Monday, June 27, 2005

postal scrotum: Christian antisemitism redux redux

S writes back:


Thanks to you and your readers regarding the rise of the Religious Reich and the antisemitism of Protestant denominations in America. I must admit that I was somewhat surprised to see the discussion drift from antisemitism to a discussion of Bush. While I have heard claims that he is against Jews, I am not aware of any evidence to substantiate the claim. Actually, one of the few things that Bush has done which I unequivocally approve is to try to break racial barriers in the political appointments and offices.

I do not think that the increasing power of the Religious Reich is a new thing. In fact, I heard a radio presentation with President Jimmy Carter, himself a Southern Baptist and evangelical Christian, wherein he described a planned and concerted effort over a period of approximately 20 years to cosolidate power within the evangelical churches into the most conservative branches, while simultaneously integrating the group into local politics and eventually into the core of the Republican Party. Brother Jimmy was not happy about it, either. The only significant change that I have seen during the Bush White House is that lifelong moderates are dropping out of the party. The slow growth has reached the point where there is little place for a moderate in either party. Perhaps the moderates should band together and create a new party. I have no idea what to call this party, though. Maybe the Mods?

But enough of that. Observations and question- we have a measurable increase in religious practice, especially among evangelical branches. This may be another 'Great Awakening' or not, but the increase is there, and it is high profile- meaning in the press and in the mix of politics. Given that this is so, do you think that said increase necessarily predicates an increase in antisemitism? I found an interesting article here that attempts to explain some of the roots of Christian antisemitism. In summary, it states that many Christians pass judgement based on far too little real knowledge, and that some of the New Testament writers, among them Matthew, frequently portray Christians as the good guys in their stories, and Jews as the bad guys. If this is true (and I am not Christian, so I'll accept it as theory) then I'd have to say that the answer is "yes." Given that members of the R.Reich tend to be biblical literalists and tend not to be well informed about the realities of Jews, I think that there IS a natural tendency for antisemitism to increase as more people are actively influenced, socially and politically, by the increasing message of Christian Fundamentalism. It sucks, but I think that it is true.

An associate whom I'll call Hawke also offers some insight:

In answer to your question 'Why do Christian sometimes hate Jews?' I assume that you really mean to ask 'What is the biblical justification that Christians use to hate Jews?' Many members of the Religious Right (I think that your use of Reich is needlessly inflammatory) believe that Jews were ultimately responsible for the death of Christ. I suppose that it would be inconvenient of them to blame Rome. This argument is specious on a number of levels, both religious and factual, but it is the justification that I have most commonly heard. Discussion about this very matter was triggered when 'The Passion of the Christ' was released and dubbed antisemitic.

One final observation: The mother of a good friend of mine pointed out that Christian justification for anything is just that- justification. She said that 'It's all in there' and if you go looking through the Bible, or the Koran, or the Torah, and you are seeking justification for a particular viewpoint, chances are you'll find it. This reflects the ingenuity of human self-righteousness more that human righteousness.

With regard to supersessionism- I find it hard to judge what the intent was based on my limited knowledge. My impression, though, is that Judaism has been a well-spring for many religions and has shaped Western law as well. I see no indication that just because one rose from the other, one supplants or is superior to another. Of course- it is not my faith so it is relatively easy for me to say that. I imagine that Christians may have a problem accepting that Judaism is just as valid a path to God, provided that you can keep your feet on the path. They fall subject to the 'There is only One Path to God' mentality that makes so many Muslims a pain in the posterior.

BTW- I like the use of 'supersessionistic' in the article. It seems right, but I am sure I have never encountered that word before.

Opinions and observations welcome,


I apologize if it seemed off-track to bring Bush into the discussion, but it struck me as topical, given the debate America is having about the "direction" in which we're going, and whether there really is a case to be made re: creeping theocracy. And like your associate Hawke, I was struck by the term "Religious Reich," which I agree is inflammatory, so I think I was responding partly to that term.

In this post, I'll focus my reply more specifically on theological and interreligious issues.

Readers of this blog know my stance about "what religion is" is primarily empirical: religion is as it is practiced. I'm currently reading Wilfred Cantwell Smith's classic, The Meaning and End of Religion, and he supports my conviction in spades. It's impossible to pinpoint some sort of "essence" to religion, or to define any particular tradition simply. Is Islam a religion of peace? If we view the question empirically, we see there are millions of peaceful Muslims and millions of militant ones. Islam isn't fundamentally one thing or another. The same goes for Christianity: of the Americans who were shouting about nuking Middle Eastern Country X into a sheet of glass immediately following 9/11, I'd wager a healthy majority of those folks considered themselves pious Christians. Is Christianity a religion of peace?

