Prof. Nelson on Christian Supersessionism

The following links to the YouTube recording of a presentation by TTN colleague Prof. Cary Nelson at the Indiana University Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, on Christian “Supersessionism,” the problematic theological view that the Jewish people’s Covenant with G-d has been replaced by Christianity:

There is also a link at that page to the text of this talk, which discusses the evolution of this idea in Christian thought, the extent to which it has been modified or repudiated in contemporary Christian discourse, and ways in which it has seeped back into Christian perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The following selection focuses upon this latter aspect: 

Supersessionism is now experiencing a resurgence in the rise of anti-Zionism, though it never actually disappeared. Nostra Aetate sought to put an end to supersessionism’s single most malicious abiding prop, the conviction paired with fantasies Jews were poisoning the wells and murdering Christian children to give warrant not only to anti-Semitism but also to group murder in pogroms. And that warrant for homicide, of course, was the conviction that Jews killed Jesus.

Prompted at first by Palestinian Liberation Theology and its key advocates, notably Jerusalem-based Anglican cleric and founder of The Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center Naim Ateek, a series of anti-Zionist tropes created contemporary analogues to deicide. As he stated in 2001, “It seems to many of us that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him.” Palestinians were appointed living victims of Jewish organized crucifixions under the slogan “Christ at the Checkpoint,” suffering as Jesus did. Absurdly, Jesus himself was characterized as a Palestinian by some, including PLT theologian Mitri Raheb.

Echoing an Ateek reflection, the US Methodist church issued a book-length anti- Zionist manifesto, Israel-Palestine: A Mission Study for 2007-2008, that transferred a recurrent Christian challenge—“Who moved the stone” blocking Christ’s tomb and facilitated his resurrection—to Israel. The state of Israel has placed a boulder blocking Palestinian liberation. Who will remove that stone?

Unlike the BDS movement in Christian churches, the secular BDS movement has little interest in religious supersessionism, but it certainly embraces a secular equivalent. Any moral authority Israel may have possessed in the wake of the Holocaust has been eradicated by Palestinian victimhood and superceded by Palestinian moral authority. More broadly, any moral authority progressive Zionists worldwide might have possessed is now null and void. The argument put forward by Steven Salaita and Nora Erakat—that Zionists should be cast out of all progressive causes and organizations—draws on the same currents and implicates most Jews in the process.

The broad context for these themes is our understanding of how theology did and continues to evolve across the whole range of Christian churches. The narrower context is in how attitudes toward the Abrahamic covenant play out when Christian churches reflect on the status of the Jewish state, particularly when confronted by the Christian wing of the BDS movement. Christians are haunted, as Benjamin Ish Shalom puts it, by the possibility that the return of the Jews to Zion is “a religious event transcending accepted historical political categories.”

The possibility remains prominent for Christian BDS.  As Gary Anderson writes in “The Return to Zion,” it is difficult for Christians to avoid asking “How is one to understand the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel in our own day theologically? The challenge for the religious believer has been whether or not to understand it as part of the eschatological fulfillment of scriptural promises.”

As detailed readings of a series of texts will suggest, the Christian BDS movement in effect embraces various versions of hard supersessionism. In their view, not only Israelis but also Zionists worldwide have transgressed against the moral code on which the ancient Jewish covenant was conditioned and have thus lost whatever land guarantees the covenant included, since Zionists are essentially crucifying Jesus once more in the person of suffering Palestinians. That trope leads to the demonization of the tiny Jewish state as the new Roman empire.