Anti-Semitism, Misogyny and Protestantism: You Got to Keep the Devil Way Down in the Hole
In the wake of the election in the fall there was a spike in anti-Semitic attacks. A spate of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers at the end of January suggest that the threat of violence has not let up. Until last year with the rise of the white supremacist “alt-right,” I thought of anti-Semitism as something that was largely over. I realize the naiveté of that position now. Reading Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of this World, I’m struck by his case for how prevalent a low-level (sometimes not even very low-level) anti-Semitism is in Protestant Christianity.
In the Calvinist Christianity in which I was raised, Jewish people were viewed as a special people because they were the covenant people, God’s chosen people. But they came to see The Law that God gave them as the source of salvation and ignored God. Recently, in reading Jenning’s commentary on Romans, I was convinced by how that account of the critique of the law as a critique of the Jewish tradition contributed to an anti-Semitism at the heart of Christian theology. Kotsko adds to the case that Protestant Christianity is characterized by anti-Semitism in his account of Luther’s case against the Jewish people, whom he wanted expelled from Europe. I didn’t realize this case was Luther’s, but I did know of it as the way that Protestants generally thought about the Jewish view of Christianity. It isn’t just that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. In the tradition I grew up in, if claims like that were ever made they were met with the claim that we all would have done what they did had we been there. I had taken that to excuse the Jewish people, but on reading The Prince of This World, I’m struck by the implication. If the Jewish people are those who in that moment turn their back on God, then they are occupying the position of the devil. The move Christians make to identify themselves with the people who condemn Jesus to death (though technically, that was Rome, not the Jewish leadership), is the move to identify themselves with the devil, completely without capacity to save themselves. We were all that bad is what they are really saying, continuing to draw the line between whoever rejects God and the devil. The problem is that the Jewish people continue to reject God, just like the devil. When, as Kotsko cites Luther, they of all people should know better. And why? Because of the 1500 years that have followed have made that pretty clear. “They are obliged to know it, and God demands this knowledge of them,” Luther writes, not unlike the knowledge we assign to the devil. Kotsko argues that Luther judges the Jewish people as responsible for the knowledge that a practicing Christian would have and to be judged accordingly, just as the devil, judged as an angel, was held responsible for his knowledge of God.
I often think when people discuss Protestantism that certain problematic positions can be dismissed because they don’t really belong to me or my tradition. But this notion, that the Jewish people should know better–they have all the information of the Old Testament that should demonstrate that Jesus is the Christ–this is a sentiment that I was surely raised to believe to be the case. While I wasn’t raised to blame the Jewish people for Jesus’ death, I was raised to associate the position of those who were responsible, which could also be my own if I was not saved, with the unrelenting God-rejecting nature of the devil. The association of the Jewish people with the devil justified anti-Semitism.
In a parallel vein, it justified misogyny. Women, like the tongue and a clergyman, admit of no moderation in virtue or vice. Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, the authors of Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), argue that women are particularly susceptible to witchcraft because “they are more credulous, and since the chief aim of the devil is to corrupt faith, therefore he rather attacks them” (from Kotsko, 159). They are also more impressionable. As Kotsko notes, these qualities show women to be both passive and receptive–the material to male form. But it doesn’t make women controllable, but lacking self-possession, and so susceptible to aggression, which makes them liable to share their dark arts with their sisters. Women are in the same position as the devil, apparently evil by nature, but still somehow responsible. Their nature is more carnal, which makes them less intellectual. Woman comes from the rib, which is bent away from man (an interpretation that would be lol’able if the sense of it did not remain today). And yet, her natural will, which Kramer describes as a man resentful at having lost the affections of a woman: “when she hates someone she formerly loved, then she seethes with anger and impatience in her whole soul” (from Kotsko, 160). Kramer raises the anxiety from the personal to the political, and from the interpretative to the land of alternative facts, when he argues that all kingdoms of the world were overthrown by women. But the chief failing of woman is her carnal lust, “which is in women insatiable,” a situation he thanks God for saving men from. It’s the lust that drives women to the devils, which makes them witches. Interestingly, the crimes of witches are crimes of affecting these men who are not at all affected by lust (it must be the devil!), and of controlling their reproductive capacities. The real problem with women is that they are prone to betray their role as mother. Kramer argues that women’s sin is actually worse than the devil’s (Kotsko 162). Poor Satan who is incapable of repentance and pardon due to his very nature. Women as witches on the other hand fall twice, since they fall even after their baptism, and so “sin against a merciful persuader.” Having hearts that by nature should be open to such persuasion, women unlike the devil, are more responsible for their sin. These notions of the carnality of women explain why women are made responsible for the sexual sin of men.
It is not accidental, it would seem that both anti-Semitism and misogyny seem to be making more explicit advances. The move to associate the devil with the oppressed in order to maintain the political order has a long history. As Kotsko writes, describing the links between associating certain groups with the devil and contemporary life:
As Silvia Federici argues in Caliban and the Witch, the witch trials–far from being an unfortunate medieval holdover in early modernity–were a systematic campaign of terror aimed at reducing the European population into docile workers and harnessing their sexual energies solely toward reproductive ends. This mass demonization provided a template for subduing native populations in the New World and Africa. This unexpected connection between witch hunts and colonization is reinforced by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s study of Jesuit missionaries’ perception of Brazilian natives. Echoing Kramer’s description of women, they describe natives as inconstant and impulsive–a constitutional moral failing that legitimates violent repression of the native way of life (166).
The devil, who had been used to explain the gross injustices of powerful people against the powerless, becomes transformed into a tool of the powerful when Christianity becomes a part of the empire. In sum, if you could associate a group of people with the devil, not only could justify keeping them down in the hole, you were obliged to keep them down.