Christian Supersessionist Theology and White Nationalism

What follows is most of an email discussion by Third Narrative colleagues, published with their permission. It began with the following by Dr. Marcia Kupfer, the author of five books and numerous scholarly papers with research interests including pictorial narrative, cartographic representation, and Christian-Jewish polemic:

It seems that the intra-Jewish debate is entirely and exclusively focused on how competing definitions negotiate the relationship between antisemitism and anti-Zionism/ the critique of Israel. But what goes altogether unmentioned in the current debate over definitions is the problem of Christian supersessionist theology and its triumphalist (eventually white supremacist) ethos. All three definitions avoid taking on the relationship between antisemitism and the culpability of Christian anti-Judaism — as if the matter is resolved, or as if it never existed in the first place.

Is it antisemitic when Christians today see themselves as the “true” Israel, the “real” Jews? (Yes, in my book.)  Is it antisemitic to use the expression “Old Testament” as if it were a neutral, universally accepted term for a division of the “Bible”? (Yes, in my book.) Is it antisemitic to refer explicitly or implicitly to the “Old Testament” — i.e., the “Jewish” scriptural patrimony — as the “bad,” or regressive part of the Bible (with its primitive retributive justice, ritualism and ethnic particularism)? (Yes, in my book.) Is it antisemitic to use the term “Pharisee” with negative connotations? (Yes, in my book.) Is it antisemitic for Christians to arrogate to themselves the imagery of the Shoah when decrying public health measures during the pandemic like masks and vaccines. (Yes, in my view.)  

Ralph Seliger, coeditor of The Third Narrative website:

While it’s true that Christianity was built upon a theological foundation that rejected and claimed to supersede Judaism, would you say that Vatican II, presided over by Pope John XXIII, was a decisive attempt to reject that theology?  How serious should we regard this today (I’m asking sincerely without an answer in mind)?  

Is this now simply a fringe element in Christian thinking?  For example, I’m thinking of Mel Gibson’s father who is known to have rejected Vatican II, along with other traditionalist Catholics.  Does the truth of Dr. Kupfer’s statement mean that we should remind respectable mainstream Christians of their original sin (theologically speaking)?    

Daniel Mandell, Emeritus Professor of History, Truman State University:

I can’t comment on Catholic or “mainstream” Protestant theologies, but I can say from experience that supersessionist assumptions dominate the Evangelical American Bible Belt. It was weird: so many assumed that they knew all about Judaism, and also assumed that nothing had changed about it since circa 67 CE.

Cary Nelson, Professor Emeritus of English, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:

Vatican II was a watershed moment in Christian theology and interfaith relations. Putting to rest the claim that the Jews killed Christ alone changed the course of interfaith relations, but Christianity never fully confronted its supersessionist convictions. Moreover, Vatican II did not resolve the supersessionist belief about God’s covenant with the Jews; thus the Catholic Church remained at best ambivalent about the status of Israel.

Dr. Stan Nadel, Professor of History, University of Portland–Salzburg, Austria Center:

Having taught in the Bible Belt for nine years, I second Daniel’s comments about many Evangelical Christians whose perspective on Judaism hasn’t changed despite their overwhelming support for Israel.  

But more to the point is that Vatican II only applied to the Roman Catholic Church — and not even to all of it, as some key elements have never really been accepted by some of the more reactionary, and far from insignifiant, elements in the Church. Outside the Roman Church there has been little or no engagement with this vicious history and some Eastern Orthodox Churches have recently even gone so far as to declare a supposed victim of a Jewish sacrificial murder to be a saint — St. Philomenus of the Well.  

So, to answer Ralph, supersessionism and antisemitism are far from being just “a fringe element” in 21st century Christianity; they remain core elements in many Christian churches with memberships in the tens, or hundreds, of millions. 

Susana Cavallo, Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures, Loyola University Chicago:

The answer is simple, actually, for Catholics. Liberal Catholics stand with John XXIII and Francis. Fundamentalist Catholics like the Opus Dei and right-wing Republicans who are Catholics reject both. Thank God they’re in the minority in my Church. These Christians are also the minority in mainstream Episcopalianism, Lutheranism and other Protestant denominations. (God save us from Mel Gibson and his father as well as Newt Gingrich — pseudo Catholics in my book.)

I disagree with Cary. Pope John Paul stated many times (as did Benedict) that Judaism was a religion “complete in itself,” thus refuting officially the idea that Judaism was a “step” toward the “one true faith.” Having taught with the Jesuits for 42 years, I can tell you that this is where Catholic theology stands today. I cannot of course speak for other Christian denominations.

