J. Kameron Carter’s recent talk at the Katz Center evoked a great deal of discussion and push-back from some of his listeners. And rightly so. Carter gives a close and critical reading of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics that goes against the grain of how Bonhoeffer is usually treated more generally, and certainly in Jewish circles. It is common to celebrate his generosity toward the plight of the Jews and to note his argument for a theological connection between Christian supersessionism and Nazism. But Carter argues that this theological move also creates a series of new problems in regard to Whiteness and the introduction of new forms of supersessionism. Carter suggests that Bonhoeffer’s intervention did not erase supersessionism but rather created a space for Jews inside this theological Christian paradigm. This, in turn, facilitated new forms of supersessionism (mostly political) in which Jews can now take part. Bonhoeffer was concerned for the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany, but he articulated this concern through a form of what Dylan Rodriquez calls a “White Theological Reconstruction.”
I think part of what evoked such resistance to the talk was the innovative character of Carter’s approach to the question. We are not accustomed to hearing how Blackness theorizes the question of Jewishness. Below I will briefly offer my reading of Carter’s thesis and then a few observations about the way it squares with other critical renderings of the so-called “Judeo-Christian tradition.” In what follows I quote from a draft of Carter’s chapter “Whiteness World-Wide,” which is part of his book project The Religion of Whiteness and which was the basis of his Katz Center talk.
To begin, it is important to note that Carter is not making a historical argument. The question of the relationship of Christianity and Nazism has been long debated on historical grounds, but this is not an issue that Carter engages here. His argument is structural, in general, and theological, in particular. He offers a critical assessment of a theological claim Bonhoeffer makes when holding Christianity accountable for the atrocities he witnessed and ultimately suffered. Nor should Carter be read here as a historical determinist. Carter is not saying supersessionism will inevitably lead to genocide, only that it can put in place conditions whereby such an expression of human depravity could somehow seem justified.
Bonhoeffer’s attempt to create a “post-racial humanism” has often been read as universalistic. What Carter suggests, however, is that this “humanism” is fundamentally an expression of Whiteness. By Whiteness, he refers not just to race or people of a race but what he calls “a force animating the planetary present.” Historians and theorists of race, from Sylvia Wynters to George Yancy, have long noted how the ideas of the European Enlightenment are far less inclusive than they seem at first sight; the rhetoric of humanism may be universal, but it equates the Human with Whiteness and tacitly also with Christianity. Extending these insights, Carter shows how Bonhoeffer’s attempt to create a “post-racial humanism” that includes Jews as Human means in a sense to include the Jew in Whiteness.
Carter calls Nazi fascism a “lapsarian condition of Western nihilism.” Bonhoeffer seeks to eradicate this condition through a reconstruction of the West that includes Jews. That project not the eradication of Whiteness nor its curtailing to make room for Blackness: it is one of “White Reconstruction.” To re-humanize the Jew in Christianity in Bonhoeffer’s vision in the Ethics in a “post-racial world” is to make the Jew part of the project of Whiteness and thus a party to, or potential participant in, the colonial project of the West more generally. Or, as Carter puts it, “this vision of the human is in fact a racial-colonial vision of the Human” under the guise of post-raciality. This is in part because the Jew was excluded from “the Human” in Nazism (on Bonhoeffer’s reading and that of others as well). Bonhoeffer’s theological claim is that this exclusion comes as a result of supersessionism, which is why—in his view—the Jew is re-humanized through the erasure of supersessionism. By Carter’s reading, the West solves the Jewish problem by making Jews part of the West. This inclusion is predicated on Whiteness, however, and thus never addresses others who are deemed non-Human even in this ostensibly “post-racial” project. And the structural and theological logic remains the same even though not all Jews are white; all Jews may not be white, but “the Jews” (the figural Jew) have become part of Whiteness, certainly in regard to this “White Theological Reconstruction.”
When we follow his logic, then, it should not be so jarring to hear Carter’s claim that the nation-state of Israel is an extension, and consequence, of the inclusion of the Jew in a post-supersessionist rendering of the West. Or, as Carter writes, “What this also means, then, is that insofar as this community of nations (let’s call this, the Western International) are not to be antisemitic, a stance that is not supersessionistic translates into a post-World War II embrace of the Jewish people, if not after Bonhoeffer himself the nation-state of Israel as part of the Western International.” Carter is not making any claim about the Jewish right to self-determination or even about the existence of a Jewish state per se. Carter’s point, as I read it, is that the structural nature of Israel—conceived by European Jews,supported by the post-WWII West, and affirmed theologically by Bonhoeffer as an example of his post-supersessionist “post-racial” project—is an example of the way the Jew has become a part of structural Whiteness after the atrocities that centuries of supersessionism made theologically possible by virtue of the de-humanization of the Jew. Read from a position of Whiteness, this might seem simply universalistic. From a position of Blackness, however, one sees the price paid by, and created in, Bonhoeffer’s theological generosity, which is the reinscription of Black and other Others as outside of the Human and the West.
