Saturday, June 25, 2005

postal scrotum: Christian antisemitism

A friend writes in on an uncomfortable subject:


I have recently run across several references to antisemitism being espoused and taught by various denominations of Protestant churches in America, including the Presbyterian. While I have encountered many individuals who despise Jews, including some relatives and parents of friends, I had not considered that this was an active policy of mainstream Protestant Christianity. I was most recently reading this article, which, on page 2, cites specific denominations. Another denomination mentioned was the Disciples of Christ, to which one of my oldest friends, the FH, and his family belong. I have never noticed anything other than respect from them towards Jews.

As a one-time (and perhaps nominally current) member of such a religion, I am wondering what your experience is with antisemitism in church. As someone who doesn't eat pork, I have occasionally been mis-identified as being Jewish. This has most commonly had a noticeable negative effect on my interactions with people here in the American South. For the record, I should note that I do not belong to any organised religion, but am not atheist or agnostic.

Do you think that the increasing religious fervor and rise of the Religious Reich within the US will, by nature, involve an increase in antisemitism? Another thing that has always puzzled me is that I do not understand why Christans sometimes hate Jews. Was Jesus not a rabbi of the Pharisees? This would make him naturally opposed to the religious hierarchy of the temple priests, but he would certainly be 100% Jew, up to and including all common lifestyle and practices of the time. This is like people from New Jersey hating Bostonians because the Bostonians are not American. Please enlighten me, if you can.

I am also copying FH, as I have besmirched his church in this listing.

Many thanks for your opinions and observations.


I don't have any clear answer to the question of the Religious Reich. Americans are, on the whole, divided about whether the Religious Reich is as big a problem as some say it is. Perhaps it is a problem, but if so, can it be firmly pegged to the tone of Bush's administration?

My own post-election contention was that Bush got reelected not for his religious stance, but for his stance on the war on terror. Kerry wasn't sufficiently clear about what he felt we were doing in the world. Are we, indeed, at war? As a nation, we still haven't settled this question, but I think most Americans lean toward "Yes." This leaning, along with aggressive and scarily organized Republican campaigning, propelled Bush into his second term.

Bush himself makes no bones about having religious convictions, and doesn't shy away from religious language in many of his speeches. Perhaps this does affect the tenor of public discourse, but to what degree it does so, I don't know. Religious conservatism has always been a big part of American culture; how internationally visible it is, though, may depend on the times.

I'm disturbed by Bush's advocacy of the marriage amendment (I don't think he's talked about it much recently, has he?). It's evidence in favor of the claim that he's foisting a religious agenda on the populace. But I respect cool-headed conservative arguments to the effect that we're not really looking at a creeping theocracy: that may be too paranoid a reading of the trends. Religious Reich? For me, it's an open question. I'd say there's reason to be cautious, but I'd also advocate not bringing Hitler into the equation (I know you're not seriously doing that; my comment is more for the general populace, which often seems prone, collectively, to thinking in extremes).

Moving on to larger themes...

Antisemitism is one type of intolerance found in American society, one type among many: we've also got racism, sexism, ageism, etc. I tend to think that it's not nearly as big a problem now as it used to be, and that it's nothing compared to European antisemitism-- an issue that Europeans have yet to deal with seriously.

Strangely enough, quite a few fundamentalist Protestants align themselves with Israel based on their interpretation of the Christian scriptures. These Protestants believe that Jerusalem with be a major arena in the final cosmic battle and somehow see the Jews as key. This doesn't indicate any respect for Judaism, mind you; such Christians still view Jews through a supersessionist's lens.

And that's really what you're asking about, I think, when you write: "Another thing that has always puzzled me is that I do not understand why Christans sometimes hate Jews." Theologically speaking, many (if not most) Christians cleave to some type of supersessionism. The New Testament supersedes the Old. The very adjective "New" implies this. Jesus says, "I will show you a new way," and this has been taken to mean that Jesus, though himself a Jew, was breaking theological ground.

