In response to yesterday’s massacre of Palestinian people by Israeli soldiers, many Christians attempted to express their well-placed solidarity with colonized Palestinian people by declaring that “Jesus is Palestinian.” We can find better ways to denounce the mistreatment of the Palestinian people.
By proclaiming Jesus to be “Palestinian,” we commit a very old, but very serious theological error: supersessionism.
In truth, Jesus not only was Jewish; Jesus is still Jewish. Any attempt to place Jesus in solidarity with an oppressed group that denies this, however implicitly, is misguided. What is happening to the Palestinian people is wrong and gravely unjust, but, given the way that “Palestinian” and “Jewish” identities are now perceived as being antagonistic to each other, when we say things like “Jesus is Palestinian” one is inevitably (and often I think this is conscious intent) implying Jesus was not really Jewish, especially not Jewish in the way modern-day Jewish Israelis are.
More than simply divorcing biblical Judaism from contemporary Judaism, this theological move in fact pits them against each other. Rather than boldly prophetic expressions of the Christian imagination, both of these claims are nothing more than the same old supersessionistic tactics. As such, they are always anti-Jewish; they have often been anti-Semitic as well.
Calling Jesus Palestinian seems just like a contextually sensitive emulation of James Cone’s prophetic declaration that “Jesus is black,” but it’s really not. Cone declared Jesus black largely due to the fact that in his U.S.-American context Jesus had been misconstrued as white (and therefore white supremacist) both explicitly and implicitly for centuries. But in Christian theology, Jesus has not been falsely represented as Jewish. In fact, we have only very recently begun to acknowledge and grapple with the theological consequences of Jesus’ Jewishness. Ultimately, then, when we proclaim Jesus to be Palestinian, we put Judaism in the position whiteness and white supremacy occupies in Cone’s theology. This is a grave and disturbing error.
And, as scholars such as Howard Thurman, Willie Jennings, and J. Kameron Carter have pointed out, supersessionist theologies helped to fuel European imperial expansion. European Christians simply forgot that they remained Gentiles even after baptism; mistaking themselves for God’s Chosen People, they believed themselves the saviors of the nations. Thus, rather than a source of oppression, recognizing Jesus’ Jewishness helps us resist it.
Some may object here and point out that the historical Jesus did in fact live in a part of the world we can rightly call Palestine. Even if true, this equivocates. Jesus’ geographical identity is not any way parallel to or on the same plane as his Jewish “identity.” Jesus is not a paper doll; “Jewishness” is not one of his many interchangeable outfits.
Unlike other cultural practices, those enacted by Jewish people help to express their unique status as God’s chosen people. Gentiles, even when oppressed, may be preferentially loved by the God of Israel, but they are not among her Chosen People.
Nor is the blackness ascribed to Jesus by Cone simply one identity among many, at least not in the United States. Just as Gentile Christians have frequently positioned both themselves and other Gentiles as the real Jews, so non-black people do the same with respect to blackness. Rather than a uniquely-situated identity that alone fights against the afterlife of Africanized slavery, blackness is treated as as a prototype and a blank slate of oppression. It is passed around like a cloak that anyone can don.
According to this thinking, if Jesus is black, so can he be nearly anyone who is mistreated. But this syllogism holds true only if we treat blackness as an infinitely fungible analogy rather than a distinct reality with a unique history. We laud Cone’s calling Jesus black, but we quickly insist that Jesus is many other things too. Blackness operates in the political imagination much as Judaism has operated in the Christian imagination.
We ought to resist a Palestinian Christology for another reason: it is wholly unnecessary. We do not need Jesus to be Palestinian to denounce their mistreatment. Would today’s events suddenly become just had Jesus not yet walked the earth? Should not the humanity of Palestinian people suffice as evidence of their rights to life and land?