Carter is hardly the first to suggest that Christianity’s ostensibly generous inclusion of the Jew can sometimes hide a larger imperialistic White Christian project. This point, for instance, has been commonly made in Jewish and other critiques of the American discussion of “the Judeo-Christian tradition.” . A few years ago I published an essay on “The Judeo-Christian Tradition” in a volume called Theories of American Exceptionalism, which is mostly a reflection on Arthur Cohen’s 1969 essay “The Judeo-Christian Myth” and its relevance to the present moment. I argued, with others, that the “Judeo-” in the hyphenated locution Judeo-Christian is an absorption of Jews and Judaism into Christianity rather than a partnership with Christianity. Cohen’s claim is that both the Christian and Jew need one another because each has abandoned their own tradition. He wrote, “The Christian comes to depend on the Jew for an explanation of unredeemedness. The Jew… must look to Christianity to ransom for him his faith in the Messiah, to renew for him his expectation of the nameless Christ.” But through it all, Christianity remains the template. The Judeo-Christian Jew is the Jew who is part of the White Christian project, serving the Christian both theologically and, as importantly, politically.
A similar assessment is made by Santiago Slobodsky in his excellent 2104 Decolonizing Judaism: Triumphant Failures of Barbaric Thinking. Slobodsky there writes:
This new Judeo-Christian project, dissident voices argue, goes even further than ethno-religious exculpation. It has enabled the West to perpetuate the same civilization atrocities by, ironically, justifying their reproduction with the excuse of protecting its former victims. In this way Jews became re-inscribed into the same dualistic paradigm that was responsible for the annihilation of one third of their population during World War II. (Decolonizing Judaism, 6-7).
Slobodsky argues that the Judeo-Christian turn, not unlike the Tri-Faith American project of the 1930s, brings Jews “inside” the dominant Christian project. The rhetoric may seem inclusive, but its function is to absorb Jewishneses into the larger civilizational justification of Whiteness (i.e., just as the Christian in the Tri-Faith project was the White Christian). The enemy now becomes the friend who can now engage in new acts of oppression against those who are not included in this “Judeo-Christian” alliance. Of late this has become what Zev Chafetz called in his book A Match Made in Heaven (2007) the “Judeo-Evangelical Alliance,” exemplified by John Hagee’s inaugural address at the new US Embassy in Jerusalem My point in all this is to suggest that what Slobodsky calls “theo-political exceptionalism,” which now includes the “Judeo-,” re-situates the Jew inside the Christian orbit. Among other things, this allows the Jew (now physical and not only figural) to benefit from this exceptionalism by folding the Jews’ own exceptionalism inside it.
Likewise, it may sound jarring to a Jewish audience when Carter calls Israel a “settler-colonial project,” but we should remember that our colleague Derek Penslar has been arguing that for years (see, for example, “Is Zionism a Colonial Movement?” in the 2017 collection Colonialism and the Jews, ed. Katz, Leff, Mandel). To my mind, Carter is not making such a claim to invalidate such a project by definition but rather to map out, at least theologically, some of the conceptual conditions for its emergence, as reflected in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics. Bonhoeffer himself was, of course, very supportive of Israel. But this is not Carter’s point. Carter is not suggesting any form of historical determinism here but only to suggest that the post-supersessionist bargain Bonhoeffer offers creates conditions whereby such an expression of a theo-political exceptionalism can certainly emerge. In other words, while some of us may be surprised and troubled by the political developments in contemporary Israel, Carter’s reading of Bonhoeffer tells us this should not be a surprise at all.
Carter’s essay is not about the Jews, figural or otherwise. His aim here is a critique of Bonhoeffer as creating a new form of Whiteness even in his “non-supersessionist humanism.” The savagery and brutality of Nazi de-humanization demanded a reconsideration of theological supersessionism. But it did not results in its erasure – only its erasure from its most vulnerable victim in Europe, the Jew. Thus, Bonhoeffer’s post-racial fantasy is not anti-racist: it is not the erasure of anti-Blackness but only the erasure of antisemitism. And when antisemitism is erased as a matter of theology, if not also policy, the Jew is not liberated as a free-agent but merely absorbed into the orbit of White Christianity. This is what Cohen warned already in the 1960s about the “Judeo-” in the “Judeo-Christian myth.” Jewish statehood gave Jews an opportunity to exercise that new membership in a variety of ways. Reading Carter, I suggest that the theo-political exceptionalism that stands as a cornerstone of at least some forms of Zionism is itself an iteration of a kind of theo-political supersessionism now enacted by Jews who have become part of the “White Reconstruction.”
For Jewish readers, Carter’s challenge is thus no different than those of Arthur Cohen or Slobodsky. The challenge is to ask about the price of inclusion and to remember that the solution to one problem invariably produces others. Neither Carter nor I are making judgments as to any outcome. We are simply attempting to navigate the intricacies and consequences of human behavior through the lens of political theology. I think his presentation should challenge us to think honestly, creatively, and deeply about the insecurity of our freedom—and about the price and perhaps even inevitability, of our complicity.