The “Charlie Ward controversy” is exposing a vein of Christian Evangelical thought that may be far more widespread — and far more harmful to Jews — than previously believed, say religion experts.
The remarks by the veteran Knicks guard made during a Bible study session with teammates — that the Jews are Christ killers and that they persecute Christians to this day — point to two troubling developments in Jewish-Christian relations, those experts say.
One is the largely ignored use of anti-Jewish New Testament teachings by Evangelical strains. The second is the apparent increased incidence of these anti-Jewish polemics by some black Evangelical groups.
“My guess is the thinking [that Jews are Christ killers] may be a lot more pervasive than most people realize,” said Marvin Wilson, a professor of Evangelical Bible at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass.
Martin Marty, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a Lutheran minister, agreed: “If this is being taught in a Bible class today, it’s worse than not studying it at all.
“[Christian] Bible classes for years have been trying to get away from that kind of thing,” Marty said, referring to the Christ-killer charges. “This suggests there is an underground that is legitimizing this.”
Said Christopher Leighton, executive director of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore: “What makes this dynamic particularly poignant is that some in the African-American community may experience the plight of the Jewish people and the ongoing legacy of anti-Semitism as a competitive threat to the dissemination of their own stories.”
“This situation challenges the African-American community to do a re-examination,” Leighton said.
Jewish-Evangelical specialist Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who is expected to speak with Ward (see sidebar), said he could not speak to the issue, but planned to increase contacts with black Evangelical churches.
“We have made a commitment to make a major thrust in that community,” he said.
Officials at the National Association of Black Evangelicals could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Ironically Ward’s comments, which came in a New York Times Magazine article on Sunday, were published only days after a Good Friday message by Christian Conservative leader Paul Weyrich, in which he held the Jews responsible for the death of Jesus, and the publication of a controversial Easter Sunday comic strip by “B.C.” artist Johnny Hart, which was roundly criticized as demeaning Judaism.
Ward, who is black, and Hart, who is white, both said they were sorry if they offended anyone, after Jewish groups decried the incidents.
Hart, a born-again Christian, was accused of symbolizing Christianity replacing an extinguished Judaism in his cartoon depicting prehistoric times — one of the country’s most popular strips.
Ward had repeated the 2,000-year-old “Christ-killer” charges against Jews, saying that Jews had Jesus’ blood on their hands. He also said there are “Christians getting persecuted by Jews every day,” and asked, “why did they persecute Jesus unless he knew something they didn’t want to accept?”
Teammates and Bible class members Allan Houston recited passages about Jews who had spit on Jesus, and Kurt Thomas suggested to a Jewish writer that he look into Jews for Jesus.
Ward and Houston were roundly denounced by the Anti-Defamation League as preaching anti-Semitism and religious bigotry. The American Jewish Congress and a host of New York sports columnists also agreed.
After being booed by fans at a playoff game on Sunday, criticized by Knicks management, and on Monday afternoon rebuked by NBA Commissioner David Stern, who is Jewish, Ward issued a public apology Monday night — even as he continued to be fully supported by his teammates.
“I want to truly apologize to everybody who was offended,” Ward said. “I will say again that I would never condemn or criticize any group or religion.”
But Ward’s apology may be as bad or worse than his original remark, said some religion experts.
Ward said in a Times article Tuesday that while he recognizes that his words about Jews could be hurtful when taken out of context, he stood by his assertion that his comments should be viewed in the context of a Christian Bible study session.
“If you don’t put it in the right context, then it’s going to look really bad,” he told the Times.
But Marty said it is “far worse” if the anti-Jewish polemics are being taught in some Evangelical Bible classes, rather than being just a spur-of-the-moment spouting from an-ill informed athlete.
“Ward’s apology is more egregious, more revealing,” Marty said, because Ward said if he heard it in Bible class it wouldn’t be offensive.
Wilson noted that Evangelism is the dominant religious movement in America with more than 70 million adherents, within hundreds of different denominations, and cautioned against generalizing.
“Within that movement there are many shades and many nuances of how the Jewish people are looked at,” Wilson explained. “And just as the Jewish community has its radical fundamentalists who want to throw all Arabs out of Israel, we have some people on the right wing of the Evangelical movement who are not what I would call reflective, are not people who have much of any kind of give-and-take with the Jewish people and tend to formulate views about Jews in very black and white and simplistic ways.”
Wilson also criticized Ward for professing that his beliefs are fine when expressed in a Bible class, but not when expressed to outsiders.
“When dealing with interfaith issues, you can’t have a double standard,” Wilson said. “That’s potentially where the real danger is. What we think about one another interreligiously can lead to supporting bad thinking and bad ethics and then bad actions towards the other. We need to challenge bad thinking.”
Larry Eskridge, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals in Wheaton, Ill., said: “I would say wherever and whenever there is Evangelism, you’ve got the lurking threat of anti-Semitism, depending on the bent of the person and depending on the agenda.
“By and large,” he said, “the majority of Evangelicals these days would take those [anti-Semitic] passages and look at those in the context of individual guilt, not the collective guilt laid at the feet of the entire Jewish race for all time.”
Like his colleagues, Franklin Sherman, associate for interfaith relations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, stressed the importance of making distinctions among the diverse Christian world.
“The Roman Catholic Church and all the mainline Protestant bodies — Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians — have been working diligently for 30 or 40 years to purge these [anti-Semitic] teachings from their preaching, their educational materials,” he said.
But when it comes to so-called Evangelicals “it’s not clear how many denominations have done the same.”
Leighton, a minister, called on the NBA “to take responsibility for educating” its unofficial chaplains, like the Rev. John Love, who Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy recently cited as having too much access to his players.
“Being armed with the Bible is not enough; one has to be able to handle the Scriptures responsibly,” Leighton said. “It says that there’s an enormous amount of work that needs to be done.”
Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor, chair of the Reform rabbis Interreligious Affairs Committee, criticized Christian leaders for their “deafening silence” about Ward’s statement, leaving Jewish organizations and sportswriters to criticize.
“The loudest and the most immediate response should have come from the Christian community, pointing out the errors of logic and Scriptural interpretation,” he said. “Mainstream Christian leaders should have issued statements, and called for a chance to study Scripture with these role models, so that they can become true role models — on and off the court. So where were they? Where are their statements? I am waiting.”
ADL National Director Abraham Foxman accepted Ward’s apology and hoped the player would also meet with mainstream Christian leaders “who can explain why his beliefs are part of historic myths that have been used to fuel anti-Semitism for centuries.”
Veteran interfaith expert Rabbi James Rudin said the Ward case has “shattered the sense of complacency that some people have about the current state of Christian-Jewish relations.”
“Popular culture, in this case a comic strip and the religious views of several professional athletes, frequently reveals far more about what people really believe than the learned theological discourses heard at academic conferences.”
The AJCongress is calling on Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris to remove Ward, who won the Heisman Trophy while the quarterback at Florida State, as the official spokesman for a state reading program.
- Kurt Thomas
- Charlie Ward
- Martin Marty
- Yechiel Eckstein
- Good Friday
- Eric J. Greenberg
- Easter Sunday
- the University of Chicago
- Allan Houston
- Marvin Wilson
- Said Christopher Leighton
- Gordon College
- professor of Evangelical Bible
- professor emeritus
- Paul Weyrich
- Christian Evangelical
- Johnny Hart
- Christopher Leighton
- British Columbia
- Staff Writer
- New York
- Anti-Defamation League
- New York Times
- New York Knicks
- National Basketball Association
- David Stern
- executive director