Removing the Curse of the Cross

Towards a New Relationship between Judaism and Christianity 

By Andrew Wilson, Ph.D.

 (Author of World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts)

Conference for Jewish-Christian Reconciliation and Harmony
Jerusalem, May 18, 2003 

Ladies and Gentlemen: I believe that interreligious reconciliation is the key to the peace of Jerusalem, because religion lies at the core of the conflict. In a place like the Middle East, where people are passionate about religion even to the point of sacrificing their lives, political solutions are bound to fail. Yet for too long we have pursued humanistic approaches, looking for practical ways of living together, while bracketing the deeper theological differences that continue to divide believers. Even in interfaith meetings we have avoided serious discussion of God and theology, thinking it to be a fruitless enterprise. Aiming merely at co-existence, we have not dared to believe that our religions could arrive at unity of heart.

Genuine and lasting peace requires moving beyond secularism to build a society in which people of different religions can talk together about God and affirm common values about God. The major focus of my life’s work has been to seek these universal values. I wrote World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts (Paragon House, 1991) attempting to identify values shared among many faiths. In surveying the sacred writings of the world’s religions on more than 150 topics, I found that they agree more than 80 percent of the time. Whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu or Taoist, ethics and attitudes towards life, death, and ultimate reality are surprisingly similar. This will not be surprising to anyone who believes in the One God who reveals aspects of himself through all true religion.

Recognition of the universality of religious and moral values can surely help knit together the human family. Nevertheless, there remains the fact that religions continue to deny and disparage each other’s treasured objects of faith. Christians reject the salvific value of the Law. Jews deny Jesus. Their central narratives recount stories of conflict and contests of competing worldviews. Hence, while we can affirm common ground—a good first step—it does not get to the nub of the problem.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam were each born in the fires of conflict and rejection by the dominant religion of the age. The historical conflicts present at their founding have congealed as permanent religious attitudes towards the other religion, cast as the faithless infidel. Theological disagreements have persisted, becoming core articles of faith. Nevertheless, whether we are Jew, Christian or Muslim, we have one God as our Father. As any parent would, God would want us to resolve these conflicts.

On this occasion, we Christians and Jews find ourselves sitting together like two families at our children’s wedding. We want to get along with our new in-laws, so we make pleasantries and stay on our best behavior. Yet underneath there are thoughts left unspoken, of dirty linen and unpleasant memories. We remember only a few generations ago when our families would not even speak to one another, so deep was the pain and hurt. Today I invite us to take a daring step and look squarely at the core of the Jewish-Christian divide. “Come now, and let us reason together,” said the prophet (Isa. 1:18), and perhaps we can break though to a new level of reconciliation and mutual respect.

I do not seek the conversion of anyone, Jew or Christian. On the contrary, I seek the way by which Jews and Christians can give genuine respect to each other’s faiths, respect that has been lacking until now. Given the sensitive nature of this topic, I beg that you will forgive any offense these remarks may cause.

The Jewish-Christian Divide

Christians readily affirm that their God is the same God as the God of the Jews—the God of Abraham. Yet they have a different understanding of God, in particular about the way God has acted in history centering on the person of Jesus of Nazareth. From a Christian viewpoint, God’s purpose in establishing the Jewish people was to have them receive the Messiah. Jesus of Nazareth came as the Messiah, but the Jews did not receive him. As a result, Christianity was born as new religion to carry on where Judaism left off.

Christians regard Jews as having a defective doctrine of God, since they deny the truth that God made himself more accessible to humanity by incarnating as Jesus Christ. Therefore—and I will be perfectly frank—while in polite company they may praise Judaism as a great religion, in their heart of hearts many Christians look down upon the Jews, as Rev. Billy Graham did when he reportedly made disparaging remarks in an unguarded conversation with President Nixon. New Testament teachings are quite definitive as to the stubborn disbelief of the Jews. Moreover, a people who would cling so tenaciously to the sin of denying Jesus Christ would surely also be prone to base attitudes in other areas of life: hence the Jew’s supposed greed and venality.

Jews, for their part, regard the religious path of Torah as entirely adequate. They are offended by Christian misrepresentations of their religion, which are found scattered about the New Testament. They do not see any superiority in Jesus’ ethics over that of the best rabbis. Jews don't believe that Jesus was any kind of Messiah. After all, Jesus never accomplished what the Messiah is supposed to do: liberate Israel from Roman oppression, bring back the Jews from exile to the Holy Land, and establish world peace. The world after Jesus was still filled with violence and oppression, and for Jews it grew much worse.

