Thursday, April 1, 2021

Christian Seders, Christian Supersessionism, and Christian Cluelessness

Over the past 25 years, I've preached about 10 times on Palm Sunday.  Over those 25 years and those 10 sermons, a lot has changed in my life, in the church, and in the world.

Yet the core of my Palm Sunday Sermon is the same as it was 25 years ago, regardless of whether we read the version of the passion from Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  This is not because I am unoriginal and lazy.  It's because sin abounds.

My Palm Sunday sermon goes roughly as follows:

--It specifically names, outlines, and calls out the anti-Judaism in the gospel narratives of Jesus' arrest, trial, death and crucifixion.  Each gospel seeks to shift blame from the Romans to the Jews, and each gospel assigns a collective blame to the Jewish people for Jesus' death.

--I specifically name these places in the gospel narrative; in Year A we have the appalling line from Matthew 27:25 "Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”, but they all do do it.

--I point out that this is simply not true.  Crucifixion is a Roman punishment, Jesus was condemned by the Roman state, perceived as a threat to public order.  All the gospels were written decades after Jesus' death, and shifting blame to the Jews reflects struggles within Judaism between those who accepted Jesus as Messiah and those who did not, and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the year 70 was a decisive turning point.  

--I name the consequences of this: assigning collective responsibility is at the root of a profound dehumanization and "othering" of the Jewish people, so that when Christians came into positions of power and authority, it became the foundation for centuries of Christian persecution of the Jewish people.  

In 388, the Christian emperor Theodosius confirmed the ruling of local authorities that a Jewish synagogue burned by a Christian mob should be rebuilt at the rioters' expense.  Bishop Ambrose of Milan, one of the most important bishops in the Empire, personally appealed to Theodosius to overturn this ruling, noting that a synagogue was "a home of unbelief, a house of impiety, a receptacle of folly, which God himself has condemned."  Ambrose exulted in its destruction, thankful that "there might not be a place where Christ was denied." 

As Christians prepared for the First Crusade, stirred up against Muslims in the Holy Land, many made the connection to enemies of Christ right at home, and massacred Jewish

Jews being burned alive, Bavaria,
1338, accused of
desecrating the Eucharistic Host.

communities.  Some Jewish communities in Rhineland Germany committed suicide as they heard the mobs approaching, rather than be butchered and have their young children kidnapped.  

In the Middle Ages, Jewish communities were scapegoated during the Black Death in the 1340s, blamed for causing the plague and poisoning wells, with massacres and violence.

[We could go on and on and on and on with examples of anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish violence by Christians.]

I point out in the sermon that many Christian communions have officially denounced and rejected this.  The Second Vatican Council formally rejected the notion that Jews were collectively responsible for Jesus' death, the worldwide Lambeth Conference of Bishops did so in 1988, as have many individual member provinces of the Anglican Communion.

I then talk about why I am mentioning all of this:

1)  Anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism persist in our society.  In fact, one of the big changes over the 25 years I have preached a version of this sermon is that anti-Jewish incidents have INCREASED, and increased dramatically in the past 10 years.  You can read all about it here:

A rabbi friend of mine shared with me over lunch how they have installed metal doors which they lock during every service and do not let anyone in after the service begins, and have trained ushers to keep an eye on anyone they do not recognize as a way to identify potential risks, all because of threats made against the synagogue.  

He then said to me, "Spain was a safe place for Jews, until it changed and it was no longer safe.  I sometimes wonder if the USA will not be safe for my Jewish grandchildren, and we will all have to emigrate again."

2)  Apart from this kind of virulent, violent anti-Semitism, there is also a casual, lazy, ignorant anti-Judaism born mostly of privilege and cluelessness.  This form is rife in so many churches, even in many progressive denominations that otherwise pride themselves as liberal, inclusive, open churches.  Here's some things which mark this anti-Judaism:

--"The god of the Old Testament is wrathful and judgmental, the God of Jesus is a god of love."

--"Judaism was a rigid set of rules, which Jesus freed us from to worship God in a more

From a Christian website.

affirming way."

--"So-and-so is such a Pharisee, such a rigid zealot."

And that's just a handful of examples.

