Summer 2001, Vol. 4, No. 2

Summer 2001

Quick Links:
Related Articles
The Minister, the Rabbi, and the Baccalaureate, Religion in the News, Summer 2001

Jamming the Jews, Religion in the News, Summer 2001

Peanuts for Christ, Religion in the News, Summer 2000

Spiritual Victimology, Religion in the News, Fall 1999

Quick Links:
Other articles
in this issue

From the Editor: The Minister, the Rabbi, and the Baccalaureate

Idol Threats

Purging Ourselves of Timothy McVeigh

The Pope Among the Orthodox

Faith-Based Update: Bipartisan Breakdown

The Perils of Polling

The Rael Deal.

Jamming the Jews

Evangelism in a Chilly Climate

Correspondence: Palestinians and Israelis


Superceding the Jews
by Andrew Walsh

Easter is usually a quiet day in the world of journalism, with newspapers thickly laden with photos of Easter bonnets, the ritual doings of the Pope, and accounts of soggy sunrise services in local parks. Easter 2001 delivered an utterly unexpected coast-to-coast donnybrook over a cartoon that Johnny Hart, the nation’s most widely published cartoonist considered an homage to Judaism and Christianity, but which many Jews and Christians viewed as an astonishing assault on Jewish sensibilities and a rupture of the code of civility.

Scheduled to run on April 15, Easter Sunday, the ‘B.C.’ cartoon caused a sensation when the confrontational Jewish Defense League leaked it on its Internet site early in the week before Easter and denounced it as "highly crude, insulting, and an example of outright Jew hatred." More measured but still stinging denunciations quickly appeared from the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress, and a host of Catholic, Protestant, and ecumenical organizations and spokesman.

The cartoon, John Rivera reported in the April 13 edition of the Baltimore Sun, "shows a seven-branch menorah, a Jewish sacred symbol. Each panel features on of the Last Seven Words of Jesus—a popular Good Friday devotion for Christians that commemorates his crucifixion—as succeeding candles on the menorah are snuffed out. The cartoon concludes with the menorah transformed into a cross."

The issue for Jewish spokesmen was "supercessionism," the traditional Christian teaching that the Old Israel was replaced with Christ’s sacrifice by a New Israel—the Church—and by generations of Christians who often sought to get even with those they blamed for Christ’s death.

Hart and his syndicator, Creator’s Syndicate, Inc, were astonished by the visceral reaction to the cartoon, which shows a lit Jewish ritual candelabrum morphing step by step into a cross, with the final panel revealing an empty cave with bread and a chalice lying on a table.

An ardent and conservative evangelical Protestant, Hart is proud to pepper his very popular cartoons—carried in 1,300 newspapers worldwide—with Christian messages. He had no inkling that he had produced a piece of art guaranteed to offend the sensibilities of millions. He apologized, but insisted that he had no intention of suggesting the Christianity replaced Judaism as God’s chosen religion. He rejected, he said, "replacement theology," adding that he considered himself to be a Jew.

Nevertheless, a howl went up across the nation. In Denver, San Diego, Hartford, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Atlanta, and a host of other cities, letters-to-the-editor columns were filled day after day with angry effusions, some enraged by Hart, some furious with newspapers for printing the cartoon, and many others criticizing those who called for the suppression of the strip.

It was one of those moments when American popular culture suddenly erupts in discord—anti-Semitism in the funny pages, a sudden flash illuminating the contours of the "culture wars" in America. Fuming critics saw Hart as forcing his conservative Christian views on an unwilling public and flouting the norms of civilized and pluralist discourse. Hart, and many of his supporters, had literally no idea what people were complaining about.

In any event, in the days before Easter hundreds of newspapers found themselves in the middle. What to do? Publish the cartoon without comment? Give critics a platform? Suppress the cartoon that was already fixed in millions of preprinted Sunday inserts?

Scores of dailies solved the problem by printing Hart’s Easter comic strip along with a news story on the controversy, and quite often, comments or official statements by editors or readers’ representatives.

Some of these—often printed as brief notes—seem remarkably mealy-mouthed in retrospect. On April 15, for example, San Diego Union-Tribune editor Karin Winter published a three-sentence note on A-2. "Today’s ‘B.C.’ comic strip by Johnny Hart has drawn objections from members of the Jewish Community, who consider it offensive and demeaning. It is not the intention of the San Diego Union-Tribune to offend any religious group. Our comics committee, which meets regularly to assess the comics page, will evaluate the response to the ‘B.C.’ strip."

