Supersede Me

Evangelicals rethink how to convert Jews.

“Supersessionism” explains Pat Robertson’s wacky comments

If Occam’s razor is right, and the simplest theory is best, then Ariel Sharon’s stroke was not a big mystery. Morbidly obese 77-year-olds with high-stress jobs like, say, trying to secure the Holy Land for God’s chosen people are good candidates for hemorrhagic episodes. But 700 Club host Pat Robertson thought he had a better explanation: divine retribution. Sharon “was dividing God’s land,” Robertson said, alluding to the uprooting of settlers from the Gaza Strip. “God says, ‘This land belongs to me, and you’d better leave it alone.’ “

It was an odd comment, because Robertson is famously friendly toward Israel. Like many evangelical Christians, he believes that the ingathering of Jews to the Holy Land is a precondition for Jesus’ return to Earth. His Zionism is genuine and zealous; until his Sharon comment, Robertson was close to inking a $50 million deal with Israel’s Ministry of Tourism to build a Christian resort on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. So, why would Robertson turn so quickly on Sharon?

Robertson’s comment makes sense as an expression of what theologians call “supersessionism.” While he may love Jews, Robertson believes that the coming of Jesus made Christians, not Jews, the chosen people. The Christian covenant with God is the one that matters. This view posits Jews as necessary instruments in the Christian plan whose fate is entirely subordinate to the unfolding of the Christian story. For the supersessionist, Israel may be more useful as a bloody but intact war zone (with Jews and Arabs doing the dying) than as a peaceful but divided polity.

Of course, all Christians are to some extent supersessionists. If they didn’t believe that Christianity superseded, perfected, or at least improved upon Judaism, they would not choose to be Christians. But even as fundamentalists like Robertson continue to talk about Jews in purely instrumental terms, other evangelical Protestants and some Catholics are moving away from the old, tactless supersessionism. They have decided that it’s rather indelicate to continue talking about Jews—and with Jews—as if they exist only to further the Christian plotline. These Christian intellectuals are articulating what a cynic might call “supersessionism lite.” Instead of treating Jews as conversion opportunities, they emphasize learning from them and trying to understand the world from a Jewish perspective. This approach has not filtered down to the Pat Robertson-watching masses, however. And many Christians—and some Jews—hope that it never does.

The shift away from supersessionism is best articulated in the influential 2001 essay “Salvation Is From the Jews” (a quotation from John 4:22), by Richard John Neuhaus, the Catholic priest who edits the journal First Things. Neuhaus argued that American Christians needed to relate to Jews in a new spirit not of proselytism but of mutual edification. Jews in America aren’t just potential Christians, he argued. They are unique conversation partners with insights that may help Christians better understand their own faith. “The salvation that is from the Jews cannot be proclaimed or lived apart from the Jews,” Neuhaus writes. And elsewhere: “[W]e can and must say that friendship between Jew and Christian can be secured in shared love for the God of Israel.” In other words, the continuing existence of Jews is not a failure of evangelism.

But Neuhaus does not mean that Christians should give up on converting Jews. Evangelicals are evangelicals, after all, not Unitarians. Rather, Neuhaus writes, “[W]e can and must say that we reject proselytizing, which is best defined as evangelizing in a way that demeans the other.” This can seem a pretty flimsy distinction—convert the Jews, but be respectful about it? John Wilson, who edits the evangelical review Books & Culture, suggests that evangelizing might take place without a hard sell. “There’s a difference,” Wilson says, “when you start a conversation with a Jewish person with the premise that this is the same God. If in your conversation your friend becomes interested in your understanding of the one God you worship, and comes to share your view of the Messiah, that’s a wonderful thing.” That’s a long way from what many evangelicals were taught growing up—that Christians should explain to Jews the error of their ways.

In this camp with Neuhaus and Wilson are Notre Dame’s George Marsden, Wake Forest’s Nathan Hatch, and Yale’s Harry Stout. *  But how widespread is this rethinking of supersessionism? Probably not very. In evangelicalism, the intelligentsia have no efficient way to influence the laity. The Catholic Church, despite its hierarchical structure, actually has less distance between the theologians and the laity. After Vatican II, priests knew, for example, that Jews had been absolved of guilt for the crucifixion, and priests told the people in the pews. There’s no similar mechanism for spreading the word across evangelical America; when it comes to a softer, gentler supersessionism, millions of fundamentalists haven’t gotten the memo. Their Sunday school lessons on how to convert Jews, Muslims, and Catholics haven’t changed in 50 years. And many born-again Christians prefer it that way. To them, the danger of watering down the good news of salvation is far more worrisome than the danger of stepping on someone else’s sensibilities.

The evangelical intellectuals would argue that an evangelism that emphasizes equal dialogue is more theologically true, more conducive to awareness of God’s plans for all his people. (I think they’re right.) But it’s unclear exactly what their evangelism looks like in practice. I have evangelical friends in this camp who have never tried to convert me. But I know that some of them are trying to model Christianity, hoping that I will get curious about church and ask to come along one of these days. One local businessman in my town invites acquaintances to play pickup basketball with his “friends,” who just happen to be members of his fundamentalist church.

If the goal is to get along in a pluralistic society, then evangelism through basketball or good conversation may work better than earnestly inquiring about the state of another’s soul. But the soft sell can easily seem like subterfuge. I, for one, want to know when a friend hopes I’ll become a Christian (just as he should know that I am trying to make him a fan of American Idol). And the greater worry may be for evangelicals themselves. Pluralism is not, after all, a traditional aim of born-again Christians; rather, they are supposed to be a witness for the Messiah who has come and will come again. Most traditional evangelicals would agree with the Jewish literary critic Stanley Fish, who has argued that evangelicals are obligated, if they’re intellectually honest, to proclaim frankly that theirs is the universal truth. Any hemming and hawing is just caving in to liberal sensibilities. According to that view, the Christian truth is one that all Jews, the stricken Ariel Sharon included, urgently need to hear.

Correction, Jan. 19, 2006: The article incorrectly placed Nathan Hatch at Notre Dame. Last fall, he became the president of Wake Forest University. (Return to the corrected sentence.)