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May 04, 2005

The Protestant divestment movement and the new supersessionism

I previously highlighted the work of Dexter Van Zile, a member of United Church of Christ who is very articulate about the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the divestment initiatives of the liberal American churches. Dexter works with the Judeo-Christian Alliance, an initiative of the David Project (which is better-known for making the film Columbia Unbecoming and assisting students to challenge the academic bias in Middle East Studies at Columbia). You can hear a radio interview with him at that site.

Dexter sent me a link to another article he wrote . . .

. . . which points out that

The most troubling aspect of the PC(USA)�s decision to divest was not that it was made without input from Jews in the U.S. (a fact acknowledged by Clifton and others within the denomination) or even that officials in Louisville have been misrepresenting its true meaning to Presbyterians and the public, but that it was based almost entirely on a narrative offered by dwindling community of Palestinian Christians who live in under the shadow of militant Islam in the West Bank and Gaza. Leaders of this community have been weaponizing the symbols of Christian theology for use against the Jewish state for the past 30 years, while at the same time downplaying the role Islamic fundamentalism has played in the Christian Diaspora from the Holy Land.

. . . . Some modern Christian theologians (as well as many Jews) assert the authors of the Gospels exaggerated the role of the Jews and minimized the role of the Roman Empire for the roles of Christ�s death in an effort to differentiate themselves from Jews who did not accept Jesus and more ominously, as an attempt to ingratiate themselves with the all-powerful Romans. Could it be that Palestinian Christians, with guns at their head, are blaming Israel to appease Muslim terror groups that call the shots in Palestinian society?

Dexter is certainly not the first to describe the double bind of dhimmitude for Christian Arabs living under Muslim Arabs, or to point out the increasing emigration of Christians from the Middle East, or that Israel is the only country in the region whose Christian population is growing. But his article brings to our attention the pernicious revival of a discredited doctrine in
a disturbing piece by Robert Hamerton-Kelly, a well known theologian from the United Church of Christ - another denomination that is considering divestment. Hamerton-Kelly's begins his article with a description of a Passover celebration in Nazi-controlled Poland:
On deep cable a few weeks ago, there was a semi-propaganda movie of the kind we see more and more as the religious violence of the State of Israel becomes more and more egregious. It is about a Polish village, whose inhabitants were all Jews, and their dreadful fate during the 1940s. One scene sticks in my mind: an avuncular rabbi, a cross between Santa Claus and "Fiddler on the Roof" tells the story of the exodus to ten or so angelic children aged about six through nine. No scene would be warmer and more engaging, more full of love and beauty, and then the narrative begins. This genial old mans asks the question, "Why do we celebrate Passover?"

He then answers his own question: "Because God killed the firstborn children of the Egyptians and told us to mark the doorposts of our houses with the blood of the lamb so that the angel of death might pass us over."

I was appalled and thought immediately of two things: 1) That this gave the children permission to kill those who were not like them, and 2) That the Apostle Paul had been such a child and then such a rabbi."

Dexter points out that - according to the Scriptures with which this theologian ought to be familiar - God killed the Egyptians and freed the Children of Israel, and it's a stretch to read the passage as giving humans "permission" to kill. But what leaped out at me was the willingness to associate Paul with the Torah of the Jews, but no mention that Jesus was firmly embedded in the same tradition. I emailed Dexter:
I find it striking that he completely ignores that JESUS had been such a child and such a rabbi. Hello - the Last Supper was a Pesach seder. Does he think Jesus wasn't commemorating the same exodus from Egypt during that dinner? Does he think Jesus didn't read the same Torah as Paul?

What on earth do they teach these people in seminary? I understand that the Gospels are more important to many of you than the Hebrew scriptures, but I would still think that ministers read them.

Dexter's reply was illuminating:
Efforts to minimize the importance of Hebrew scriptures to Christianity has become a marker for anti-Semitism for me. Wherever I see people attempt to marginalize or dismiss the Old Testament, I start to pay very close attention.

This suspicion is sound, if history is any guide. The Christian theologians of Nazi Germany emphasized supercessionism in their attempts to create a theology compatible with Naziism:
Seminarians attending distinguished universities like those at Erlangen, Gottingen and Tubingen would have heard theologians of the stature of Paul Althaus, Emmanuel Hirsch and Gerhard Kittel denouncing Jews as a menace to Western society. Jews were to be resisted by the twin bulwarks of Christianity and the providentially ordained government of Adolf Hitler. (Althaus heralded the ascendancy of the National Socialists to power as "a gift and miracle of God.")

