Speaking of the Gospel of John, there is a movement afoot to “cancel” the passion narrative in John 18-19 and remove it from the readings for Holy Week. The claim is that these chapters foster anti-Semitism. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish New Testament scholar, is a leader in this movement. Here is a link to a presentation she gave recently to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music of the U. S. Episcopal Church.
I am concerned as I read and hear of her growing influence within the ELCA.
Even worse is the movement not just to “cancel” the passion narrative in John, but to “cancel” the passion. There are many within the ELCA who reject the teaching that Christ died for our sins. Instead they make Good Friday into the supreme example of Jesus’ bold political protest against the Roman empire, even unto death. And now we need to join in the work of dismantling our empires. According to this approach there is no way that I am in need of a Savior who will forgive my sins and defeat the great enemy death. Rather I need to join in the effort to oppose all oppressive power structures.
But let’s take a look at Dr. Levine’s “more moderate” approach of not “cancelling” the passion, but instead merely “cancelling” the passion narrative in John. There are many problems with what she is saying.
First, John 18-19 are not “anti-Semitic” in the way in which Dr. Levine is accusing them of being. These chapters were written by a Jew, who had no intention of spawning the anti-Semitism which Dr. Levine is blaming on his writing. This anti-Semitism came after him and would have harmed and even killed him and his family had he lived in a different place and time. The responsibility for any anti-Semitism rests on those who have misused these texts, not on the texts – or on the author – themselves.
Second, the scripture texts which Dr. Levine wants to have cancelled are not insignificant texts. Rather they are part of the Holy Week narrative. Their stories and teachings are central to the Christian faith and the Gospel message of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. If there are any texts which should not be cancelled, it is these texts. And it is not acceptable to say that we can “cancel” John because we will still have the passion narrative in three other Gospels. Each of the Gospels makes its own unique contribution to our understanding of what took place and the meaning of what took place. We are missing something vitally important if we do not have all four.
Third, Dr. Levine freely acknowledges the existence of difficult texts in the Torah, but she does not make the same demand of the Jewish faith community that she makes of the Christians. Jewish people follow the custom of reading the entirety of the Torah, beginning to end, within the context of worship. It would be unthinkable for them to “cancel” any part of the Torah. So why is Dr. Levine asking Christians to do what she would never ask her own people to do? The reason that Dr. Levine gives in her testimony as to why no part of the Torah is to be cancelled is because the Torah came down “directly from Mount Sinai.” Her statement is nothing less than a direct devaluing and demeaning of the Gospels and their significance in the Christian faith. Christians believe that these texts, also, were given to us by God. The Gospels are no less sacred to Christians than the Torah is sacred to Jews. The Gospels hold in the Christian lectionary the same place that the Torah holds in the Jewish lectionary.
What Dr. Levine is asking of us is not merely the causal swapping of one insignificant text for another. Rather she is asking of us both the cancellation of sacred texts which are of prime importance to our faith – something she would never ask of her own people – as well as a major change in how Christians view the Scriptures.
As we said earlier, we are very concerned about the influence that Dr. Levine is having in the ELCA and will continue to monitor the situation.