We need to revise our perfidious views

By Mary C. Boys| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Ecumenical & Interfaith Dialogue Scripture and Theology

Let's get right to the heart of the matter and talk about the fancy "S word." What exactly is "supersessionism," which you say is at the core of Christian anti-Judaism?
I'm sure most people are not familiar with this term, but once it's explained, it's easy to understand: Supersessionism is derived from the Latin supersedere-to sit upon, to preside over-and describes the Christian claim that Christians have replaced the Jews as God's people because the Jews rejected Jesus.

In most of Christian preaching and teaching over time we have disparaged Judaism by proclaiming-either explicitly or implicitly-that the coming of Christ made Judaism obsolete. That is the message, for example, when we talk about the new covenant "fulfilling" the old covenant in such a way that we imply God's relationship with the Jewish people has ended.

I wrote a brief story line around supersessionism that summarized the basic account of Christianity most of us grew up with. I tested it in workshops across the country and discovered that most people found it mirrored what they had learned. People recognized the story line of supersessionism; they just never had a term for it.

Then you think that it still has a pretty significant hold on the Christian imagination?
Yes. People tell me, "That's the story we grew up with, and that's pretty much what we still hear today." We need to understand how flawed this basic account is and to rethink the way we understand ourselves in relation to Judaism.

One of the most enduring aspects of this is the claim that the God of the Old Testament is the God of anger and wrath, and the God of the New Testament, the God of Jesus, is the God of love. I'm afraid that error is still very much alive and well.

A more sophisticated version of that is the view that Judaism at the time of Christ was totally "legalistic." Take the words of the Third Eucharistic Prayer for Children: "Jesus came into a world in which people no longer loved each other." Because groups like the Pharisees were hypocritical legalists, Jesus abolished the law, replacing it with the "law of love." The problem with such views is that by oversimplifying the complex world out of which our scriptures come they distort their meaning. For example, we know from historical sources that the New Testament's portrayal of the Pharisees is not a factual depiction. Rather, it reflects the tension between one group of Jewish reformers and the early church in the latter part of the first century.

And one of the reasons that people can still claim that the Old Testament God is the God of wrath is that we are impoverished in our knowledge of these sacred texts. Homilists rarely preach on them. We would be so much richer if homilists weren't so eager to preach on the gospels that they ignored the depth and power of the Old Testament-or, as I prefer to call it, the First Testament.

What about the readings that say that the Jews didn't recognize Jesus as the messiah?
That's another example of the supersessionist view, and it surfaces every Advent. The Advent readings give us snippets of prophetic texts that make it seem as if it were a straightforward line from the prophets to Jesus Christ. Homilists often tell us that the Jews didn't understand the messianic prophesies because they were looking for the "wrong kind of messiah"-a royal, glorious messiah rather than a suffering servant messiah. The reality is far more complex. There was no single template of who the messiah was in first-century Judaism, and when the New Testament writers ascribe this title to Jesus, they use it in new ways.

During Advent, we're often solely focused on the coming of Jesus in history-the little babe in the crib. We lose sight of the fact that the messianic age has not come, even though by faith we claim Jesus as our messiah. Advent is a time to join Jews in yearning for the full redemption of the world.

The world hasn't changed.
The world has not yet been transformed. We might see Advent as the liturgical season we're closest to the Jewish people. God is with us, but all is not yet fulfilled. Learning from Jews to recover that kind of messianic waiting can enliven our faith by energizing our commitment to build a more just world.

Most of us don't pay enough attention to how our understanding of Christianity rests upon our understanding of Judaism. We can't talk about Christian origins without saying something about Judaism, nor can we use terms such as creation, salvation, and redemption without drawing upon the vocabulary we inherited from Judaism. We are not sufficiently sensitive to this, in part because we don't know the tragic legacy of supersessionism. For the most part, it's a failure of imagination.

What would be an example of such a failure of imagination?
I once attended Mass at a parish about to rededicate its church after a major renovation. The pastor announced he had invited religious representatives from the parish's diverse neighborhood, including a rabbi and an imam. Later in his homily, he proclaimed: "For me, faith is faith in Jesus Christ, or it isn't faith at all."

Discuss amongst yourselves!
I wanted to raise my hand and say, "Excuse me! Why did you bother inviting the rabbi and the imam?"

To me it is a parable about our failure to listen attentively to the claims we make about ourselves. Yes, we want to have good relations with other
religions, but we don't know how.

One of the areas in which I want to do more work is the ancient doctrine "Outside the church there's no salvation." That is deeply ingrained in our tradition.

