I gasped, as did everyone else in the area. Not only could I not believe that I was hearing these words, but I couldn’t believe who the speaker was, either.
The context was my New Testament exegesis seminar on the Epistle to the Hebrews and the speaker was my friend, Jeremy. Jeremy (a black Methodist pastor) and I (an Ashkenazi Jewish Christian) had become friends during the past two years and were, in particular, allies in predominantly liberal white protestant classrooms where we endeavored, together, to raise issues of poverty, slavery, empire, and anti-Semitism in biblical texts and historic Christian theologies, constantly pushing our professors with our “resistant readings.” In this particular class, we had been at this for the better part of a semester, and our efforts had included a thoroughgoing critique of supersessionism, the idea that the New Testament community sought to found a new religion, Christianity, which they conceived of as superior and a natural successor to the “old covenant” of Judaism. Thus, I was shocked when I heard him endorse the idea in class.
“I wanted to test a theory,” he explained to me later. “You see, as a white Jew, every time you talk about supersessionism, no matter how much you are challenging our professor or our colleagues’ ‘traditional’ scriptural interpretations or theologies, you are listened to with respect. But whenever we try to talk about slavery, or genocide, or colonialism—well, let’s just say that the mention of any of these realities wouldn’t get the kind of gasp that my pretending for a moment to endorse supersessionism got. Now, I know that you want to critique absolutely everything, but doesn’t it bother you that white Jews always seem to be first in line to have their grievances heard in New Testament studies?”
It didn’t take me long to realize that Jeremy was right. As a Jew, I interpret the Bible from the standpoint of a subaltern ethno-religious community that experienced more than a thousand years of geographic displacement, economic exclusion, cultural segregation, and, in the last century, genocide. As a white person, however, I experience the privilege of having my resistant readings of scripture always come first in line, often ahead of black and brown voices who speak from a subaltern community that experiences displacement, impoverishment, segregation, and violence right now, even as many Jews, including myself, are accorded white privilege in the twenty first century construction of race in America.
SUPERSESSIONISM: A (VERY BRIEF) DEFINITION
In the most basic analysis, supersessionism is the idea that, whatever function Judaism had before Jesus Christ came along, is either no longer necessary or has been taken over by Christianity, which does it better. The specific formulations vary. Sometimes the argument goes that Judaism is about Law and Christianity is about Grace. Alternatively, Judaism was about outer rituals (e.g. keeping kosher or observing the sabbath), but Christianity is about inner faith (accepting Jesus as Lord and believing that God raised him from the dead). Still another way of putting it is that Judaism is about God’s “natural revelation” (hence the “natural law” of “an eye for an eye”) but Christianity is about God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ (so “love your enemies” as well as your neighbor). Supersessionism tells the gospel story by starting out with what was wrong with Judaism, which Jesus Christ came to fix. Judaism was too legalistic, too violent, too concerned with worldly affairs or even (in the telling of some misguided liberals) too unjust in carrying out worldly affairs. The story then goes on to tell all the things that Jesus did to defy what was wrong with Judaism, leading to the Jews killing Jesus. But, with the resurrection, Jesus’ followers knew that God was doing a new thing and quickly created a new religion, Christianity, to replace the old religion, Judaism.
Supersessionism is at the foundation of Christian anti-Semitism. It equates Judaism with everything that European civilization seeks to purify itself of, and, as such, it was not a stretch to transform the effort to purify Europe of Jewishness into an effort to purify Europe of Jews. It was on these grounds that Immanuel Kant, the father of European Liberalism, endorsed the “Euthanasia of Judaism,” a program that Kant’s Germany would endeavor to put into practice in the twentieth century. Supersessionism is, thus, the political theology of the holocaust. Whenever Christians devalue Judaism by saying, in their study of the Bible, that Jesus came to reform it, transgress it, subvert it, transcend it, liberate it, move beyond it, or in any other way “fix” it, they effectively endorse the eugenic imagination of the Nazis.
