“Jews do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.” I suspect that’s what Bernie Sanders heard when he read a certain article by Russell Vought, a nominee to the White House Office of Management and Budget. Vought wrote those lines verbatim except for the word “Jews.”
“What about Jews?” Sanders asked Vought at his confirmation hearing. “Do they stand condemned too?” Of course they do, if we follow Vought’s logic and theology.
In fact, Vought had written “Muslims,” but the formulation — they have rejected Christ, they stand condemned — as applied to Jews has a longer pedigree. It has marked Christian theology from the beginning. It’s a corollary of the gospel.
Most Christians since the Holocaust, however, have exercised prudence in expressing that point. By now they have learned, or should have, that their attempt to communicate it can fail and do harm. The idea that others receive may be different from what the Christian apologist tried to convey.
Some of Sanders’s critics say he doesn’t get it, Christian theology. The other possibility is that Vought chose his words unfortunately, as if in proclaiming the hard sayings of the New Testament we did not need to translate them into language that reflected our awareness of subsequent history, in which Christians (or nominal Christians) persecuted Jews against a background of odium theologicum. (In fairness to Vought: He probably assumed that he was writing for a small audience of informed Christians.) To be consistent, Christians who hold that Muslims and Jews are necessarily damned should give due stress to the possibility that nominal Christians will join them in the lake of fire: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ . . .”
I once heard an Evangelical woman relate her experience at the World Trade Center on the morning of 9/11. She got out of the PATH train and went upstairs. Mayhem had already ensued. As she was fighting through the crowd to exit, others were fighting to enter, not wanting to be late for work. She tried to block them and screamed: “Go back! Go back!” But they had no time for a crazy woman, as they saw her, and pushed past. She described the experience as a picture of what it was to try to spread the gospel. The Christian warns against a danger that others don’t recognize and points to an escape for which they see no need. It’s a challenge.
One lesson to take from the exchange between Sanders and Vought is that secular Americans should be mindful of Article VI of the Constitution. Sanders was wrong to introduce a theological dispute into a confirmation hearing.
Another lesson is that the statement that offended Sanders, or that he was trying to make hay out of, or both, is something that a Christian cannot apply selectively: If he believes it’s true of Islam, he must believe it’s true of Judaism as well. When he says it about Islam, he should expect Jews to be alert to the implications for them.
To be understood, Christians need to express themselves with charity equal to their clarity. In our day, given the reach of mass communication, some of the gospel’s words have at least glanced most everyone’s eyes and ears, but that’s not enough. Where they haven’t penetrated all the way up to the mind and down to the heart, whose fault is that? “Preach constantly,” Saint Francis enjoined his brothers. “Use words when necessary.”