March 22, 2024

Origin of a Slur

Clifford Goldstein

It was the early 1960s, a summer because I remember the green grass and the leafy weeping willow tree in the back corner of our yard in upstate New York. My dad wore his ubiquitous white t-shirt and, surely (though I don’t remember), a cigarette had been dangling from his mouth. What I do remember is the look he gave me.

Some kid, visiting a neighbor, had called me “a kite.” Though I don’t remember the kid doing it, or knew why he would call me that, I do remember telling my dad.  The pained expression on his face has never left me.

The kid hadn’t called me “a kite,” but a “kike,” the most derogatory term for a Jew. Though its etymology remains disputed, one idea is that when many illiterate Jews (like my father’s mother) came to Ellis Island, they had to sign an immigration form. But they wouldn’t use the usual “x,” what other illiterate immigrants signed with, because of its association with the cross, with Christianity—the same “Christianity” whose murdering and pillaging drove them from their homes in Eastern Europe and Russia to begin with. So, instead, they would sign with an “o,” a circle, kikel in Yiddish.  Immigration officials began calling these new immigrants “kikes,” and, Voila! A new word entered the English vernacular; decades later, as a seven-year-old, I encountered it.

Racism, in every form, is old hat (even if in the 19th century it took on a “scientific” bent, mostly thanks to evolution). It probably started after the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) and spread as quickly as sin did. No one is immune, including professed Christians.

But why? Everything that Jesus said and did—from His ministering to the Samaritan woman at the well, even though, as the woman said, “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9); to His eating with “many tax collectors and sinners” (Matt. 9: 10); to His ministering to non-Jews (Matt. 7:26-30)—everything in His words and example broke down barriers. Peter’s vision, in Acts 10, when he said  that “God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (Acts 10: 28), reveals how heaven views racial or ethnic prejudice. Paul’s words, either in Acts, that God “has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth,” (Acts 17:28), or in Colossians, that “neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all” (Col. 3:11) are also antithetical to racism.  

Because the universality of sin, and the universality of Christ’s death for sinners (Romans 5), makes us all the same in the eyes of God, so should we be in the eyes of each other as well. And these words of praise, in Revelation— “For You were slain, /And have redeemed us to God by Your blood / Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9)—drain the blood from any justification for racist attitudes.

Yet—no matter how much everything about Jesus worked against the idea of prejudice; or how powerfully the cross has shown God’s love for all humanity; or how the notion of hating, or even putting down “the other” because of race, religion, ethnicity, whatever, is so contrary to everything that the Gospel teaches—what’s the reality? Christendom, far from negating racism, simply promoted its own brand.

Just ask my relatives who had to flee for their lives from Christian lands to get to America. We can’t ask many of the ones who didn’t flee because more Christian lands, Germany, and Austria, with the complicity of even more Christians lands (France, Poland, Italy [Jews were rounded up within sight of the Vatican and Pius XII, the “Vicar of Christ” said nothing], and others), murdered them. And Jesus, a “kike,” would have been sent to Auschwitz, too.

And though slavery in one form or another has been practiced long before Christianity, how could it have been done by nations professing Christianity, such as the United States? Which also, by the way, slaughtered its indigenous populations, as the Australians, another Christian people, did theirs. And let’s not forget the Dutch (Calvinists?) and British (Anglicans?) killing each other in South Africa over who kept the land that they both stole from the Blacks. And why, why, for decades was the most racist and segregated part of America the Bible Belt? The Bible Belt! Or how could one of the largest churches in America, the Southern Baptist Convention, have been founded in defense, defense, of slavery?

The answer is easy. The Gospel has never taken root, corporately, anywhere, ever—no matter how many crosses adorn national flags or how many churches dot the landscape. Either the Gospel works in individual hearts, One-on-one, or Christianity becomes just another corrupted cultural façade, pretty much what has happened, anyway. What else explains the blood-strewn and slave-holding trajectory of “Christian” history? (This does, though, make it easier to see how America will speak “like a dragon” [Rev. 13:11].)

However de-institutionalized in many Christian lands, racism remains what it has always been: a heart issue. The Gospel, not corporate Christianity, is the solution, but a Gospel that cleanses the individual heart and soul with spiritual chlorine, purging the prejudices and hatreds that have, since Babel, accumulated in our moral arteries like plaque from barbequed pork chops.

Not long after the recent outbreaks of antisemitism, my WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) wife, bearing the name “Goldstein” for 38 years now, said (and with some fear, too), “I think I now understand more what it means to be Jewish in this world.”            

Maybe. But, in my mind, what better exemplifies what it can mean to be Jewish in a world in which racism, in whatever form, is conveyed over generations—was the pained look on my dad’s face when his seven-year-old child, seven, was derided as “a kike.”