CHRISTIAN GUILT AND JEWISH WHITENESS
The critique of supersessionism has, since the middle of the twentieth century, become a virtually mandatory component of critical New Testament studies. Almost every time a progressive pastor or seminary professor teaches a text that has been used to justify supersessionism and Christian anti-Semitism, there are now several conceptual steps that are taken as a matter of course. We know that, with the exception of the author of Luke’s gospel, almost all of the New Testament authors, not to mention Jesus himself, were Jewish, so the Greek term Ioudaios is very unlikely to refer to a distinct ethno-religious alter to nascent Christianity. We know that the “parting of the ways” between Christianity and Judaism cannot be dated to a single event and probably took place over a long period of time, extending well after the New Testament corpus was written. The effort to portray Jews as an errant religious other has more to do with the post-Constantinian imperial Christian effort to impose religious uniformity on Europe than it does with the perspective of the New Testament authors or of Jesus.
These are all extremely helpful and necessary insights. Yet, the question remains, why is it that “resistant” and other empire-critical readings of the New Testament that seek to combat supersessionism and Christian anti-Semitism always seem to come “first in line,” before critiques of slavery, genocide, misogyny, and Empire? What does the privileged status of supersessionism within efforts at Liberating Biblical Study say about Judaism in the racial landscape of twenty first century America?
I would like to propose a working hypothesis, with the understanding that I do not have the space in this article to prove it conclusively. My hypothesis is this: that the rise of anti-supersessionism as a privileged “resistant reading” within critical New Testament studies maps onto a concomitant history of the rise of Jewish whiteness in late twentieth century America.
The advent of Jewish whiteness has been well documented, most classically so by Karen Brodkin’s How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998). Jews came to America as a distinct ethno-religious minority group who, like the Irish, the Italians, and others, were not initially considered white. Their transformation into white citizens took place by a number of interlocking mechanisms which included, but were not limited to, the transformation of Judaism into a “religion” in the protestant sense of the term, the accumulation of middle class levels of social and economic capital by Jewish communities, and the embrace of uniquely “American” cultural discourses in the context of the solidifying black-white binary in response to the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement, documented in 1955 by Will Herberg’s Protestant, Catholic, and Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology.
Jenny Peto’s prominent 2010 thesis, The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education advances two additional claims that are extremely important to the hypothesis I would like to propose about supersessionism and critical New Testament study. The first is that a major factor in the solidification of Jewish whiteness world-wide was the creation of the State of Israel. Whiteness, Peto helpfully reminds us, is not only constructed vis-a-vis blackness, but also vis-a-vis indigeneity. To be white is for one’s primary identity to be a settler, not a worker, and settler-colonialism, in Palestine as in South Africa, Australia, and North America, functions by taking potentially troublesome groups of workers in the imperial metropole and transforming them into loyal settlers in the colonial periphery. That transformation from workers to settlers was first accomplished for Jews by their becoming settlers on indigenous lands in North America, but its capstone was the creation of the State of Israel. With Zionism, the status of being a settler, a citizen of a settler-colonial state, became central to what it meant to be a Jew. This, fundamentally, is what made Jews white.
Peto’s second argument - and this is what got her thesis condemned in the Ontario Legislature - is that Holocaust education played a significant role in making this transformation of Jews from workers into settlers. Holocaust education was, and still is, designed to evoke sympathy for Jewish suffering, but, unlike most other public education about genocide and oppression, it evoked sympathy for Jewish suffering as white suffering, the suffering of the powerful, the kind of suffering that gets you a multi-billion dollar military aid program instead of a UNICEF fundraising campaign. White Christian guilt over Jewish suffering during the holocaust does not simply provoke anger and outrage at genocide, but identification with Jews as white people, worthy not just of sympathy, but of empathy.
This is the basis for my working hypothesis about supersessionism. Christians, according to Peto, were being taught to view Jews as powerful victims at the exact same time that critical New Testament studies began to condemn supersessionism because of its links with Christian anti-Semitism. This is too much of a coincidence for me. I wish to propose that the condemnation of supersessionism did not simply occur at the same time as the discourses of powerful victimhood that Peto identifies, but were and continue to be Christians’ primary way of building those discourses.
So, to answer my friend Jeremy’s question, why is it that anti-supersessionism is privileged as a resistant reading within critical New Testament study and within Liberating Biblical Study more generally? My hypothesis is that this happens because the principle function of anti-supersessionism is to reinscribe Jewish whiteness by coding Jews as powerful victims, white victims.
