Reading Wilfred McClay’s “What Christians See in Jews and Israel in 2020 of the Common Era” reminded me of Father Matthew’s arrival in south Louisiana.
A few years back, I was part of a small group of Eastern Orthodox Christians who started a mission parish here in my hometown. Orthodox Christians are thin on the ground in the Deep South, and we had to call a priest from up North. Life in a small Mississippi River town proved quite an adjustment for our Yankee priest. Shortly after he arrived, he took his golden-threaded vestments—the most elaborate of all Christian traditions—to a dry cleaner in town. When he laid them out on the counter, the African-American clerk exclaimed, “Oooh! Those look like they got God all over them!”
The young black woman asked Father Matthew about the meaning of the vestments. He began to explain that the symbolism is drawn from the Hebrew Bible’s description of the vestments worn by priests engaged in the Temple service. To the cleric’s utter astonishment, the woman, with nothing but a high-school education, began to discourse with him about the relevant passages from what Christians call the Old Testament.
She knew her Bible well. Later, when Father Matthew told this story to me with delight, I told him that this is not surprising. Rural Southerners, especially African-Americans, may not be well credentialed by the magistrates of American meritocracy, but they know the Bible well. They have been steeped in the story of the Jewish people from childhood. They are more at home, imaginatively, in the Land of Israel than they would be in, say, the state of Massachusetts, and more familiar with the Sea of Galilee than the Gulf of Mexico.
Welcome to the South, Father.
There were no Jews in St. Francisville during my 1970s childhood. The 1927 flood wiped out the businesses owned by Jewish families, and they moved on. But to grow up in the American South is to live within Hebraic moral horizons, and to see one’s life through the biblical narrative of ancient Israel. Or, at least, it was—more on that in a moment.
Let me recreate the Louisiana I knew growing up. Though my rural town was predominantly Protestant, it was not evangelical. We had none of the 1970s End Times mania that swept through Evangelical churches, and turned the state of Israel into an object of adoration and the catalyzing precursor of the Apocalypse. As I recall, we implicitly supported Israel because the Jews were the Lord’s people, and because for people like us it seemed the most natural thing in the world to have the Lord’s people living in the land they were promised.
There was in our town, around the corner from our Methodist church, a long-abandoned synagogue, Temple Sinai, the existence of which was a profound mystery to me as a boy. I knew of Sinai from the Bible, and from our annual family viewing of The Ten Commandments at Easter. But there, in our very village, was an outpost of the holy mountain! Nobody could explain it to me, other than to say that Jews lived here once. Mount Sinai in our town—imagine!
There were purely worldly reasons for this philo-Semitism too. Southern men esteem honor and military prowess. I recall being at the hunting camp with my father, on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi, in the late fall of 1973. I was six years old. The hunt was over, and the men were drinking whiskey, smoking, and talking. “Them Jewboys sure can fight,” a man said, with palpable admiration. On the drive home, I asked my dad what that meant, and he told me about the Yom Kippur war.
That was Judaism to me and my Southern Christian people. It wasn’t sophisticated or well-informed, but it was sincere and deeply felt. In truth, there wasn’t much consciously theological about it. Nobody in town would have taken much interest in the abstract idea that Christianity offers the world a theology that broadens and replaces God’s earlier covenant with the children of Israel, much less the theological term “supersessionism” that describes that set of beliefs. Jews were the people of the Book, and so were we. And them Jewboys sure could fight. What’s not to love?
Many years later, in talking to an elderly local woman whose Jewish family had converted to Christianity, I learned that the story wasn’t so simple. She told me about her youth, with people hissing “dirty Jew” at her. It grieved me to hear this, but it wasn’t entirely surprising. Around the same time, I was learning that the Klan had been active in our town in the 1960s. It made me understand something I had heard an elderly man say bitterly back in the day: that after the 1927 flood, “the Jews cleared out of here, like rats leaving a sinking ship.” Perhaps it was easier for white Southern Christians to be philo-Semitic when there weren’t any actual Jews around to complicate the narrative.
The more important point, though, is that many American Christians once had a deeply felt connection to the Jewish people mediated through their knowledge and love of the Hebrew Bible. However simplistic, contradictory, and inarticulate it may have been, it existed. I remember it. The supersessionism discussion is important for theologians and intellectuals, but for most of us ordinary Christians, it didn’t enter our minds back then, and I doubt it does very much today either.
I don’t worry about supersessionism. I worry about the woman at the dry cleaners. She’s a dying breed.
In my town, I would wager that the encounter my Orthodox priest had that day could only have happened with an African-American Christian. There was a time when familiarity with the Christian Old Testament was normative in the South, across races. No longer. Biblical illiteracy is common now. I attribute this to the curse of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith’s term for the parasitic pseudo-religion that has conquered much of both Christianity and Judaism in this country.
Smith’s research has uncovered that most young Christians (and Jews) regard faith as a psychological tool to help bring about a sense of personal well-being. The God they worship is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is not the God of St. Peter, St. Paul, and the Blessed Virgin Mary. The false god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a projection of subjective desires that are manifest in order to comfort and placate and affirm. The embrace of this false god of nowhere, of nobody, and of nothing will have unfathomable consequences both for Jews and Christians.
