Unredeemed history and Christian anti-Judaism

In her book Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Origins of Anti-Semitism, Rosemary Radford Ruether argues that a key difference between Christianity and Judaism is that Christianity has been unwilling for much of its history to live with the tension of the unrealized messianic age. As a result, Christians have accused Jews of being blind to the “obvious” truth of Jesus’ messianic status and of misinterpreting their own scriptures, which (supposedly) clearly foretell Jesus.

What Christians have often failed to understand, Ruether says, is that Jews have their own theologically rooted reasons for their “great refusal”:

The assertion that the Jews are reprobate because they did not accept Christ as having already come is really a projection upon Judaism of that unredeemed side of itself that Christianity must constantly deny in order to assert that Christ has already come and founded “the Church.” The Jews represent that which Christianity must repress in itself, namely the recognition of history and Christian existence as unredeemed. In this sense, the Jews do indeed “kill Christ” for the Christian, since they preserve the memory of the original biblical meaning of the word Messiah which must judge present history and society as still unredeemed. For Judaism, Jesus cannot have been the Messiah, because the times remain unredeemed and neither he nor anything that came from him has yet altered that fact. In short, Judaism, in rejecting Jesus’ messianic status, is simply reaffirming the integrity of its own tradition about what the word Messiah means. Once the true nature of Judaism’s objection to Christian faith becomes clear, it becomes necessary to reappraise the meaning of Judaism’s Great Refusal. If Christian anti-Judaism is the suppression of the unredeemed side of itself and its projection of this upon Judaism, then Judaism’s negation of Christian faith must be recognized as a prophetic critique refused. (p. 245)

In other words, Christian triumphalism has anti-Judaism as its inevitable corollary. Because it saw Christ’s advent and the founding of the church as the end of “unredeemed” history, Christianity concluded that the continuing existence of Jews and Judaism was a stubborn element of that history. Hence the characterization of Jews as “carnal,” “unspiritual,” etc. and the view that they were permanently objects of the divine wrath.

But as Ruether points out, the empirical reality is that Christian history is not noticeably more “redeemed” or “spiritual” than what came before it or what continues to exist outside of it. Jews continue to witness to the fact that the advent of the Kingdom and the messianic age remains in the future.

Earlier, Ruether writes:

Those trained in traditional Christian theology will be pained by this discussion and declare that “Christ’s coming” has made an ultimate difference. What this means is that we know that we are “ultimately accepted.” We do not have to depend for our salvation upon our own efforts. But we have only to recall all the contradictions which have been produced by the efforts to make sense of this proposition. Either this means that everyone is finally accepted no matter what they do, obliterating any difference between good and evil. Or else it means that some are accepted and others are rejected no matter what they do, which makes God an amoral tyrant. In an effort to bring righteousness and election into tandem, one declares that the elect are known by their righteousness. Election is the basis of righteousness and not vice versa. We then embark on an all-consuming Puritan “legalism,” which seeks perfect righteousness, not to earn but to prove one’s election. Ordinary Christianity constantly abdicates from this whole discussion in practice and assumes the view that we are already loved by God, and yet must also do something to become what we are supposed to be. For such an ethic does one need a Messiah? It would seem that Creation, covenant, and commandments would be sufficient.

The Church’s historical existence constantly evidences its premessianic actuality, while the proclamation that it is founded on the “new being” of Christ serves as much to hinder as to give it any perceptibly superior way of existing. Christian actuality has not transcended the human historical, i.e., unredeemed conditions known to Judaism. Yet, its messianic faith has made it a kind of mirror-opposite of Judaism. Judaism believes it has the commandments, can obey the commandments well enough to be in friendship with God, and yet the final resolution of the tension of letter and spirit is not yet. Christianity holds up the final redeemed moment of the “end” as its already established foundation. Yet it proves no more capable than Judaism of producing that final eschatological transfiguration of existence in practice, while losing the commandments that assured Judaism that it had the “way” to the “end.” For Christianity, there can be no “way” to the “end,” because the “end” (Christ) is the “way.” For Judaism, which had Torah without the Messiah, Christianity substitutes the Messiah without Torah. But the effort to deal with the finite as though one were already based on the Final produces myriad self-delusions; either one constantly rejects the finite qua finite, or else attempts to absolutize a particular givenness as final. (pp. 243-4)

One thing Christianity needs to do, according to Ruether, is to recover the proleptic nature of its witness. Christ is a foretaste of the Kingdom, not the Kingdom come in its fullness. A Christianity that emphasizes the ever-future aspect of the Kingdom and the fact that history continues unredeemed–with all the ambiguity that entails–will be better able to extend charity and tolerance to other “ways,” including Judaism.

3 thoughts on “Unredeemed history and Christian anti-Judaism

  1. Lee,

    Thanks for this post. Does Ruether also by chance offer up a critique of the antinomianism of much of Christianity? One might argue that there are Pauline roots for this of course, but then what about the Law being fulfilled in the person of Christ who did not come to abolish it, etc.? I’ve read very little of this stuff myself so forgive me if this sounds a bit naive.


  2. Hi Eric: Yes, she does discuss that. The whole letter-spirit, law-gospel dichotomy that Christianity has set up between Judaism and itself certainly can lead, she thinks, to a form of antinomianism. (Lutheranism comes in for some knocks here–not unjustifiably!)

    She adds that Judaism sometimes has a healthier sense of the tension here. It recognizes that ultimately the goal is for human beings to follow the law “spontaneously” as it were; but that’s a kind of eschatological hope, and in the interim, the Law acts as a guide toward that end.

  3. Here and there I read historians say things like, The Medieval Church needed the Jewish Community as a sign of the reprobate in the midst of an elect Christendom. It makes you wonder, If “the Jews” in this sense hadn’t existed, would the Church have had to make them up? Put differently, what would the Church have done if there had been mass acceptance of Jesus among both Jews and pagans and yet history continued?

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