The word supersessionism is used to denote an idea or belief that one religion emerged, sometime in the past, to replace or supersede an older religious tradition. This notion of replacement is usually premised on the view that the old religion is out-of-date, has failed to reflect an authentic revelation of the Divine nature and will, or was an important, though now no longer needed, preliminary step towards a more complete or fulfilled religious tradition. Perhaps, the clearest example of this kind of interreligious understanding and relationship is seen in the ways in which Christianity has understood itself in relation to Judaism.

Judaism and Christianity have been members of the world's religions for some 2000 years. Collectively, they form the Judaeo/Christian tradition that has had and continues to have an enormous influence in shaping Western Civilization and perhaps world history. However, the relationships between these two religions and more particularly between the people who identify with them have not always been characterised by mutual respect, harmonious co-existence and open dialogue. While the reasons for the recurring mistrust and hostility between these two religions are numerous and complex supersessionist ideas in Christianity have been one major factor influencing these relationships.

One of the recurring themes in Christianity's sacred scriptures, liturgical practices, festival celebrations, theological texts and visual and performing art forms is the claim that Christianity has replaced Judaism as the chosen channel through which the "One True God" self-reveals in a unique and complete way to all humanity. This understanding of the Divine election of Christianity as the new "Chosen People of God" is seen by many Christians as a necessary outcome of the rejection by Judaism and its adherents in the 1st Century CE (Common Era) of Jesus of Nazareth as the longed for Messiah. Further reinforcement of this way of looking at Judaism is given by a view among some Christians that the Jewish people, collectively, must bear the blame and the guilt for murdering the "Son of God".

This supersessionist dimension of Christianity's self-understanding provided a significant part of the religious and perhaps political context in which the Shoah or Jewish Holocaust took place during the 20th Century. The Shoah was the worst example in European and, perhaps World history, of a concerted and sustained attempt to exterminate an entire religious and ethnic group of people.

Of course, the Nazi regime which carried out the atrocities of this program of ethnic cleansing was not a necessary expression of Christian belief and self-understanding - even though every Nazi carried the slogan "Got mit  Uns" (God is with Us). Equally, these supersessionist ideas and beliefs within Christianity cannot be seen as the dominant causal factor in the rise of Nazism in Germany at that point in history. However, the long history of negative portrayals of Judaism and recurring condemnatory statements about Jews provided an environment in which hostile attitudes could grow and at times take on sinister and destructive dimensions.

It must also be noted that the attitudinal and practical responses of the general populace within the countries where the Shoah was carried out were quite varied. On the one hand these responses ranged from collusion, complacency and indifference through to an entrenched denial of what was being done in the name of the German people. On the other hand many non-Jewish members of these communities displayed examples of heroic, brave and self-sacrificial efforts to stop the perpetrators and rescue as many victims as possible from the Nazi's declared "Final Solution". The horrific outcome, nevertheless, was that some six million Jews were murdered simply because they were Jews.

The consequences and repercussions of these murderous programs still reverberate through world events. One of the least noticed consequences of the tragedy was and remains an increasing interest in and commitment to the interfaith movement. Let me illustrate what I mean by this.

In 1947, soon after the horror of the Shoah was revealed to the world, 65 Christians and Jews from 19 different countries gathered in Switzerland to express their profound grief over what had happened. They voiced a determination to combat anti-Semitism and a deep desire to foster stronger relationships between Jews and Christians. In these discussions, the role of supersessionist ideas were identified and addressed, as indeed they continue to be, in ongoing Jewish/Christian dialogue. This willingness by Christians to be involved in such a meeting was an example, within my lifetime, of members of my religion recognising how a fundamental feature of our religion could become one of the factors causing anguish and pain among another group of people who are so closely related to us in both human and religious terms.

A willingness to confront issues such as these and to acknowledge the very real anguish and physical suffering that has been associated with them is one foundation stone on which constructive interreligious relationships and honest interfaith dialogue can be built.

Garth Read, Nov 2013

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Tags: Supersessionism, Replacement Theology, Interfaith, Shoah, Hollocaust

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