By Roberto E. Alejandro, editor-in-chief
The postcolonial theorist Frantz Fanon, a Black man from the island of Martinique, relates a story in his seminal Black Skin, White Masks, of a conversation he had with a philosophy professor from the Antilles.
“Whenever you hear anyone abuse the Jews, pay attention, because he is talking about you,” the professor told Fanon.
Last Saturday, a man entered the Tree of Life Synagogue and killed 11 people with a rifle. If you are a person on whom an identity label can be affixed, whether a gender label, or racial label, or religious label, or ethnic label, etc.—and who isn’t?—then you were also being shot and killed last Saturday.
When I say this, I do not mean to express some trite platitude about how we are all human, or all equal, or whatever else we tend to say in these moments that tends to relieve us of our own responsibility in the face of tragedy. No. What I mean is that, as a scholar of early Christian thought, I know that one of the first groups in human history to be ‘racialized’ in the way that we tend to understand that term today were the Jews (the first group to be racialized this way in the intellectual history of the west were women, but that’s another piece for another day).
This is a process that began in earnest when the Apostle Paul wrote in the first century that Abraham was justified (made just, or made righteous) by faith, not the law of the Torah, part of the Jewish scriptures which Christians call the “Old Testament” (see Romans 3-4). As a formal evangelical Christian, I know this is still preached regularly every Sunday in churches across our country. Indeed, Christian worshipers the world over read Paul and find there an account of the superiority of Christian faith and life, a superiority contrasted with the inferiority of the Jews.
To understand the ‘racializing’ aspect of this discourse one needs to understand how the ancient world understood human beings. Today, we might tend to think of human beings from a biological or other scientific perspective, studying the body and the brain. And the discourse of race that emerged in the modern era bases its racial divisions on this biological understanding of human beings, asserting that race is carried in the ‘genes.’ But in ancient thought, what made you human was that you had a soul with a rational mind. Other animals also had a form of soul, but not reason, and so the soul’s reason was what set humans apart from other creatures. And so to make distinctions between groups of persons, you would not refer to their biology, but to their souls, and especially their reason.
This understanding of the human being had a consequence when combined with Paul, and especially as later Christian thinkers took up Paul’s argument and pushed it in an ever-increasing dehumanizing direction: the racialization of Jewish persons.
The Pauline argument is based on a reading of the Hebrew book of Genesis that spiritualizes the promises God makes in that text to Abraham, and allows those promises to be interpreted as prophecies of the coming messiah, Jesus Christ, the object of Christian worship. The way Christians separated Jews from those Hebrew religious texts was to argue that Jews failed to understand their scriptures, capable only of a literal interpretation that skimmed the surface, but unable to reach their deeper meanings which pointed to Jesus. To reach those deeper meanings, one needs to exercise reason in consort with God, and God abandoned the Jews when the Jews crucified Jesus (that is the Christian argument). Indeed, the influential Christian writer and historian Eusebius of Caesarea, writing in the early fourth century CE, made a distinction between Hebrews and Jews, saying the former worshiped the true God of the universe “with clearest mental eyes” (reason), while Jews had to worship petty symbols of divine truth instead of truth itslef because they “were unable through moral weakness to emulate the virtue of their fathers, inasmush as they were enslaved by passions and sick in soul.” (from Praeparatio Evangelica).
If you define the essence of humanity as the rational soul, to call someone “sick in soul” is to say they are defective in their humanity. If you wonder why the intelligence or rationality of raced or gendered persons is so often invoked by racists and misogynists, it is because Christianity conditioned them to do so for 2,000 years; and also because we still largely think of human beings in classical metaphysical or religious terms, even in our great age of scientific and technological advancement.
Christians have been repeating these claims about Jews since Paul set them on that path in the first century in a letter that forms part of the scriptural canon of all Christians. In the ‘New World,’ Christians turned that same discourse on natives and Africans, transforming the historical discourse of Christian superiority and hegemony into the discourse of White superiority and hegemony. Much as it was not actually a new world the Europeans discovered, the discourse of White supremacy was also not new. It was the pure assumption by Europeans of a Christian tradition in which they had already been engaged for some time.
In a recentcolumn addressing the Tree of Life massacre, the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson, an evangelical Christian, details a number of contemporary anti-semitic and other racist claims, writing,
“Much of this can be traced to white supremacy, or its close cousin, white grievance. But why anti-Semitism? Why did the Charlottesville alt-right protesters defend Confederate monuments by chanting, ‘Jews will not replace us’? I am not sure. Anti-Semitism seems to have deep theological roots, in the distortion of Christianity as a blessing for hatred.”
Wrong. Anti-Semitism is not a distortion of Christianity, it is the basis of Christian self-definition since the first century, and it is time for those of us who are descended from this tradition, which has so shaped our contemporary setting, to STOP.
Stop pretending we do not know how White supremacy became associated with anti-Semitism. White supremacy is anti-Jewish because it is nothing other than the old wine of Christian self-definition in the new wine skin of White identity. Anti-Jewishness is at the core of White identity because it was the premise for Christian identity.
The discursive strategies used to dehumanize Jews to the point some nobody in Pittsburgh thinks he is serving some greater historical purpose by shooting elderly congregants in a house of worship are the same discursive strategies used to racialize and dehumanize Blacks, Latinos, Asians, LGBTQIA, or any other group of persons we mediate by way of identity categories. President Trump does not refer to immigrants as ‘animals’ by accident. He does so because long ago Christians took up the Platonic proposition that humans are in essence a rational soul, and thus to be an ‘animal’ is to lack that reason that makes you human, which means eleven of you can be shot in a synagogue.
While this practice, in history, has created specific groups and categories of persons against whom this classical discourse of rationality has been weaponized (such as Jews, Blacks, women, gays, etc.), the simple truth is that it can be applied to anyone at any moment. If you are a human being to whom a label can be affixed—and that is all of us—“Whenever you hear anyone abuse the Jews, pay attention, because he is talking about you.”
Roberto E. Alejandro is a former fast food worker, transit bus driver, assistant book preservationist, hospital interpreter, and handyman. He holds a PhD in religion and theology from Durham University, and is a licensed member of the New York State Bar, holding a law degree from the University of Connecticut School of Law. Roberto currently serves as CEO of On Background Media, Inc., and is editor-in-chief of StayUp.News, a Hip-Hop and politics web magazine based out of New York City covering poverty and other social issues in urban settings.