The Hartford Courant took a somewhat firmer stand in a brief note published the same day on it’s A-2. "As explained in a Page 1 story Friday, some Jewish groups have taken offense at today’s installment of the ‘B.C.’ comic strip." After briefly describing both the American Jewish Committee’s complaint and Hart’s response, the note concluded: "It is the Courant’s policy not to censor its comic strips simply because they are controversial, and ‘B.C.’ appears as usual in today’s paper."

Frank Denton, editor of the State Journal in Madison, Wisconsin offered readers a fuller picture of his newspaper’s internal discussion. Hart, Denton noted, is "a talented cartoonist" whose work over the past 40 years "had entertained generations of readers. He’s also an intensely religious person who occasionally infuses his beliefs into ‘B.C.’…At times, his messages have trespassed into advocacy, making some readers uncomfortable and offending others. Now, he’s gone too far."

After saying the strip shouldn’t run, Denton, like many other editors, faced the uncomfortable problem of explaining why it was running anyway. "Frankly, [the Sunday comics section] was printed and packaged with advertising inserts before we became aware of its content Friday. Our Sunday comics are assembled electronically out of state and delivered to us already printed." (Miriam Pepper, the Kansas City Star’s Reader’s Representative admitted in her column that the Star was feeling relieved that it had decided weeks before not to run Hart’s cartoon that Sunday—sight unseen--because of space limitations. "Sometimes lucky in the newspaper business is almost as good as right," she admitted.)

A few other newspapers actually put their money where their mouths were. On April 15, Harry Whitin, editor of the Sunday Telegram in Worcester, Massachusetts, described the evolution of discussion at his paper from a position that Hart’s comic strip was "fairly benign" to a realization that "the vision of what was in the strip depended on the eyes viewing it." After a number of conversations with colleagues, it became clear to Whitin "that the strip didn’t belong in the funny papers. The comics pages are no place for religious commentary or an examination of theology or anti-Semitism, particularly when there is no room for a thoughtful discussion."

So, what to do with 140,830 pre-printed comics sections "stacked up on pallets" at the newspaper? Remarkably, Whittin ordered them reprinted, a costly move made by only a handful of papers. Laudably, the Telegram then devoted a page of its Insight section to the controversy, printing the cartoon strip, the JDL’s plea for action, Hart’s own statement, and "a counter-point column provided by Creator’s Syndicate."

The Record of Hackensack, New Jersey also ordered the comics section reprinted, while the Bangor Daily News in Maine, which had come to a similar conclusion, solved the problem by pulling the entire section from distribution that Sunday.

In fact, the general trend of journalistic response to readers and advocates echoed Denton and Whitin’s assertion that the "funny pages" are the wrong place for cartoons like Hart’s. A few, like New York Daily News columnist Zev Chafets, found this view exasperating, "Hart is a fundamentalist who believes Christianity is the one true religion. This is standard born-again doctrine, but in ecumenical America it is impolite to say so. Especially in the funnies. Cartoon interpretation is an arcane science, and I wouldn’t want to venture to say who is right. I do, however, know who’s wrong: The Record and the other papers that dropped ‘B.C.’ because they didn’t want to offend their readers—or advertisers. Newspapers with a pulse give offense to many people every day and take the heat. Those that can’t should not be entrusted with anything as serious as the funnies."

Crosstown rival, Rod Dreher of the New York Post shared Chafet’s skepticism about the emerging claim that comics are solely a forum for entertainment. "I understand why many Jews find this ‘B.C.’ strip objectionable," he wrote on April 15. "But it’s hard to see how the strip, whose powerful images are, unfortunately, ambiguously deployed, crosses the line into scorn and contempt, much less the ‘Jew hatred’ the JDL sees. If Hart did intend to make the serious theological claim that Christianity supercedes Judaism in some way—well, the comics page isn’t the best place for this kind of thing, but so what?"

"Have we reached the point where the mere act of asserting the truth of one’s religion over other religions is considered unacceptable? If so, that puts off-limits any substantive discussion of religion in public life."

One needn’t go that far to agree that there’s something facile and self-serving about the claim made so frequently by journalists in this controversy that the "funnies" should be restricted to kid-safe entertainment.

Perhaps the single best piece of journalism generated by the controversy was a 2,300-word article by Chris Hutchins of the Palm Beach Post in Florida. Published on May 11, the article surveyed the work of a large number of contemporary cartoonists and revealed their reluctance to be viewed as the lightweights of the newspaper business.

