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Are “Sabbathers” Jews or Christians?

In this column I hope to elaborate an idea that surfaced in Alex Carpenter’s recent blog on “Sabbathing” and in the excellent comments that followed it. This is that celebrating Sabbath can be a powerful and much needed Christian affirmation of Judaism, on the one hand, and disaffirmation of religious coercion, on the other. Chuck Scriven, Monte Sahlin and probably others expressed themselves along these lines. I would like to join them without implying that all of us agree about everything.

In at least two overlapping ways, our situation today is almost exactly opposite to the one the Apostle Paul faced. One of these is that he contended for the full inclusion of Gentiles as first-class citizens in a religious context that was more or less Jewish. The responsibility of many of us today is to press for the full inclusion of Jews as first class citizens in a religious context that is more or less Christian. This is one difference. The other is that the first Christians possessed no cultural or political power, whereas today we often exercise much. Paul’s basic principle remains the same: full inclusion; however, in our time its application often flows in the opposite direction.

Two more Christian realities have made our situation especially challenging. One of these is the longstanding doctrine of supersessionism. According to this ugly distortion of Scripture, now that Christianity is on the scene Judaism has no continuing theological legitimacy. The other is Constantinianism. As it is often used today, this term does not refer merely to what the Roman emperor Constantine did in the fourth century after Jesus Christ but also to the political or cultural hegemony Christianity has exercised in Western culture ever since.

Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century German who revolted against Roman Catholicism, did not reject its supersessionism and Constantinianism. He was exceedingly hostile toward the Jewish people and his cause is remembered today as the “Magisterial Reformation” because various regions in Europe either remained Roman Catholic or became Protestant according to what their rulers—magistrates chose. This was true of many of the other Protestant reformers as well, the chief exception being the Anabaptists and other participants in the Radical Reformation.

Luther’s supersessionism and Constantinianism merged in what is one of the most regrettable things any Christian has ever written. Published in 1543, titled On the Jews and their Lies, and easily available on the Internet, its aim was to prevent German Christians from being seduced by Judaism. Often coarse and crude, in this little book Luther outdid himself in rhetorical intemperance. These are his final sentences:

My essay, I hope, will furnish a Christian (who in any case has no desire to become a Jew) with enough material not only to defend himself against the blind, venomous Jews, but also to become the foe of the Jews’ malice, lying, and cursing, and to understand not only that their belief is false but that they are surely possessed by all devils. May Christ, our dear Lord, convert them mercifully and preserve us steadfastly and immovably in the knowledge of him, which is eternal life. Amen.

Many historians agree that it is not altogether surprising that the Holocaust took place in Martin Luther’s Germany. But it was not only Lutherans who looked the other way. Many Christians of all sorts—including Seventh-day Adventists—did the same. And it was not only Germany that was at fault. Although they knew what was going on, many nations, including the United States, chose not to get involved until it was virtually too late.

By the twentieth century, the evil brew of supersessionism and Constantinianism had become so potent and pervasive that millions of innocent men, women, and children—primarily Jews but many others, as well—were tortured and murdered in one of the most prominent centers of Christian culture without meaningful outcries from within or without.

We have to take this very, very seriously. It is not credible in our time to be Christians of any sort as though the Holocaust never occurred or that the lethal combination supersessionism and Constantinianism did not make major contributions to what went so horrible wrong. This is why in ecumenical theological circles today both are undergoing the process of severe “deconstruction.” They are being demolished and replaced with better ideas and practices so that we can truly say “never again!”

Although there is still much theological work to do, already there is virtual agreement about one thing. This is that it is possible to be Jewish and not Christian, but it is not possible to be Christian and not Jewish. As a matter of firm theological principle, many Christian thinkers today who are not Seventh-day Adventists hold that even to ask whether we are Jewish or Christian is to pose the question about their relationship in a profoundly unacceptable way.

We know that we have asked that question. We know what our answers have been. We know where they have led. And we know that we are not going to leave open the slightest possibility of going there again. The stakes are just too high.

In this context, “Sabbathers” have something to offer the larger Christian world, which is looking for powerful ways to reconnect Judaism and Christianity. As many have noted, it is a good idea to rest and to reflect on a regular basis and this can be done on any day of the week with equal value. But to celebrate Sabbath when the Jews in all their particularity—some would say peculiarity—do so is to make two very powerful statements. One of these is that, as the Apostle Paul clearly states (Rom. 11:17–24), Christianity is a branch that is grafted into the living tree of Judaism. The other is that every attempt to use the coercive power of government to enforce purely religious observances is anathema.

Despite our continuing interest in chronology, some of us who are current or former Seventh-day Adventists have terrible timing. Just when the circumstances are right for us to make a contribution in the area of abstinence from drinking alcoholic beverages and eating meat, we decide that these are embarrassingly old-fashioned. Likewise, just when the situation is ripe for us to help Christianity in its eager desire to free itself from the horrors of supersessionism and Constantinianism, we decide that “Sabbathing” is “too Jewish” and “too legalistic.”

How funny! How sad!

David Larson teaches in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.

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