This last week, a Christian terrorist opened fire at a synagogue during the celebration of the Passover, killing one person and injuring three more. In a seven-page manifesto outlining his convictions and subsequent actions, the shooter espoused Christian doctrines — expressing orthodox beliefs that supported his worldview.
In the manifesto, “you actually hear a frighteningly clear articulation of Christian theology in certain sentences and paragraphs. He has, in some ways, been well taught in the church,” said the Rev. Duke Kwon, a Washington pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America, another evangelical denomination which shares many of its beliefs with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. — Washington Post article
Christian orthodoxy is a broad landscape. While I am neither evangelical nor of the Reformed tradition to which this young man ascribes, I am a pastor who believes all Christians need to take responsibility for the effects of how we understand and communicate our faith. I can grasp some of this young man’s confusion because I was raised evangelical — in a movement/denomination that adhered to an admixture of Reformed theology — and, as such, I learned to accept anti-Judaism teachings that (at the time) I would never have thought of as anti-Semitic. Most Christians don’t think of themselves as having an anti-Judaism bias, even while holding to positions that are problematic. I’m still learning to undo the damage.
In the spirit of untangling Christian thought with anti-Judaism, below are five common teachings in Christianity that lead to discrimination.
Five Common Anti-Judaism Teachings in Christianity
1. Replacement Theology (Supersessionism)
Replacement theology says Christians replaced the Jewish people as the covenant people of God after the resurrection of Jesus; the covenant God made with Abraham and his descendants in the book of Genesis was rendered null and void, superceded by the New Covenant of the cross. In essence, supersessionism sees Judaism as an archaic precursor to the superior Christian faith. This belief is rampant in various denominations — even traditions that are not, historically, Reformed. (For example, Anglican theologian N.T. Wright, a darling of evangelicalism, teaches a form of supersessionism.)
The logical deduction of this belief: Jewish people are “not saved” and will not be unless they accept Jesus as their messiah; their present faith is defective until or unless they shift their religious loyalties to Jesus.
2. Seeing the cross (or Jesus more generally) as the primary lens through which to read the Hebrew Scriptures
I saw this most recently in an influential two-volume work by evangelical pastor-theologian Greg Boyd. The belief is that no one can properly understand the Old Testament (a somewhat derogatory term in and of itself) unless they use the lens of Jesus to interpret the stories — an extremely common Christian opinion. Emblematic of Christians of this stripe, Boyd resists the charge of anti-Judaism, strongly stating that he rejects the idea that early followers of Jesus meant to pin the crucifixion on unbelieving Jewish people and insisting that his position of reading the Hebrew Bible through the lens of the crucifixion does not demean a Jewish reading of the text.
And yet …
The logical deduction of this belief is: The Hebrew Scriptures provide object lessons that can only be completely understood and properly interpreted by Christians. No matter how you spin it, a Jewish understanding of God is thought to be incomplete without the “more enlightened” revelation that can only be provided by Christians.
3. Using Pharisees as One-Dimensional Bad Guys
Using the Pharisees as one-dimensional bad guys in the gospel stories was rampant in my own Christian upbringing. As my friend and colleague Ken Wilson says: Christians like to make Jesus look good by making the Pharisees (and Judaism in general) look bad. The rabbinic tradition that characterizes much of modern-day Judaism traces its origins to the Pharisees, so when Christians talk about Pharisees as “bad guys” in the gospel stories (in opposition to Jesus and his followers as the “good guys”) our Jewish friends hear that as both a mischaracterization and a rejection of their own faith tradition. And rightly so.
However, a careful reading of the gospels shows us that Jesus had much in common with the Pharisees. Jesus could poignantly challenge them because of their similarities. When we read the book of Acts, we see many Pharisees became early followers of Jesus — not because they “converted to Christianity,” but because they held to the same stream of Judaism as this thoroughly-Jewish teacher. Christian theology has so often mischaracterized the early Jesus movement as rejecting Judaism; it did not.
The logical deduction of this belief: If the Pharisees were the bad guys Jesus fought against in his time, then the Jewish people are the bad guys Christians need to resist in our own time.
4. Jewish people need to convert for salvation
In the book we co-wrote, Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance, Ken and I articulate a non-rivalrous posture toward other religious traditions. This position is rooted in the beliefs that, in Christianity, it is the Spirit’s job to draw people to Love; the God-Who-Is-Love can not and will not be contained within Christian boxes; it is not our task to judge the state of anyone’s soul or status with God (in fact, we’re warned by Jesus that we are really bad at it); we should embrace humility in admitting we do not have anywhere near the capacity to make pronouncements on entire religious systems that we do not comprehend; rivalry leads to violence as revealed throughout Scripture; and “conversion” has been grossly misunderstood by Christians. This last bit — that conversion has been misunderstood — is spelled out in detail in part two of our book.
In an even more stringent stream of this belief — a conservative Reformed stream — God chooses (predestines) some humans for salvation and others for damnation. That seems to be the thinking of the recent synagogue shooter. (I should note that many progressives in the Reformed tradition do not ascribe to this strictest of Classically Reformed interpretations.)
The logical deduction of this belief: If Christians are the only ones who are “saved,” then Jewish people have a substandard religion and should be targets of Christian evangelism. We have something they need, which puts Christians in a position of power over … well, everyone. And, in the more rigid form of this theology, if Christians are specifically chosen by God to be God’s agents in the world, then why not be rid of those who are not chosen by God? Surely God’s Good Realm would come about more readily if those clearly on the outs were gone?
5. Whitewashing of Jesus
When we remove Jesus from his Jewish culture, faith, and traditions, we (mostly subconsciously) imbue him with our own features to lend authority to our own worldview(s). Jesus was Jewish, full stop. He was not a Christian. He was not white. He was not a post-Enlightenment Westerner. Yet, even while most Western Christians would pay lip service to all those things, the depictions of Jesus in movies, books, art, and Sunday School curriculum over the last few hundred years says otherwise.
Jesus was part of an oppressed minority class in his day, and part of a people who have historically been marginalized and who understand God through the lens of a those without political or social power. When white nationalists accuse Jewish people of secretly trying to take over the world (the tiresome “international Jewish conspiracies”), it is simply projection. White Western men have held the most power in this world, on the whole, for some hundreds of years. Projecting that power onto a minority group that has experienced persecution over and over again through their existence is nothing short of scapegoating — the founding sin of the world.
While theologians like Karl Barth and N.T. Wright spend their lives writing about just how Jewish Jesus was and is, they also articulate views that paint Judaism as less than. Saying Jesus was Jewish out of one side of your mouth while saying Christianity replaces the Abrahamic covenant out of the other side creates a paradox. And they are blind to how their own white European privilege allows them dismiss an entire religion as a mere prequel to their own faith.
The logical deduction of this belief: Jesus is best understood through the interpretations of educated white Western male theologians. Most Christians don’t think they believe this, but the writers they read, the theologians they uphold, the pastors they respect, the churches they attend, and the curriculums they study are almost entirely created by highly-educated, upper- or middle-class, white Western males. If they start reading reading outside of those bubbles, they will discover just how different White Jesus is from Black Jesus. Until or unless a real reckoning and repentance takes place, white supremacy will continue its grip on Western Christianity.