"Cartoonists fill the same function as a newspaper columnist; we just work in a different format," cartoonist Wiley Miller, who produces the strip ‘Non Sequitur,’ told Hutchins. "There are five unwritten rules for comics, topics you just can’t touch," explained Frank Cho, creator of Liberty Meadows, a strip about an animal sanctuary with talking critters. "Sex, drugs, religion, violence, race issues. But aren’t those the topics we should be talking about?"

The controversy over the Easter cartoon was triggered by the widespread perception that Hart was advocating supercessionism or, in more contemporary jargon, "replacement theology." The theological tradition, in the words of Hartford Courant religion writer Mark Oppenheimer, holds that Christians have replaced Jews as God’s chosen people because of the Jews do not accept Jesus Christ as messiah."

In his pre-publication apology, Hart rejected supercessionism explicitly. But few of his critics were persuaded. "What this cartoon says is that Judaism is finished and has been replaced by Christianity," Rabbi Mark Gruber of Temple Israel in Dayton, Ohio told D.L. Steward of the Dayton Daily News on April 15. "This is the kind of thing that has led to centuries of anti-Semitism."

"The [cartoon’s] imagery suggests that Jewish religion has to be diminished or extinguished for Christianity to succeed and survive, and I don’t believe that’s a constructive message," Martin Cominsky, a regional director of the ADL told the Houston Chronicle.

"The menorah has no place in Christianity. It is a central symbol of Judaism. To transform the menorah into a cross with the words "It is finished" is to say that Judaism should be eliminated," Stephen Silberfarb, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas told the Star-Tribune of Minneapolis. (For the record, "It is finished" is, according to John 19:30, the last thing Jesus says on the cross before dying.)

The Jewish fear, deeply rooted in experience, is that supercessionism, by proposing that the Jewish covenant with God has been terminated, permits Christians to persecute and discriminate against Jews with impunity. Historically there’s no question that supercessionism has been an important element of almost all forms of Christian doctrine: Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox. But there has been widespread reconsideration of the ways in which Christian theology has been presented in the light of the Holocaust.

And so, articles, commentaries, and letters to the editor were filled with examples of Protestants and Catholics repudiating replacement theology. The Albany, New York Times-Union carried a strong statement from Catholic Bishop Howard Hubbard on April 29. Supercessionism, Hubbard wrote, "contributed to the forced conversion of Jewish people in the Middle Ages, the abuses of the Crusades, and the Inquisition, the ghettos and pogroms of the 19th century as well as the horrendous Holocaust of the 20th century."

He went on to say that "supercessionism has been repudiated by most Christian denominations, most notably by Pope John Paul II who has called Judaism Christianity’s "older brother" and stated that "the Catholic faith is rooted in the eternal truths of Hebrew Scriptures and the irrevocable covenant made with Abraham."

Hubbard closed by quoting a prayer from the Catholic liturgy for Good Friday, which in the 1960s was cleansed of strongly anti-Jewish language. "Let us pray for the Jewish People, the first to hear the word of God that they may continue to grow in the love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant."

It’s this sort of strongly anti-supercessionist sentiment that gives many Jews the confidence to demand that public speech conform to new norms of civility and mutual respect. "I have no idea what the author had in mind, but on its face the cartoon baldly reasserts the kind of triumphalistic view of Jews and Judaism that caused untold suffering in centuries past," Rob Leikind of the ADL’s Boston office told the Boston Globe. "It’s also dramatically out of line with the enormous effort that has been made over the past few decades to develop greater understanding and respect between Christians and Jews."

But while anti-Hart reactions tended to be covered extensively, on the whole, journalists showed remarkably little interest in understanding or presenting the range of Christian teaching on supercessionsim. They tended to seek expert commentary almost exclusively from Catholic and mainline Protestant scholars who condemn supercessionism. Only a handful of journalists, including Gustav Niebuhr of the New York Times and Jeffrey Weiss of the Dallas Morning News, produced serious efforts to analyze Christian doctrine. And even they did not seek out evangelical and fundamentalist scholars—surely not difficult to locate—who would defend supercessionism, or at least to explain it.

In his Easter Sunday piece on Hart’s strip, Weiss did quote two Baptist scholars, but both supported the ecumenical line and neither cast any light on how many evangelicals understood Hart’s approach. "I think a well-meaning man with some very deep convictions has made a very insensitive error," Paige Patterson, president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina told Weiss.

On April 14, William Wineke of the Madison State Journal made a stronger effort to explain why conservative Protestants like Hart don’t see themselves as anti-Semitic. "Christians who feel as Hart does believe they are honoring Jews by seeing Jesus as the Messiah. Jews, in general, see it quite differently."

