Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Double-Edged Sword, Part II b Supersessionism


All the major mainstream Christian denominations have officially come out against supersessionism, or Replacement Theology, the traditional Christian position that the New Testament, or New Covenant, has nullified and replaced God's covenant with the Israelites. According to the doctrine of supersessionism, in other words, Christians have replaced Jews as God's chosen people, and are themselves the new Israelites.

A couple of years ago I read The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus by the now late Peter Gomes with the Methodist Sunday school class I have been attending with my husband. The Rev. Gomes railed against the notion that God's covenant, as he understood covenant, had been made with one people alone. So it did sound like he was all for wresting the covenant away and distributing it to Christians. He may also have meant that Christianity deserved that designation since according to a typical Christian understanding Christianity is universal--for everyone--while Judaism is tribal and particularistic. So I asked the church's pastor, who confirmed that modern mainstream churches do not advocate supersessionism.

Peter Gomes wrote in the same book that "antisemitism" is the original sin of Christianity, yet did not recognize his recommended divesting Jews of God's covenant and distributing it to Christians as a problematic aspect of anti-Judaism. (I follow Amy-Jill Levine in using the term "anti-Judaism" in this regard. Most of the difficult concepts I'm wrestling with here are not racial in nature, but, rather, against Judaism, the religion. I have met very few antisemites, although it is the case that anti-Judaism can provide the fertile soil for antisemitism.)

It strikes me that, like Peter Gomes, most Christians don't recognize supersessionism when it's right in front of their faces.

If you say Jesus came to reform Judaism--to get the practice of Judaism back to what it was supposed to be--you are saying the errant way needed to be replaced by a correct way. Same, when you say Judaism was the wrong way and needed to be replaced by the Christian Way. If you say some were blind and those who chose "correctly" could see, that's another example. And, similarly, there is all the talk about those who rejected Jesus compared to those who chose him.

In other words, supersessionism is not just some abstract concept which can be disavowed for the sake of political correctness and will go away. The notion that Christianity was a historical improvement over Judaism is implicit in all of the above formulations and how many more!

Another part of supersessionism, then, is that Judaism needed--deserved--to be replaced. Has that belief left Christianity? Or even the corollary that Christians should help the process along? Maybe in the ivory towers but not down here in the trenches. Ripples from the impact of this doctrine continue to emanate outward.

If the continuing impact of supersessionism within our culture is hard to see, that is the result of being in a culture which is so thoroughly dominated by the Christian hegemony. If you live in a culture where you are in the majority, surrounded by like-minded people who see things the same way in that regard, you don't question it, because you don't see it. You don't see the myth you're in--so says the psychologist James Hillman, disciple of Jung and later creator of his own system, archetypal psychology. That is not to imply that minority members of the culture automatically have greater clarity although they may at least sense that something is wrong--or worse, bear its brunt.

It's important to understand, though, that I'm not talking just about those Americans who consider themselves religious or Christian. I'm speaking of all of us brought up with a certain accepted way of seeing things, which seems to be "reality," the way things are.

In other words, what I'm saying is that, being in that box, we will tend to think of things a certain way. We will see the world a certain way. And if you are a member of the majority culture, what is the likelihood you would have occasion even to think to yourself, "This is theology?"--instead of (if you notice it at all), "This is the way things are--and should be."

Now, you may be thinking, well, that's true of everybody, Jan, and you, too, have your way of seeing the world. That's just natural and that's what religions do. Not exactly. Being from a minority group I at least recognize there are other ways of viewing reality, whereas if I'm in the dominant culture I don't have to know that. Or, at least, I don't have to ascribe validity to those other views.

Being from the dominant culture, don't people in some sense feel that their views have "won?" Jesus acted (or God acted through Jesus) to change history. God was a wind blowing through history in the person of Jesus to blow in change and the new and better way. People who don't see that are just failing to recognize what happened, right? So then they (the dominant group--here, Christians) feel they can say critical things about people in the time of Jesus who did not accept and follow him (as well as about those who didn't later and don't now accept truth the way they see it).

There is a certain literalism in that.

Being in the dominant group they don't have to accept that the inferior picture of Judaism in their stories is not Judaism per se but a Christian depiction designed to justify their own beliefs. Or that there was not even just one monolithic Judaism at the time Jesus walked the earth. Rather there were multiple Judaisms, of which Jesus and his disciples were one small sect, all arguing with each other even as we argue with each other today. As James Carroll (author of Constantine's Sword) said in his August 2011 lecture at Emory University: Jesus arguing with other Jews--how Jewish!

