A Tale of Two Cathedrals

On any given day, Grace Cathedral welcomes hundreds of visitors, drawn to this iconic San Francisco landmark for prayer, for tourism, or for inspiration. Today, however, we welcomed thousands as the cathedral converted to a polling station. Many took a few minutes to enjoy being a tourist in their own city.  They snapped the perfect selfie in front of our Notre Dame style façade. They brandished their smartphones in the vast interior to capture the stunning stained glass. They may not have all believed in God, but none would deny the cathedral is Instagram clickbait heaven. But as they filled their feeds with stories and #photooftheday, it’s the unseen tale of two cathedrals – before and after the Holocaust – that feels so urgently instructive at this moment in our national life. 

After the deadliest attack against Jews on American soil last week, the Pittsburgh shooter pleaded “not guilty” as funerals continued for the martyrs of Tree of Life Synagogue. Video released Sunday shows teens hurling a pole through a synagogue window in Brooklyn during Shabbat services, and just yesterday a young man stands convicted of distributing anti-Semitic tracts and burning a cross on a synagogue lawn in North Carolina. With anti-Semitism on the rise, Christians must remember our past and stand against this evil. In its very architecture, Grace tells the story of how one community did just that. 

Constructed in two phases, Grace Cathedral’s first part, completed in 1934, tells the traditional story of Christianity’s relationship to Judaism, shaped by the early Christian logic of typology. As the sun rises in the east, it floods the South Windows with light – brilliantly illuminating Jesus, the disciples, and saints. Meanwhile, the North Windows – where David, the Hebrew prophets and Mary dwell – remain in shadow, receiving only the pale glow of dusk as the sun sets behind them. If architecture echoes reality, the message could not be any clearer: Christianity has eclipsed Judaism.

Morning light exposes 1934 typological design of Grace Cathedral’s stained glass

Typology casts Old Testament figures as types or “shadows” of their fulfillment in New Testament figures called anti-types. This logic is embodied in the North-South Transept windows as the North Transept Window portrays King David as a type for Jesus – the ultimate anti-type – depicted as ‘Christ the King,’ in the South Transept Window, fulfilling God’s promise to establish David’s throne forever. At its most generous, this typological lens views both Old Testament types and New Testament antitypes as part of a conversation, mutually illuminating the other. However, it’s often rendered in much more strident terms: not as a conversation, but a supplanting of the old by the new, telling the story of how Christianity superseded Judaism, a phenomenon called “Christian supersessionism” or “replacement theology.”

Upon this replacement theology, the rhetorical architecture of Christian anti-Semitism was built over centuries till, finally, it broke out as a fever during the Medieval period of cathedral construction when it was literally enshrined in stone and stained glass.

Upon this replacement theology, the architecture of Christian anti-Semitism was rhetorically built over centuries till, finally, it broke out as a fever during the period of Medieval cathedral construction in Europe when it was literally enshrined in stone and stained glass. As mostly illiterate pilgrims streamed into newly-constructed cathedrals, they’d look up to see ‘Ecclesia,’ the personification of the Church. A strong, virtuous queen gazing confidently forward, she gripped a cross-crowned staff in one hand, and a Eucharistic chalice in another. ‘Synagoga,’ by contrast, was often blindfolded, slumped over with a broken spear in one hand and the tablets of the Law slipping out of the other, dethroned as her crown lay at her feet. 

