Jun 12, 2009

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century

I have been meaning for the last month or so to address the rise of anti-Semitism taking place here in the United States. As a Christian dedicated to nonviolent resistance and anti-racism movements, one would be left to wonder why I have not fallen into deep despair over recent events. I see a pattern, whether it is the mainstream media showing only positive stories of the terrorist organization Hamas in Palestine or whether it is Jewish professors in academic setting being silenced because they exposed the hidden history of anti-Semitism in early and current Protestant liberalism. Last month, The United Nations Conference on Racism actually became the UN conference against the nation of Israel and Judaism. Just this week, Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright blames the Jews for keeping President Barack Obama away from him. The recent shooting shooting at a Holocaust museum proves that violence against Jews here in the United States is a symptom of an anti-Semitism that has yet to be confronted in American culture.

The problems lies with the North American church which struggles with not only the history of racism in the United States, but also the anti-Semitic history of both here in the U.S.A. and the history of the Church universal (oh, say, the Crusades and the Holocaust, for instance). Many Christians in the ecumenical circles try to whitewash over the differences between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam claiming that these are the three great Abrahamic faiths and that really, as monotheistic religions founded upon different prophets, we should all just get along and not even address histories of racial violence and real theological differences. But there is a problem with this approach: difference is viewed as PROBLEMATIC! On the other side of the coin, some in evangelical circles have particular readings of the New Testament in which the Church REPLACES Israel as God’s chosen people. This conclusion can only be drawn if one first presupposes that it is necessary to read the New Testament into the “Old” Testament. The Old Testament, then, and therefore the Jewish Scriptures, are viewed as not being a source of revelation with its own history and integrity outside of the Christian tradition. Thus, when Barack Obama and James Dobson argue over certain passages in Leviticus , we could hear Christian leaders on Fox News claiming that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount SUPERCEDES the Jewish law.
UNIVERSALISM nor SUPERCESSIONISM are proper options to addressing the current predicaments faced by many North American Jews or the people of Israel. The church should look for a theological answer in the tradition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the leaders of the Confessing Church movement during Nazi Germany. In one of the documents he helped to author, the Bethel Confession, protested against the Aryan Clause that the German Christians were trying to enforce in churches, having segregated church services for Jewish Christians, etc., etc. It is important to note, that even though Bonhoeffer says that the Church living among all nations takes the place of the Old Testament people of the covenant, it is a theological argument against a NATION-STATE (Germany of the Third Reich) which claimed to be the new Israel. In Bonhoeffer’s European context, state churches still held sway over and against free churches. The freedom of conscience was a foreign idea. Notions God’s faithfulness and our faithful response are the keys to understanding Bonhoeffer’s political theology; this requires living out the biblical narrative of God’s suffering love in solidarity with victims. Christian support for Israel should not be a blind, uncritical love affair, but grounded in the recognition of God’s faithfulness in the story of Israel and Jesus the Messiah.

“God abundantly shows God’s faithfulness by still keeping faith with Israel after the flesh, from whom was born Christ after the flesh, despite all their unfaithfulness, even after the crucifixion. It is God’s will to complete the salvation of the world, which began with the election of Israel, through these selfsame Jews (Romans 9-11). Therefore God continues to preserve a ‘holy remnant of Israel after the flesh, which can neither be absorbed into another nation by emancipation and assimilation, nor become one nation among others as a result of the efforts of Zionist and other similar movements, nor be exterminated by Pharaoh-like measures. […]
No nation can ever be commissioned to avenge on the Jews the murder at Golgotha. ‘Vengeance is mine, says the LORD.’ (Deuteronomy 32:35, Hebrews 10:30). We reject any attempt to misuse the miracle of God’s especial faithfulness toward Israel after the flesh as an indication of the religious significance of the Jewish people or of another people. […] The special element in the Jewish Christians does not lie in their race or their character or their history, but in God’s special faithfulness toward Israel after the flesh and in that alone. The way in which the Jewish Christians have a special position in the church which is not based on any legal ruling in itself makes them a living memorial of God’s faithfulness with the church and is a sign that the barrier between Jew and Gentile has been broken down and that faith in Christ may not be perverted into a national religion or a racially determined Christianity. It is the task of the Christians who come from the Gentile world to expose themselves to persecution rather than to surrender, willingly or unwillingly, even in one respect, their kinship with Jewish Christians in the church, founded on Word and Sacrament.” (Bonhoeffer, 136-137)

In other words, the Christian response to the anti-Semitism should not a joining in of the chorus of liberal and conservative antipathy towards the story of the Jews, but a joining in solidarity with those being persecuted. The cross of Christ, the historical revelation of God's complete and unalterable faithfulfness, deserves no other.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Geffrey B. Kelly, and F. Burton Nelson. A Testament to Freedom : The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rev. ed. [San Francisco, Calif.]: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.



Anonymous said...


Tell me you've already purchased Carter's book, "Race: A Theological Account."

He addresses the same issue you're articulating here, chiefly the modern racism in historic Western Christianity, especially when Western Christians departed from the Jewish faith.

According to Carter, the problem occured progressively, and particularly when Western Christianity had departed from and ultimately betrayed its Jewish root. Thus Carter observes “modernity’s racial imagination has its genesis in the theological problem of Christianity’s quest to sever itself from its Jewish roots.” By this proposition, Carter contends that, in the process, Western christians speedily equated Western culture with Christianity (and vice versa). Through this medium, “racial imagination” came into being; resulting in “racist imagination.” So the Jews were “racialized” as a people of the Orient and thus Judaism as “religion of the East” (4). Ultimately, “racial imagination” (the first step in the process) proved as well to be a racist imagination (the second step in the process) of white supremacy . Carter concurs that, “within the gulf enacted between Christianity and the Jews, the racial, which proves to be a racist, imagination was forged” (ibid). Based on Carter’s theory, one can see clearly that the first step (racial imagination) and the second step (racist imagination) are integratively incorporated to advance and maintian (modern) racial preference and racism in Western-eurocentric Christendom.

At any rate, I thought I would add a little thing to this important topic.

Sowing the Seed said...

I find it interesting that you see US media coverage showing only positive portraits of socio-
political/terrorist organizations like Hamas. In my opinion, the US media doesn’t provide
enough historical or political context to allow for anything but a negative view of such
organizations. I’ll have to watch/read/listen differently.:)

Furthermore, most USAmericans are ignorant of the “hows” and “whys” that led
to the emergence and perpetuate the concept of Zionism. Until these notions are cleared up—
nay, presented, then USAmerican Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestinian camps will talk past each other.

I’ll leave Bonhoeffer alone because I’m well-versed in his work, but I have trouble with Rabbi
Michael Melchoior’s [who’s cited in the article you linked to about the UN] oversimplification
of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. No discussion of Israel-Palestine can gloss over the fact that
there were Palestinians and Israelis who had been objectified by the whims of imperial powers in
the first half of the 20th century (if not prior and since). I think overlooking the similarities of
Israelies and Palestinians-- and for that matter, Christians, Jews, and Muslims—is as problematic
as overlooking their differences.

I really need to think about Bonhoeffer for a good while before I jump on board. He definitely
sounds good.