What makes this question even more complex is that people approach it from different angles. For instance, some view the question diachronically. Christianity today is largely a peaceable religion, as evidenced by the proportionate lack of violence from over 2 billion adherents. You can find exceptions to this (say, in Ireland, Nigeria, and elsewhere), but on the whole, it's no longer a violent crusader religion. Chrisitanity has changed over time.

For others, the diachronic approach is disdained in favor of a "static" view of history. Consider that the crusader mantle seems to have been taken up by some forms of Islam, which view the (Christian) West's transgressions in terms of old grievances needing to be redressed. Of course, not all Muslims think in these terms: many historians of Islam will be quick to note that Islam also had schisms early in its history, and has produced radically nonviolent strains such as Sufism. Unfortunately for peaceable Muslims, however, Islam remains in the news because so many modern adherents cleave to a 7th-century worldview. As a matter of simple fact, international terrorism in our age is almost exclusively Muslim*.

You mentioned a measurable increase in religious practice, an increase occurring more in the evangelical wing of American Christianity, and wondered whether this might translate into increased antisemitism. My profs at CUA noted a squeezing out of the Christian mainstream, and I think there's merit to your observation about a rise in less moderate forms of Christianity.

More antisemitism? I think it's possible, but again, it's a complicated situation. American Christian denominations are large, so sweeping characterizations of several million people have to be viewed with caution. Even within a given denomination, there will be major differences between, for example, members who hail from the city and members who live in rural areas. Is rural Methodism the same as urban Methodism? There are other demographic issues to consider as well: black Christians tend to vote lib/Democrat, but lean socially conservative on matters like gay marriage**; poor and rich Christians will think and act differently regarding certain issues, etc.

Religious conflict happens all the time on a low-grade level in the States. Islam is a swelling demographic in America, being one of the more overtly missionary religions, but it's competing with evangelicalism and even a small but burgeoning Buddhism. I have no idea how all of this is working itself out; I'll have to do some research on the subject. One interesting link I found is a Unitarian Universalist report*** here, which states that

Since 1965 there have been waves of immigrants, but many people don't see the religious traditions the immigrants have brought, now making us the most religiously diverse country on earth. The U.S. now has more Muslims than Presbyterians or Episcopalians, and probably as many Muslims as Jews. Now there are over 300 Buddhist organizations in Los Angeles including temples, lay orders, and social organizations.

Fortunately, most religious conflict tends to occur and be resolved in the arena of religious pluralism and secularism. Competition serves, to some extent, as a check and balance. We Americans walk a finer line than they do in France, where secularism arguably gets taken to extremes (e.g. the recent banning of wearing overtly religious symbols-- a move originally focused on Muslim veils, but having ramifications far beyond that), because American secularism is tempered by our collective religiosity. The result has been and will be a steady trickle of little religious conflicts. That's the price we pay for our way of life. I think it's worth it.

I'd agree that a lot of Christians remain thoroughly uneducated about other religions. I wonder how many anti-Islamic Christians can even name the Five Pillars, or have taken the time to read some of the Koran, or know a few highlights from the life of Muhammad. Such Christians seem to think that what their pastor says is sufficient, which to my mind is a dangerous way to live: it explains why fundamentalists of all stripes sound brainwashed.

Another question arises, though, regarding Christians who have studied other religions and exhibit no change in attitude about them. These are people who retain their supersessionism or exclusivism by choice-- who have, in fact, made an informed choice to continue believing as they do. Are such people arrogant to believe as they do, or are they simply sincere in their belief? Is it inconsistent for the Pope to condemn homosexuality, or is this more or less what should be expected from a man in his position and with his authority? Christian thinker Alvin Plantinga deals with this question at some length (from the exclusivist's point of view), and I've written reactions to him here.

My feeling is that accusations of arrogance lead to a completely useless, endless debate. Exclusivists from different religions can call each other arrogant for not respecting the other's tradition. Within a tradition, pluralists and exclusivists can call each other arrogant for taking stands that seemingly disrepect the other's position. I see a rhetorically even playing field and nowhere to go.

