Should We Be Using the Term “Judeo-Christian”? On Erasure, Prejudice, and the Christian Holy Week

Should We Be Using the Term “Judeo-Christian”? On Erasure, Prejudice, and the Christian Holy Week April 18, 2019

Let’s begin with a story. I have a temper, which disappoints me from time to time. It disappointed me twice this week, when I sat in an internet café prepping class materials and accidentally overhearing a Southern Baptist missionary Skyping with his mother. The first time, he was discussing the case of a missionary who got sent home, for reasons that weren’t entirely clear but seemed to have to do with “insufficient training” and an encounter with a local. That time, I was simply seething at the reality and audacity of a Christian missionary in Colombia, a country that shuts down for a far larger portion of the Christian Holy Week than the US. A country, furthermore, with grottos for the Virgin Mary on most every corner, and a national anthem played thrice-daily on the radio and in the metro, with the following words in the first verse:

Cesó la horrible noche
La libertad sublime
Derrama las auroras
De su invencible luz.
La humanidad entera, 
Que entre cadenas gime, 
Comprende las palabras 
Del que murió en la cruz!

[Bolded: The whole of humankind, groaning in chains, understands the words of He who died on the cross!]

Not surprisingly, the young man believed he had been sent not to exchange in dialogue, not to learn in full humility from another Christian context… but to educate, to bring the poor, lost sheep of Colombia into the light… which had me gritting teeth the entire time. So much white, estadounidense arrogance for people of a “developing” nation. But! I didn’t say a thing. (I just stewed about it for the rest of the day.)

The second time, I learned that he was 22 and felt he still had a lot to learn, which made his subsequent, ignorant commentary about the burning of Notre Dame easier to swallow (i.e. he and his mother felt it was a direct attack on the church, a sign of the end times, while also being mystified as to how something “entirely of stone” could burn). But then he started into an anecdote about one of his “converts”, a homeless man battling drug addiction. Apparently, even though this homeless man had been given “everything” he needed to stop doing drugs (i.e. prayer–I kid you not: prayer and spiritual texts), the man still kept asking for food and money, and continued to use drugs.

The missionary described this situation with clear frustration for the homeless man’s lack of faith and willpower, and I heard him parrot the line that this kind of missionary work naturally fortifies in a certain kind of entitled human being: I did the best I could but (sigh!) some people just can’t be helped. Rather than deepening his empathy, rather than coaxing him to think about the broader systemic and biochemical pressures that make it difficult to transition out of a life of addiction… this man’s experiences through the church were training him to see the problem as entirely on the individual, who simply needed to choose to be saved. This is the kind of education that helps many religious people find peace with the idea of hellfire, because now they’ve seen “firsthand” how wilfully people “choose” not to be saved even when given “everything”.

Suffice it to say, then, I was… so close to saying something that I muttered angrily at the printer and startled one of the videogame-players nearest to it.

But I didn’t say anything, because I knew that wanting to lecture this young man was selfish, simply a release valve for my anger. What good would it have done? How could I be sure that I wouldn’t just further entrench him in counterproductive practices if I, a stranger, snapped at him for his presumptuous approach to other people’s problems?

I also held off posting for a bit, as you might have noticed–because I didn’t want to be writing just to pick on someone else’s failings.

I wanted, instead, to be in a place where I could use the experience to think a little more carefully about my own.

An Act of Erasure and of Prejudice: “Judeo-Christian”

Also this past week, after all, I became aware that a term I have used with great frequency, “Judeo-Christian”, is considered destructive by many practising Jewish persons. Now, I’d been using this term as a shorthand for certain mythology and symbolism shared in Christian and Jewish writings, but as Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg outlined in brief on Twitter, the term has been employed in some powerfully misleading ways. Namely:

“Judeo-Christian” isn’t a thing. It a) positions Jews & Christians against Muslims, is Islamophobic b) elides Christian oppression & murder of Jews over more than 1000 years & c) ignores Jewish civilization worldwide & facts of key Jewish developments in Middle East & N Africa.
And yes, Jesus was a (brown-skinned, Middle Eastern) Jew, but his followers were not. Jews changed their liturgy to be clear about that differentiation pretty early. And guess what? Judaism has continued to evolve since the Second Temple was destroyed!
[So] it’s important for interfaith dialogue, coexistence, basic respect and historical accuracy to not conflate Judaism and Christianity. Two different faiths, traditions, theologies, histories. The origin & relationship to text is overlapping in some cases, yes, but…
There’s no Judeo-Christian tradition. And that’s ok.
For those asking about “Abrahamic faiths” re: Judaism/Christianity/Islam, sure, but when do you really need this? And what’s implied about Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, etc etc? Not saying it’s never applicable but better to check yourself first.

