Anti-Jewish readings of the gospel are essential to racists ideas

Don and George’s excellent conversation with Chris Sanchez last week got me thinking on a number of questions, but in particular Don’s question to Chris about anti-Jewish readings and racist ideas.

This came up when Chris had been answering George’s question about how Scripture has been used as a weapon against people of color. Historians have documented this quite well in the modern period – e.g., Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Don’s follow up question got me thinking, especially in our present context.

You see, I had just listened to a two-hour conversation between Vox.com’s Ezra Klein and Sam Harris. It was ostensibly a debate about the science surrounding some of Charles Murray’s controversial claims concerning race and I.Q. In reality it was Sam Harris trying to fight a great battle (in his view) against “identity politics.” He explains what he means by this:

what I mean by identity politics is that you are reasoning on the basis of skin color, or religion, or gender, or some particular trait, which you have by accident, which you can’t change — you fell into that bin through no process of reasoning on your own, you couldn’t be convinced to be white or black — and to reason from that place as though, because you’re you, because you have the skin color you have, certain things are true and very likely incommunicable to other people who don’t share your identity.

For Harris, the basic problem is that if something is true, it’s true for all people, and so the best type of conversation is the one where personal identity is completely erased, our stories have no bearing on the data, we look at the facts completely blind. It’s a learned ignorance of the story of a person’s life, a kind of naiveté about the conditions that produce ideas. He mentions John Rawl’s “veil of ignorance” in this connection.

Harris doesn’t seem to realize that Ignorance is one of secret perks of being a member of the dominant social group. Ignorance especially of the boundaries of your own identity, the roots of your own thought and perception, and the paths that have led you, and still lead you, to your position in the world. You do not need to know that your neighborhood is almost completely white because of red-lining. You do not need to need to be aware that because your name sounds “white” your job application will get more consideration than a name that sounds “black.”

I mention this because I was so struck at the moment of Don’s and Chris’s discussion of how the interpretation of Judaism in the history of Christianity has perfectly prepared us for this moment. You see, the basic problem with Judaism, from a “Christian” perspective, is that it focuses on “the temporal” rather than the eternal, as Justin Martyr put it in his Dialogue with Tyrpho the Jew (circa 150 A.D.). By the time of the Enlightenment, figures such as Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel could argue that Jewish “particularism” stands in stark contrast to Christianity’s “universalism,” or rather Jewish are focused on the “letter” at expense of the “Spirit.”

It is no accident that this interpretation of Christianity eventually made its way into discussions of race in the modern period. In fact, the problem with black Americans, as Ibram Kendi documents so well in Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racists Ideas in America often focuses precisely on their “slavery” to the sensual, their inability to rise above their “base” desires, in short, their stubborn particularity.

This contrast – between Judaism’s/people of color’s particularity and Christianity’s/white European’s universality or reason would be familiar to anyone who has read any philosophy, science, or theology of the modern period. The founder of Biblical theology, F.C. Bauer, famously used Hegel’s understanding of Judaism as a dating method for the Hebrew Bible. The disciples of Charles Darwin couldn’t help but see the term “adaptation” as a word of praise, and of course who has adapted the best among humans but white Europeans, who have raised themselves by reason above mere subsistence to culture?

But what happens when people of the dominant group cease being ignorant? What happens when we take Jesus’ Jewish context seriously? What happens when we no longer seek the veil of ignorance.

Here’s a moment in my story. I am a white male from upstate New York. I was working with youth who were African American in Kansas, and I was trying really hard with them – I was teaching, and telling a story about a black minister who dealt with a KKK member, and non-violently converted the man. I was trying to show that I wasn’t like other white people, that I was aware of myself, that I am “woke,” that I get it. I needed them to see that I was concerned for all people, not just my group.

It was truly embarrassing when next week they called me out on it. They felt it was fake. In fact, what they wanted to hear from me was my story – the story that formed me, Austin Eisele, in all its particularity. A fellow youth worker told me just to be me – and after that I just was myself. Eventually we found points of commonality between my story and theirs, and I realized at that moment that my own particular story is so powerful I didn’t need to somehow assume a standpoint outside myself, in some “universal.”

So here’s my question: can we learn to read the stories of Jesus in his context without resorting to the universal/particular dichotomy? What would that look like? How can we reason from story?

This to me is a critical question in Biblical literacy.

4 thoughts on “Anti-Jewish readings of the gospel are essential to racists ideas

  1. Thank you Austin Eisele!
    Both of your posts on this conversation are very well written and thought provoking. However, I am not so sure I can answer than adequately within your particular perspective. Don’t misread me, you’re genuine, beautifully transparent, compassionate, searching, and serious as are the hosts and their guest Christopher Sanchez. Your questions are necessary, yet still I feel cornered in your sandbox to “get there” in this prevailing sense of logic.
    But let’s ponder a similar instance of being called out.
    Biblical literacy is a neat term. No? It assumes much but about knowledge and particularly belief. Jesus had extraordinary words to say about this in John 5:31-45. Ironically pointing out even their accuser would not be Jesus but Moses himself. His prior comment in this portion of scripture that satisfies this meal of conversation by questioning that diligence of scripture study bringing eternal life.
    Is this part of your critical question concerning biblical literacy?
    Is there a disconnect in proposing understanding Jesus in His (Jewish) context?
    Apparently the prevailing Jewish teaching perspective is clearly at odds with what Jesus is proposing. Would your question of biblical literacy also condemn teachers who studied the scriptures during the time of Jesus also conclude that despite their knowledge of law they were missing something crucial? Is it possible the doctors and teachers of the Jewish law actually forget who the Law-Giver was?

