I was in one of those big box stores in another city, waiting for a prescription. I was wearing my cassock and vest and skufia (priest’s cap).
I had attended the New Mexico Orthodoxy clergy April meeting and stopped on my way home to fill a prescription, because it was significantly less expensive than at our home pharmacy.
Several people wheeled their carts past me and said hello or made various comments. Folks are not used to seeing clerical garb in public any more, not even on Roman Catholic priests, so people often will ask, “Oh what denomination are you?” That affords me the opportunity for the stock response, “I’m not in a denomination, I’m Orthodox,” which may or may not lead to further conversation.
She was wearing a flower print dress and a matching scarf. The cross around her neck was tasteful, not too prominent, but nevertheless was not a mere charm; she meant it as a statement. She was, I would guess, about 40. She did not ask about my “denomination.” She allowed as how she had once visited an Orthodox church in another city in the state.
In the next breath she quietly said something like, “You’ve got to be careful whom you talk to, because many people who call themselves Christians have given up the true faith.” I realized this might go rapidly downhill, so I simply agreed with her on the theory that she would wheel away at this point.
I was wrong.
She said, “You’ve got to be careful about the Jews, because you know they have taken over Hollywood and Wall Street and all the newspapers.” At this point I looked for any exit I could find, but the prescription was not yet ready.
I said, “Where do you get such slanted information?” She replied that she did not really attend a church, because most of them were bogus, but she trusted a handful of preachers she had found on YouTube. They were telling it “like it is,” including the stuff about the Jews secretly ruling everything.
I thought I would throw in a sarcastic quip about the Protocols of Zion, but I realized she would have received such a statement unblinkingly, as if it were the truth and meant I was beginning to bond with her in our secret knowledge about the state of the world.
I asked if she remembered that Jesus was a Jew and that the earliest church was and could only have been made up of Jews who followed him. She replied that the apostles Paul and Peter had argued about this, that Paul had won, and the Jews under Peter had lost, and nobody could force the Law on us anymore.
I said that Paul struggled mightily with the issue of the relationship between Jews and Christians and that he said God’s plan was to reunite us in some mysterious way at the end of time, but that for the moment we had to struggle to find our unity on the ground.
She stood upright, with a knowing look and narrowed eyes, and told me I was one of those “Christians” who had given up the faith. I heard the quotation marks in her tone of voice.
So I said in a loud voice, as the anger built within me, “These people are liars, they are leading you in the wrong direction, and you had better watch out for your soul.”
At this she hastily pushed her cart down the aisle of over-the-counter medicines and disappeared around the end cap of the next aisle. My heart was pounding. People were looking but trying not to.
I was rattled. I drove home the couple hundred miles, rolling the events over and over in my mind, looking for alternative ways I could have handled the situation. None appeared.
This incident reminded me, in a stark way, that we have not dismantled the tide of hatred for the Jews who “rule the world.” No matter how many decades it’s been since the Holocaust, an ocean of hostility persists, capable of rising to tidal levels in this one woman in a store on a sunny April afternoon. Most unnerving is that these attitudes and concepts and ideas are not at all perceived to be loony, twisted, or in any way prejudiced. They are simply perceived as the truth. And that’s that.
I look in the mirror and ask whether or not I am guilty of perpetuating these dangerous negative myths. I look away, confident that I personally am not. I have devoted a great chunk of my lifetime, energy and work to combating such nonsense. But then I remember that this teaching was not uncommon in churches for more than a millennium, and that in my own tradition pogroms often happened on Holy Thursday – when people were told the Jews killed Jesus.
On a scale of world history, it is only moments since many of us (not all) have given up the teaching of contempt. We have no choice; we have to remain vigilant. Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy.