Can Christianity Be Blamed for the Holocaust?

Beware of simple explanations

The oldest surviving manuscript fragment of the New Testament is the Rylands Library Papyrus P52, which is on permanent display in Manchester, England. This scrap of scripture is about the size of a credit card, contains a few verses of chapter 18 of John’s gospel, and is commonly dated to the second century.

When I first heard about this, years ago, I thought, “What a bummer…it had to be from the worst gospel.” Christians so commonly swoon over John’s gospel because of its drumbeat promise of eternal life, so they don’t seem to notice some of its evil messages. In chapter 8, for example, Jesus is in conversation with Jews in the Temple complex. This is the ‘loving’ Jesus, according to John (vv. 42-47):

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.

My topic in this article is not the oversized ego of Jesus-according-to John—so I’ll let that go for now—but rather the damage that has come in the wake of this horrible text: Jesus tells the Jews that their god is the devil, a murderer and a liar.

Hector Avalos draws attention to this text and to the Christian legacy of anti-Semitism in his essay titled, “Atheism Was Not the Cause of the Holocaust,” in John W. Loftus’ 2010 anthology, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails. Avalos wrote the essay as a smack down to the lazy scholarship and shallow arguments of Dinesh D’Souza, i.e., that the Holocaust can be blamed on atheism, which—according to D’Souza—has caused far more slaughter of the innocents than Christianity. But why should Christianity even be in this contest at all? One way to make the faith look good, I suppose, is to make atheism look even worse.

I recalled Avalos’ essay when I heard the news that D’Souza had received a presidential pardon; he was most of the way through a five-year probation period for his felony conviction for illegal campaign contributions. D’Souza has friends in high evangelical places, so apparently their fawning over Trump has paid off in yet another way. I don’t know what D’Souza’s career prospects are now, but we can assume he won’t give up writing trash apologetics.

In his essay in the Loftus anthology, Avalos has offered a withering analysis of D’Souza’s claim that atheism and Darwinism can be blamed for the Holocaust. The stark fact is the anti-Semitism has been stoked for centuries by the church and zealous Christians: And it’s no wonder, given the vicious words attributed to Jesus in John’s gospel. It’s hard to put the brakes on hate when the Lord himself set the tone—and when it never dawned on anyone that Jesus might not have said any such thing.

How did we get to the point that, in the 20th century, a fanatic could engineer the murder of six million Jews? He had a head start, since there had been a long tradition of alienation and contempt. Avalos makes these key points:

“While it is clear that some persons in the New Testament regarded themselves as Jewish and Christian, eventually ‘Jews’ became those who retained the traditional religion of their ancestors, and did not accept Jesus as the Christ. The Catholic Church then reinforced the separate religious identity of the Jews through marriage laws, professional restrictions, spatial separations in ghettos, and distinctive garb, which made Jews even more different and even more identifiable targets.

“Yet it was a perceived Jewish antagonism to Christ that was often the stated initial reason for such actions. Thus, when Pope Paul IV issued his bull, Cum nimis (1555), which established a ghetto for Jews, his introductory rationale was that the Jews’ ‘own guilt has consigned them to perpetual servitude.’”

“While anti-Judaism reaches back to the NT, it is in the Middle Ages that we begin to witness some of the most brutal and systematic Christian attacks on Jews.”

“The First Crusade was proclaimed in 1095, and the first contingents began to make their way eastward in 1096. These contingents, composed mostly of laypersons, were held responsible for most anti-Jewish violence. Hordes of ‘crusaders’ stormed into towns such as Cologne, Mainz, and Worms, and left some three thousand Jews dead.”

Avalos also quotes two historians of the Holocaust:

• “There is little question that the Holocaust had its origins in the centuries-long hostility felt by Christians against Jews.” José M. Sánchez, Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy, 2002, Catholic University Press of America.