Since the Second Vatican Council we've come to understand that, at best, it is a misleading formulation. Yet it is easier to see its problems than to articulate a positive understanding of Catholicism in relation to other Christian traditions and religions beyond Christianity's borders.

I hope that the recently issued Vatican document Dominus Iesus will not silence creative theological exploration. Theologians may not as yet have found fully adequate ways of rethinking the complex questions about the role of Jesus Christ and the Catholic tradition in relation to the salvation of humankind. But it would be tragic if theologians were to be silenced and the church were to take refuge in traditional formulations.

We have only to face our history with Jews as a cardinal example of a defective understanding of another tradition. We must learn from our history!

In recent years a lot has been written and said about the Jewishness of Jesus. Has that filtered down to people in the pews?
In many ways it has. Certainly, children's religion textbooks have been revised in this respect. But the problem is that most of the people who teach and preach don't have a whole lot of content to go with that. Yes, Jesus was a Jew, but what does that mean?

That's why in my book I spent so much time on Christian origins, particularly what first-century Palestinian Judaism was like, what we can know about the

various religious groups, and where Jesus might be situated in relation to them.

When I taught undergraduate classes on the New Testament, I found that to many students Jesus was a very abstract, distant figure-in the same league with other famous dead people, like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Pope John XXIII, Moses, and Abraham.

So when I want to teach about the Jewishness of Jesus, I look for examples that can make his world real for them. How did Jews of the first century live? What was their economic situation? What religious issues did they debate? What was the effect of Roman rule?

What, in particular, might give us a clearer idea what the real world of Judaism was like at that time?
One important aspect is the diversity of Jews within first-century Judaism, which entailed a certain contentiousness about how to interpret the tradition. That's part of a living religious tradition, as you can observe in the Catholic world today, where we're fighting with each other over teachings and practices.

How we interpret the tradition is always at issue. We need to help people understand that Jesus took part in such debates in his time. Jesus had a vision for reform, but it does not follow that those who disagreed with him were therefore all bad people.

We need to get away from forming our Christian and Catholic identity on opposition to others. The trouble with oppositional identity is that it almost always is a result of caricature and ignorance. The task for us is to develop a strong religious commitment and Catholic identity without having to disparage either other Christian groups or Jews or, for that matter, any other religion. We must develop our identity without either denigrating the other or becoming total relativists.

Looking at Jesus within his own context, how was he different from his contemporaries?
First, we must take care not to remove him from his Jewish context. There are a lot of gaps in our knowledge about some of the first-century Jewish groups. So we should be skeptical, for example, when people confidently talk about the "uniquely intimate" way in which Jesus prayed

to God, addressing him as abba. In teaching about Jesus, do we always have to make claims like "most intimate"? How are we to measure degrees of intimacy?

But are there distinctive characteristics of Jesus we can talk about?
Yes. Relative to first-century Judaism, he does not seem to put a whole lot of stock in some of the "boundary maintenance" rules, like dietary and other purity laws. He probably kept them himself, but they don't seem to be important.

He also doesn't put much emphasis on sacrifices in the temple. Of course, by the time the gospels were written, the Romans had destroyed the temple. Jesus seems to have had a high expectation of the imminent coming of the reign of God, which looks similar to what the Essenes at Qumran taught; so, too, does his teaching about divorce.

Many scholars say he had much in common with the Pharisees. But he does set a more inclusive table than the Pharisees did. For Jesus it is important that the marginal have a place at the table, both literally and symbolically. He also makes a strong argument for nonviolence and puts a great emphasis on forgiveness.

All of this doesn't make the historical Jesus radically different from his contemporaries, but it adds up to some pretty powerful ways of talking about Jesus and his teaching. Daniel Harrington, S.J., the wonderful biblical scholar, once said that the more we know about Jesus, the less we can claim with surety. That can make educators and preachers nervous. But there's a lot we can say about Jesus' teachings without having to contrast it totally with what his Jewish contemporaries were teaching.

So we should just let Jesus stand as who he was, without always having that built-in put-down?
Yes. As a teacher, I might prefer simple things. Comparison-contrasts are great, A-and-B binaries make for clarity, but real life is messier than that.

 

So what are the central pieces of Jesus' Jewish identity that people need to understand better?
The first thing that comes to mind is the emphasis in Jesus on the mercy of God. That's rooted in the beautiful psalms about the mercy of God.