Ecclesia and Synagoga on the portico to Notre Dame de Paris

And this is what makes Grace Cathedral’s story so fascinating. When the second phase of construction resumed thirty years later in 1964, something remarkable happened. Most see it only as a superficial shift in style from classic to contemporary, but it actually tells the story of a Christian world grappling with the reality of its guilt in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

Holocaust Exposed History of Christian Anti-Semitism  

As the gruesome details of the Holocaust emerged, Mainline Christian leaders were forced to confront their own anti-Semitism and that of the Christian tradition. The Gospel of John’s villainous portrayal of “the Jews,” Matthew’s account of a Jewish crowd calling a blood curse upon all future generations of Jews for demanding Christ’s execution, and early Christian vitriol accusing the Jewish people of Christocide – all this codified the Jews in the Christian imagination as Public Enemy No. 1 of the Church after it came to power in 324 CE with Constantine’s conquest of the Roman Empire. Fanning the flames of hatred for six hundred years, by the Medieval period early Christian anti-Judaism combusted into full-blown anti-Semitism, incinerating any memory of a more amicable past.

13th C Illumination of a White/Western Jesus brought before Caiaphas by Dark/Eastern demonic Jews

Then the Holocaust changed everything. Christians were accosted by the undeniable fact that the architecture of anti-Semitism was not built by stone and stained glass alone, but by the long and ugly history of Christian hearts poisoned against their Jewish neighbors. It was built by forced mass conversions; by Medieval Good Friday liturgies that concluded with anti-Jewish pogroms; by Byzantine laws that dehumanized the Jewish people, and sometimes criminalized Jewish faith and practice; by “Christian” communities that marginalized and persecuted Jewish people ever since. After the Holocaust, Christians had nowhere to hide from our own sinful legacy. With six million Jews murdered on our Christian watch, there was no escaping the perverse truth: for the Jews, the Cross of Life bloomed with the rancid fruit of death.

After the Holocaust, Christians had nowhere to hide from our own sinful legacy. With six million Jews murdered on our Christian watch, there was no escaping the perverse truth: for the Jews, the Cross of Life bloomed with the rancid fruit of death.

Our collective shame came into sharp relief during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s as the sordid history of the Final Solution was sorted out. Damning images of mass graves, emaciated bodies, crematoria, and the ghostly echoes of extinguished life – shoes, glasses, even gold fillings – painted a horrific picture of the demonic genocide Christians unleashed upon their Jewish neighbors under Hitler’s reign. German Christians – Reform and Catholic – were mostly complicit in the crimes committed against Europe’s Jews in the Holocaust. We love to lift up Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but he was an exceeding exception. America’s Mainline Christian political leaders were no better. Many of them were cradle Episcopalians, not least of which President Roosevelt.

Shoes from Auschwitz

Biographers credit FDR’s Episcopal education at Groton School – inspired by the Social Gospel – with instilling in him a sense of duty to the less fortunate, culminating in the New Deal. But traces of this same education can also be seen in his mastery of the art of polite disdain, regrettably on full display whenever ‘the Jewish question’ arose in his administration. 

In 1933, when confronted with the Nazi persecution of the Jews, he reportedly told his ambassador to Berlin, “The German authorities are treating the Jews shamefully and the Jews in this country are greatly excited. But this is also not a governmental affair.” Democrats today may hold Trump’s strict immigration quotas in contempt of American values, but we must not forget that when faced with the human wave of despair crashing upon our shores, FRD declared his inflexibility on quotas, sounding an almost Trumpian note as he stoked fears that among the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees seeking citizenship were Nazi spies waiting to infiltrate the Republic.

America’s failure to respond to reports of unspeakable atrocities cost millions of Jewish lives. Years later, these revelations shook America’s self-image to the core, precipitating a crisis of conscience. American Christians responded in two very different ways.

The Mainline/Evangelical Paradoxes of Post-Holocaust Christianity

Evangelicals, in the grip of a Pentecostal revolution, placed a renewed emphasis on the role of prophecy in Christian faith. For them, the meaning of the Holocaust was fairly clear: the prospect of almost losing the Jewish people coupled with the reestablishment of an Israeli state in their biblical homeland signaled the beginning of The End Times. According to this Dispensationalist worldview, Jews must be living in Israel, the temple must be rebuilt and the sacrificial cult restored for Jesus to return in glory as the militant Son of Man to judge the living and the dead. Can we say, rapture?