These are all just as untrue as calling Jews Christ-killers; all are caricatures; all do not reflect the biblical and historical record.  Understanding the Pharisees solely through New Testament sources would be like trying to understand the British solely through pamphlets issued by the American Sons of Liberty.

And while not as intentionally malevolent, this kind of discourse still perpetuates an "othering" of Judaism, and its inferiority in comparison with Christianity.

We need to name the anti-Judaism baked into our gospel narrative; reject it; and continue to call it out in all forms. 

I conclude my Palm Sunday sermon by saying, "I hope I don't have to preach this again next year."

And guess what?  I always do. Year after year.  Because we still continue to see this kind of anti-Judaism in our world. 

This year, apparently I need to send a copy of the sermon to the Church of England.  The Church of England posted a resource for Maundy Thursday for families to have prayers at home, due to the pandemic limiting in-person worship.  This resource included the following

words (from a screenshot; the resource has been removed):

"While the prayers and actions echo motifs from the Jewish seder, this is not such a meal.  Jewish people will understand the resonance of the symbols and practices in different ways from Christians.

"The household gathers around a table in the kitchen.  A bowl of warm water and a towel, a dish with freshly baked flatbread, and a small jar of honey and sprigs of the herb rosemary are placed on the table.

"When all have gathered, the youngest says, 'Why is this night so different from all other nights?'

"And the eldest person answers, 'This was the night when God delivered his people Israel from bondage and oppression in Egypt.'"

Let's count the ways this is wrong!

1) The Church of England itself has guidelines that discourage this notion of appropriation of the seder, issued all the way back in (checks watch) 2019.  The Church of England's guidelines note that "the merging of liturgy from Christian and non-Christian sources raises

Next they'll go with the 
Krusty the Klown defense.

questions that need very careful consideration."

2)  The document claims it is not a seder, based on the detailed argument that...they themselves say it's not a seder.  Apparently, based on subsequent social media postings to do damage control, they claimed it's not a seder because there was no actual meal.  Thus this is not a seder according to their own in-house hair-splitting definition of what a seder is.

This is either willfully deceitful, or simply plain ignorant.  Christians don't get to define what a seder is.  Judaism gets to define what a seder is, and, guess what?  Without getting into a rabbit hole of Jewish liturgical theology, while there is no kind of central rule-making body in Judaism, the overwhelming majority of Jewish sources would understand that a seder is not just the actual meal itself.

3)  The document then does more than "echo", it practically lifts directly one of the most poignant and central aspects of the seder haggadah:  specifically the youngest child asking a question about why this night is different from other nights.  Depite claiming it's not a seder, it then LIFTS DIRECTLY FROM A SEDER.  

Christians don't get to define Jewish liturgical theology, and then use that to justify liturgical appropriation from Judaism. 

4)  But that's just what this does!  As if anticipating that very critique, the document then states, "Jewish people will understand the resonance of the symbols and practices in different ways from Christians."

Read that again.  This document then defines how Jewish people will understand the resonances of this service.  This is so mind-bogglingly clueless or arrogant, I really can't tell which, but I haven't worried much about it, because it doesn't matter.  

The notion that Christians get to speak definitively for Jews -- "Jewish people will understand..." -- simply needs to be rejected out of hand.

The resource was withdrawn barely 12 hours later during an outpouring of social media criticism, including from your truly.

But wait for it.

Then came the non-apology!  The following dropped on April 1.  I screenshotted it as well in case this peevish, supercilious, non-apology also gets withdrawn and removed from the website:

"The Maundy Thursday video and text has been withdrawn because of the perceived

Let's have Chidi break
down this non-apology.

association of the readings and actions with a Jewish seder meal.

“The brief prayers and actions are not, and were not intended to be a Christianised seder, as the text pointed out. 

“However, we do not wish to encourage an impression that was not intended by the resource and apologise for any offence caused."

Let's count the ways this is wrong!

1) It refuses to accept any critique.  It was withdrawn due to "perceived associations" with a Jewish seder.  It refuses to acknowledge it openly incorporates one of the most central components of the seder haggadah. 

This is either willful ignorance -- perhaps they truly don't understand what they've done -- or they simply don't care that they appropriated Jewish liturgy, that it's theirs for the taking.

