"Faith and Fratricide": A repentant response

One of the most important books I read in seminary was by Rosemary Radford Ruether, titled Faith and Fratricide. Her approach failed to take seriously hardly any of the traditional claims about God by Jews or Christians. Nevertheless, her rebuke of the triumphalist theology of Christendom and its approach to Judaism is something I believe every seminary student should be made to wade through. The core of Rosemary Ruether’s argument in Faith and Fratricide is that Christian Christological claims present the Church as the fulfillment of God’s promises to ancient Israel, while simultaneously misappropriating all of Israel’s prophetic critique to “the Jews.” She explains that this process came about as a merging of a Hellenistic midrash, which tended toward a kind of spiritual dualism, with a Palestinian messianic midrash, which taught a historical dualism (31-48). Ruether then provides evidence of anti-Jewish readings from the New Testament that not only teach that in Christ is the spiritual fulfillment of the letter of the law, but also that the eschatological hope of Israel had come in Jesus. She explains that a “strong rejection of the Church’s interpretation [of the Hebrew Scriptures] by the schools of the Law evoked an anti-Judaic midrash from the Church designed to negate the teaching authority of this class, in order to prove that only the Church knew the true meaning of Scriptures” (65).

This tradition of reading the originally internal prophetic criticism of Israel was used as a proof text of God’s rejection of the reprobate Jews and evidence of the Gentile Church as God’s elect in Christ. This tradition was adopted and expanded by the early Church fathers in the Adversos Judaeos tradition, who taught that the Jews were unable to read their own scripture and had thus rejected Christ (117-181). This tradition was then borrowed and transformed into political policy as Christianity merged with the imperial cult of the Roman Empire, leading to a tradition of treating Jews not only as religious but politic outsiders, enemies both God and Christendom (183-214). As Christendom in the West moved into the Enlightenment era, intellectual perspectives shifted from religious interpretations to philosophical and nationalistic ones; religious anti-Semitism became nationalistic anti-Semitism. Jewish inability to be secularized eventually led to a view of “the Jews” as a racial phenomenon. It is this nationalist, racial form of anti-Semitism—having originated in Jewish self-criticism and later borrowed into Christian claims of historical and spiritual supremacy—which sought to eliminate Judaism, not just as a religion, but as the Jewish peoplehood (224). It was out of this later form of anti-Semitism that made the horrors of the Holocaust possible.

An important theme Ruether draws on to make her argument is the theme the internal and prophetic dialectic of Israel turned dualistic triumphalism of the Church. The Hellenistic midrash, as can be seen in the works of Philo of Alexandria, did not seek to explain away the need for the letter of the Torah. Ruether explains, “It sought rather to invest the letter with a spiritual and ethical significance that would make it meaningful to those who had learned to think of truth in philosophical terms” (37). Yet, Christianity would take up this spiritualizing midrash to interpret the spirit as antithetical to the law (38). Thus, this Philonic method provided a fountain of resources from which later Christians would position Judaism on the negative side of the dualism which pitted sin against grace, outwardness against inwardness, carnality against spirituality, faithlessness against faithfulness, and literal against spiritual or allegorical readings of the sacred texts. When merged with the messianic midrash, which had a more historical and apocalyptic approach, Judaism was positioned on the negative side of the dualism between the obsolete and the restored, finitude and the redeemed, the old man and the “new man” made in Christ (95-116). The important point this brings up is not only how these two traditions of teachings fed into the Church’s self-understanding, but how it robbed the Church of its ability to be self-critical (160, 231).

By making “the Jews” the negative side of the Jewish prophetic material, Christians were unable to see the importance of the tradition in which it was given birth, namely Jesus’ ministry as a prophetic critique from within Judaism.

For this reason, Ruether argues that both the element of messianic hope and prophetic criticism must be seen as belonging to the same community, since the schism which gave birth to the New Testament not only divides Jew from Jew in the times of early Christianity, but today divides Christian from Christian (231). In response, I would challenge the Christian community to pick up this lost art of prophetic self-criticism, especially by recognizing it as a much needed element in the Christian liturgical tradition of repentance. This would go a long way, I believe, at not only work towards reconciliation among Christian, and between Christian and Jewish communities, but a wider movement of interreligious, interethnic, and interreligious reconciliation.

An important point which is mentioned but not fully taken up is the possibility that Christianity’s early existence was one which drew on the ancient Jewish clash with imperial power. A rejection of Christian universalism and empire was to be expected from those who practiced Judaism, since as Ruether points out,

It was the Jews who struggled against this same ideological universalism in antiquity. This was not a matter of refusing to coexist politically or assimilate elements of Greco-Roman culture, for the Jews did both. The heart of the Jewish struggle against the empires was a struggle against a pseudo-universalism which assumed that the culture of the dominant group was a universal culture, the culture of true civilization, against which all else was barbarism. On the basis of this ideological interpretation of its own culture, the Greco-Roman Empire especially assumed the right to incorporate all other peoples into the culture of the conquering imperial power…the Jews held out against it in principle and struggled to be recognized as a people who defined their own identity independently of this imperial ideology, challenging thereby its universality. (233)

This fusion of the Church’s messianic hope with the universalism of empire, Ruether takes for granted as an element of the Church’s Christological claims. This Christology, since it is seen as the universalizing call for all humanity, then “invalidates the rights of other peoples to exist in their own way before God” (234). Christ is seen as “the last and final Word” which gives the Church the right to conquer (238).

What if, however, Christianity actually lost its prophetic ability to be self-critical, not in the revelation of Jesus as the Christ, but in the denial of this claim through the baptism of Christianity by the Roman Empire?

This is not a question Ruether seems willing to take up. In other words, the “fulfilled messianism” which she criticizes, can also be considered as an anti-imperialistic movement, not only initiated by God through the creation of the people of Israel, but strongly validated and fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of a prophetic and seditious enemy of the empire, the crucified messiah (see p. 248).

What if, in other words, the core of the Christological affirmation, which has been denied throughout Christendom, was originally a theological denial of empire, a denial shown to be approved by God through the resurrection?

This would help explain Ruether’s way of viewing the Christological critique with the eschatological and ecclesiological interpretations of Christian Rome. She explains, “the claim that the eschatological Body of Christ is one’s institutional foundation, the charter for one’s historical existence, is read with a literalism that renders the Church unable to account for the imperfections of its historical existence” (242).

Yet, what if God’s creation of the Church was a people who were able to witness to their election by God, not by claiming their perfection and their role to be rulers over the nations, but by learning—because of what God has done in Christ Jesus—acts of repentance and mutual service?