Life & Culture

Christian Supremacy: Reckoning with the Roots of Antisemitism and Racism review

Genesis of white supremacist hatred is a richly researched exploration of Christian racism


Christian Supremacy: Reckoning with the Roots of Antisemitism and Racism
By Magda Teter
Princeton University Press, £30

The iconic civil rights image of the Reverend Martin Luther King marching with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965 seems to belong to a long-lost era: a time when there was an active black-Jewish interfaith alliance in the United States that brought together black Americans suffering from continuing social and legal discrimination and Jews, both religious and secular, whose own people had so recently experienced in Europe the discriminatory, dehumanising and murderous consequences of another form of racism.

In the early 1960s King came to see Jews as “the most consistent and trusted ally in the struggle for civil rights”: his friend, Rabbi Israel “Sy” Dresner — who recognised that “silence has become the unpardonable sin of our time” — was frequently jailed for his anti-racism activities.

But such solidarity between two groups whose histories contained parallel narratives of systemic denigration, oppression, and often deadly victimisation fractured in later decades.

Questions of identity politics, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and “white privilege” came to overshadow what these two historically victimised peoples might have in common, and how they might be able to support each other in the face of deep-rooted societal strands of anti-black and anti-Jewish prejudice.

That these long-incubated antagonisms are alive and well in the United States — and also, still, in Europe — is the subtext to Magda Teter’s richly researched historical exploration of how the white nationalists and white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 declaiming “Jews will not replace us” and “White Lives Matter”, and the Christian nationalists who stormed the Capitol in Washington in 2021 installing a large cross and gallows with a lynching noose outside the building, are in a direct line of descent from ancient, medieval and pre-modern patterns of supremacist thinking.

The author, a professor of history and Jewish studies at Fordham University, traces this doleful story back to the origins of Christianity and Paul’s creative (mis)interpretation of the biblical story of Jacob and Esau.

God’s words to Rebekkah — “the elder shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23) — related to the relationship between Esau, who emerged first from the womb, and Jacob, who would come to dominate his elder brother in the biblical narrative.

Paul’s midrash on this, taken up later by Augustine, turned this theme on its head: Jews were cast as the elder religion, and henceforward they were to be subservient to the followers of Jesus and the younger faith tradition emerging to take pride of place in God’s unfolding scheme for humanity.

With meticulous and nuanced scholarship, Professor Teter shows how what came to be known theologically as Christian supersessionism had pernicious consequences for almost two millennia: the role of God’s covenanted people now belonged to Christianity, a “superior” form of religious expression superseding both Old Testament religion and the Jewish people.

This set of beliefs was used through the ages as a justification for both anti-Jewish persecution and social and legal discrimination. Much of this is known to scholars, though it is valuable to have the author’s extensive footnotes to trace the whole dire saga in detail.

But what is most illuminating in Magda Teter’s narrative is when she shows the ways in which, over time, this thinking was applied by Christian rulers and clergy to Muslims and Africans in order to justify their subjugation and servitude.

From there it was a short step for concepts of “black” and “white” to be moralised and then grafted onto the deadly flowering of invented hierarchies of human worth.

So, Christian supremacy predates so-called white supremacy. But once European colonialism began to include slave-trading and then, in America, slave-owning, this nexus of categories — Christian, white, supremacy — became fused in the popular imagination.

Furthermore, as this worthy yet disturbing book spells out, these dementing structures of thought were re-imported back into modern Europe in the 1930s: Nazi legal scholars went to America to study US race laws, then integrated the systemic anti-black discrimination they found there back into German anti-Jewish legislation.

In teasing out the tangled threads of these longstanding threats to human equality and collective social justice, Magda Teter’s densely argued narrative makes not only an implicit moral claim — that all lives matter — but also a historical and psychological claim: that the habits of thought disinterred in her book alert us to the ways that this ancient story is far from over.

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