Personally, I don't agree with supersessionism, though it's hard to deny that Christian scriptures seem to support it. The history of the early Jesus movement, initially involving so-called "Jesus Jews," shows that the evolving proto-Christian theology wasn't consistent with what most other Jews believed about God. This divergence became more pronounced as, over the following centuries, the Church established itself, began combatting heresies, and formulated a trinitarian theology based on a particular interpretation of the scriptures.

Interpretation is key here. Many modern, anti-supersessionistic Christians can find creative ways of reinterpreting the scriptures so that they aren't as adversarial as they sound. Other modern Christians, perhaps out of respect for Judaism and the Jews they know, will simply reject such scriptures out of hand. That rejection is also based on an interpretation and evaluation of the scriptures. However, it's important to note that millions of Christians probably have Jewish friends and haven't seriously pondered the theological implications of their friendships.

The Catholic Church's stance toward non-Christian religions is officially inclusivist as of the Second Vatican Council, in the mid-1960s. Catholicism claims that Christianity enjoys a "special relationship" with Judaism, and characterizes this relationship as that of a younger sibling to an older one. I disagree: I think it would be better to view the relationship as between mother and child, which to my mind implies the rejection of a supersessionistic attitude.

Protestant responses will vary from church to church, but also from individual to individual. Extreme fundamentalist Protestant churches might have some members who are, on a personal level, very respectful toward Jews and Judaism, even while their pastors preach something different to the masses.

I feel that I'm outside of most such theological discussions, though, because they require reading the scriptures in a way I find impossible: I'm not a scriptural literalist. This isn't necessarily an advantage-- meaningful dialogue does require at least stepping into and becoming familiar with the conceptual world of one's interlocutor. If I'm unwilling to make the effort to view the scriptures the way a literalist does, it's doubtful I'll be able to make any points that will impress him or her. It works in reverse, too: if the literalist insists on browbeating me with scripture, I'll walk away unimpressed because s/he never tried to employ any reasonable empirical arguments.

Christianity gets a taste of its own medicine with Islam, however. Islam is also supersessionistic; the Koran is God's final revelation, and Muhammad is the Seal of the Prophets, i.e., after Muhammad there is no one. A lot of Christian-Muslim tension stems from this supersessionism.

To put the antisemitism problem in perspective, then: I think a problem exists in American society, and it's also a function of certain kinds of Christian theology. I do think, however, that America on the whole is a friendlier environment for Jews than Western Europe-- France being the current poster child for widespread antisemitic violence. Europe already had a tradition of Christian antisemitism; it's now experiencing a wave of Muslim antisemitism thanks to the influx of so many Muslims (especially from North Africa, but also from places like Turkey). While America is home for many Muslims, its strong tendency toward secularism is tied to an equally strong (perhaps paradoxical?) tendency toward religiosity. The effect, at least so far, has been a tolerant pluralism. The nature of that pluralism is hard to identify: are we tolerant because of our religious convictions or in spite of them*? Islam in Europe is encountering what many believe to be something of a spiritual vacuum: European Christianity has appeared moribund to cultural critics for some time**.

Antisemitism, no matter where and in what forms it appears, should be combatted. I'd love to see the day when theists disavow supersessionism, but I doubt that'll happen anytime soon, if ever. That means we're bound to hear some Christian somewhere condemn the Jews for not having heeded the gospel and "taken up their cross." Antisemitism stems from more than theology, of course; the term usually connotes "anti-Judaism" but can also refer to a type of racism. Either way, it's one of the more cancerous "isms" out there.

*Check out Harvard University's Pluralism Project website. The project is run by the inimitable Diana Eck. I need to stick that on my sidebar.

**According to survey results found here, about 70% of the French are catholic, but of that proportion, only 10% call themselves regular practitioners. Around 50% are occasional practitioners, while 10% are out-and-out non-practicing. The linked article also notes that the number of people claiming to belong to a non-Catholic religion is rising strongly.


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