 

There's probably no better preparation for reading the New Testament than reading the prophets and learning to understand the way in which Jesus was a prophet of Israel and suffered as the prophets of Israel suffered. You don't have to read a whole lot of, say, Isaiah or Amos before you get a clear picture of the central connection between worship and living justly. It's evident both in the prophets and in the preaching of Jesus. Jesus lives out Israel's tradition of care for the widow and the orphan and extends it to the leper, the adulterous woman, the tax collector, and the prostitute.

You're asking Christian believers to alter some practices that are near and dear to their hearts. Do we have to stop singing "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" during Advent?
No, I don't want us to stop singing that hymn; I love the melody. But there are some problematic lyrics that I think we shouldn't sing.

When we sing, "ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here," we are suggesting that Israel will only be fulfilled by the coming of Jesus-supersessionism again. The verse is even more awkward today because since 1948 Israel has been a nation state; and whatever it's doing, it's not "mourning in lonely exile" right now.

If we are to replace the supersessionist mindset within our churches, then we have to pay special attention to the prayers we pray, the hymns we sing, the sermons we preach. I know when we start reworking lyrics, we're tapping into layers of sentiment. But I believe justice demands that, if we want to keep the affecting tune, we come up with new, more appropriate lyrics. In my book I include new lyrics for "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" written by a colleague.

What is important for Catholics to know about church history in terms of our relationship with Jews?
I am not proposing we preach constantly about how terrible we've been to Jews. I don't think we change people by making them feel guilty. But, on the other hand, we have to realize that the theological proclamations we've layered upon supersessionism did much damage when coupled with political domination. We must face our history.

I would probably start with the charge that the Jews killed Jesus. We see this in Peter's speech: "Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree" (Acts 5:30). By the end of the second century this accusation evolved into the charge that by killing Jesus the Jews killed God. This charge of deicide has had tragic effects on our relationship with Jews and Judaism.

In the early church it became one of the capstones of preaching. Even Saint Augustine said that because the Jews killed Jesus, they're condemned to wander the earth. Christians shouldn't kill the "cursed" Jews because we need them as "proof to believing Christians of the subjection merited by those who, in the pride of their kingdom, put the Lord to death."

We could follow this theme of "Christ killers" and show what happens once the church gets political power. Beginning in the fifth century, various regions made laws that forbade Jews and Catholics from marrying one another or even eating together. They forbade Jews from holding public office, from dressing up on Easter; they mandated that Jews had to wear some distinctive badge-a foreshadowing of the yellow star the Nazis forced them to wear years later.

Christians killed many Jews during the Crusades to revenge the killing of Jesus, and tortured them during the Inquisition. With no basis in fact, Christians charged Jews with heinous deeds such as desecrating the eucharistic host and even engaging in ritual murder of Christian children.

All in all, Christians received virtually no positive teaching about Jews.

Is there a direct connection between the anti-Jewish legacy of the church and the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust?
I honestly don't think that among U.S. Catholics anti-Semitism is the major problem vis-à-vis the Jewish community. I'm sure anti-Semitism exists-and this is profoundly sinful-but I think the greater problem is anti-Judaism built upon the foundation of supersessionism.

As the US Catholic bishops have said, this legacy provided a "rallying cry for anti-Semites over the centuries." And the bishops of France have been particularly articulate. It's a "well-proven fact," they say, that a centuries-old anti-Jewish tradition in Christian teaching, preaching, theology, apologetics, and liturgy laid the ground on which the "venomous plant of hatred for the Jews was able to flourish."

One reason why education about our anti-Jewish history is still a very important pastoral task today is that Catholics of my generation and older grew up in a church that prayed for the "perfidious Jews" on Good Friday until Pope John XXIII changed the prayer in 1959. This is not distant history.

It was not until Nostra Aetate (the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions in 1965) that the charge of deicide was officially repudiated.

Recently a good friend of mine, who is a little older than I and a colleague in Jewish education, mentioned that when she was 8 years old and started going to Hebrew school in Boston, the Catholic kids in the neighborhood threw stones at her and called her "Christ killer." She says that to this day, when she's carrying a book that has Hebrew lettering on it, she almost unconsciously turns it to the inside so nobody can see it.

Recently I taught a graduate course on Jewish-Christian relations. For his final paper, one of the youngest students in the class wrote a letter of apology to a Jewish high-school classmate whom he had beaten up several times. Why? Because the Jewish kid was a "Christ killer." I was just aghast, not simply that it happened, but that it still happens in our time. This student was born in the 1970s! Thankfully, this young student has now developed a much more positive appreciation of Judaism.