Jeffry Mallow, Professor of Physics Emeritus, Loyola University Chicago:

My good friend Susana is spot-on. We taught together at Loyola, and my take on the Jesuits and the Catholic Church they represent is exactly hers, not that they need my hekhsher (kosher  stamp of approval).  I think particularly of Fr. Frans Josef Van Beeck, a renowned Jesuit scholar, holder of an endowed chair in theology, who took head-on the challenge of supersessionism, using as his focus the Holocaust story “Yosl Rakover Talks to God.”  (I was his Yiddish translator.)

He explicitly rejects — indeed eviscerates — supersessionism, deeming it anti-Christian. 

Robert Kramer, Professor of History, St. Norbert College:

Like Jeffry, I have taught at a Catholic college for many years, and certainly my theology colleagues and many of the Norbertine priests rejected supersessionism long ago.  But then again, these are educated people.  As for the “laity”(dare I say “masses”?), antisemitism in all its forms runs deep, though it is less socially acceptable nowadays.  But it’s the Evangelicals with their biblical view of Jewish people that really concerns me.

Dr. Kupfer concludes with some further thoughts:

I’m troubled by the three definitions’ insistence on actively expressed hate and social discrimination as the sine qua non of antisemitism because such a position obscures, or at least skirts, the function of anti-Judaism as a prism through which to explain the corruption of materialism and alienation from truth (see David Nirenberg’s 2013 book, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition) — a feature, not a bug, of the rhetoric of Christian spirituality. It allows Christianity to keep its supersessionism. The Jewish groups responsible for the definitions do not want to alienate Christian support, but I see supersessionist theology as a major animating force in the intersection between white grievance and Christian nationalism.

Magda Teter’s brand new book, Christian Supremacy:  Reckoning with the Roots of Antisemitism and Racism, argues that supersessionst discourse constituted the ideological matrix within which the Church’s imperialist triumphalism flourished, with important social ramifications. She further shows that the expression “white supremacy” is incomplete; it’s always been white Christian supremacy. By way of confirmation, note Rep. Lauren Boebert’s complaint that the Biden initiative on antisemitism means to target conservatives.

On differentiating between anti-Judaism and antisemitism: I agree with most historians in my field that it is unhelpful and misleading to port the 19th century term “antisemitism” back into the medieval past. But to espouse today the same anti-Jewish, supersessionist arguments of those early Christian and medieval texts and images does indeed qualify as antisemitism. It’s one thing for a 14th century Ge’ez language epic (the Kebra Nagast) to relate the mythic origin story of Ethiopians’ Israelite descent. It’s quite another for Rachel Fulton Brown, an associate professor of medieval history at the University of Chicago, to invoke it in a pro-Kanye West podcast asserting that Christians are the real, true Israel, and that anyway Jews only care about the Talmud. (She never says, by the way, that the epic ends with the apocalyptic extermination of those wicked, crucifying Jews.)

Re Vatican II, I would agree with Cary.  Albeit a landmark with respect to the charge of deicide, the Second Vatican Council in no way curtailed Catholic supersessionist theology. On the contrary, Vatican II produced a  highly qualified, partial acceptance of Jews in Nostra Aetate, which articulates a full-on traditional supersessionist theology. See especially paragraph #4. It reproduces all the old typologies (“the Church is mysteriously foreshadowed by the chosen people’s exodus from the land of bondage”), appropriating the Jews’ scriptural patrimony as the basis of the Church’s own election.

At the same time, the statement downgrades the value of that same patrimony for Jews: “the Church . . . received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God . . . concluded the Ancient Covenant.” Get the pastness? The Old Covenant has value as mere adumbration, for proving that “all who believe in Christ” are “Abraham’s sons according to the faith.” Deriving its worth exclusively from the New Testament, the Old is useless for salvation. Paragraph #4 is entirely compatible with the late 4th/early 5th century pictorial programs, as at the Basilica of Santa Sabina, that imagine an ecclesia ex gentibus and an ecclesia ex circumcisione — meaning that salvation will come to Jews only when they have given up Judaism. 

How does all this fit into Christian nationalism? See the document from the Edmund Burke Foundation, “National Conservatism: A Statement of Principles,” #4, “God and Public Religion.” It advocates “Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision . . . Jews and other religious minorities are to be protected in the observance of their own traditions . . . “ Well, thank you very much for your toleration. A couple of delusional Jews from the Foundation’s Israel branch collaborated on composing and signing the document, obviously in the hope of applying the platform to right-wing Jewish nationalism.

Finally, I share an astonishingly naive and worrisome Easter op-ed from NY Times columnist Ross Douthat. How can he possibly not know that the very reading of the Gospels he proposes  contra historical contextualization and scholarly criticism — i.e., reading the texts “naively,” taking them at face value as narrative — led to Christianity’s persistent anti-Judaism, and indeed demonization of Jews? Easter, with its focus on the Passion, is historically the season of violence against Jewish communities. Interestingly, Douthat, in an earlier op-ed pronouncing Vatican II a failure for Catholics and Catholicism, never even mentions Nostra Aetate as a watershed in the Church’s thinking about Jews.