• “Hitler was merely doing what the Church had done for 1,500 years.” Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, 2000, De Capo Press

Does this second quote sound too outrageous? Not really. Avalos provides an extended excerpt from a tract written by one of the heroes of Western Christendom, Martin Luther. On the Jews and Their Lies was published in 1543. Avalos points out that every one of Luther’s recommendations was carried out, to some extent, by the Nazis.

These are the words of Martin Luther:

• First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians.
• Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.
• Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.
• Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb…
• Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews.
• Sixth, I advise that usury be forbidden to them, and that all cash and treasures of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping.
• Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam.

D’Souza seems to think that he can deflect attention from this Christian viciousness by convincing his readers that Hitler was an atheist—and hence, atheism can take the blame. But Avalos brings us back to the facts:

“D’Souza does not cite a single instance in Mein Kampf, a source indisputably ascribed to Hitler, where the latter says his motives are atheistic. Yet we can find a number of places in Mein Kampf where Hitler, no less than Martin Luther, claims to be following the will of God.”

The other bit of nonsense that D’Souza pushes is that Darwinism can take some of the blame for the Holocaust. Of course, we could expect no less from D’Souza since denouncing ‘evil evolution’ remains part of the evangelical agenda. But Avalos marshals the facts to destroy this argument as well; he brings his essay to a close with a chart listing the elements of the Holocaust supported by Martin Luther and Darwin, with Darwin scoring zero.

Since some Christians have such an aversion to atheism, ‘doing what come naturally’ means maligning it as much as possible. We are assured that, in the wake of disbelief, all manner of evil will be visited upon us, although there’s an awful lot of evil in the wake of zealous devotion to God. Just look at what Martin Luther advocated—and these days the Catholic church reels under the scandal of priests raping children. Religion makes you behave better? It’s hard to make that case.

And it’s hard to make the case that the Holocaust had a single cause. It’s foolish to look for simplistic explanations, because major historical events—hell, even minor ones—have multiple causes. Again the question: “How did we get to the point that, in the 20th century, a fanatic could engineer the murder of six million Jews?” Here are some of the factors that come to mind:

• World War II was almost guaranteed by the humiliation inflicted on Germany at the end of World War I.
• As much as aggression and territoriality, the need for scapegoating seems encoded in the human brain. This never goes away. Whom can we blame for our woes today? Gays, immigrants, atheists? Jews in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s were the guilty party.
• Prevailing and permanent ignorance. It takes a lot of work—a lot of work—to learn how to think critically and study the human errors of the past that have caused so much injury and evil. The majority of the population doesn’t bother—and can be easily duped and manipulated.
• It’s just a fact that there are bad brains (and there is medical jargon to explain this phenomenon), and people with bad brains can connive their way to power. Hitler cleverly exploited humiliation and the need for scapegoating.
• And there’s no doubt whatever about Christianity’s woeful inclination to virulent anti-Semitism; its champions have included Jesus (well, who knows, given the unreliability of the gospel accounts), popes, Martin Luther, and many others. This tradition fueled the hatred that culminated in the Holocaust.

So, can Christianity be blamed for the Holocaust? No, it’s not that simple. There are so many factors that must be taken into account. And hey, we know that there were a lot of Christians who fought the Nazi horrors; they are many stories of Christian heroes who saved Jews. But how did the murder of six million people come to pass? There are no easy answers. There is a lot of junk history out there, which now includes denial that the Holocaust ever happened. Easy scapegoating of either Christians or atheists doesn’t help.

But maybe Christians could do some housecleaning. Fess us that Jesus in the gospels is a flawed figure—the negatives about him are in full view, the text from John 8 cited earlier is one example among many (see Hector Avalos’ book, The Bad Jesus). And please, all you Lutherans out there: how about changing the name of your denomination? Luther’s anti-Semitism wasn’t just a minor foible. The housecleaning could also include telling Dinesh D’Souza to take a hike. He does a really crap job of defending the Christian faith.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published in 2016 by Tellectual Press.

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