In fact, if journalists looked a little more carefully, they would discover that the "modern Christian teaching" against supercessionism is a very delicate, nuanced proposition.

In a tantalizingly brief quotation, Michelle Bearden and Penny Carnathan of the Tampa Tribune closed their April 15 article on the Easter cartoon with a quotation from James Strange, a professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida. Strange judged that Hart’s "anti-Semitism" was probably unintentional—the result of a supercessionism that is so much "part of the culture of Christianity" that most Christians aren’t aware of it….They say the supercessionist words, think the supercessionist thoughts, do the supercessionist things without even thinking about it."

Those interested in explaining why controversies of this sort erupt so frequently in the United States need to probe the perhaps unduly optimistic assertion that supercessionism has been relegated to the history books. "Many Christian groups today also reject replacement theology," Rabbi Jordan Parr of Congregation Children of Israel in Augusta, Georgia told Augusta Chronicle’s columnist Dennis Sodomka. "Instead, most Jews and Christians accept some version of sister theology wherein both Judaism and Christianity—and Islam as well—co-exist as manifestations of Divine favor."

That’s a step too far for all but liberal Protestants and a handful of liberal Catholics. This is not to say that the outpouring of Protestant and Catholic repentance and reconsideration has been insincere.

Something more complex has been going on.

When the Pope and other Christian leaders committed to ending Christian violence and discrimination against Jews think directly about the question of how to explain the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, they now voice a clear rejection of supercessionism.

But when theologizing about Christianity’s internal understanding of itself, many elements of what Jews call supercessionism almost inevitably emerge.

Judaism and Christianity diverged in the first century and, ultimately, all but a handful of Christians still tend to think of the Christian turn toward independence and the depiction of Christ as Messiah and God was the correct turn. While the Pope and other Christian leaders now discourage Christians from saying that Judaism took a wrong turn, very few are willing to accept a formulation that makes Christianity, Judaism, and Islam "co-existant manifestations of Divine favor." Many Jews wouldn’t like it either.

Instead, at least in Pope John Paul’s approach, the "modern" approach is to recognize the continuing validity of God’s covenant with Jews as a kind of grandfather clause. For the Catholic church, for evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants, and for many mainline Protestants, formal theology and much belief and practice tends to uphold the unique importance of salvation in Christ.

The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America—a bastion of correct ecumenical thinking—wrestled with this set of issues at its annual meeting this year and ended up making a theological affirmation that recognized other paths to salvation but upheld the unique status of salvation in Christ. Many Christian bodies still uphold an even stronger set of teaching about the priority of Christianity. The result is a kind of cyclical public dynamic.

The controversy over the Easter remark of conservative leader Paul Weyrich illustrates what happens when Christians who aren’t consciously thinking in ecumenical terms make supercessionist utterances in public settings. The Weyrich contretemps, which was a more limited, inside-the-Beltway affair than the Hart controversy, arose when Weyrich put a Good Friday message on his Free Congress Foundation’s website on April 13. Weyrich, a deacon of the Melkite Rite of the Catholic Church, distributed a commentary, "Indeed He Is Risen," that was apparently drafted as a sermon.

The sole disputed passage read: "Our God could not bear to see mankind suffering, even if it was from the consequences of his own actions, so he sent his only son to become a man so that man could become like God. To accomplish that, Christ was crucified by the Jews who had wanted a temporal ruler to rescue them from the oppressive Roman authorities. Instead, God sent them a spiritual leader to rescue them from their sins…He was not what the Jews had expected so they considered him a threat. Thus he was put to death."

Evan Gahr, then a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a writer for conservative publications, denounced Weyrich’s commentary in a piece posted on the American Spectator’s web site. It accused Weyrich of anti-Semitism for blaming Jews for the death of Christ. A Washington Post article by Thomas Edsall published on April 24 then quoted Gahr as calling Weyrich "a demented anti-Semite."

A furor then roiled conservative circles, with some defending Weyrich and others suggesting that Gahr, who lost his position as a Hudson Institute fellow and was fired as a columnist by FrontPage magazine, had a point. Gahr was soon supported by spokesmen for the American Jewish Congress and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Weyrich defended himself by saying he was merely quoting Scripture and said he was stunned that a single utterance of this sort—a standard Catholic interpretation of the meaning of Christ’s death—could lead to his condemnation as an anti-Semite.

Related Articles:

The Minister, the Rabbi, and the Baccalaureate, Religion in the News, Summer 2001

Jamming the Jews, Religion in the News, Summer 2001

Peanuts for Christ, Religion in the News, Summer 2000

Spiritual Victimology, Religion in the News, Fall 1999

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