Ask most Jews what they honestly think about Jesus, and you will find a deep bitterness. Jesus was the starting-point for the painful history of Christian anti-Semitism. Centuries of Christian violence against Jews: mob violence, pillaging, rape, confinement to ghettos, forcible abduction of children to be baptized as Christians, expulsions from many nations and finally the Holocaust, have poisoned the minds of Jews from being able to appreciate the goodness of Jesus Christ. Christian anti-Semitism, and the resulting Jewish resentment of Christianity, remains a spiritual weight, the congealed pain of tens of millions of people who lived and died through that persecution. It is a continuing factor in hindering the Jewish-Christian relationship.

Christians ask Jews, “Do you really have to reject Jesus? Look at what a wonderful man Jesus was.” Jews cannot even begin to answer this question without feelings of rage: “How dare you Christians ask us to believe in Jesus! You never stop trying to convert us! Leave us alone, and let us live our lives in peace!” The 2,000-year history of conflict between Judaism and Christianity has made rejection of Jesus the very essence of a Jew’s religious identity. 
Today, Christians are repenting for anti-Semitism. They see it as their own failing to live up the teachings of Jesus, who preached forgiveness and love. They recognize it is their problem, a horrible sin and a blot on Christian history.

What about the Jewish rejection of Jesus, is that a problem for Judaism? For 2000 years Judaism has maintained its aloofness from Christian beliefs. But like it or not, Christians and Jews are brother religions. They are fellow children of Abraham. And usually when brothers try to get along, they try to understand each other and they try to take each other’s views into account. Christians cannot help but interpret Jewish aloofness as arrogance, stubbornness, stiff-necked, and other adjectives from the Bible. How can natural brothers maintain aloofness from each other without engendering additional misunderstandings?


Mere coexistence among religions is not a sure foundation for peace. Peace must be based upon reconstituting the family of Abraham, with genuine love and respect for one another. This will require repentance for the mistakes of the past. We want to overcome the pain of the past and establish a heartfelt, emotional bond of love, because in the Kingdom of God all religions are siblings in God’s family.

Repentance should be a mutual process, but in practice the relationship between Jews and Christians is asymmetrical. Jews feel a deeper sense of victimization and oppression than do Christians. As in the relationship between Blacks and Whites, people don’t speak about Black racism in the same way that they speak of White racism; racism by definition comes from the powerful. The victimized group needs to experience the comfort of the more powerful side making amends before it can move. Conversely, the side that feels more confident of its blessings and of God's love has the emotional resources to initiate reconciliation.

Christianity has begun the process of repenting for its anti-Semitic past. This repentance is taking place on two levels. First there is repentance over historical wrongs, such as the Holocaust. The second level is self-reflection on doctrine, to determine what teachings, if any, led Christians to commit such historical wrongs. Today this self-examination is penetrating even as far as the New Testament itself.

The Shadow of the Cross

By any reckoning, the central New Testament doctrine containing a taint of anti-Jewish animus is the crucifixion. In this regard, the Catholic writer James Carroll’s best-selling textbook, Constantine's Sword (Houghton-Mifflin, 2001) offers a serious critique of the Christian doctrine of the cross. He begins with the celebrated incident of the giant, 12 foot cross at Auschwitz, erected by Catholic nuns, at which many Jews have taken offense. What to Christians is a symbol of Christ’s triumph over death is to Jews a desecration of a cemetery containing more than a million Jewish dead. Seeing that Christianity’s singular focus on the crucifixion of Jesus is most responsible for anti-Semitism, Carroll calls on Christians to de-emphasize the cross. Specifically:

· The cross divides Christian from Jew, because it contains a shadow side. By focusing Christian faith entirely on the death of Jesus, it points the finger of condemnation at his killers. Christian mobs were always most likely to rampage in Jewish neighborhoods around Easter.
· The cross is a symbol of judgment—one is either standing with Christians who are ransomed by the blood of the cross or standing with the Jews and Romans who mocked Jesus on the cross. It thus symbolizes the conflict out of which Christianity began, when the church stood over against all other religions. 
· The cross is a symbol of hegemony. Under Constantine, it was a symbol of Christ triumphant over the pagans. Later, emblazoned on the shields of the Crusaders, it became a hated symbol of Christian power to the Muslims. 
· The cross was only elevated as the central Christian symbol in the days of Constantine. The earliest Christians, who would have regarded it as an instrument of execution, did not use it. They were more interested in the person, life and teachings of Jesus; hence in the catacombs Jesus is symbolized by the fish and the “chi-rho.” 
· Christian soteriology need not be dependent on the cross. Jesus’ life can be seen as redemptive in itself. Jesus’ forgiveness and love of his enemies can be seen as redemptive. The resurrection can be seen as the locus of redemption.

