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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’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.

Anti-Jewish Readings and Identity Politics

“Know thyself? If I knew myself, I’d run away.” – Goethe

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.”

Members of the non-dominant social group do not have this luxury. They must and do know the boundaries of their identity, or they will be killed. This was Emmitt Till’s mistake: to “not know his place.” Victor Hugo Green wrote his guidebook for travel across the U.S. so black vacationers could be aware of where their paths led.

In George and Don’s excellent conversation with Chris Sanchez a question arose that presses on this issue. Chris began by mentioning how Scripture has been used as a weapon against people of color, and then Don followed up by asking Chris how the anti-Jewish/anti-Semitic readings of Scripture may have impacted this.

At first blush there does not seem an obvious link except by analogy – the terms we use to disparage Pharisees can also be terms we use to disparage people of color, for example. The impulse of creating an “us” and “them” is a powerful yearning in human culture, and it’s no surprise that the “enemies” of Christ and the “enemies” of whites can be talked about in the same breath. But the link is even more direct than this.

Take one of the most influential thinkers from the past 250 years, Immanuel Kant. For him, the Judenfrage (the Jewish Question) and the Rassenfrage (the Race Question) are intimately bound up. The problem, as J. Kameron Carter’s excellent discussion of this issue argues in his Race: A Theological Account, is the problem of the Enlightenment: how to make human life fully rational.

On the one hand there is the life of sensuality, of slavery to the particular and “empirical,” of heteronomy. This is where Kant places the “Jewish nation,” which in his schema is a stand in for all non-European peoples. Their religion is legalistic, it focuses on the external rather than the internal, and doesn’t produce a free people. That’s why Jews are a “nation of cheaters” (Kant’s words!), enslaved to the empirical.

On the other hand there is a life of reason, of acting according to universal principles, of autonomy. This is where Kant places only the white race of Europeans, because they have the teachings of Jesus, which is the “dejudaization” of religion.  

Thus, Jews are on the side of heteronomy because their law is external, while Christianity has killed the letter and stuck with the Spirit, thus making religion rational. In fact, “the euthanasia of Judaism is pure moral religion, freed from all the ancient statutory teachings…” (Kant) As Carter puts it, “Christianity, reconstituted as the moral religion par excellence of reason, extols a Jesus who, rather than disclosing YHWH or the God of Israel as the ground of redemption for Jews and Gentiles alike, instead affirms what the human species ‘can or should make of itself.’” (107)

Kant’s arguments were of course not original. In fact, Justin Martyr makes a version of this argument in 150 A.D. in his Dialogue with Trypho, where he argues that the Jews do not follow the “eternal law” but instead focus on external rituals. For Justin, as for Kant, the problem with Judaism is its particularity, its focus on the physical, its focus on ritual and the sensual or the empirical. A brief look at the discussions of law in Augustine, Martin Luther, and a host of Christian theologians confirm that the basic terms used in these anti-Semitic readings hardly change.

What is more interesting is that the terms Justin Martyr and Kant use were terms employed by racists thinkers throughout the modern period, as documented by Ibram X. Kendi in his excellent Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. He catalogues the origin of some of the West’s most enduring racist ideas, and so often these ideas focus precisely on the notion of the African “race” as characterized by sensuality, by inability to reason internally, by needing the whip, or something external, to make improve them. Even when used for anti-slavery ends, as in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the notion of blacks as “docile, child-like and affectionate” (Stowe), or rather blacks as connect more deeply with the “empirical” (Kant), plays precisely on the distinction between the “Spirit” (internal) and the “letter” (external) seen in so much anti-Jewish Biblical exegesis.

The problem that Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers had – how to make the world more “rational” – found Jews a problem, while in America the more pressing problem was “blacks.” The anti-Jewish readings of Jesus’ story were essential to this process, because it laid the basic dichotomy of the universalism of Christianity over-against the particularism of Judaism, which during the Enlightenment became the universality of reason against the particularism of religion.

Of course, the content of this debate is still with us, even if the terms have changed. I recently read a Facebook comment thread that discussed the recent arrest of some black men at a Starbucks. One of the terms that kept coming up was “common sense.” If those men just used some common sense, they’d have been fine. If Eric Garner had just stopped struggling, he wouldn’t have been strangled by the police. Common sense – universally available reason, right?

A few weeks ago Ezra Klein and Sam Harris had a discussion in a Podcast about the “problem” of “identity politics” and science. Sam Harris invited Charles Murray on his Podcast, a man’s whose book The Bell Curve had popularized the racist thesis that people of color have a lower general intelligence based on genetics (I won’t explain why this is racists here – it would take too long! Read Kendi, and you’ll get a sense). Harris took umbrage with’s coverage of this (Klein was the general editor at the time), and he wanted to debate Klein on this point.

Harris’ biggest complaint was the “politics of identity” – that is, the politics that says one must consider a person’s “identity” when discussing things like facts and science. He defended Charles Murray because Murray was defending the “data,” and it should have nothing to do with “politics.” At one point Klein astutely argues that Harris himself doesn’t see that he is defending his own identity in this exchange – a charge that Harris denied.

But Klein is right. Harris simply did not acknowledge he was defending someone of his own guild because he felt his guild under attack. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that! Defend your methods, I say! But Harris’ most amazing tacit was to remain completely ignorant of what he was doing, while arguing that other people were doing it to him!

That, I say, is the secret privilege of the dominant social group.

-Austin Eisele