I started to become interested in anti-semitism as a high school student, in a fairly liberal Catholic educational environment, with a Jewish night-school supplement. Both environments were very open to discussing the history with me (the Catholic side perhaps even more interested, since there was a strong social justice component to the education) but both were made more than a little uncomfortable by my attempt to explore contemporary anti-semitism.
In Berkeley and Oakland, there is a fair amount of it. I found that the contemporary American left is capable of sparking some serious anti-semitism, especially around Israeli-Palestinian issues. I really want to post some notes about that on the site, and I likely will, but that isn’t really where the content of this particular post comes from.
When I moved to Fresno as a freshman in college, I moved from one of the most liberal areas in the country to a particularly conservative one, and there was some degree of culture shock there. I suppose I really knew that areas like Fresno existed, I just wasn’t really prepared to live in one of them. That said, I found many of the people there welcoming, regardless of their religious affiliation. The group of friends that I made fairly quickly were largely [though not exclusively] protestant Christians. (There was one Catholic and one agnostic in the group, as well.)
Among that group of friends, the discussion of religion was incredibly civil. Theological differences between the conservative and liberal protestants were often more heated than disputes between the theists and non-theists. It wasn’t really until I started meeting with people and doing work outside of that peer group that I started to encounter anti-semitism.
Where I Found Anti-Semitism, and How
I started taking an interest in the practice of religion during my freshman year; maybe it was some nostalgia for the masses I had been to during high school, or just curiosity about what religion looked like in different parts of the country. That said, friends were inviting me fairly regularly to attend churches with them, and I was happy to oblige. (This will likely seem weird to those who understand how strong my atheism was, especially then. I was reading Hitchens, particularly, a lot.)
Most of these churches and groups were very open and accepting, even those where the prospect of conversion was placed front-and-center. From a personal standpoint, I never encountered much hostility. People were generally nice. (There are a few exceptions to this; those who have listened to the few public talks I’ve given on anti-semitism may have heard me discuss my interactions with a few protestant church leaders who were fairly explicitly unhappy with my Jewish-ness, or a bit too aggressive in their attempts at conversion.)
What I found in all religious communities was a desire to expand their interpersonal circle. Religion in Fresno was profoundly social; the idea of private spirituality (which had a significant foothold in the bay area) wasn’t something that I encountered nearly as often, though perhaps that was a result of the circles I was traveling in.
So, where did the anti-semitism crop up, if the people were friendly and compassionate?
For many of these groups it is doctrinal. A recent post on TFN Insider gives a good preface to the sort of doctrines pervasive in central California that turned out to be hugely problematic. Quoting from a recent report on religious education in Texas, it notes:
(T)he deicide motif is explicit in an essay distributed to students in Dalhart ISD. A handout taken from raptureready.com attempts to incorporate Daniel 9:24-27 into detailed calculations about history’s stead progression towards the end of the age…
[From the handout:] “It wasn’t the killing [of] the Messiah that put the Jews at odds with God. After all He came to die for them. No. It’s that in killing Him, they refused to let his death pay for their sins so He could save them. This had the effect of making His death meaningless to them. That’s what severed the relationship.”
The role of the Jews in the crucifixion narrative isn’t a consciously evaluated part of a good deal of the Christian theology that I encountered during my time in Fresno. It came up periodically, and I would expect that my being a Jewish person made it more likely to come up in conversation than if I hadn’t been. However, one of the things that became apparent is that many Christians thought of this position as a sort of benign one. Historically, it isn’t. I pointed this out periodically in my interactions with various groups; the willingness to note the problematic nature was limited, at best.
There were a fair number of people who noted that they were theological dispensationalists, and sothey were in fact precisely not anti-semitic. The problem is that dispensational theology often has its own problems, theologically, and lends itself to several thoughtless claims that are fairly offensive, if not outright anti-semitic.
Is It Anti-Semitic, Really?
One of the questions that I’ve been challenged on, and take fairly seriously, is whether these sorts of claims are genuinely anti-semitic; what people usually mean when they talk about genuine anti-semitism is whether the claims directly entail some attitude of hatred towards Jews. The attempt that almost immediately follows is one of constructing a theological view that has an explicitly positive view of the role of the Jews without losing the Biblical claims about deicide. In point of fact, this is part of what contemporary dispensationalism looks towards.
I do take this seriously, because I want to be generous to the people that I’m talking to; I don’t want to say that the belief that they hold dear is causally responsible for anti-semitism. What I usually end up conceding is that it is “strongly correlated with” anti-semitism. I want to reneg on that approach, and turn to something a little more antagonistic.
In my long post detailing the history of anti-semitism, there’s a tacit point about what it means for something to be anti-semitic; I don’t just mean to say that the tropes are the limit of anti-semitism, though I think that the obvious presence of deicide (the second trope on the list) among those tropes indicates that the particular theology of Rapture Ready and these teachers in Texas is fairly blatantly aligned with a historically anti-semitic theology.
What I think is more important: The assertion of the theological inferiority of the Jews, stated particularly and explicitly in theological teaching, is an anti-semitic act.
Being anti-pluralist isn’t the problem; it is the singling out of a particular sub-group of non-Christians, the Jews, that is unambiguously anti-semitic. Dispensational theology, by recognizing the theological status of some Jewish covenant, but continuing the particular assertion that Jewish theology is incomplete and in need of some eventual fulfillment during an “end times” does entail that anti-semitic act.
So, how cynical do I have reason to be about (a) the possibility of a non-anti-semitic protestant theology and (b) the possibility of successful Christian-Protestant relations?
I want to answer the second up-front, because I think it is actually the more important and more easily answered question. The possibility of successful relationships between Christian and Jewish communities individuals is obvious, at least to me. There is no reason that the presence of some peripheral belief that does not bear on the human interaction should preclude productive work on common issues.
The first is more dangerous, partly because I am not personally looking to construct a protestant theology and so I don’t much care about the possibility. It is hard to answer a question when there are a lot of folks who have a lot at stake in the answer, and you don’t. It’s important to try to take the question as seriously as possible.
At first glance, my answer is ‘probably not.’ The prominence of a Jewish body in Christian theology is indisputable, and the importance of that body to the reading of the central texts makes it difficult, if not impossible, to take the text seriously as to what it seems to many to say. (e.g. that the non-Christian Jews were culpable in some way for the execution of Jesus, that the non-Christian Jews actively refused, as a group, to accept Jesus, etc.) One would have to revise the reading of the text enormously, such that the Jews were no longer a particular out-group explicitly discussed in the text. I don’t think this is realistic for contemporary protestants.
That said, I think that the possibility of some interfaith relation is sufficient reason for optimism, and that it should be the focus of our ongoing efforts, rather than the theological problem.
This article was originally published at Philosotroll.
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