While our society is having a serious conversation about race, we also need to have one about religion. Anti-Semitic violence has skyrocketed in recent years. Even the synagogue in my hometown of Poway, California, fell victim to a mass shooting. Everyone knows about the Nazi rally in Charlottesville, but that was personal for me. Jefferson’s rotunda is where I defended my dissertation. My firstborn, Samuel, saw his first movie (a Winnie the Pooh film) as a toddler only a block or two away from where Heather Heyer was murdered. Those two days shook me to my core and were the worst days of my life.
Our society is doing a lot of repenting in the direction of justice for the history of slavery. It’s way, way overdue. Every confederate memorial needs to be destroyed. Every law needs to be passed to bring economic equality and equality of opportunity to African-Americans as a people. Our criminal justice system and police regulations all need a massive overhaul to guarantee fairness and transparency.
I’ve seen pictures of Shoah survivors encouraging the mostly younger persons at BLM protests. It warms my heart. They totally understand that we are all in this together, that we share a common cause.
I’m not sure who will organize this conversation, what will bring it about or if I have a role to play, but such a conversation needs to happen. Specifically, we need a public conversation that seeks to move toward justice in regard to the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, between Jews and Christians.
Some of the usual topics could include:
- how Jesus was really, actually, truly Jewish (not a Christian)
- how Paul was really, actually, truly Jewish (not a Christian)
- the role of Christians and really terrible Christian theology in the history of anti-Semitism, from the 3rd century forward, especially the Crusades and the Shoah
Two additional, uncommon topics also need to be part of these conversations, if we are to go historically deep and do some serious, critical self-reflection as a society:
A Critical History of Messianic Judaisms
Yes, Messianic Judaisms, plural. Messianic Judaisms have appeared many times throughout history, with several well known messiahs besides Jesus in the 1st and 2nd century CE, and even the Rebbe in Hasidic Judaism in the 20th. The Jesus movement was certainly one of these, one that so successfully assimilated Greco-Roman culture that it became truly a world religion by the 4th century. Even though Jerusalem was destroyed, many Jesus followers in the 2nd-4th century were Jews and continued to be observant, hear the Torah in Hebrew, practice brith and kashrut, as Andrew Jacobs has wonderfully explained. But Messianic Judaism today has no historical connection to these actual Jewish persons and communities. Like Evangelicalism more generally, Christian Messianic Jews think they can travel back in time nearly 2000 years, as if the whole history of Rabbinic and Medieval Jewish literature and a full millennium of Christian displacement and outright persecution of Jews can simply be disregarded, as if well-educated, thoughtful, justice-minded Rabbis today are not far, far better guides for persons who are genuinely interested in practicing or converting to Judaism. Messianic Judaism in American Evangelicalism today is a pernicious form of systemic anti-Semitism.
An Appreciative History of Semitic Christianities
When I was in seminary, I researched and wrote my master’s thesis on the doctrine of Election and Predestination, essentially about how early Christians appropriated and eventually radically transformed the Jewish idea of being the “chosen people.” That research led me very intentionally to apply and be accepted in one of the very few PhD programs in the country that brought together the study of Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity. I still remember my TaNaKh and Talmud classes with much fondness, while I focused on early Christian reception of the crucifixion narrative in my dissertation, my research into Judaism definitely played an important part in that. My dissertation research also opened my ignorant white Western eyes to the rich, beautiful, deep and broad history of Semitic Christianities, particularly the Syriac tradition, whose language Christians as far away as Persia, India, and China spoke in their worship, maintaining a close Semitic cultural connection with Jesus and his earliest followers. The Syriac (suryoyo) language gave us our first Christian hymns, our first Christian systematic theology, and much, much more.
What astounded me so much about the Syriac/Semitic Christian tradition was that I hardly knew it existed until about halfway into my doctoral studies. I was able to go through Bachelor’s and two Master’s programs at an Evangelical Christian seminary and never managed to read one single Semitic Christian author. That’s tragic and it’s completely unacceptable. To put it differently, Evangelical Theology and Church History and even Western History more generally are plagued by a massive amount of systemic anti-Semitic bias against Christian Semitic traditions.
A Closing Reflection
While it was hectic and I was in the middle of dissertation research, the year I spent teaching Jewish Studies at Iowa State was one of the highlights and best times of my academic career. Both in Charlottesville previously, and in Ames later, my students and I were warmly welcomed to keep pesach and shabbat with our local Jewish communities. I miss that. That time is a big part of why my middle child, Elijah Moshe, has a Jewish name.
Life and education have taught me that real diversity isn’t just about the amount of melanin in people’s skin. Race isn’t even biologically real. But the effects of racism are.
Real diversity, deep diversity, is a positive embrace of whole persons and communities, about loving people enough to love their cultures, foods, languages, art forms, music forms, all of it. It is to become cross-cultural travelers, vagabonds of the mind, body, and soul. Is it to immerse ourselves respectfully, as learners and visitors, and to accept hospitality graciously, in each other’s communities.
We need to create a society that loves and cherishes and values persons, communities, and cultures of color, especially African-Americans.
We also need to create a society that loves and cherishes and values all Semitic-speaking persons, including Jews, Syriac Christians, Arabs, and does so in their totality, as persons, communities, and cultures.