Supersessionism, Terminable and Interminable.
Mary C. Boys, Has God Only One Blessing? Judaism as a Source of Christian Understanding. New York: Paulist Press, 2000. vi+393pp. $29.95 (paper).
Yaakov Ariel, Evangelizing the Chosen People: Missions to the Jews in America, 1880-2000. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. X+367pp. $19.95 (paper).
Tikva Frymer-Kensky, David Novak, Peter Ochs, David Fox Sandmel, Michael A. Signer, eds., Christianity in Jewish Terms. Boulder, Cola.: Westview Press, 2000. ix+428pp. $30.00.
Christian-Jewish relations have never been better than they are today -- but that's not saying much. In two recent documents, "We Remember: Reflections on the Shoah" (1998) and "The Church and the Faults of the Past" (2000), the Vatican has belatedly mourned the Holocaust and the part that some of the faithful played in it -- without, of course, impugning the one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic church, its leaders, its scriptures, or its traditions.
At a far remove from Rome on the theological spectrum, premillenialist Fundamentalist Christians now cheer the State of Israel as the promised site of the Second Coming (once the "full inclusion" [Rom. 11:12] of the Jews has occurred); and a group of true-believing American cattlemen is sparing no expense to breed the perfect red heifer (Num. 19:2-10), which -- once the Temple is restored and animal sacrifices are reinstated -- will be needed for ritual purification from contact with human corpses. And finally, consider Joe Lieberman's surprisingly uneventful (and numerically victorious) run for the vice-presidency: America, it seems, can no longer be called anti-Semitic in any meaningful sense.
No doubt, that's partly because the country is no longer as Christian as it used to be; and the possibility/necessity of Jews forming a united front with Christians against a secular culture indifferent, if not hostile, to any monotheistic religion is one of the points raised by this remarkable quartet of recent books.
In Constantine's Sword James Carroll, a former Paulist priest and a journalist (his American Requiem won a National Book Award in 1996) has tackled a subject most professional historians would find daunting: the entire two-thousand-year story of how Rome has treated the Jews. Carroll may be an amateur, but he's done an awesome amount of homework and legwork; and his account, while depressingly familiar, is also clear and compelling. The Church begins as just another sect of Second Temple Judaism. As it grows, it comes into conflict with the Pharisees and defines itself in anti-Judaic terms, whence supersessionism, the conviction that the Synagogue is obsolete. In the second and third centuries the Church increasingly distances itself from Judaism; and then in the fourth century comes what the Germans aptly call die Konstantinische Wende. Ever since then the Church, or those who presume to promote its interests, has held the sword of secular power in its hand and the consequences for Jews have ranged from bad to worse to unspeakable.
It is no revelation that Constantine himself was a monster who had his wife Fausta and son Crispus murdered; that Ambrose and Augustine and Anselm and Bernard of Clairvaux were all anti-Semites of one sort or another; that the first victims of the Crusades were Jews; that the popes, while occasionally protecting Jews, also walled them up in the Roman ghetto; that Pio Nono believed in and practiced the kidnapping of Jewish children; that the blood libel was a much a part of Catholic hagiography (St. Hugh of Lincoln, etc.) as it was of crude popular folklore; or that the Church's mixed message, presenting the Jews as vile Christ-killers who nonetheless had to be kept alive to illustrate the wonders (and ironies) of the economy of salvation, was widely read by the masses as an excuse for pogroms. As late as the twentieth century (until 1946) anyone entering the Jesuits had to prove the "purity [non-Jewishness] of his blood"; and any Catholic over fifty may remember praying pro perfidis Judaeis on Holy Saturday. But this shameful story needs to be retold at length and in detail, and Carroll does so forcefully.
The only major flaw is his compulsion to insert himself into the narrative. Because he has been stunned by his belated discovery of Christian complicity in the Shoah and everything that preceded it, and because he is a naturally confessional writer (An American Requiem replayed the torments of the Vietnam era on the mini-stage of conflict with his own father, a high-ranking Army general), Carroll constantly juxtaposes world-historical and utterly personal events. "I was born in 1943," he writes, "the year before the jurist Raphael Lemkin coined the word 'genocide."' Carroll's wandering as a teenage Army brat happened to take him to Trier; and that's enough to link him to: Constantine, for whom the city was an important power base; Crusader violence against the Jews (1096); Karl Marx, who was born in Trier in 1818; and Hitler, since the showing of the Seamless Robe of Christ in 1933 was part of a celebration of the concordat between the Vatican and the Nazi regime. It's a measure of the strength of Carroll's n arrative that it survives this needless self-indulgence.