Here’s what I mean. The Southern Catholic novelist Walker Percy wrote of the Jews as a sign of God’s enduring presence in history. The continued existence of the Jewish people, he wrote, cannot be subsumed in universalist theories. For Percy, Christian orthodoxy holds that the church, which he once called “a Jewish sect,” is an extension of Israel.
In describing Christianity as a Jewish sect, Percy is describing an intricate relationship between universalism and particularism. Although Christianity is a religion that makes universal claims, it emerged from God’s revelation to a particular people, in a particular place, in a particular time in human history. Whether or not Christians believe that Israel’s covenant with God remains valid—this is a point that remains contested among some of us—all affirm that Christianity apart from Judaism makes no sense.
For Percy, both the Jewish people and that “Jewish sect” called the Church are signs and stumbling blocks to the modern world. They make, to modern ears, scandalous claims: that the All-High Creator of the universe revealed Himself to humanity through a small Semitic tribe, and—in the case of Christians—that the same God became incarnate as a member of that ancient tribe. The same ancient tribe exists today. Why, asked Percy, are there no Hittites walking the streets of New York, but plenty of Jews? The survival of the Jewish people, despite all they have suffered over the millennia, is a sign of their divine election, and God’s continued presence in history.
The very presence of the Jewish people, in Percy’s account, chastens Enlightenment abstractions that make man forget himself and the fallenness of the human condition. Percy evocatively referred to that affair that resulted in Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden as “an aboriginal catastrophe,” as a result of which, man “became a pilgrim or seeker of his own salvation, and that the clue and the sign of his salvation was to be found not in science or philosophy but in news of an actual historical event involving a people, a person, and an institution”—that is, the Jews, Jesus Christ, and the Catholic Church.
Unmoored from its Jewish foundations, Christianity becomes nothing more than a self-help philosophy, or a spiritualized rationale for doing good works (the “social gospel”). The story of the Jewish people tells us Christians who we are, and the way we must follow for our own salvation and the redemption of the world. Jews do not follow Jesus of Nazareth, of course, but Jesus is not Jesus without Nazareth. As the Nazarene carpenter told a Samaritan, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22).
Conversely, if the ambient culture of American secularism truly comes to jettison decisively all of its Christian remnants, then the Jews of America will lose their standing, too. If, even within the institutions of American Christianity, those who remain affiliated are biblically and theologically illiterate, and if Christianity is little more than a source of generic humanistic ethics and spiritualized emotional fulfillment, then in such conditions what makes the Jews so special? In such a religious framework, why do we need them? It’s not a long mental journey from the uncoupling of Christianity from its particularist Jewish context to then asking if the idea of the chosen people is kind of, you know, racist? And what about Israel—why should it be so special to us? To my friends in the Jewish community: understand that the biblical literacy of American Christians could, in time, decisively affect the U.S.-Israel relationship, and emerge as a serious threat to the safety and security of the Jewish state.
When I look over at my American Jewish friends, I see a regrettably parallel loss of faith and moral confidence in the inheritance of particularity. The fact of mass intermarriage, assimilation, and the falling away from religious practice hardly needs elaboration to readers of this magazine. Will Barrett, one of Percy’s fictional protagonists, laments that modern Jews are “in general behaving like everyone else. There goes the last sign.”
The light is dimming, but it has not gone out. This is why I take heart in McClay’s declaration that Christians and Jews who “have serious and unwavering commitments to their respective faiths” are finding each other in culture-war foxholes. We are discovering that the secular and solipsistic tendencies of the modern age form an existential threat to the very thing that gives our lives meaning in eternity.
I have spent the past year researching the experience of Christians persecuted in the Soviet bloc for their faith. They all report that religious differences among believers dissolved in the face of intense suffering. They needed each other to help them keep their eyes on God. I believe Jews and Christians can learn from that, and indeed must learn from that. Secular modernity intends to supersede us both—and is doing so ruthlessly with our children.
It is not for me to say what Jews can learn from Christians in this crisis. What we Christians can, and must, learn from traditional Jews is how to live as exiles in modernity, and to refuse assimilation to the debased norms of contemporary culture.
I use the story of Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego to explain to Christian audiences the concept of the Benedict Option, which many assume, wrongly, is about fleeing for the hills. I point out that the book of Daniel tells us that these three Hebrew men were embedded at the summit of Babylonian society. Yet they did not hesitate to forfeit their lives before abandoning God. Today, we have to ask ourselves: How did those three young men live so that even as they served the king of Babylon, they never forgot that they were God’s servants first? If we figure that out, then we might find what it takes to endure what is coming.
For us Christians, the way forward through the coming darkness to some extent involves turning back to the Land of Israel in the pages of the Hebrew Bible, and reaching out to Jews who keep the ancient covenant in the modern world. Why not? As a modern Catholic pope said, “Spiritually, we are all Semites.” You wouldn’t get any argument from my displaced white Orthodox priest and the black Baptist dry cleaner. And if the living memory of the ancient Hebrews and their priestly raiments live on in the conversation of two unlikely Christians in a Louisiana river town, isn’t that some kind of miracle? A sign, even?