Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Book Review: The Great Mortality

Ordinary Time
All Saints


The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time, by John Kelly. HarperCollins, 2005. 364pp.

John Kelly’s history of the Black Death is carefully researched and eminently readable. The first chapters examine the origins of the plague and discuss how it was transmitted from fleas to humans and carried across Europe by black rats and international trade. The scientific discussions are well-written for a lay audience, giving the reader a good understanding of how and why the plague spread as quickly as it did. The work is fast-paced and rich with anecdotes about medical practices of the middle ages and the reflections of those who lived through it – or did not.

I find Kelly’s account of medieval anti-Semitism to be particularly challenging. It is a sad fact of Church history that very soon after the separation of church and synagogue that debate gave way to vitriol and violence between the Jewish communities of the Diaspora the increasingly Gentile Christian churches. Teachers and leaders on both sides were threatened by the other because of the competition for converts (or reverts), and several church Fathers stand guilty for supporting or even encouraging violence against Jews as “Christ Killers.”

It’s preachy life-lesson time.

As a result of this culture in Christendom, anytime something disastrous happened to Christian Europe, it was certainly the fault of the Jews. Pope Clement VI condemned the killings as well as the hysteria and imputation of collective guilt upon which they were based, but this seemed to matter little. Holy Week pogroms were a traditional observance for Christian Europe, which would reach their height in the Final Solution of Nazi Germany.

Because of this shameful and inexcusable history, I am increasingly convinced that any observance or remembrance of Jesus’ execution must be made in the wider context of the New Testament witness, which insists that the Church must bear these wounds in its own Body. Jesus came to suffer, and so the Church must suffer. Jesus did not seek vengeance, and neither may the Church that bears his name. This is a question of what we consider the Church to be, at its very foundation. It is a suffering body like that of Jesus, or it is nothing that has anything to do with God or his Christ.

Further, any notion that Jews then or Jews now have some kind of group complicity in the events surrounding Jesus’ execution is just stupid. For whatever else it might say, the New Testament is convinced that God wanted it to happen, and that it would have happened one way or another.

Finally, anti-semitism is stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

The other life lesson? Man cannot and God does not guarantee the health and survival of any civilization. All of the accomplishments we pride ourselves on, and the progress we hope to make as a cohesive society can be rolled away pretty quickly. Ultimately, remembering how the 14th Century saw mortality rates around 30% or as high as 50% during these various plague outbreaks makes me far more grateful for the people in my life who aren’t dying of something.

6 comments:

+ Alan said...

"Further, any notion that Jews then or Jews now have some kind of group complicity in the events surrounding Jesus’ execution is just stupid. For whatever else it might say, the New Testament is convinced that God wanted it to happen, and that it would have happened one way or another."

"Finally, anti-semitism is stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid."


With these two statements I absolutely agree. This business about any Christian being "angry" about the crucifixion of Jesus is utter ignorance. OK, if Christianity were only about a moral following of the precepts of a beloved human leader (Jesus), but oh my, is that not what it's about. Ignorance. Jesus gave HimSELF up as sacrifice. OK, enough of that.

And "anti-" anyone simply because, as the name suggests, of their ethnicity is, of course, unacceptable, unloving and un-Christian.

One thing I'll add in order to perhaps clear some thinking up for some: A Christian (teacher or otherwise) who believes and states that present-day Judaism (the religion) is an inaccurate descendant of its ancient, God-ordained ancestor - is NOT an anti-semite. Such a statement or belief has nothing whatever to do with ethnicity or the inherent value of a people-group.

It's a theological statement on the same order as saying, for instance, that Protestants who have moved entirely away from any Sacramental "real presence" notion of the Eucharist have moved away from the ancient orthodox understanding of the Faith on that matter. Can that be said in love? Surely. It can also be said as an ass. The latter shouldn't be our mode of speaking.

I don't want to go on and on about it. That just jumped out at me as connected and relevant at this point in history and in our culture. Anything any Christian says to, even theologically, challenge Judaism is almost always equated with anti-semitism and that is not accurate. I do understand the unfortunate and horrible historical connections. We just need to be careful that this is not what we're talking about. Good thoughts O Kyle. Peace.

-mike- said...

I liked how you pulled the two together... hehe. Black death adn anti-semitism. I don't know if I could have done that.

You're an inspiration.

Ben Finger said...

So since you bring up the "Christ Killer" conversation, do you think it was the right or wise move by scary drunk guy in the movie the Passion to remove the sentence so many deemed antisemitic?

James Church said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
James Church said...

"I am increasingly convinced that any observance or remembrance of Jesus’ execution must be made in the wider context of the New Testament witness, which insists that the Church must bear these wounds in its own Body. Jesus came to suffer, and so the Church must suffer. Jesus did not seek vengeance, and neither may the Church that bears his name. This is a question of what we consider the Church to be, at its very foundation. It is a suffering body like that of Jesus, or it is nothing that has anything to do with God or his Christ."

I know you are convinced, many of us have been convinced for a long time, but how do we convince others- some who are too attached to a liberal approach to scripture, others who convinced that Jesus sacrificed himself to pay for the sin of the world (and that we need not follow Jesus down that path as it was once and for all- which I agree with but do not see how it invalidates the argument that it remains an example Jesus set for defeating evil through non-violence).

Every Blessing,

James

Kyle said...

I'm tracking with you, Alan. It's a needful comment.

Cheers, Mike.

That's a good question, Ben. When I first heard about that, the "scholar" part of me insisted that it needed to be left in, but after thinking about this stuff, and realizing that the words, "Let his blood be upon us, and upon our children," would require a whole lot of discussion to be anything but evil. So given what the film was (and what it was for), I think it's better it was left out.

Hiya, James. My only answer to that is, I guess, to keep telling the story right. Jesus welcomed redemptive suffering for the healing and forgiveness of our sins. We continue in that healing work by doing the same. Anything else is to really declare Jesus' work and person to be irrelevant to our lives.