I would agree with Carroll, and ask Christians whether they are well served by focusing on the cross as the central element of their faith. No one can deny that the passion and crucifixion of Jesus was the high point of the drama of salvation. The conflict is certainly dramatic; yet it leaves the lasting impression of a conflicted humanity, a portion of which remains at odds with God’s purposes. There is no conflict in God. Yet whenever Christians remember Jesus on the cross, they cannot help but also remember the Jews and Romans who were responsible for putting him there. By emphasizing the act of rejecting and crucifying Jesus Christ, the cross sets up a high wall between those who accept Jesus and those who do not. While it is glorious to bask in the redemption of the cross, it is quite another thing for those who are condemned in its shadow.

Yet Jesus came for everyone, especially the lost sheep. While on the cross, he forgave his enemies who put him there. With his resurrection from the grave, Jesus said “Yes,” overcoming all those who would say “No” to the will of God. He visited and taught his despondent disciples, giving the faithless Peter another chance. I believe that Jesus, who came to tear down all the walls between peoples, has been pained to see new walls of religious intolerance erected at his death—especially the wall between Christians and the Jews, his own flesh and blood.

Christians are beginning to ask the question: did God truly intend that Jesus be hung on the cross and killed? What if the Jews of 2,000 years ago had believed in Jesus, would they have allowed him to be crucified? Surely God did not prepare Israel with painstaking care for 2,000 years only to have them reject the Messiah when he came. Jesus called on the people to believe in him. If the people had believed, they would have honored Jesus as a Jew. Jesus’ followers would not have needed to erect a separate religion called Christianity.

As Rev. Moon teaches, God never intended for Jesus to face the circumstances of the cross. His intention was for Jesus to build God's kingdom on the foundation of acceptance and support by the people to whom he came. Rather, the cross dashed God’s hopes, and frustrated Jesus’ desire to establish God’s kingdom on earth during his lifetime. Only when his circumstances became intolerable did Jesus determine to go the way of the cross. The salvation it brought was the best that Jesus could salvage out of a bad situation.

Jesus’ life displayed God's saving and reconciling love. His love was so true that he was willing to lay down his life for a people who didn't accept him, who were ignorant of who he was or what he came to do. Yet on the way to the cross he lamented, “Would that you knew the things that make for peace, but they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:42) Jesus’ heart was to fulfill God’s great will to establish one worldwide nation of God. He meant to accomplish this by peaceful means. Thus, in asking Christians to take down the cross, Rev. Moon is calling the churches to focus on Jesus’ original purpose and fulfill the peace he came to bring.

The Christian clergy who are here today have taken down the cross from their churches. Particularly the African-American clergy are beginning to recognize the injustice in what Jesus suffered, oppression all too familiar to their people who endured lynchings and the slave-master’s whip. As they do, the conventional glorification of the cross rings hollow. They also stand in solidarity with the Jews and their suffering. None of it is justifiable; none of it was God’s will. These clergy are learning the true heart of Jesus, who came to bring peace and not division. Today when religious conflict threatens humanity’s survival, they are stepping forward as Christians who follow Jesus’ example in loving their enemies, above all the Jews who are of the Lord’s flesh and blood.

This is not some cheap compromise or cosmetic change. It is not an action taken to appease Judaism. Rather, taking down the cross is to glimpse the living Christ. It is like lifting a veil that has obscured the Spirit of God. (2 Cor. 3:16) When they take down the cross, these clergy discover a deeper relationship with the living Christ than anything they had known by fixing their faith on the crucified Lord. They are fixing their faith on God’s will and God’s original purpose in sending the Messiah, which is to reconcile the human family to God. This is the core of the Christian message: “For God so loved the world, that he sent his only begotten son.” (John 3:16) God does not love only Christians; he cares for all people. This message cries out poignantly from the bloodstained stones of the Holy Land, for those who have ears to hear.

Jesus the Jewish Messiah

As mentioned above, the Jewish understanding of the Messiah is the one who establishes the Kingdom of God as a socio-political reality on earth. Jesus on the cross, who offers salvation in spirit to an unredeemed world, did not satisfy the Jewish criteria for the Messiah. This is a key reason why Jews do not take Christian messianic claims for Jesus seriously. God had been educating Israel to expect a Messiah who would build the Kingdom of God; therefore, faithful Jews can only recognize the Messiah in his mode of glory. The Messiah is not supposed to die on the cross and leave the world in a shambles; that is why Paul called the cross a “stumbling block” to the Jews. (1 Cor. 1:23)

Moreover, Christianity arose in the shadow of the cross, after Easter. As its doctrines developed, they appealed not to Jews, but to pagans in the Roman world who were looking for a relationship with God—in other words, for salvation. (Jews already have a relationship with God through the covenant.) Hence Christianity took shape as a separate religion, with such un-Jewish doctrines as redemption by the blood of the cross, the divinity of Christ, and the Trinity. The pages of the New Testament are full of misrepresentations of Judaism as the apostles sought to foster faith in their distinctive community and guard it from pressures to “Judaize.” Christianity prospered as it made the transition into a Gentile world and jettisoned most of its Jewish roots. Christianity evolved, separated from Judaism by the cross, to become something non-Jewish.

Yet if we consider the possibility that Jesus’ original mission was not to die on the cross, then a remarkable convergence becomes possible. Maybe Jesus came to fulfill all the messianic promises that God made to the Jews, but only on the condition that the people accepted him and worked with him to do so. A look at the life of Moses and his travails in leading the people through the wilderness to the Promised Land certainly confirms the notion that a divinely appointed liberator needs the people’s support.

Few Jews feel it is emotionally safe to consider the possibility that Jesus came as the Messiah to the Jews. As a Jew myself, I know that the internal source of the fury behind the Jewish “No” to Jesus lies in the deep resentment Jews feel against Christianity for its centuries of anti-Semitism. Yet today, with Christian repentance easing the sting of anti-Semitism, it may be possible for Jews to reconsider the life of the greatest Jew who ever lived. Maimonides recognized Jesus of Nazareth as the greatest son of Judaism, the world teacher who brought light and a great civilizing and spiritual influence to the entire world. Not many Jews would say that today, but I believe the Jewish establishment ought to go there.

The Jewish “No” to Jesus is the obverse of the Christian cross. It is the perpetuation of a vulgar human conflict from the first century C.E. involving people of dubious merit. Those who condemned Jesus were not the great lights of Judaism, not Hillel or Akiba, but quislings like the high priest Caiaphas, who sought to maintain the peace of Roman rule and who said, “It is expedient for us that one man should die for the people.” (John 11:50) Yet their unconsidered judgment became hardened and fixed as a perpetual religious attitude. Most Christians today recognize that it is illegitimate to hold all Jews responsible for the actions of a few self-interested and corrupt leaders 2,000 years ago who condemned Jesus and handed him over to the Romans. By the same token, Jews today need not feel bound to follow those same leaders in their condemnation.

Harmony among the Abrahamic faiths, who all assert the same God, requires that each religion view the core revelations of the others in good faith. God, who is the source of all religion, does not give contradictory messages. Therefore, in the interests of peace, I believe Jews should be open to considering the possibility that God chose Jesus of Nazareth to undertake a messianic mission. This is the step not yet taken in interreligious dialogue. Today I challenge the Jewish community to make that step.

For a Jew to take seriously the messianic claim for Jesus of Nazareth does not mean converting to Christianity. After all, Muslims call Jesus “Messiah”—in their own terms. This proposal hinges on letting each religion work within its particular understandings of the meaning of the word “Messiah.” The clergy here today are decoupling a Christian understanding of Jesus’ messianic mission from the particular circumstances of the cross. They are approaching Jesus from the point of view of his life and teachings as recorded in the Gospels. Likewise, Jews can appropriate Jesus utilizing the resources of Jewish tradition. A number of Jewish scholars are already declaring that Jews might begin to appreciate “Rabbi Jesus,” a teacher with a profound understanding of Torah and a practitioner of tikkun.

Lifting the Curse of the Cross

When Jesus was nailed to the cross 2,000 years ago on Calvary, those nails also fixed an historical wall dividing Judaism from Christianity. Christian faith in the crucified Christ has been utterly foreign to Judaism. At the same time, as Christianity redefined the meaning of Messiah in light of the cross, it denigrated Jewish messianic hopes as worldly and materialistic. To break down that dividing wall, the cross must come down first. Until then, the cross remains a curse (Gal. 3:13), an insuperable obstacle to resolving the conflict between these brother religions.

Judaism and Christianity each has a road to travel if it is to arrive at a place beyond the cross where it can embrace its brother, where they can be reconciled from the bottom of their hearts. Today, as Christians are taking down the cross, they can begin to see a new image of Jesus of Nazareth as he lived on earth. He was a Jew! Can Jews likewise recognize him as one of their own?

Can there come a time when Jews appreciate Jesus as a righteous Jew, as a teacher and rabbi whose words recorded in the Sermon on the Mount are in accord with the best teachings of the sages?

Can there come a time when Jews regard the crucifixion of Jesus as a tragic event in the history of their people, similar to the persecution of the prophets and their deaths at the hands of unrighteous kings?

Can there come a time when Jews and Christians look upon the death of Jesus with a heart of sorrow, seeing in his tragic death the frustration of God’s hopes and the beginning of two millennia of painful separation and mistrust among God’s children?

Can there come a time when Jews and Christians together mourn Jesus’ death on the cross, mourn that a man sent by God on a divine errand could not fully complete the messianic mission to build the Kingdom of Heaven in his day? Can they observe those events with repentance, considering whether they would have had the wisdom to recognize him had he appeared in their midst?

When that day of repentance and reconciliation arrives, it will heal of the historical rift between Judaism and Christianity, and lift the curse of the cross.