In essence, the rabbi makes the case that it’s important to think carefully about who is using specific language, and to what end they’re employing it. In this case, “Judeo-Christian” is often leaned upon by far-right Christians in the US, which should immediately inspire caution on the part of any humanist. Indeed, one needn’t look far into mainstream US news to see how “Judeo-Christian” is used to draw a moral line between Judaism/Christianity and Islam (even though all three draw on Abrahamic lineage, and Islam counts among its prophets Moses and Christ). But Judaism is also minimized, relegated to a precursor-history instead of a living tradition, in this effort. The term for that is “supersessionism”, the idea that Christians with their new covenant with Christ have replaced Jews, and it is rampant in evangelical Christian communities.

Simply put, then, the use of “Judeo-Christian” more often than not asserts a continuity and discursively productive relationship between Judaism and Christianity that does not at all accord with

  1. how Judaism manifests around the world;
  2. how Judaism responded to the rise of Christianity’s early cults; and
  3. how Christians sought the destruction of Jewish persons for centuries and in many contexts thereafter.

Christians using the term therefore do so–at best–in a way that imposes a false harmony between two very different faiths. And at the worst? Their use of this term offers tacit cover for both antisemitic and Islamophobic pro-religious advocacy in the public sphere.

And hey, ultimately, that’s Christianity’s issue to deal with, along with their appropriation of Jewish rituals (including this recent egregious example where the Passover meal was entirely rewritten by a West Virginian news station to claim that matzah symbolized… the body of Christ, of all things).

But what the heck are we secular folk doing when we use the same language? We’re letting that group of Christians set the terms of our public discourse, and tacitly propping up the marginalization and erasure of persons from other backgrounds of faith.

I was furious this week in the presence of an ignorant young Southern Baptist missionary. I was angry with him and his community for imposing so much on another culture instead of engaging in the more critical work of self-reflection.

But here I’d been for quite a few years now, employing a religious term that is also culturally ignorant and destructive.

Which, then, is the more constructive site of ideological combat and reformation?

Further Reading on the Subject

Now, lest you think I change my opinions willy-nilly on the basis of Twitter discourse, Rabbi Ruttenberg is by no means the only one who argues in this light. Here are a few other readily accessible sources to help understand how the term “Judeo-Christian” feeds into Christian supersessionism; marginalizes the rich and ongoing history of Judaism; and also serves as a cipher for Islamophobia:

Harry Freedman, “How Rabbi Akiva Saved the Shema for the Jews”

This is a splendidly comprehensive post that makes a few critical observations about how Judaism responded to claims from the “minim” (understood to be an early Christian cult) that Moses only received the Ten Commandments at Sinai. The Ten Commandments were elevated in Christian practice, so Jewish liturgy emphatically dropped its usage to reassert the primacy of the Torah as a whole. The New Testament also included parts of shema that were incorporated into early Christian practice–often specifically as criticism of the Jewish people–so Rabbi Akiva and his students established the Mishnah (the first major written collection of Jewish oral traditions) that would make clear that shema was a distinctly Jewish practice of daily prayer. In short: there were emphatic moves taken to distance Judaism from early Christianity.

Marianne Dacy, “The Separation of Early Christianity from Judaism”

And even in primarily Christian scholarship on the subject, said early division is clear. Here, Chapter 5 perhaps involves some of the clearest illustrations of Jewish-Christian division–even as the book on whole also illustrates how plainly Christianity drew from pre-existing Jewish text. At the close of one section, on page 136, Dacy observes that

The break would have been sealed when Christian assertions about the divinity of Jesus made it impossible for Jews and Christians to worship together. This may have been happening about the time of the composition of the Gospel of John, but an exact date cannot be pinpointed. When the particularity of Christian ritual was so defined as to make worship together with Jews untenable, a break had occurred and another step towards separation taken. One fact is evident. The more significance that was attached to the person of Jesus, the further apart the separation became between Jews and Christians.

