The Anti-Semitism in the Heart of Christianity

The Anti-Semitism in the Heart of Christianity January 20, 2017

Anti-Judaism is as old as the United States of America. Indeed, it is really as old as Christianity and Western civilization.

In the last two days Jewish community centers across the United States have been evacuated because of a bomb threat. The threat may not have been credible. But the perpetrators did intend to cause harm. And they were sophisticated enough to have used various means of blocking any tracing of their threats. Attacks like this, and it was an attack, are intended to make the Jewish communities in the United States feel threatened and vulnerable. They are a form of terrorism similar to Islamophobic attacks against mosques, racist attacks against people of color, and homophobic attacks against people who are LGBTQ.

Where anti-Judaism differs from other forms of bigotry is in its cultural roots and the masks that anti-Jewish ideology wears in our place and time.

One form of this anti-Jewish ideology is the subject of Yossi Klein Helevi’s recent blog. The tendency to promote one form of Judaism as the real Judaism isn’t just found among US presidents. Most Christian activists and advocates have joined the internal debate about Jewish identity on one side or another, the more so now that the Christian community has chosen to take sides in the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Not that we shouldn’t be advocates for justice. Mr. Helevi himself has joined in movements to protect the rights of Palestinians. But just what constitutes a Jewish approach to the conflict is deeply intwined in complex issues of Jewish identity that we Christians are unlikely to fully understand.

There are deeper roots to Christians trying to define Judaism than the advocacy of the last 60 years. They run to the New Testament, in which Christians from a Jewish background begin to systematically redefine Judaism as the doppleganger of their own Christian faith. Children of faith versus children of law, etc. Or Jews as pawns in God’s eschatological plan, serving Christians as a sign of both God’s faithfulness and wrath. This has recently been a popular way of understanding Judaism in the American millennialist evangelical tradition.

Given that the first Christians were in the midst of defining their own identity, and later defending themselves against exclusion and persecution, this effort to pigeonhole the Jews as the anti-Christians is hardly surprising. It is a very different matter today when Christians continue to define themselves against a particular (and largely fictional) strain of 1st century Judaism.

I realize that we try to delicately remove attacks on “the Jews” in the Gospel of John and we redefine Sadducees and Pharisees as “religious leaders” to both make them relevant and distance ourselves from any apparent attacks on historical Judaism. But even this won’t work, because ultimately the problem isn’t just a label, it is a failure to respect the diversity of ways of being faithful to God.

I recently had a student go off on a bit of a rant because a religious leader wouldn’t shake her hand. The leader believes that touching a woman other than his wife or immediate relatives makes him unable to be in constant communion with God. My student thought his refusal was either misogyny or racism.

A couple of years ago I was with a group of theological educators on a walking tour of different Jewish communities in Jerusalem. One of my fellow theologians, upon seeing people who quite consciously identified themselves by their clothing (a wide variety of headcovings for both men and women, not to mention dress styles that ranged from 15th century Poland to 19th century Germany) suggested that they were “tribal and exclusionary.”

But what about looking at it from another standpoint.  Those who wear a costume may be trying to preserve a set of customs that have real value, were subject to an effort to destroy them entirely, and which are still being eroded by the corrosive, leveling effect of modernity. It is just possible that the iconoclasticism that is such a common part of American culture isn’t cosmically normative.

Even if every reference to Jews and Judaism in the New Testament is taken as a kind of parable referring to a larger theological problem the result isn’t an end to attacks on Judaism, but in fact a broadening of those attacks to any group that has characteristics similar to Judaism. It is incredibly easy to use the New Testament to attack Islamic “legalism” and assert that Islam is nothing but a religion of law, even by those Christians who see themselves as ardently pro-Jewish.

(For a fascinating attack on mystical religion read John Greenleaf Whittier’s “The Brewing Of Soma.” The last six verses are a popular Christian hymn. The verses we never read reveal that this hymn is actually proposing a rational/romantic Christian antidote to bad religion, i.e. any religion other than Whittier’s.)

Yet even this doesn’t get us to the deepest level of anti-Judaism, which is the Christian effort to define Judaism as a religion at all. Maybe Judaism isn’t a religion. Maybe it is a human social phenomenon whose origin (which might or might not be divine; an outsider can hardly judge) nature, and continuation only superficially resemble our Christian religion. Because the deepest form of imperialism is to define others in your own terms. The idea that because we Christians identify ourselves as a religion Jews must define Judaism as a religion is nonsense.  It could belong to some category of being that we don’t even know how to label.

If we as Christians really want to exorcise anti-Jewishness from our self-understanding I would suggest that first we read the New Testament critiques of “the Jews” as entirely a matter of self-criticism. In their original context they were part of an internal critique of an emerging movement. And that is what they must remain if we are to be true to the text. They have nothing to do with any living group other than our own. All the scribes, pharisees, religious leaders, and crowds screaming at the cross are properly just Christians today. They exist only among us and within us.

And then secondly, if we want to know about other peoples, in all their variety and intensity, we need to put down our Bibles and listen to what they have to say for themselves about themselves. They and only they know who they are.

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