SUPERSESSIONISM, RACE, AND COLONIZATION
If this working hypothesis is correct, it raises the very serious question of how to teach the Bible in a way that makes the critique of supersessionism an integral part of a holistic anti-oppressive pedagogy, which reinforces, rather than comes into competition with, other anti-colonial, anti-imperial, and anti-racist discourse? As a Jew, simply embracing supersessionism is simply not an option for me, given its connections to Naziism. But I refuse to believe that the only alternatives that I am left with as a critical student of the New Testament are to endorse Naziism by accepting supersessionism or to endorse Zionism by opposing it. Jews have been told that Naziism and Zionism are their only options for far too long.
In post-Ferguson America, the time has come, moreover, for Jews to reevaluate the Faustian bargain that we made with capital in the last century to become white settlers and white citizens. In an age when indigenous and black and brown lives and communities are under constant attack, from Staten Island to the Gaza strip, there is a moral imperative to choose which side we are on. Post-Ferguson America demands of Jewish readers of the bible a critical hermeneutic that is neither Fascist nor Zionist, but genuinely resistant, fit for communities of action and reflection ready to stand up to the racist cops, occupying soldiers, and war-mongering governments determined, in these days, to dispense death to everyone and everything that is not white.
I do not have a holistic answer to this question, but I would like to end by suggesting two voices that can provide resources for professors, pastors, and bible teachers concerned about this problem. The first is J Kameron Carter, whose book Race: A Theological Account (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) argues that Race, as a concept, is a fundamentally theological reality generated by Christians’ supersessionist understandings of Jews, which supplied the religious architecture for the colonial imaginary that undergirds anti-black racism in the United States. The second is Osage theologian George Tinker, whose Spirit and Resistance: Political Theology and American Indian Liberation (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2004) and American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008) both include the argument that indigenous peoples’ traditions are a “Native American Old Testament” and that, therefore, arguments against supersessionism should also apply to settler Christian expectations that Jesus will “fix” Native American communities just as much as they apply to arguments that he came to “fix” Judaism.
When bible study which seeks to be emancipatory condemns supersessionism, it must make indigenous people and people of color, not white Jews, the normative subjects of critique. It should emphasize that the dichotomy between “bodily,” “worldly,” “legalistic” Judaism and “rational,” “spiritual,” and “free” Christianity maps onto the dichotomy that post-Enlightenment European colonial discourses draw between the “western” and the “non-western,” the “white” and the “non-white,” the settler and the indigenous. Critiquing supersessionism should be an opportunity to oppose white supremacism and police brutality, not to support Jewish whiteness and the state of Israel.
In short, it is not enough to identify supersessionism, or any other Christian theological trope, as oppressive. We must ask whether opposing that trope will build an international movement against imperialism, or simply get a select group of people a “seat” at the table of white settlers.
- Ched Myers, “’It’s the End of the World as We Know It’ - Resistance and Discipleship: Reflections on Ex 1-2 & Mk 14,” (Talk given to Canadian Kairos Gathering, June 19, 2009, Waterloo, ON).
- I include the last dualism, between natural revelation and God’s self-revelation in Jesus, to point to the fact that, however much it is known for opposition to fascism, the theology of Karl Barth is not immune to supersessionism.
- In Streit der Fakultaten [Conflict of the Faculties], in 1798, Kant wrote, “The euthanasia of Judaism is the pure moral religion.”
- My personal favorite explanation for this term is to be found in Wes Howard-Brook’s Becoming Children of God: John’s Radical Gospel and Radical Discipleship (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994), where he argues for translating Ioudaios as “Judean,” not “Jew,” on the grounds that it refers to the powerful metropole to which Jesus and his followers among the exploited peasantry, as Galileans, were opposed.
Gregory Williams is a seminary student, writer and anti-poverty activist currently living in New England and discerning a call to ministry in the Baptist polity. Previously he spent several years in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories where he worked on a variety of initiatives such as anti-gentrification organizing, Palestinian Solidarity, student unionism and the anti-Olympics movement and doing academic work in the area of indigenous religious and political resistance to settler colonialism and Quaker missions. His current work focuses on migrant justice and building student-worker solidarity. He is an Anabaptist, a small-c Catholic and an Anarchist.