Carroll winds up making proposals that flow irresistibly from his theological and historical analysis, but that in the current climate of church politics look about as likely as the death-bed circumcision of John Paul II: the complete abandonment of supersessionism and the quarantining of the anti-Judaic passages in the New Testament. "The cross," he insists, "must be reimagined, and deemphasized, as a Christian symbol." An epochal course correction like this will require the calling of the Third Vatican Council. At this point, a conservative might argue that renouncing, as Carroll demands (inter alia), portions of the Gospel of John and the Letter to the Hebrews, would mean a radical redefinition of Christian identity. To which Carroll, and no doubt at least some of his Jewish readers, conservative, liberal or otherwise, might answer: Precisely!
However dim the short-term chances of his plan, Carroll has plenty of intelligent and vocal colleagues, one of the most impressive of whom is Mary C. Boys, a professor at Union Theological Seminary and a nun (Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary). Has God Only One Blessing? makes a case similar to Constantine's Sword, but in a businesslike, textbook fashion. Like Carroll, Boys wants to revise the account of Christian origins to free it from the distortions of "prophecy historicized" (e.g., composing the story of Jesus' passion from Psalms 22, 41, and the "Suffering Servant" songs of Isaiah) and the projection of later church-synagogue disputes back into the New Testament -- except that she talks about the "First" and the "Second" Testament, since the question in her title is purely rhetorical: Boys will not allow Christians to play Jacob with the Jews as Esau. (But then, what about Paul's audacious allegory in Galatians 4:22-26, equating the Mosaic covenant to the slave Hagar and the Church to the "Jer usalem above"? Neither Carroll nor Boys mentions this text, which they would presumably have to cancel.)
Like Carroll -- and the great majority of scriptural scholars -- she sees "Jesus' renewal movement" and the "Pharisaic movement" as lively, occasionally conflicting, elements within Second Temple Judaism; and so she roundly condemns the Christian caricature of Pharisees as "legalistic, self-righteous hypocrites." Borrowing from Laurence Hall Stookey (Boys' text is dense with quotation and has a hefty critical apparatus), she describes four different Christian approaches to Judaism in the form of "typological lenses" for viewing parallel O.T. and N.T. texts: they range from "revolutionary replacement" through "evolutionary replacement" to "evolutionary progress" to the best choice, "complementarity."
Getting to complementarity is going to require intense scrutiny and thorough modification of Christian texts and symbols. Boys admits that the cross has been tainted (and she agrees with Carroll that the twenty-foot-high cross at Auschwitz should be removed), but she thinks it's "too connected with the experience of faith to be laid aside." Boys wants to transform Catholic teaching, preaching, and liturgical practice, expunging supersessionism from them forever; but her tone is irenic. A generous optimist, she cites as guidelines a series of documents from the Holy See and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, to whom she seems far superior intellectually -- despite her innate incapacity for ordination. Imagine the electrifying effect if Catholics had a pope who could say out loud what Boys writes: "Ecclesia's dialogue with Synagoga is meant to draw us into the boundlessness of the Divine. It challenges us to move beyond the narrow limits in which we confine the Holy One, and to acknowledge in our hear t of hearts that God, Mother and Father of us all, has many children -- and more than one blessing."
If Carroll and Boys have laid out an ambitious menu for Jewish-Christian dialogue, Frymer-Kensky et al. have served up a very busy feast of it. The problem is, with five editors and thirty-two theologians (twenty-one Jews and eleven Christians) on board, one is left with hectic impressions and scattered apercus, but not much orderly exchange. Still the contributors are all solid scholars and they bring a lot to the table. Robert Chazan reminds us that despite horrific persecution, medieval Jews actually experienced a religious reinvigoration from their encounter with "a rich, complex, and dynamic majority [Christian] civilization." On the other hand, insofar as that persecution climaxed in the Shoah, Irving Greenberg is justified in raising an ominous doubt at the very beginning. "Christianity," he warns, "may be hopelessly and fatally compromised: the penumbra of Christian complicity challenges the credibility of Christianity as a gospel of love." (Later on, George Lindbeck will ask, even more pointedly, "Is n't anti-Judaism part of Christianity's DNA?") On the other hand, Greenberg also points out (and other contributors echo him) that, "Modern values created a milieu as dangerous as -- more dangerous than -- Christianity at its worst." Hence Jews and Christians have a common interest in resisting (as well as celebrating) secular culture, with its capacity for diabolical self-divinization. Christopher Leighton picks up Boys' and Carroll's theme: "The credibility and coherence of the Christian narrative demand a radical recasting of its foundational story." Unfortunately, no one on either side of the dialogue offers any reason to expect an enormous and fundamentally conservative institution to overcome millennial inertia and "re-envision" that narrative "from beginning to end."