Being in the dominant group, Christians assume that Jesus came to change things and did. They do not see that they are calling the change in the world via history by the name of Jesus. God revealed, God acted in the world, wisdom arose in the world, there was love, there was salvation--and to Christians all of that is Jesus.

Other people call God's action via history by other names and recognize revelation through other events. For the Christian, God became incarnate in Jesus Christ, and for others not to recognize that which for Christians is fundamental reality represents unimaginable blindness and inhuman stubbornness. For the Jew God's revelation had already intersected with history over a millennium earlier, at Sinai, "a moment beyond time, a revelatory/apocalyptic event. The eternal and transtemporal God for a moment crashes into linear, temporal history, transforming it totally. All the rules are suspended in that great mystical moment; past, present, and future are fused into eternal presence..." (Arthur Green, Radical Judaism). For Jews, infinity had already exploded into history and become incarnate in the hearts of people. So, no, it was not stubbornness. It was not blindness. For Jews God had already entered reality.

I'm saying Jews didn't--and don't--need Jesus. Christians do.

For Jews that's just a matter-of-fact statement. For Christians it's loaded, as if I'm saying Jews are ungodly, or Jews don't need the love of God, since for Christians Jesus is so tied in to those concepts. Christians have been taught Jesus as the name of revelation, Jesus as the love of God, Jesus as salvation since they were babies (e.g., "Jesus loves me, yes, I know...") . Frequently in hymns and liturgy the term "God's people" is equated with Christians. In newspaper articles on current religious topics, prominent preachers speak as though "the faithful" or "believers" are Christians--and as though everybody else is an atheist.

That way of thinking is the result of centuries of teaching Christianity over and against Judaism, making odious comparisons and thereby (1) telling Christians that they are on the right path and (2) warning them not to stray. All that teaching is what has led to the common understanding in the general population of Judaism as a system of ethical but legalistic practice and rigid rule following. And, no, those teaching Christians about Judaism usually are not experts on Judaism. What they usually are expert at is portraying Judaism according to Christian theological needs--often as a foil for Christianity.

Denigrating Judaism has implications. Many Christians deplore the use of the Qur'an by others to denigrate Islam. But if they, themselves, do the same thing to Judaism via the Hebrew Scriptures, how can they expect their voices to be heard over the general cultural din of people claiming to know what is good and how to behave? If they triumphally cherry pick the Old Testament to disparage Judaism, their voices will not ring out when they criticize other Christian groups for doing the same to Islam.

Celebrating Christianity over against Judaism also nurtures a paranoia about other faiths, most notably Islam. Even though, on one hand, negative teachings about Judaism may seem for some Christians to be signaling solidarity with Muslims, considering today's politics, ultimately a population that talks bad about Jews in church is going to end up wondering how they themselves are talked about in mosques.

Would it even be possible to practice Christianity without celebrating anti-Jewish comparisons and stories and, instead, simply for the excellence of Christianity?

In talking as I do I ask you to realize that I am talking about Christianity as I have too often been confronted by its practice and teaching today and the by ripple effect of that in society, and am not criticizing all Christian theologians and saints, or their lives and works. Also, I am focusing primarily on mainstream, liberal Christianity. I think my parents sought to protect and insulate me from Christian anti-Judaism by teaching that only ignorant and prejudiced people would hold anti-Jewish views. Therefore the confrontation I'm talking about did not occur until I heard anti-Judaism from my professional and liberal peers. I have heard it from them and I have heard it being specifically taught to them.

At one of my study groups (this one being based at a Unitarian church and focusing on the historical Jesus and other history of that time), a Christian participant allowed as how Christians don't really have any idea what Judaism is. I think that is true for most Christians. Popular writers on religious matters frequently don't get it and sometimes even Christian scholars don't get it, or don't get aspects of it. The comment in the study group was a high point for me because, instead of going on and on about what Judaism supposedly is, now and historically, and its deficits in comparison to Christianity, he admitted the absence of knowledge. That could be the beginning of wisdom.

(Begun 9/25/11 and posted 11/13/11)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Double-Edged Sword, Part II a: Introduction


You may wonder by what right I'm getting ready to talk about Christianity again. The short answer is that Christians talk about Jews. And the way they talk reflects beliefs and presumably controls attitudes. That's what stimulated in me the need and desire to respond. Others have done it before and no doubt better, since I'm not a professional when it comes to religion. And it's easier said than done.