    This sandbox of thought reminds me of a conversation with atheists who are only willing to discuss the beauty of adaption and evolution as long as the question, “Yea, but how did it all begin?” is not asked.
    Jesus proclaimed, “Before Abraham, I am.” Why did that bring hostility if their biblical literacy could not recognize that even Moses spoke about Him?”

    Maybe there is a bigger perspective that grasps beyond us both that reasons beyond ‘story’ that may help us understand the true human symptoms of hostility towards each other.
    Jesus was beginning something new and challenged every heart He confronts, then and now, to follow the only way to eternal life through the aid of the Comforter. The way by which the external, the internal, and the Spirit are cohesively circumcised in believing He and the Father are one. Jesus said God is always working to draw us near which must at some point in this discussion lovingly overwhelm any obstacle of divisions mentioned in your last two posts.
    Peace,
    Chris

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    • Thanks Chris. This is a considered response. The question of course is how we define the “they” Jesus was arguing with. The anti-Jewish readings of the gospel has the “they” as a clearly define group (let’s say, “Judaism”) that just didn’t get what was happening, that didn’t see the spiritual meat from the external coverings. The fact is there was not one prevailing teaching of Judaism in Jesus’ age, nor in any age after (even if, eventually, Rabbinic Judaism became dominant). The first century was remarkable in this way – the teaming variety of Jewish practice and belief. Certainly Jesus challenged what he saw as incorrect interpretations (and, as an aside, his abrasiveness at times startles us but was at home in the ancient world, and in arguments even among the great rabbinic sages themselves), but within Judaism itself there was a large range of belief. Did some people forget the law giver? Surely (not that I know of any Christians like that, right?). Does Jesus’ strong language mean he was condemning his fellow Jews for being “exclusive” and “particularistic”? No. That’s an interpretation layered on that doesn’t match the history of Judaism of the 1st century.

      And yet, even among all this diversity of Judaisms, one thing remained the same: the story of being a part of God’s covenant people. What we’ve tended to do is take this as the husk that Jesus was getting rid of to find the kernel (in Adolf von Harnack’s image). What I am arguing is that this is partly a delusion (because even if you don’t see it, your story forms you), and a delusion that has created a dichotomy that has been a building block of anti-Semitic and racists ideas.

      So a short answer to your question: no. There is no getting beyond story. There is an ineffable mystery all stories participate in, but it’s only grasped as we fully inhabit each of our own stories, and become listeners and tellers of each other’s stories.

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      • Good morning Austin. I hope you are well. I had to digest your thoughts and pray I could see within your story. I am struck by some of your comments regarding the anti-Jewish readings of the Gospel or the ‘abrasiveness’ of Jesus. Hopefully this is telling of your story. The context of the words of Jesus are not ‘anti-Jewish’ nor is words of Jesus presumably ‘abrasive’. It is essential to this discussion to realize the because of the story within and through Jesus we realize His life and mission is a contradiction. To extend the words of Jesus, that inequality (“poor’) will always be among us, cuts right to the core you persist in avoiding. Jewish context and understanding of its gift of Torah up to the incarnation, was limited and fallible. The very fact that there was still poor, proves an argument for the Jewish reality of exclusion. Their pride, like any other human, blinded them to reaching the fullest extent of living Torah which would eliminate inequality. The very ‘story’ of Jesus is defined as the fulfillment of Torah. To then accept the gospels as anti-Semitic propagates followers of the Way back then contradicts any logic offered in your research. However, I do agree that modern Christianity, failed as far as Jewish leaders in promoting equality. Maybe even more so when listening to Protestant Evangelistic rhetoric which covers a wide spectrum for your argument to fit. It is here, I gather, that your argument for social justice, the invitation to story rests comfortably.
        However, from the continuing misunderstand of the Ruach Hako’desh to Holy Spirit, humanity continues to want to play victim to privileged, instead of submitting to the perfecting work of Christ within each and ever one of us. Lest we humble ourselves in a true will offering for a better on, inequality will always be among us, and your argument will continue to stand.

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  2. Hey Chris…I’m not sure your point in this comment – but it does seem you misunderstood me. I did not say the Gospels are anti-Semitic, nor that Jesus being abrasive is bad. Jesus certainly can be abrasive. So could Jeremiah and so could Isaiah, and strong argumentation was not foreign to the Rabbis. I do believe the gospels present Jesus as the living Torah, especially John.

    The question is how that is taken. Anti-Jewish readings blieve Jesus is throwing off the shackles of ‘particularistic’ and legalistic Judaism in favor of a universalistic and spiritual Christianity. I’m saying this binary opposition is wrong. That’s not what was Jesus was doing, nor did the gospels present him as doing this. This does not mean he disagreed with other interpretations of his fellow Jews – he obviously did, just like many Jewish groups disagreed with each other. Nor does this mean Jesus did not prophetically call out leaders – he obviously did. There was a number of ways of dealing with the Roman occupation, and he clearly had his own viewpoint that was at odds with others. The point is that he does not do this from some other vantage point than as a 1st century Jew formed by the story of the Bible. The anti-Jewish readings erases this very context, and thereby creates a binary that becomes a central to racists ideas in the modern period.

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