Still Supersessionist?

‘Mordecai Would Not Bow Down’
Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to Auschwitz (Bart Pro/Alamy Stock Photo)

There is no sin found in Christian history either so vile or so ubiquitous as the reflexive repulsion of the Jewish people. That repulsion is twofold. Its theological aspect is the enduring impulse to portray Jews and Judaism as rendered null and void by the coming of Jesus as Messiah, and thus to presume the replacement of Israel by the Church. Its moral aspect, which is also emotional and psychological, is the literal revulsion at the continued, stubborn existence of the Jews as a people and the equally literal rejection of them from the common life of Gentile Christendom. The result, since Christians began assuming political power in the long wake of Constantine’s conversion, has been a relentless set of variations on ostracization: ghettoes, pogroms, blood libels, exclusion from civic life, restriction on economic activity, forced conversions, and more. Such transgressions by a powerful majority against a beleaguered minority are born, among other things, of insecurity and resentment: the younger brother, anxious of his status, who slays his elder brother after recognizing that he is second, not first. In this way anti-Judaism, in one form or another, is the original and besetting sin of Gentile Christianity.

The term theologians use for this view is supersessionism. To use anachronistic concepts, supersessionism is the interpretation of salvation history according to which a new and lasting religion called “Christianity” is the divine substitute for a decadent and moribund religion called “Judaism.” This notion is widespread in the Christian imagination, past and present, lay and elite. It is also a biblical and theological error, unsupported by canonical texts and unrequired by sacred doctrine. But, above all, it is a moral and civilizational disaster. For the list of wrongs and horrors recounted above is incomplete, terminating as it does in the crime of all crimes: the Shoah.

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In his new book, Mordecai Would Not Bow Down: Anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and Christian Supersessionism, Timothy P. Jackson considers the Shoah not just as a moral or political event, but as a theological one. He modifies the perennial question “Why the Jews?” to the more pertinent “Why always the Jews?” The book’s title is taken from Esther 3:5, which tells of Esther’s cousin Mordecai, a Jewish man who would not bow to the Gentile Haman, who in turn plotted the destruction of the Jewish people. Whatever the historicity of that story (retold each year at the festival of Purim), Jackson argues that hatred of the Jews is neither a modern nor a Christian problem alone. It is a human problem. Why is that? Why do Gentiles invariably take offense at the children of Abraham?

Supersessionism is a biblical and theological error. But, above all, it is a moral and civilizational disaster.

Jackson’s answer is that the Jewish people stand for something beyond themselves, and the sinful human heart hates it. That something is the God of steadfast love manifest in the Torah—and, he adds, in the rabbi from Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth. In this way “anti-Semitism is fundamentally due to hatred of God and of those whom God loves—especially the frail and defenseless.” It follows that “the Nazi attack on the Jews was aimed at God and His Torah, not just a particular ethnicity.” Anti-Semitism is therefore a function of Jewish election, what Leonard Cohen calls “the glory of the Jew”:

that he is despised, that he moves in this mirrored exile, covered with mirrors, and as he passes through the communities where he sojourns, he reflects their condition and his condition. To me, his destiny is exile, and his vocation is to be despised.

Does this answer blame the victim? By no means: Jackson insists that seeking to grasp the evil of Nazism and the uniqueness of the Shoah is not to explain either away. On the contrary, he believes that it is a moral and theological dodge to make the Shoah either absurd (devoid of rational agents and recognizable human action) or akin to other genocidal crimes (so that the Jews’ identity as Jews is irrelevant to their being targeted by the Nazis). Even more, to avoid understanding the Nazis only ensures that history will repeat itself. For, as Jackson writes, “all of us have an inner Nazi”—that is, a part of ourselves “that resents a supernatural faith that challenges our natural desires and temporal loyalties.” We fail the victims and ourselves if we project that resentment onto others—so that “they,” unlike “us,” are evil incarnate and thus subhuman—instead of confessing our own susceptibility to it.