For me, the question of arrogance pales beside the question of actual damage, and it's one of the reasons why I'm a religious pluralist. I think exclusivism does in fact cause suffering, and history bears me out on this. Perhaps exclusivism can arise after an honest and prayerful study of the scriptures, but my response to that is, "Well, go back and study again!" It's true, as you say, that you can pull whatever you want out of the scriptures; that's both their glory and their danger. I think exclusivism results from a facile, lazy hermeneutics-- it doesn't take much mental effort to be a literalist: just adopt a literalist position and sit there. It does, however, take effort to treat the scriptures as a truly "living word," i.e., something growing, changing, and even dying over time. Such a stance, the "living word" stance, redefines right and wrong as something you have to perceive moment by moment, not some rule from a cosmic rule book which you blindly follow in the same manner now and forever. I have little patience for literalism.

You mentioned antisemitism in the gospels. This is one of those topics that gets covered in theology classes. Many modern, mainstream Christians are uncomfortable with it and don't want to deal with it directly. Jesus is often portrayed as engaging in theological debate with Jewish sects like the Pharisees and Sadducees, especially in the synoptic gospels, and "the Jews" come in for a real beating in the Gospel of John. I took a course on that so-called Fourth Gospel, and one of the interesting things to learn was that the Greek phrase hoi ioudaioi, "the Jews," might not have been a catch-all moniker at all, but might have referred only to those Jews in competition with the Johannine community.

[See also my long review of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ, here, and check out this link re: the Johannine Passion narrative.]

It can't be denied that John's high christology takes Jesus' divinity in the direction of what would eventually become trinitarian theology. The word "trinity" itself never appears in the Christian Bible, and is at best only implied by certain scriptures (cf. the Great Commission at the end of Matthew, which includes what some insist is a "trinitarian formula," but which by itself isn't****). At best, the Fourth Gospel is describing a "binity," because Jesus appears to be stressing his unity with God the Father. Such a theology would put off many Jews and would ultimately reinforce the division between more traditional Jews and those who were to be widely known as Christians (the word does occur in the New Testament).

Overall, I'm not too worried about trends toward antisemitism in America, but I think your questions are worth further research and thought. Antisemitism isn't going to go away anytime soon, that's for sure. And while I'd hesitate to say that life is all roses for Jews in America, it's much better here than it is in Western Europe. Thanks for the email.

*This bears discussing, too, in a separate post. I'm suspicious about arguments that use poverty to justify Muslim terrorism, because if it really came down to a question of poverty, we should, in theory, see international Hindu terrorism, international sub-Saharan African terrorism, etc. But we don't. Why not, if poverty is so crucial a factor?

I suspect the reason is that, while poverty probably does play some role, it's only a small part of a larger network of causes of terror. A more significant factor, in my opinion, is ideology. Not religion: ideology. Religion is woven into the ideology (cf. Wahabist Islam), to be sure, but the knee-jerk urge to blame religion misses the fact that most adherents of the major religious traditions (including Islam!) are average Joes just trying to get through the day.

Making the effort to parse causes is important. It takes work; the lazy route is to posit something that sounds plausible, like poverty, and pretend the issue's been settled. As this blog has argued, we're in a war of the mind, and ultimately, some minds will have to triumph over other minds. This can't be done merely through violence, because you haven't beaten your opponent if you've only managed to beat him down. In fact, there's something to be said for ultimately transcending the notion of "opponent"-- an act that Christians are enjoined to do.

**Democrat and Republican campaigners are keenly aware of this, too.

***One glaring error in the report is the statement, "Buddhists have one god, but not the Jewish/Christian/Muslim god. They do not equate the Buddha with the creator god." The final sentence is true, but the first sentence is, on the whole, false. While I've talked about theistic undercurrents in Buddhism on this blog, I think theism is absolutely the wrong way to characterize Buddhism as a whole. Folkloric Buddhism has its gods; Pure Land Buddhism tends to treat the Amitabha in a way recognizable to Protestants (salvation by grace through faith, as one of my profs joked); but even these examples aren't enough to make a convincing argument that Buddhism is theistic.

However, the other side of the coin is that many Buddhists, not attached to name and form, have adopted some species of God-language in dialoguing with Christians and Jews and other theists. Zen thinker Abe Masao does this. Thien monk Thich Nhat Hanh regularly traffics in God-language. And there are Zen teachers who are doubly men of the cloth, like Robert Kennedy and William Johnston-- both of whom are ordained Catholic priests as well as Zen roshis, and who have an obvious commitment to their God-language.

****Matthew 28:19-20. "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." The text in boldface is considered a trinitarian formulation, but I don't think scholars have much evidence that the phrasing was explicitly trinitarian in intent.


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