. . . the aim of the German Christian movement was to create a Judenrein ("Jew-free") church, even as the Nazis energetically pursued their lethal aim of creating a Judenrein Reich. Theirs was, as Bergen puts it, "an ecclesiology defined by race." They attempted to synthesize Nazi ideology and the scriptural, catechetical and hymnal traditions of Protestantism. . . . Jena's theological faculty was instrumental in creating and running an academic "de-Judaization" institute in nearby Eisenach ("The Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on the Church Life of the German Volk"), which produced popular de-Judaized versions of the New Testament, hymnals and catechisms, as well as screeds denying the canonicity of the Old Testament and books "proving" that, far from being Jewish, Jesus was a Galilean, probably an Aryan. His greatest enemy? The loathsome Jews.

Recently, the same politicized supersessionism - updated by Palestinian clergy to erase the Jewishness of Israel - has permeated the Anglican Church as well as the American liberal denominations:
"Where I disagree profoundly with the Christian Zionists is that the state [of Israel] we have today is in any sense the realization of Old Testament promises," says Stephen Sizer, vicar of Christ Church, Virginia Water in Surrey, England. "The Christian Zionists are resurrecting Old Testament law -- temple, land, and people. In terms of theology, they are re-crucifying Christ.

"[The land of Israel was] a conditional gift," says Sizer, who is among the most outspoken and active of the supercessionist Anglicans. "In the Old Testament, God chose the Jewish people as a light to the people. Reformed or theological Christianity -- Calvin, Luther, covenant theologians -- would say that the Jewish people as a community rejected Jesus, and in rejecting the king, they forfeited the right to a kingdom. It's Matthew 5: meekness, humility, penitence, and faith are preconditions for God's blessing. The land promises we find in the Hebrew verses are no longer relevant. That temple has been superceded. I would put the land alongside the sacrificial system, the dietary laws, the ceremonial laws. Over that bonfire, I'd quote Hebrews 8:13 ['In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete']. You cannot have two covenants. The Old Testament-New Testament is a one-way street."

The doctrine actually dates to early Christianity and was the church's historical justification for isolating and persecuting Jews, who, like Lucifer, were God's elect but were cast out for their rebellious and evil ways. The Jews' influence was to be contained or expunged.

After the Holocaust, supercessionism fell into disrepute and most Christian denominations disavowed the doctrine. In recent years, though, Palestinian Christians, such as the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, Riah Abu El-Assal, dusted off the arcane doctrine in an effort to counter Christian support of Israel. While American Evangelicals and Baptists generally paid little attention, the clerics won support from British Anglicans who have been heavily involved in humanitarian work in the West Bank and Gaza and have a great deal of contact with Palestinians. The peculiarity of the revived doctrine is that while past proponents were orthodox and reactionary, today's see themselves as progressive champions of the oppressed.

Bill Cork points out the paradox of liberals basing their delegitimization of Israel on a doctrine they would not invoke for any other cause:
A Catholic critique of "Christian Zionism" is provided by Michael Prior, who believes Jews involved in interfaith dialogue are "religious Jews" who are "tainted" by "political Zionism." Prior acknowledges that interfaith dialogue requires letting the other define their own beliefs, but then he turns around and tells them they are confused about their own beliefs, and that Jews shouldn't speak of Israel as if it had anything to do with their own faith. It is most ironic that liberals such as [Rosemary] Ruether are citing, to justify their views, supercessionist beliefs which, in another context, they would say Vatican 2 overturned.

Dexter has described how his movement's leaders are blatantly disregarding one of their most important principles, the Barmen Declaration, which unsuccessfully warned against nationalist co-optation of the church during the Nazi era. Concerned Christians need to know that they are also reviving one of the very rationales the German churches employed to curry favor with the Nazis, to now curry favor with a culture which has been open about its collaboration with, and admiration for, Nazi policies toward Jews.

Judith | 05/04/05 at 01:09 PM | Categories: - Divestment watch

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Tracked on January 9, 2006 03:46 AM


see the article in last month's issue of First Things by Notre Dame's Gary Anderson on a Catholic theological Zionism - and my post on it.(outofstepjew.blogspot.com)

Out of Step in Kfar Saba | May 5, 2005 07:57 AM

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