Medieval depiction of Jews being tormented in special Satanic Cauldron

This created the conditions for a very strange political climate, indeed.  Evangelicals largely continued to view Jews as unsaved and hell-bound, seeking to convert them to Christianity. At the same time, they became their most ardent advocates on the world stage for a strong, sovereign Israel. We see this paradoxical dynamic alive and well in the Trump administration. It moved the embassy to Jerusalem against the wishes of the international community, but it also trotted out a messianic rabbi to pray for Pittsburg. Mike Pence, the administration’s certified Evangelical, orchestrated both.

To the uninitiated, this paradox seems like a schizophrenic divide between foreign and domestic policy. But to those with eyes to see, it makes perfect sense. For Evangelicals, the Holocaust is about God’s grand design to hasten Armageddon. Many pray for conflict, violence, and unrest in the Middle East. Without it, the Apocalypse won’t happen. Read a little Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye, and you’ll get the picture.

Mainline Christians, on the other hand, horrified by the scandal of their often unspoken culture of anti-Semitism, turned inward in a posture of pious humility, yielding a new field of scholarship dedicated to studying the origins of Christian anti-Semitism. They asked hard theological questions about the triumphalist logic of typology that made it so easy for Christians to justify their actions in World War II. Mainline Seminaries revised their curricula to reflect this new self-awareness, and a new generation of pastors was trained in multifaith and inter-religious dialogue.

MLK with Jewish and Christian leaders in 1968 protest of Vietnam War

The Civil Rights movement took this work from seminary to city, as Jews and Christians cooperated to advance the cause of human dignity and freedom. This laid the groundwork for a new understanding. Assumptions were interrogated, and cultural bias uncovered. Truth was spoken, and forgiveness sought. And a new relationship between the Mainline Church and Synagogue began to emerge in major metropolitan centers like New York and San Francisco. But Progressives can be every bit as blind as Conservatives.

Over time, this renewed interest in cultural sensitivity and defending human life turned the Mainline into an outspoken critic of Israel, and increasingly a supporter of Palestinian Liberation. The Episcopal Church’s recent debates over divestment in firms that benefit from Israeli occupation in West Gaza, and the Mainline joint statement in April 2018 calling for an end to the use of lethal force by the Israeli army against Palestinian protesters are two recent examples. And herein lies the rub. 

While it may be just to speak out against Zionist expansionist tendencies and the human rights violations contributing to a failed Palestinian state, to do so only a few decades after the Holocaust is morally dubious at best.  Some argue that such criticism is only possible if Mainline Christians willfully forget their role in creating the modern State of Israel. President Truman, a Presbyterian, along with the Democratic majority applied considerable political pressure on the British to pass the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine. Mainliners are simply not in a position to be lecturing Jews on human rights. 

So we see two caricatures emerge in post-Holocaust Christianity: the pro-Israel, anti-Jewish Evangelical, and the pro-Jewish, anti-Israel Mainline. The impact of this shift was not merely rhetorical. If cathedrals tell the sacred story of their communities, then the second half of Grace Cathedral, constructed before the anti-Israel  sends an unmistakable message. 

Dismantling the Architecture of Christian Anti-Semitism…Literally 

Grace Cathedral’s façade, completed in 1965, featured only empty statuary niches – no trace of a triumphant Ecclesia turning her nose up at an enfeebled Synogoga. In a bold statement of public repentance, the first new stained-glass bays on that sun-soaked South Aisle depict not New Testament characters or Christian saints as the typological architectural schema demands, but instead the Hebrew prophets, Elijah and Ezekiel – all the more striking given that the window is meant to celebrate liturgical reform. The two saints we’d expect to figure prominently in that window – Pope Gregory the Great (the most influential Catholic liturgical reformer) and Thomas Cranmer (Henry VIII’s Anglican Archbishop and English Reformer who gave us of the Book of Common Prayer) – are featured only as minor characters.

