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A Lesser Bigotry?

I’d been planning a return to writing on this website. And I’d hoped to start with something positive and uncontroversial! However…this is important. Really important.

James Mendelsohn and Bernard Howard have published an open access article in a peer reviewed journal detailing the antisemitism of the conservative evangelical minister, Revd Dr Stephen Sizer, and analysing the alarming silence of other conservative evangelical leaders and organisations.[1]

The article is lengthy, thorough, measured and well-researched. It presents a compelling case. Sadly, this is far from the first time the authors have been compelled to raise this issue. I am unaware that anything even approaching a satisfactory response has yet been given to their concerns.

Mendelsohn and Howard give a detailed and well-documented overview of Dr Sizer’s antisemitic conduct (pp. 40-46), and do an excellent job of explaining why his consistent words and actions, over a period of 20 years, constitute antisemitism. I won’t detail the evidence here. I encourage you to read it for yourself, but brace yourself: it’s disgusting. They then outline the Church of England’s disciplinary responses in the period 2012-2017, which ended with a public rebuke, social media ban, and ban from public ministry (pp. 46-47).

All of this makes for unpleasant reading. However, speaking as a Reformed Anglican, the most painful part of the article is the listing of conservative evangelical failures to respond to Dr Sizer’s behaviour.

Why is this a problem? The authors offer a powerful illustration:

Imagine that a conservative evangelical Anglican vicar writes a critique of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. In itself, that would be defensible: no movement (and still less a specific organization) is beyond criticism. But imagine this minister then becomes increasingly strident. Imagine he links to several explicitly racist websites and, when challenged, gives implausible explanations for doing so. Imagine he attacks the movement at a conference organized by White supremacists. Imagine he—twice—insinuates the movement’s complicity in a terrorist atrocity it had nothing to do with. Imagine he captions photographs of Black activists, ‘BLM members aping the tactics of Marxist guerrilla movements’ (racist rhetoric he knows will be inflammatory). Imagine he champions the cause, without any qualification, of a White supremacist infamous for a notorious speech against Black people. Imagine he makes distasteful, irrelevant allusions to a Black celebrity’s ethnicity. Imagine if, when challenged, he says that he is not being racist, but ‘simply criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement’. Imagine he accuses his detractors of acting in bad faith, in order to silence him. Imagine his own congregation supports him financially—and continues to do so, even after he leaves parish ministry under a cloud and moves on to other things. (p. 59)

Mendelsohn and Howard are right: there’s no way English conservative evangelicals would fail to act in this situation. But as they go on to say, ‘The above is, of course, an exact parallel of the Stephen Sizer controversy.’

It is to the credit of Revd Angus MacLeay that, in 2016, he approached the Steering Committee of the South East Gospel Partnership and requested action to be taken against Dr Sizer (p. 49). The late Revd Dr Mike Ovey also saw the issue clearly and addressed it (pp. 55-56). It is disturbing, though, that after two such respected leaders had raised concerns, nothing was done by other evangelical leaders and organisations. It is equally disturbing that after years of patient requests and careful detailing of evidence, in private and in public, Mendelsohn and Howard continue to be ignored by evangelical leaders and organisations.

I don’t know why this would be. It’s usually better to attribute such ‘oversights’ to ignorance and incompetence rather than to malice (though the article reports at least one Anglican evangelical leader behaving in a strikingly malicious and politically motivated way towards one of the paper’s authors).

However, as the article makes clear, even if ignorance and incompetence is assumed, culpability remains. After all, conservative evangelical leaders and organisations have rightly spoken out against other forms of racism in the past year. They have rightly emphasised the importance of listening to the voices of those who have experience of racism. And yet, they have not addressed the well-documented, publicly-documented, repeatedly-documented antisemitism in their midst. Nor, apparently, have they sought to hear from, or seek the forgiveness of, the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

Rather, Mendelsohn and Howard list organisations with which Sizer has been closely associated (and in some cases continues to be associated with and supported by), stating that:

As of February 2021, Dr. Sizer’s antisemitism has never been explicitly condemned by Evangelicals Now, the South East Gospel Partnership, Christianity Explored Ministries, GAFCON, Christ Church Virginia Water, ReNew, or Church Society. Nor has a single senior conservative evangelical leader ever publicly condemned Dr. Sizer’s antisemitic conduct .(p. 58)[2]

