muslims, Asians, or other ethnic minorities. Otherwise, we’ll catch ourselves when it’s too late, gazing at the smoke rising from the crematorium chimney and pretending we don’t know what is going on.
Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home.
Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found by clicking here.
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