For Jackson, then, “anti-Semitism is a sin, rather than an illness or a delusion.” Mordecai Would Not Bow Down is a sustained meditation on this claim, tracing both the sources and the consequences of the seemingly universal and inextirpable sin of anti-Semitism, not least in its Christian guise. And it is a meditation. As a Gentile Christian, Jackson has taken a certain risk in writing about the Jews, the Shoah, and anti-Semitism. He does so, however, with nuance, sensitivity, courage, and moral clarity. The book is less a series of arguments building on one another than a contemplative spiral, reiterating and ruminating on a set of inseparable phenomena: the evil of Nazism; the horror of the Shoah; the election of the Jews; the anti-Semitism of Christendom; the temptations of schadenfreude; the suffering servanthood of Israel and Jesus. Over and again, the thesis resounds: “If the Jews are tantamount, collectively, to the founding religious conscience of the West, then the Third Reich aimed permanently to silence that conscience.” Jackson thereby turns the so-called Judenfrage on its head. The Jews are not a quandary, much less a problem for Gentiles to solve. Rather, the Jews are a living question posed by God to Gentile society: Will you—will we—answer the call to holiness by subordinating our instincts and desires, our laws and traditions, to the command of the one God to love our neighbors as ourselves, even to the point of laying down our lives for them? When Hitler answered in the negative, seeking instead “to live without God, beyond good and evil,” the Final Solution followed as a matter of course: “To kill the Jews as the people of God.”

Hence Jackson’s fundamental contention about the Nazis: they, in a demonic expansion of Haman’s scheme, combined the racial (“genes”) with the religio-cultural (“memes”) in a global anti-Semitic project of “expropriation/expulsion, segregation/concentration, and finally annihilation/genocide.” Hitler’s aim was an abomination, but it was neither random nor irrational nor a matter of race alone. The Jews stood for what the Nazis hated, which means the Jews stood in the Nazis’ way. In this respect the Nazis perceived rightly, though that perception should have been an occasion for repentance, not slaughter.

 

That is a hard word to hear, though a defensible one. Jackson wants to argue more, though. And it is here, in my view, that problems appear in his account. The first problem is an instability in Jackson’s presentation of the Jews and Judaism vis-à-vis their various historical enemies. Jackson vacillates between suggesting that Jews in general stand for certain ideas or values and the stronger case that Jews in fact hold certain beliefs or embody certain ideals. As Jackson well knows, however, the actual Jewish victims of Nazism represent a spectrum of religious and moral views: some were observant, others secular; some were Orthodox, others atheist; some were courageous, others naïve, and others still assisted the Nazis for fear of their lives and those of their loved ones. This range of perspectives and behaviors is no indictment. It only tells us they were human. What the Nazis did was wrong not because of the special innocence or virtue of their victims. It was wrong because prejudice and apartheid, dehumanization and torture, persecution and genocide are malum in se, no matter the identity or character of the victims.

That does not negate Jackson’s intended point, namely, that the Jews were targeted by the Nazis because they were Jews, and their Jewish identity is more (though not less) than an ethnic or biological fact. But this point needs a firmer foundation than the subjective intentions of Nazi leaders or the admirable beliefs or conduct of Jewish victims. Such rooting is best accomplished theologically—that is, by specifying that what sets apart the Jews from the nations is finally nothing subject to empirical or psychological investigation. For what sets apart the Jews is divine election. In Abraham God set his heart on the Jews and chose them alone as his beloved. This choice is irrevocable: no human deed can threaten it, and God will not reverse it. Toward the end of World War II, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that “the authentic Jew makes himself a Jew, in the face of all and against all.” Just a year or two earlier Anne Frank wrote that “it is God who has made us as we are, but it will be God, too, who will raise us up again.” Of the two, we should follow Frank.

What sets apart the Jews is divine election.

The second problem in Jackson’s argument arises from the first. Throughout the book Jackson makes Jews and Judaism stand for what he calls “moral monotheism.” Moral monotheism teaches that we are all, at least potentially, children of one God; that the principal virtue is love (’hesed or agape) for God and for neighbor; that self-sacrifice is the culmination of incarnate love; and that God chose the Jews to bring this knowledge, even salvation, to the Gentiles. Accordingly, election is for mission to the nations, God’s love for Israel is not exclusive but includes all others equally, and the ostensible scandal of Israel’s chosenness is merely a misdirect: God selects a single tribe as a means of bringing tribalism to an end.