In the light of this, it seems fair to ask, echoing David Baddiel, Do Jews count?[3] Or echoing Hadley Freeman, Is antisemitism a ‘lesser bigotry’?[4]

Mendelsohn and Howard are careful to state that they see no evidence in this silence of active hostility towards Jews. In contrast to the evil history of Christian antisemitism, there is no sign here of theologically driven antipathy to Jewish people. However, this does not exonerate those who have been presented with evidence and yet have stayed silent and failed to act. Sadly, in the words of Mendelsohn and Howard, this looks very much like ‘an antisemitism that overlooks or is simply apathetic towards Jewish concerns.’ (p. 64)

Perhaps there are better explanations. Perhaps Mendelsohn and Howard have inadvertently overlooked or failed to understand important evidence of action. However, for years now, they have been persistent in cataloguing these issues, in private correspondence and in public writing. If there are answers to their charges, they need to be made—thoroughly, publicly and urgently. If there are no answers, then thorough, public and urgent repentance is called for (including, though obviously not limited to, public apologies to Mendelsohn and Howard themselves). Ongoing silence simply will not do.

One of the defences for inaction seems to have been that Stephen Sizer’s antisemitism is ‘not a gospel issue’, and therefore not a reason for ‘breaking gospel partnership’ (cf. pp. 49, 56). However, this defence will not withstand more than a couple of minutes of thought.

First, how can such silence not bring reproach upon the gospel? Evangelical organisations, evangelical churches, evangelical ministries—the evangelical gospel—are understandably now associated in the minds of British Jews with a man whose antisemitism has repeatedly been reported in the British secular media, and the Jewish Chronicle and Jewish News (p. 48). Does our gospel witness to British Jews not matter? Would we be equally blasé if the evangelical gospel were associated with anti-Black racism? Would that not also be a gospel issue?

Or do Jews not count?

Secondly, was it not the Lord Jesus himself who quoted and affirmed the Jewish Shema as the first and greatest commandment? Did he not then state that the second is like it, and once again quote the Torah: You shall love your neighbour as yourself?

And who is my neighbour?

If the Lord Jesus were to answer that question at a conservative evangelical conference today, I wonder if he might he tell a story about a people and nation fallen among bandits, robbed of their dignity, threatened, abused, slandered, terrorised, battered and bleeding. Might he then describe a conservative evangelical vicar, and then the trustee of a conservative evangelical organisation, hurrying past, eyes averted, busy about ‘the work of the gospel’?

Finally, this has gospel implications more important even than our love for our Jewish neighbours and our witness to Jewish people. If the rejection of Jews doesn’t matter, eventually the Hebrew Scriptures which testify to Christ, the covenant of grace into which we Gentiles have been grafted as wild olive branches into Jewish stock, the law of Moses which reveals God’s righteous lovingkindness, the prophetic promises that give us hope, will be pushed out of the Church. So too will the Jewish apostles of Christ Jesus. And so too will Yeshua ben David ben Abraham—born of a Jewish woman under the Jewish law; circumcised on the eighth day; obedient to Torah throughout his life; despised, rejected, beaten, mocked, crucified, raised and glorified in his Jewish flesh; proclaiming peace and salvation today to the Jew first and also to the Gentile; ruling and interceding for us in his ascended Jewish flesh until his return when, very God and very man, he will be worshipped and adored by believing Jews and believing Gentiles together for all eternity.

Of course this is a gospel issue. For if Jews do not count, there simply is no God, no Christ, no gospel, no church that is worthy of the name.

 

[1] (James Mendelsohn and Bernard Nicholas Howard, ‘A Lesser Bigotry? The Conservative Evangelical Response to Stephen Sizer’s Antisemitism’, Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism, 4/1 (2021): 37-71

[2] See pp. 48-58 for a detailed, credible and carefully documented overview of conservative evangelical responses to Sizer.

[3] David Baddiel, Jews Don’t Count (TLS Books, 2021).

[4] Quoted by Mendelsohn and Howard, p. 37.

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