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One of the purposes of dialogue is the pursuit of truth in love. Every group — religious or otherwise — has a self-image. In dialogue, that self-image can be examined in ways that are uncomfortable. While it is never justifiable in dialogue to compare the best of my religion with the worst of the other believer’s faith, I may be able to see my religion in a different light, which can be unflattering and even disturbing. An example of this may help Muslims in the crisis they are now experiencing.

The Jewish-Catholic dialogue began in earnest with Vatican II (1962-65). Although there had always been respectful encounters between some Catholics and Jews, it was not until the Holy See’s decree “Nostra Ætate” (1964) that Catholics formally and officially began to dialogue with Jews. One of the dominant topics on the agenda was the Holocaust.

The systematic extermination of six million Jews in “Christian” Europe was the chief concern of the Jewish dialogue partners. While the Nazi experience was horrendous in its demonic efficiency, it was not a new phenomenon. European Jews had been persecuted, killed, their assets stolen and exiled for well over a thousand years. Facing the Holocaust through Jewish eyes was — and remains — painful for Catholics and other Christians. In the initial shock and shame, some explained the Holocaust as not being connected to Christianity at all. Nazism, it was argued, was a self-consciously pagan phenomenon, which is true. Those Christians who, often enthusiastically, supported Nazism were thus taking part in a pagan phenomenon and were, therefore, not really Christians.

It was not long, however, before the moral weakness of the argument became clear. The insistence of Jews that the Holocaust was not an isolated phenomenon, but a part of a Christian history of well over a thousand years prodded Christians to deeper reflection.

After a long and often painful dialogue, which is still ongoing, Christians have begun to realize that some of the things we did and some of the things we held dear had violent and deadly consequences for Jews. For example, the Gospel of John, the most theological and mystical of the Gospels, spoke of “the Jews” in odd and dangerous ways. One example of an odd citation can be found in John 20:19, where we are told that the disciples were behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews.” Yet the disciples themselves were Jews!

Another example of a dangerous citation can be found in John 19:7, where it states “ ‘We have a law,’ the Jews replied ‘and according to that Law he [i.e. Jesus] ought to die, because he has claimed to be the Son of God.’ ” For two thousand years this verse and others were used to accuse Jews of the crime of deicide, “killing God,” and to justify punishing them for the crime. These were not theoretical possibilities but realities that played themselves out with sickening regularity over the centuries.

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