everyone knows redux...

Following up on my post re: antisemitism from yesterday, let me make a few additional observations from within my own experience. As I wrote previously, my theological education - and personal cultural references - almost universally avoided any discussion or analysis of our egregious history of Christian antisemitism. Given the magnitude of redressing the wounds of racism required by the civil rights movement of the 60's - and the social sin of sexism made clear by the emergent second wave of feminism - I understand why little effort was made to confront the ugly legacy of antisemitism in the Church. After all, my predecessors in the seminary had given significant moral and intellectual energy to that challenge. Think Van Buren, Tillich and Niebuhr. So with cities in flames and the bedrock of the American dream in question from the bedroom to the boardroom, there was simply no time for exorcising these demons.
And that, of course, is part of the insidious nature of antisemitism: we have breathed it in since the earliest days of the Church, so we often fail to notice its destructive presence in our thinking, politics and liturgies.  Take the work of the Jesus Seminar - an odd combination of gifted scholars and theological wannabes - which inadvertently advances a supercessionist agenda in the name of reclaiming the radical politics of Jesus. They are never mean-spirited, hateful or deliberate in this failing, but I would suggest it happens nonetheless.  I think of the books and lectures of Marcus Borg and/or John Dominic Crossan . Both are scholars of integrity. Both have been committed to the work of liberation and compassion in our time. And both, in different ways, have made a sustained case that the ethics, spirituality and politics of Jesus are significantly different from that of his Jewish foundation. To use James Carroll's analysis, they separated Jesus from the Jews albeit for the loftiest reasons. 

Amy-Jill Levine summarizes this failing in her essay, "Bearing False Witness: Common Errors Made about Early Judaism."  Her point is persuasive: "When homilists or teachers do not know Jewish history of theology and out of ignorance construct a negative Judaism over and against which they position Jesus, or when they presume that Jesus' numerous insightful and inspirational comments are original to him rather than part of his Jewish history" the destructive legacy of antisemitism gains traction. Even when we (and I include myself in this critique) avoid the sinister "blood libel" charges that have been embedded in scripture and liturgy since the earliest days of Christianity, we still often misrepresent first century Judaism. And this misrepresentation perpetuates a veiled mistrust of Judaism in a variety of ways.  

Think of the Christian designation of the Hebrew Bible as the "old" testament and the way of Jesus as the "new" testament: the former has been rendered complete and outmoded by the later, grace has now replaced law, gratitude now rules our hearts instead of rules and regulations, God's love has been given to us as a gift rather than a set of commandments we must obey in order to earn favor with the Lord, the God of wrath has been replaced by the Lord of love. Whether the Jesus Seminar is making the case that Jesus challenged the purity codes of his day or stood in bold opposition to the politics of the Temple, the results are the same: Jesus has replaced Torah. To which Dr. Levine (and Carroll in Constantine's Sword) replies:

Jesus himself was halakhically obedient: he wars fringes (tzizit - see Numbers 15: 38-39 or Deuteronomy 22: 12) to remind him of the Torah (Mt. 9: 20, Lk. 8: 44, Mk 6: 56); he honors the Sabbath and keeps it holy; he argues with his fellow Jews about appropriate observance (one does not debate something in which one has not investment). It is from Torah that he takes his "Great Commandment" (Mt. 22: 3640): love of God (Deut. 6:5) and love of neighbor (Lev. 18: 19.) 

In four brief pages, Dr. Levine points out how much of the Jesus Seminar critique ignores the
living pluralism within first century Judaism. Further, their binary worldview tends to celebrate the supposed exceptionalism of Jesus without grounding him in his religious and cultural context.  For years I, too, followed suit:  Jesus embraced the outcasts while Judaism did not, Jesus was more sensitive to the needs of women than the Jewish authorities of his day, Jesus brought to the world an intimate relationship with Abba God that stands in stark contrast to Judaism's transcendent, distant king, etc. Please don't misunderstand: I have benefited and grown from the works of Borg and Crossan. Their appropriation of the ethics of Jesus have given rise to a powerful critique of contemporary consumerist culture. But too often for my tastes, they advance an unintended supercessionist theology (i.e. Jesus came to replace Judaism) in pursuit of social justice for the 21st century. I prefer the more rigorous scholarship of Walter Wink, Walter Brueggemann, Rosemary Radford Reuther, Phyllis Trible, Joan Chittister and Richard Rohr. These scholars are equally bold in their call to live in opposition to Empire for they honor that the "steadfast love of the Lord" of Israel is the guiding light in Christ's heart, too.

Carroll summarizes what is at stake here: "It is impossible to understand the disclosure Jesus offers without knowing that the One being disclosed is none other than the God of Israel." The coming of Jesus was not to die, but to offer us revelation; his life, death and resurrection are not about ontological salvation. As Richard Rohr puts it:  God's mind did not have to be changed about sinful human beings, rather Christ came so that our minds might be changed about the heart of a loving and creative God. The foundational story for all people, therefore, is not the crucifixion, but creation. 

There is more to say about this in relationship to the quest for justice between Israel and Palestine, but that will be for another time. Suffice it to say that it is clear to me that without a deep repentance of our historic antisemitism, we will continue to misunderstand how to be allies for peace in that troubled region of the world.

credits: Robert Lentz icons

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