Elsewhere, editor Peter Novak sees the "normative communalities" (the centrality of ethics) in Judaism and Christianity as a sort of "significant overlapping," while stressing that "The difference of Judaism from Christianity and Christianity from Judaism is still greater than any commonalities the two communities now share." That sounds like a chilly bottom line here; but it doesn't preclude all sorts of interesting speculation, for example on the role of suffering in both religions. Leora Batnitzky cites Simone Weil and C.S. Lewis (but a myriad other examples lie equally close to hand) as typical instances of Christianity's "affirmation and valorization of suffering," whereas she backs Levinas in maintaining that, "suffering in and of itself is meaningless, but my neighbor's suffering takes on meaning for me as its very meaninglessness becomes an imperative that I care for my neighbor." Well and good, but then John Cavadini jumps in to argue that even Augustine saw no intrinsic value in suffering; only fait h in Christ, he felt, "enables one to put suffering to a 'good use.'"
David Blumenthal takes what is probably the most daring theological leap in the book when he insists that "God is co-responsible [for the Shoali] and hence, an Abuser. This means that God's personality also has this irrational, one might even say evil, side to it." Unfortunately, nobody takes him up on this challenge. One wonders what the Christian side would have replied--had they said anything at all--to Blumenthal's blunt assertion that "the bloody history of Christian-Jewish relations makes it impossible for a traditional Jew to identify with any specifically Christian doctrine, even if it were otherwise true." Though he admits that some Christians have recently changed their tune, "Christianity has simply been too cruel to Jews and Judaism."
After the tragic accents of these deeply serious books, Yaakov Ariel might have provided a pleasant satyr-play with his fabulously knowledgeable account of 120 years of attempts by American Protestants to convert the Jews. After all, this wacky operation (fueled by the dispensationalist belief that in the coming, if not already present, apocalyptic messianic age "Jews will gladly recognize Jesus as their Savior") was distinctly philo-Semitic. In its early stages it provided concrete help to lots of poor Jewish immigrants, while making relatively few proselytes--numbers were never the main consideration anyway. As the twentieth century proceeded and especially after World War II, mainline Protestant denominations abandoned attempts to convert the Jews; but the American Board of Missions to the Jews (of which the Jews for Jesus was a splinter-group) and similar organizations soldiered on. So while most Jews and Christians ignore the movement, unless they find it irritating or embarrassing, Ariel cheerfully and unironically concludes: "It is more than likely that the missionary movement will thrive in the coming generation. The number of Messianic congregations will grow, and the movement's sense of accomplishment and triumph will persist."
Maybe so, but in the meantime Ariel, an Israeli-born assistant professor of religious studies at U.N.C., Chapel Hill, has chosen to present this hitherto obscure chapter of American history as a study in organizational development -- from the Chicago Hebrew Mission to the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America to the Moody Bible Institute to the American Board of Missions to the Jews. It is meticulous, fair-minded scholarship, and it should be enough to get its author tenured. But Ariel has chosen to excise almost all the human interest from his chronicle, so that its protagonists, the indefatigable missionaries and preachers, Christian and Jewish - Arno Gaebelein, Ernest Stroeter, William Blackstone, Tryphena Rounds, Joseph and Leopold Cohn, Herman Warszawiak, Solomon Birnbaum, and Moishe Rosen (the founder of the Jews for Jesus) -- never come alive. We are given hardly an anecdote, a physical description, a wisecrack. No doubt the participants in this peculiar phase of salvation history saw it as utterly seri ous, but against the background of the Jew-baiting of St. John Chrysostom, or the Crusaders' massacre of Jews in the Rhineland, or the bonfires of Talmuds, or the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Jewish-Christian "disputations," or Martin Luther's screed "On the Jews and Their Lies," or the crimes of Christian prelates like Monsignor Josef Tiso of Slovakia, Ariel's tale comes close to pure comedy--had he but known how to exploit it.
Even if we assume that Carroll and Boys are starry-eyed dreamers, who speak for neither the hierarchy nor the laity, and that the academic interlocutors of Christianity in Jewish Terms, cautious though they be, are still too positive, it's hard not to be cheered by these three books. Reports of the death of supersessionism may be greatly exaggerated; but even if it survives, it will never be more than a ghost of its former self. Christian anti-Semitism--recent outbursts by the Knicks' Charlie Ward and others notwithstanding--is, in principle, finished. On the other hand, the fact that it has flourished for two thousand years in the face of every law of logic and human decency makes that victory ring rather hollow.
Peter Heinegg is Professor of English at Union College in Schenectady, New York.
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|Title Annotation:||Review; Christian-Jewish relations|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2001|
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