None of these claims are indefensible taken alone. Together, however, they constitute a massive abstraction. At times the Jews seem to symbolize nothing so much as what Jackson believes to be right, true, and good. That seems doubtful, to say the least. The irony is that this is exactly the sort of supersessionist temptation Christians have always been liable to: reading the spirit against the letter, Gentiles deign to permit the Jews their oddly carnal beliefs (whoever descends from Abraham belongs to the elect) and customs (circumcision, kosher, Sabbath) so long as they are spiritualized, made legible to Gentile predilections, even universalized so as not to exclude a soul. If this sounds like a late-modern liberal Christian construal of what Judaism ought to be, that’s because it is.

The flip side of this account of Judaism is Jackson’s equally idiosyncratic construal of Christian faith. He is absolutely right to hold the Church accountable for its centuries of supersessionist and anti-Jewish sermons, treatises, laws, and actions. Yet he goes further. He looks to the New Testament not just as fertile soil for later anti-Jewish distortion but as itself guilty of anti-Semitism. He finds this apostolic anti-Semitism—an oxymoron and anachronism, it should be noted—in St. Luke, St. John, the Apocalypse, parts of St. Matthew, and presumably Hebrews, too. He (rightly) exonerates St. Paul, or at least his undisputed letters. But he even spies ethnic bias (against Gentiles: Mark 7:27) and racial animus (against Jews: John 8:44) on Jesus’ own lips. He contrasts this canonical anti-Semitism with a “philo-Semitism inspired by” what he calls “much of the (unredacted) Bible.” That is an odd claim to make, because it is Jackson who has redacted so much of the canon, a sort of updated Jeffersonian edition of the New Testament. It is doubly odd because Jackson is unsure about Jesus’ divinity, ambivalent about the resurrection of the dead, and insistent that “there is no more reason for a pious Jew to convert to Christianity than for Jesus to be considered a Christian. Jesus’ objective was to convert us to a robust form of Judaism.”

In other words, Jackson imagines a Gospel that is good news not for Jews but only for Gentiles—as if the canonical gospels did not uniformly present Jesus as “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24), as if the early apostles (Jews to a man) did not, in the beginning, announce the Gospel solely to fellow Jews (Acts 1–7). Indeed they were surprised, even startled, when Gentiles started listening in (see Acts 10–15). Paul himself believed that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah and Davidic king, raised from the dead and installed as lord of heaven and earth, through whom deliverance from sin and death come to all who believe: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). That is why the Petrine mission was to the circumcised, while the Pauline mission was to the uncircumcised (Galatians 2:7–10).

I am at a loss, therefore, when trying to grasp the Jacksonian Gospel. He is right that what the apostles originally proclaimed did not—and what the Church today preaches should not—entail Jewish abandonment of Torah observance. He is right, too, that contemporary evangelization of Jews is a complex topic about which Christians can reasonably disagree and observant Jews have much to say worth heeding. But these are different questions from whether the good news about Jesus is meant for all of humanity, Jew and Gentile alike. Nor is it helpful to stipulate in advance that an affirmative answer is by definition supersessionist, therefore anti-Jewish, therefore anti-Semitic. The women and men who originally followed Jesus and then spread his message to the world were all Jews who believed that message was of immediate relevance both to their kin and to the nations. It isn’t just anachronistic to deny them their faith, and so a failure of understanding. It is a failure of charity, because we inadvertently ascribe to them what would have been unthinkable, at the time, as well as self-contradictory, given who they were and what they believed.

Finally, such an interpretation makes Christianity as such the source of, and in no way possessed of resources to combat, the sin of anti-Semitism. For it locates anti-Semitism in the heart of the Gospel. If that is true, then we ought to forsake the faith, rather than snip and cut two-thirds of the New Testament until it meets our standards; better by far to judge it guilty and walk away than to pretend otherwise. There is no doubt that Gentile Christians, underwritten by the long history of Christendom, bear much of the guilt for the path that led to the Final Solution. That is our shame. The question is whether Christianity and anti-Semitism are contingently entangled or logically inseparable. If the latter, the cause is lost: either we reject the Gospel or accept its inevitable repulsion of the Jews. If the former, we are charged with a task: the gradual disentanglement of faith and resentment, grace and anxiety, adoption and fratricide. If that task is possible, under God, then we Gentiles are not without hope. 

Mordecai Would Not Bow Down
Anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and Christian Supersessionism

Timothy P. Jackson
Oxford University Press
$74 | 288 pp

Published in the November 2021 issue: 

Brad East is Assistant Professor of Theology at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas.

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