In fact, in a stunning reversal, six of the twelve massive stained-glass bays in the new section feature Hebrew Bible heroes as their main characters! But it gets even better. Incorporated into the North Aisle windows are renowned Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, and Jewish physicist, Albert Einstein. That’s no accident. Both men famously changed the way we see the world and one another at a pivotal moment in human history.

Einstein’s theory of special relativity had as much to do with perception as it did with space-time. The Jewish genius taught us that light travels at the same speed for all observers, regardless of its source. While Einstein was speaking of the physical universe, of course, the metaphorical significance for a pluralistic age can hardly be lost. That metaphysical Light has many sources throughout human culture is an essential building block of inter-religious dialogue. It reclaims John’s Gospel as a vehicle of loving hope by shifting the focus to its magisterial Prologue. There, we read that all things came into being through the Eternal Word, whose victorious light shines out as the life of all humankind, a light that the darkness can neither comprehend nor overcome.

This Johannine theology inspired Karl Rahner’s famous idea of the ‘Anonymous Christian’ – the notion that people outside Christianity, who hadn’t heard the Good News, could nevertheless be saved if earnestly pursuing the will of God by following their conscience. Pope John XXIII is also depicted in the window celebrating liturgical reform. Under his guidance, Rahner’s controversial idea gained a wide following during the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council, forming the theological foundation for the 1964 Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, or Lumen Gentium (Light of the Nations).

Martin Buber famously wrote, “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.” Buber published those words in 1923, the same year that hyperinflation tested the social fabric of the fragile Weimar Republic, laying the groundwork for Hitler’s rise to power. Buber urged his fellow Germans not to objectify each other, but to stand before one another as before the radiant, awesome mystery of the “Thou.” Buber, like Jesus, knew that the real long game of spiritual revolution wasn’t just about changing the architecture of the city, but ultimately the architecture of the heart.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Grace Cathedral offers a hopeful model for us to follow in the wake of this new anti-Semitism. Not because it’s perfect. Far from it. But where there is imperfection, there is also grace. 

Grace Cathedral offers a hopeful model for us to follow in the wake of this new anti-Semitism. Not because it’s perfect. Far from it. But where there is imperfection, there is also grace. 

Across from Einstein’s window is another for American industrialist, Henry Ford. Whether the extent of Ford’s anti-Semitism was known to Grace’s designers, I don’t know. What I do know is that Hitler hailed him as an “inspiration,” appropriating Ford’s attacks on the sinister “International Jew” in some of the most hateful Nazi propaganda against the Jews. To hear angry mobs of American citizens decry “globalists” at rallies today sends shivers down my spine. Republicans are playing with fire. That said, what I do see in Grace is an attempt to open the conversation and to correct the theological narrative that gave cover for the Holocaust.

In the fifty years since Grace’s completion, much has changed, but Mainline and Evangelical attitudes toward Jews and Israel remain much the same. We’re long overdue for another reckoning. It should begin by reaching out to our Jewish neighbors, letting them know they’re not alone. But it cannot end there. We must have difficult conversations with Jewish community leaders and with each other.

We must let our faith in Christ to reconcile all things encourage us to face our shortcomings with ruthless honesty. We must face the ways we continue to objectify Jews and Judaism in our traditions. We must come to the table together – Mainline and Evangelical – to see if there aren’t broad areas of theological agreement we can use to build a new platform for inter-religious dialogue in our time, recognizing the limits and challenges of Rahner’s ‘Anonymous Christian’ theology.  

I have no illusions. We won’t agree on many things, but I believe the Holy Spirit is ready to birth a new era in Jewish-Christian relations from this present darkness.  As Christians witness the ugly resurgence of anti-Semitism, we must return once more to the spirit of post-Holocaust Christianity, and like Buber to stand in the light of ‘the other,’ to affirm our Jewish neighbors as made in God’s image, and to work together to dismantle anti-Semitism once and for all.