Note from Michelle: The theme this month on our blog is race. We welcome your reflections on this topic – not just this month, but throughout the year. What are you reading or watching that is challenging you? What kinds of conversations around race are happening in your church and community? We welcome your submissions here.
There are many dimensions to the needed ongoing discussion about race in our society. Today, I’m sharing some personal thoughts about an old, old kind of racial discrimination that has found a comfortable home in too many churches.
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After I was free to begin attending church after I turned 18, a very strange phenomenon happened during worship services. Any time a hymn or Bible verse would mention Israel, several people from the church would turn to glance – or, in some cases, gape – at me. Everything was so new and foreign to me that I didn’t notice at first, but a couple of friends pointed it out to me. I suspect that it was for most the reflex of awkward curiosity: For that decidedly homogenous group, I was a novelty because I was the sole Jewish person in their midst.
One part of me wanted to remind them that I loved Jesus the Messiah just as they did, and another part of me wanted to interrupt the service and say, “You guys remember that Jesus and his disciples were all Jewish, right?”
Since that time, I’ve been in all kinds of Christian settings. Some Bible/non-denominational churches of which I’ve been a part were very fond of the idea of Israel primarily because the modern nation’s existence aligned with their Left Behind end-times theology. Some Charismatic congregations even randomly appropriated and fetishized bits of rabbinic tradition, such as dancing during worship services with prayer shawls (tallitot) or blowing shofars at prayer gatherings in order to demonstrate their philo-Semitic bona fides. These groups often treated me like a trophy of some kind, at least until I opened my mouth and questioned some of their theology and/or practices. I’ve learned over the decades that many churches don’t prize a trophy who talks back.
While a profession of love for Israel doesn’t always translate to actual respect and meaningful relationship with the Jewish people living up the street, a far more noxious stream of Christian theology comes from the many, many churches and denominations who believe that the Church has replaced Israel in God’s plan to redeem the world. As I wrote back in 2012, It is true that the Church is now participating in the mission of proclamation given to Israel, she does so because she has been grafted into Israel, not because God took a chainsaw and stump grinder in order to eradicate Israel from His eternal plans. Replacement theology, formally known as supercessionism, has long fueled anti-Semitic sentiment*, and is no friend of the Jewish people. It is a heresy as old as Marcion’s teaching in the 2nd century A.D., but has been domesticated and renewed in every generation including ours.
As my friend Carol is fond of saying, “You can fall off a horse from either side.” In other words, both of these theological postures have the kind of gravity that will reveal your lack of balance and send you tumbling into error. And these are not ivory tower theological ideas we’re talking about here. These bad ideas have had terrible consequences for my people, and they have erased the root from the memory and experience of all those now welcomed in to the promise given to Abraham. I have been on the receiving end of anti-Semitism throughout my years following Jesus. Though the time I ended up with my picture plastered on the home page of a popular White Supremacist website in response to something I wrote might have been the most adrenaline-inducing experience of anti-Semitism, the steady drip-drip-drip of bad theology in the church from people who are reading the same Bible I am has been the most exhausting.
Today, I am surprised to find that I’m doing the very things I dreamed of doing in the first church I ever attended: loving my Redeemer in the company of my Gentile siblings in the faith and reminding those who read or listen to my words that Jesus, the Savior of the world, is Jewish.
And though I felt terribly isolated 4 decades ago, I know now I am not alone. There may be between 100,000 and 250,000 Jewish followers of Jesus in the world today – more now than at any time since the first century. In other words, it is long past time for the church to learn to stay upright on the horse at last.
*Related – a worthwhile read for those concerned about the rise in conspiracy theories, and where so many of them seem to lead: https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/taylor-greene-conspiracy-theories