And on page 141, the impact of Rabbi Akiva’s firm division of shema becomes clear in relation to early Christian practice, as

The question of the Shema is fundamental, as it concerns the question of monotheism, a basic tenet of Judaism. In the case of the Shema, the point could be made that a movement that declares Jesus to be divine, would not be inclined to recite the text of the first two paragraphs of the Shema, but would substitute cult prayers centred around Jesus’ death and resurrection. Again, why retain the use of tefillin or prayer shawl, or mezzuzah if ‘Jesus’ symbolism is to distinguish the new movement, whose members came in increasing numbers from the ranks of non-Jews? Thus, the non-retention of the Shema in Christian worship represented a fundamental break and further step apart, a corollary of the Christian view of monotheism and the place of Jesus.

Both groups, in other words, were keen to make use of ritual divisions in those early centuries of Christian practice.

Esther Solomon, “Ben Shapiro Glorifies ‘Judeo-Christian Values,´Absolves Its Anti-Semitism and Preaches Its Islamophobia”

Sadly, this article went under paywall between my first draft and my last, but you really don’t get any more plainspoken about the dogwhistle nature of “Judeo-Christian” than in Haaretz.com’s alignment of Shapiro’s comments this past week with a recent history of the term’s use among white supremacists, and its especially insidious undercurrent of hatred for “brown/Muslim” persons, including of course Palestinians. Shapiro’s use of the term is especially important here, because it means that even certain Jewish persons (i.e. those aligning themselves with US conservative politics) are willing to perpetuate cultural erasure in pursuit of immediate power. Or, as Solomon puts it:

Shapiro is proud to identify with the term “Judeo-Christian values.” It neatly summarizes a historically unprecedented identification and alliance between right-wing Jews and Christians in America, reframed to whitewash embarrassing centuries of anti-Jewish prejudice but embracing the othering and targeting of Muslims.

At a time when the right is resurgent in the U.S. and Europe, these Jewish conservatives believe they’ve found a formula that allows them to ride that wave, with pride and as equal partners. It’s a notable moment when Jews feel sufficiently confident and enfranchised that their political participation is so broad and deep on the right as well as the left.

(And it goes without saying, doesn’t it, that there were Jews who voted for Hitler, too… so just because one Jewish person uses a given term by no means gives the rest of us license to ignore its dangers, especially when outlined by other prominent members of the faith.)

M J C Warren, Why ‘Judeo-Christian values’ are a dog-whistle myth peddled by the far right”

Lastly, with the Haaretz article now behind paywall, here’s an open-access piece that also outlines the recent history of “Judeo-Christian” as a tacit way of saying “white” and propping up an horrific amount of supremacist commentary in recent Western politics. And it’s not just the US using the term this way, either. As Warren notes:

“Judeo-Christian” is now most often used to draw a line between imagined Christian values and a perceived (but false) threat of Muslim immigration. It’s in this context, that right wing figures such as Nigel Farage use the phrase. Talking about radical Muslim clerics such as Anjem Choudary, he said for example:

My country is a Judeo-Christian country. So we’ve got to actually start standing up for our values.

But in this statement, Farage connects his fears of radical Islam with the idea of “Judeo-Christian values”. It appears that it isn’t so much about including Jews as it is about excluding Muslims. And since Farage has also come under attack for anti-Semitic comments, including being called on to apologise after recent comments about the threat of “the Jewish lobby” to American politics, it seems hard to view the “Judeo-” in his “Judeo-Christian” as actually valuing Jewish people or Judaism as a religion.

The Take-Away

Suffice it to say, then, I’m sickened to realize that I’ve been using a term that has such resonance, even after writing myself about the absurdity of white supremacism and the importance of atheists reckoning with our proving grounds of its ideology.

But, we all have room to grow, and language can often be repurposed overnight into a heinous call-to-arms. Whatever our tradition of faith or atheism, our readiness to re-visit personal assumptions and adapt our views and behaviour when presented with new evidence is critical to our work as compassionate and globally minded humanists.

Going forward, then, I will make a more concerted effort to describe Judaism and Christianity separately here–not lumping Judaism automatically into any analysis of Christian use of Jewish histories and texts; and calling particular attention as often as possible to the fact that Judaism is a living faith with its own, ongoing conversations.

And since this is the Christian Holy Week, what a fitting time, too, for such a transformation: amid the cultural re-enactment (quite literally, here in Colombia!) of a religious story that definitively sets Christian theology apart from Judaism.

With any luck, too, I’ll find in my own growth and practice of self-reflection the capacity to be calmer and more constructively interactive, if I happen to share the local internet café with that young missionary again.

I mean… greater “miracles”, I’m sure, have occasionally come to pass?

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