2)  The circular reasoning is alive and well.  It was not intended to be a seder, because the resource said it wasn't intended to be a seder.  "The brief prayers and actions are not, and were not intended..."  They said it's not a Christianised seder; therefore it is not a Christianised seder.

The arrogant privilege here is breathtaking.  Central to a basic multicultural, diversity, and sensitivity training is:

distinguishing between intent and how something is received; just because one does not intend to be anti-Jewish or racist means nothing if that is how it is received or perceived.  

Frankly, I don't care whether this was intended to be a Christianised seder.  

Letting those in the majority get to define what anti-Judaism is reinforces the power of marginalization by those with status and privilege in society

3)  It refuses to apologis(z)e.   It later says it was only withdrawn because it did not want to encourage "an impression that was not intended" and "apologised for an offence caused."  

And it concludes with the classic non-apology, "We're sorry some people who are clearly wrong were somehow offended."

A statement which admits no wrongdoing, declines to accept the validity of any critique, and then apologizes for an offence is clearly doesn't consider valid, is not an apology.

So while the resource was withdrawn, anyone with a concern was essentially told to f**k off.  

Look, I have some background here -- one of my PhD comprehensive exams was in Christian-Jewish relations; I've been to actual Jewish liturgies like bar/bat mitzvahs, seders, and Jewish funerals; I was the Ecumenical and Interreligious Officer to the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and worked closely with Jewish organizations -- but I'm far from an expert.

Please, literally read *anything* by Dr. Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski and Dr. Amy-Jill Levine.  Google their names and click on any link that comes up, that'll bring you to important, deep, powerful resources that far outstrip this silly blog.

So while you are all here:

Don't do Christian seders.  Don't do anything that looks like a Christian seder.  Don't borrow imagery, don't "echo themes", and don't lift language directly from seders, tweak a few words and call it perfectly fine.

Because this perpetuates Christian supersessionism:  the belief that Christianity has replaced and fulfilled Judaism.  Christianity began to interpret the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 as God's rejection of the Jewish people, and that Christians were the real chosen people.

The Jews were at best replaced; at worst condemned and rejected, as noted above when Ambrose exulted in the destruction of a synagogue as a place that rejected God.

We see this supersessionism in the caricatured depictions of an Old Testament God as vengeful and the God of Jesus as loving and fuzzy: this is a simplistic, distorted interpretation of both the Tanakh and the New Testament.

We see this supersessionism in Christian seders: the privileged notion that somehow Jewish liturgy is theirs for the taking for Christians to do with and define as they believe.

This is why (deep dive here) as a parish priest I use Track 1 from the Revised Common Lectionary during the time between Pentecost and Advent.  Track 1 reads through books from the Tanakh sequentially. Track 2 tends to choose readings from the Old Testament that reflect, echo (there's that word again!), or prefigure themes in the New Testament.  

Track 1 lets the Tanakh speak for itself, without constantly making it a proof text of the New Testament.

Does Christianity see itself in continuity with aspects of Judaism?  Undoubtedly, Christians dealt with that in its response to Marcionism.  Are there ways in which Christianity sees the Old Testament as prefiguring Jesus?  Sure, I loves me a good typology.  But neither of these means we reduce the Old Testament to solely be a proof text to the New Testament in our liturgical cycle, which is why I use Track 1.     

These have been issues Christianity has always wrestled with.  Paul addresses the relationship between Judaism and the Jesus movement in the Letter to the Romans, arguing that God has not rejected the Jewish people, and that Christians should be careful about trusting too much in their own righteousness.

Christians, you don't need to peddle overt or implicit anti-Judaism to be a good Christian.

Christians, you do not get to define appropriation, and do not get to ignore how actions might be received or perceived, regardless of intent. 

If you find yourself doing this, apologize and try not to do it.  Christians have been doing this for 2,000 years, if it anti-Judaism was easy to correct, we wouldn't have to deal with this year in and year out.

Our actions and words matter.  Anti-semitic and anti-Jewish actions have increased dramatically in Europe and North America.   

So: don't do Christian seders.  You know what?  We have perfectly cromulent liturgies of our own! 

Also:  looks like I'm giving another version of my Palm Sunday sermon again next year.


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