“Identified as the People of God
in an age of Bitter Partisanship”
The Aryan Jesus
By Susannah Heschel.
Reflections by Chris Smith.
The Aryan Jesus:
Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany.
By Susannah Heschel.
Paperback: Princeton UP, 2010.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
When those of us interested in church history think of Nazi Germany, our minds typically jump to the good work of Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church movement. However, we typically know less about the theological movements that reinforced Nazi ideology in German churches. In her recent book, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and The Bible in Nazi Germany (which has just been released in paperback by Princeton University Press), Susannah Heschel narrates the history of the primary catalyst of such errant theology, the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life. Heschel, professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and daughter of renowned Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel, describes here not only the organizational history of the Institute, but also their work in rewriting Bible in a way that eliminated as many Jewish elements of its story as possible, and also revising the hymnal and liturgy of the German churches in a similar fashion. In the book’s introduction Heschel pointedly summarizes the mission of the Institute:
[The] Institute redefined Christianity as a Germanic religion whose founder, Jesus, was no Jew but rather had fought valiantly to destroy Judaism, falling as victim to that struggle. Germans were now called upon to be the victors in Jesus’s own struggle against the Jews, who were said to be seeking Germany’s destruction (1).
Heschel’s work, while focused on a fairly narrow era of history, fits well within some of the broader theological accounts – e.g., that of J. Kameron Carter – that trace the history of the racialized imagination back to Christian rejection of Judaism in the early centuries of the church. It is offers a cautionary tale about ideology and the formation of our identity, which is strikingly appropriate in our day when increasingly polarized partisan factions seek to interpret Christianity from within their own particular ideologies, and in so doing, essentially revise the scriptural story to fit their own ideological ends. Granted, none of the American political factions today bear the violence of Nazi Germany, but the rhetorical venom and hatred of the Other are seeds that could well bear the fruits of violence in the future. The message that echoed in my mind as I read The Aryan Jesus (during the inferno of another election week), is that we need a social identity as the people of God formed by the whole testimony of scripture, the blessing of which is not merely for ourselves and the preservation of our own people but rather for the reconciliation of all people and all creation. There is much that we can learn from historical Judaism in this regard, although the relatively recent development of Zionism should be regarded as an aberration, narrowing its eschatological vision of God’s provision of land of shalom to a specific swath of present-day land in the middle East, and in so doing rejecting the hesed and desire for reconciliation that God has for all people. To express the same thought in different terms, we could say that when we fail to recognize the exclusive lordship and sovereignty of Jesus and his mission of reconciliation, the end will be violence and death. Perhaps the narrative of the way that this reality unfolded in Nazi Germany is an extraordinarily tragic and extreme one, but perhaps as Flannery O’Connor has argued we often need such startling and disturbing tales to cut through our blindness, deafness and hardness of heart.
Heschel summarizes the book in her conclusion:
The sharp division made by most historians, theologians, church officials, and scholars of religion between Christian theological anti-Judaism and modern racial antisemitism has fostered the postwar myth that theologians did not contribute to the Nazi murder of the Jews, and also the widespread notion, common among Jewish theologians as well, that Nazism represented an anti-Christian pagan revival movement. As the texts discussed in this book indicate, however, the boundary between theology and race was highly porous. The affinities between theology and race were more than elective. Theologians gravitated toward racism as a tool to modernize Christianity and to demonstrate that its principles were in accord with those of racial theory. In addition, they considered racial theory a tool to grant scientific legitimation to religion (286).
Indeed, we need to have our eyes opened to the ways in which we are formed into ideologies of race, nation, political party, etc. and The Aryan Jesus is highly recommended as a thorough, historical account that reminds us that above all else, we are God’s people, and called to seek the shalom and reconciliation of all God’s creation – and that when we rebel against this mission or seek to reduce its scope, the fruits will likely be those of violence and death.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com