Great Replacement Theory
Great replacement theory (a.k.a. replacement theory) isn’t new, but it hasn’t been mainstream in America for very long. As it has grown in prominence, many conservative and fundamentalist Christians have found it appealing, adopting it as part of their Christian Nationalism.
If you’re not familiar with great replacement theory, National Immigration Forum has an article here that gives a concise introduction. What I want to consider in this post is why I think great replacement theory is so easily accepted by some Christians. To do that, I need to talk a bit about Christian narratives.
Christianity vs. Judaism
Christianity, as it’s presented in the New Testament, is actually born out of Judaism. Jesus was a Jewish man born to Jewish parents, and his life and ministry were steeped in Jewish culture and tradition. His target audience was predominantly Jewish, all of his apostles were Jewish, and most of his time in the gospels is spent in Jewish communities.
In Romans 11, Paul explains that Gentiles have been grafted onto Israel, not that God is replacing one with the other but that Gentiles are being grafted to a common root of God’s people. More than that, he says the Israelites aren’t really cut off; only those who are being unfaithful to God have ceased to be part of God’s people. Even so, they can be grafted back in at any time.
In other words, while Judaism, today, may seem quite different from many expressions of Christianity, Christianity doesn’t exist apart from ancient Judaism, and Jews of Jesus’s day who accepted him as Christ didn’t stop seeing themselves as Jews.
“Christian” isn’t even a term that the New Testament authors really use. It only shows up twice (in Acts).
- Acts 11:26 — the writer mentions that it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians, which suggests to me that they didn’t call themselves Christians. That makes sense if many of them were Jews.
- Acts 26:28 — Agrippa asks if Paul is trying to make him a Christian, probably meaning “one of you people who believes in this Jesus they call the Christ.”
If you have experience with conservative Christianity, you may be realizing that this doesn’t line up with commonly used language. When Christians talk about Jesus’s ministry, language is often used like “the Jews did such-and-such” or “the Jewish leaders,” etc. It creates a distinction between “Jews” and “Christians” rather than “Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah” and “Jews who opposed Jesus.” How many times have you heard someone say that “the Jews” killed Jesus?
There’s also a lot of “replacement” language in Christianity that suggests God abandoned the Jews in favor of the Gentiles. A lot of conservative, Christian theology is fundamentally anti-Semitic in that it suggests a spiritual superiority of Christians over Jews, completely ignoring the reality of Jesus’s closest disciples.
It seems to me that there is no Christianity vs. Judaism dynamic presented in scripture. It was Jewish disciples who were designated as apostles. It was Jewish disciples who ventured into Gentile communities to spread the Gospel. It was Jewish Christians who were responsible for starting the first Gentile Christian communities. Jews didn’t convert to Christianity; they were Jews when they met/heard about Jesus, they were Jews when they accepted Jesus as Christ, and they were still Jews after people started calling them Christians.
Replacing the Israelites
Unfortunately, “replacing the Israelites” is the popular narrative in many Christian communities. It sometimes goes like this:
- “The Jews” were unfaithful to God’s covenant with their ancestors. They not only dishonored the law of Moses but also twisted it to fit their own desires and oppress their fellow Jews.
- John the Baptist prepared “the Jews” by calling them to repentance, but that was just preparation for Jesus.
- Jesus was a Jew who ministered to “the Jews” but only so that they could be the first ones to become part of God’s new thing.
- God started a new religion through Jesus’s ministry, which is now called Christianity, and followers of that religion are God’s new people.
In this narrative (and similar narratives), God isn’t trying to restore Israel or the Israelites or the Jews, etc. Rather, God is just giving the Jews a chance to be part of God’s new people. Those Jewish persons who accepted Jesus as Messiah are viewed as having left Judaism, which is often presented as an antiquated, if not false, perception of God.
There are also some interpretations that talk about the body of Christ as a “new Israel.” They often feed into this idea that God has replaced “the Jews” with Christians.
As Western empires started colonizing other parts of the world, Christianity continued that replacement narrative. It was simple to integrate empire colonization into an elitist replacement theology. The perceived superiority of Western “Christianity” provided all the justification empires needed to oppress anyone they considered to be “other,” and the powerful backing of empires provided the resources necessary for Western Christianity to validate its own superiority complex.
This is the backbone of American history. Dehumanization and enslavement of indigenous peoples, importation of enslaved Africans, manifest destiny, etc. — all are extensions of anti-Semitic, Christian replacement theologies.
This isn’t to say there were no other factors or that everyone involved in the history of Western colonization was a Christian. It does, hopefully, make my point that replacement narratives have been present in Christian theology for some time, and assimilating Christianity into empire politics seems like a fairly simple step.
Fundamentalist American Christianity
If the last few years have taught me anything about fundamentalist, American Christianity, it’s that it operates from a predominantly fear-based theology. Fundamentalist, American Christians seem to be most outspoken about what they perceive as threatening, and that leads to fearmongering.
I believe this is at least partly why great replacement theory has spread so quickly through conservative, Christian America. As with empire Christianity, it’s a small step to imagine someone might be attempting to replace White Americans with other people groups in order to change the demographic and political landscape of America.
- Anti-Semitism. Prominent, anti-Semitic replacement theologies condition many Christians to see replacement as a standard part of God’s relationship with God’s people. This works well with legalism to convince people that straying even a little from “God’s moral code” might cause us to lose favor and, therefore, forfeit our rights as God’s people (i.e. like “the Jews” did). Anyone, then, whose appearance or way of life doesn’t match the expectations of “good Christians” is perceived as, at best, a non-believer and, at worst, an intentional adversary. Both are perceived as threats to Christians’ status as God’s people.
- Christian Nationalism. Because Christianity is still so entangled with American politics, empire thinking is still prevalent. There’s a perceived need to defend the “empire of Christianity,” or Christendom, which already puts others in an adversarial light. It also carries that elitist colonization mindset. From that perspective, replacement can be viewed as a political strategy that has already been employed by Christendom and may be employed by its enemies.
- Insecurity recognizes itself. My experience is that people often accuse others of the sorts of toxic behaviors they employ themselves. Christian communities whose identities are rooted in replacement theologies seem ready to accept the possibility of a great replacement because they know it’s plausible; it’s what they do and what they believe has already been done.
Great Replacement Theory
I want to be clear: I’m not saying that great replacement theory is impossible. I don’t think I’m qualified to talk with any depth about great replacement theory. I am saying that fundamentalist, American Christians seem likely to believe there’s a great conspiracy to replace White, Christian Americans because they already have a framework into which to place such an event: God replacing “the Jews” with “Christians” and Christendom colonizing the world.
For me, this is troubling, because I see replacement theologies as harmful. I said great replacement theory isn’t impossible, but I’m wary of theories that are enthusiastically adopted by Christian communities who already hold to harmful, fundamentalist theologies.
My own narrative is different: God’s plan was to expand the people of God through the Israelites to bless all of humanity. It’s not replacement but inclusion, and that changes how I perceive diversity. Opposite to how fundamentalist Christianity is afraid of being replaced, I am hopeful of God’s love blessing nations through diversity and inclusion.
Great replacement theory is, for me, an attempt to call a blessing a threat. It’s the opposite of an invitation to the Lord’s table. It’s a repeat of the dehumanizing, colonizing mentality of elitist theologies.
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Originally published at http://breakingbreadtheology.com on June 3, 2022.