Jason Byassee: No, NPR, leaders (even popes) don't atone

Sylvia Poggioli of NPR described Pope John Paul II as "atoning" for past Christian anti-Judaism with his famous prayer at the Western Wall. Let's choose another verb, shall we?

I know it was just a journalistic slip, and don’t mean to add to the jeremiads about reporters (even famous ones’) ignorance of the very faith they cover.

But there it was, in an interview on drive time, NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli wording wrongly her comparison of John Paul II’s visit to the Holy Land in 2000 with Pope Benedict XVI’s today: “Everyone remembers the image of the old pope praying at the Western Wall and leaving a message atoning for Christian anti-Semitism.”

The italics are both mine and hers. I highlight it as the misstep, but she herself emphasized the verb in her delivery.

Just to be clear: John Paul II did no such thing. Popes atone for nothing. Only God makes atonement.

This is for three reasons. One, the Jews would be right to refuse an offer of “atonement” from a pope, or any other human. Jews and Catholics agree that only God makes us “at one” (this is a rare religious word with an English etymology) humanity and divinity after their estrangement in Eden—and every day since.

Reason two is specific to Judaism, though we Christians can sympathize from outside. Jews would be right to refuse an offer of “atonement” for the death of six million. A little guy in a white robe—whoever he is—can do no such thing with a piece of paper, wherever it is placed. In fact, for Jews no one can accept an apology on behalf of someone who has died, let alone many someones. The dead, by definition, cannot receive an apology or offer forgiveness. Even if the living may appreciate the gesture, they would have to refuse it.

Three, however elevated the pope may be in Catholic thought and practice, he is a mere man. He is head of the church, humanly speaking, successor of Peter and the guarantor of faithfulness to the teaching handed on since the time of the apostles. But he cannot be the subject in a sentence in which the verb is “atone.” He is not divine. Popes have confessors and die like other human beings—as even the most inattentive papacy watcher will remember from John Paul II’s magnificently humble funeral.

What John Paul did, and what Benedict seeks to continue, is much more interesting. They seek, with Israel, to acknowledge and pray to the God of Israel. While the church claims to be God’s people, she has recognized of late what John Paul called our “elder brothers” in faith have a continuing claim to relationship with the God of Israel, one Christians have often interrupted by persecution. Catholics efforts at reconciliation with Jews are attempts to recover something specifically Catholic—the order of the gospel’s delivery “from Jew to Gentile” (Romans 1:16-17).

This is alongside more mundane concerns to be sure—aiding Middle East peace, mending fences with Muslims, defending the region’s dwindling Christian minority and so on. But the pope’s day job is to turn the world’s face the coming Kingdom ushered in by a crucified Jew. One day all will see, Israel first, we surprised-to-be-blessed gentiles in due time.

The boundary lines are necessarily blurry. Jews will dislike the Christology. Part of Benedict’s problem with Jews is the reinsertion of a Holy Week liturgy that includes prayers for their conversion (he is the pope—what else is he supposed to pray for than that people become Catholic?). Protestants will dislike the assumption of the pope’s universal leadership of the church. Muslims will note they are not present in the story at all. But we have to leave something to keep theologians and pundits busy.

This is not a story about a journalist’s verbal misstep so much as it is one about leadership. A pope is free to dream big dreams. Even as he runs a worldwide church immersed in myriad scandals and a mini nation-state and the faith of a billion people, his real job is to point elsewhere, to another One who does the work that really matters. And so he is free to take himself nowhere near as seriously as NPR wants to take him.

For the record, here is John Paul’s prayer:

God of our fathers,
you chose Abraham and his descendants
to bring Your name to the nations:
we are deeply saddened
by the behavior of those
who in the course of history
have caused these children of Yours to suffer
and asking Your forgiveness
we wish to commit ourselves
to genuine brotherhood
with the people of the Covenant
Jerusalem, 26 March 2000.

Joannnes Paulus II

It is beautiful. And, as all Jews and Christians will agree, it is clear that God alone atones.

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.