Pulling my head out of the sand where I hid like the proverbial ostrich, I set out on this journey in the fall of 2007, on Labor Day, to be specific. When I first had a chance to interact with Christians about religion, they would occasionally say stunning things to me. I should make it clear that from childhood my parents had inoculated me against epithets or being told I was going to hell for not being a Christian or the like. These comments were not those. These were comments by my peers that I could not summarily dismiss. I couldn't believe people believed these things and didn't mind saying them, sometimes directly to me, and I couldn't respond satisfactorily. I could register shock or get angry, and that was about it. I've spent the time since then learning and thinking and talking, so that eventually I could begin to answer. And also I just need to post my observations, from time to time along the way.

I'm not going to talk about Jesus (as long as he's not tied up with talking about Jews). If you worship God via Jesus (or as Jesus), or get closer to God via Jesus, or follow Jesus, then that's fine with me. I hope I would defend your right to do so. It's when you explain your doing so by talking about Jews that I may respond.

A rabbi recently said to me that he received a lot of emails and complaints because another rabbi had written an inflammatory sermon about Islam. And he felt a responsibility to respond and correct the erroneous perspective. He gently advised that everyone had the responsibility to make their own religion better and leave other peoples' religions alone. But I have heard numerous inflammatory remarks and perspectives about Jews and Judaism from Christians, both in and out of the pulpit. Such comments even come from people who were raised in the Christian faith tradition and earnestly believe they have left it. And not much of anybody complains. No one speaks up or seems to assign it any importance. To the contrary, people may expect it. They might be surprised if anyone objected and might think doing so would be anti-Christian. It is so ordinary that for anyone even to notice is unusual. So I respectfully disagree with the rabbi.

Also, even though it's considered rude or impolite to speak up on such matters, or even to mention being a Jew, silence is also noticed, and it's considered not so good either--a sign of cowardice or shame. Either way, being silent or speaking, is seen in the light of the unrepealed "Don't ask, don't tell" of being a Jew in America. In a majority society whose traditional theology assigns guilt to Jews, my conclusion is it's better to figure this out and speak!

I've had several Christians say to me that they have never heard a word of anti-Judaism. A lady said exactly that during a recent interfaith discussion, only to belie her claim afterward by reference to the evildoing of the Pharisees! Her point reduces, then, to never having heard a word of anti-Judaism that she doesn't unquestioningly accept--all such words having been under her radar.

A Christian layperson recently opined that certain Christian texts or study documents are written for Christians, so others have no business with them. Well, it's a free country still. Books that are published are open to any reader; so are documents that are posted and passed around. And, as I started out by saying, Christians themselves spend a lot of time reading and talking about texts that were written for Jews, as well as about Jews. Certainly, turn and turn about is only fair.

To paraphrase Irving Greenberg (For The Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity), my position is that Christianity is too important to be left entirely to Christians. One reason for saying that is that people can often be too used to the status quo to really notice what goes on. On the other hand, what if on some level the Christians in the pews and pulpits are not, after all, oblivious and do notice anti-Judaism? For example on several Martin Luther King days it was gone from the worship services. If they didn't notice it how could they take it out? And when it is present, for each hearer who responds positively on some level, there are those who do not, at least not on all levels, which can contribute to their dropping out--a point made by James Carroll in his Emory lecture series this fall.

The bottom line is that whatever age this is, and whether the Messiah has come or not, there is only one history and one "now." Whatever we call these times, they belong to all of us. We all are witnesses. That's the authority upon which I speak.

Jews are a loaded symbol in a Christian-dominated society. The negative symbol is well known and occurs because in traditional Christian theology we are cast as the bad guys who didn't accept Christ. But the positive symbol also occurs, since we also figure as those who are Jesus' fellow Jews, those closest to him and most like him. In writing this, though, I want to be a person, not a symbol--as Martin Buber might say, an "I" to the reader's "thou," and a "thou" to your "I."

Am I going to write on this subject of Christianity vis-à-vis Judaism forever? I hope not. This is my last planned installment, which because of its length I'll be breaking down into several sections. I have been working on this for almost a year. In fact, this last section was my first subject, but it turned out I had to write Part I first, before I could get to this section, and then Part Ia, on attitudes toward Israel, and then the book review of Abuelaish's I Shall Not Hate. This is the most difficult section of all, because I'm trying to learn and think as I am writing.

(Posted November 6, 2011)