Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly: Judaism as the “Paradigm of Sacred Violence”
Neo-Lutherans are not the only source for anti-Semitic appropriations of Paul. Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly's Sacred Violence: Paul's Hermeneutic of the Cross, a “Girardian” reading of Paul, endorses the interpretation of Paul as traducer of Judaism with a vengeance (Hamerton-Kelly 1992). Although this by itself does not constitute an argument against its validity, it should nevertheless be emphasized that if accepted it would set back any possibility for a common language between Jews and Christians by centuries. It does, moreover, endorse this interpretation critically but in full collaboration with such a project. A sequel in pseudo (post)modern terms of the most violent aspects of Christian discourse about Judaism, Hamerton-Kelly's book reads like a medieval Tractatus adversus judaeos, not only in content but in form as well. His explicit intent is to delegitimize Jewish culture—or any culture but Christian—as independent cultural alterities in favor of a Christian exceptionalism by which Paul represents the end to religion and the end to “cultural embeddedness.” The term is his and used by him as a pejorative—see below.
Hamerton-Kelly ostensibly interprets Paul in such a way that his discourse does not constitute a delegitimation of Jews or Judaism:
For Paul the church is not another sect, but the community of the new creation. It is ontologically beyond the world of opposites, and so is not a rival religion to Judaism, but a new and inclusive community. It is possible to construe this claim as just another ploy in the game of sectarian rivalry. Unfortunately, Christians down through the ages have certainly read it as such and used it to justify themselves and delegitimize the Jews. Paul left himself open to such an interpretation, but he did not intend it. He would have been appalled to see the community of the end of time becoming another sect in time, subject to the delusions of sacred violence. (146)
Paul's discourse is on this account a discourse of inclusion, an attempt to break down the hierarchical barriers that exist between people. In the passage discussed above in Chapter 3 in which Paul says “our fathers were all under the cloud,” precisely the import is all of our fathers, that is, the fathers of us both gentile and Jewish. To the extent, however, that the new and inclusive community demands conformity to certain practices that contradict the practices of the historical Jews, even if those practices be only the confession of certain beliefs, then it is inevitably a rival religion and a delegitimization of the Jews, and indeed all non-Christians. Hamerton-Kelly is, however, wholly oblivious to the fundamental contradictions built into the notion of such a community, namely, its presumption that anyone who does not wish to join the new community of faith is under a cloud of quite a different sort. The very claim to be “ontologically beyond” itself constitutes rivalry!
Paul did not only leave himself open to misinterpretation here; the “misinterpretation” is almost a necessary consequence of such an idea. The obvious fact is that this coercive “new and inclusive community” still excludes (and often violently) those who do not have faith in Christ. Hamerton-Kelly, moreover, reads Paul according to the best possible construal of the “intentions” of his discourse and not even its virtually ineluctable effects (How precisely Hamerton-Kelly claims to know the intention of Paul better than, say, Justin Martyr did is itself fascinating!), while Judaism is read by him according to its alleged “actual” practice of killing dissenters. Thus, Judaism is simply “the impulse to fulfill the Mosaic Law [that] made him [Paul] a persecutor and had killed Christ” (141).
Hamerton-Kelly is willing to grant that Paul's putative experience does “not take the whole range of the religion into account” but not willing, apparently, to consider that the doctrines of Jews that other Jews referred to as “Zealots” or “Knifers” were marginal and vigorously opposed subcultures of Greco-Roman Judaism. For Hamerton-Kelly, despite occasional pro-forma disclaimers, these groups represent the true essence of Judaism. For as he says, “I have endorsed Paul's attack on Judaism ” (183 [emphasis added]). To this should be contrasted Hays's sober and balanced judgments:
Only a narrowly ethnocentric form of Judaism, Paul insists, would claim that God is the God of the Jews only or that Abraham is the progenitor of God's people “according to the flesh,” that is by virtue of natural physical descent. For the purposes of his argument, Paul associates these (evidently false) notions with the (disputed) claim that Gentile Christians must come under the Law. Paul, speaking from within the Jewish tradition, contends that the Torah itself provides the warrant for a more inclusive theology that affirms that the one God is God of Gentiles as well as Jews and that Abraham is the forefather of more than those who happen to be his physical descendants. (1989, 55)
Paul is on this view indeed a Jewish cultural critic, calling Jews to ally themselves with the progressive understandings contained within their own tradition and to reject the practices of certain ethnocentric zealots. In fact, the notion that gentiles are saved without conversion to Judaism is a doctrine held by many within ancient Judaism; indeed, what is new in Paul is rather the idea that all—Jews and gentiles—must be justified in the same way, through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul dreamed of a day in which all human distinctions that led to hierarchy would be erased and not merely one in which there was a place in God's saving plan for all. These are the grounds of his critique of—not “attack on”—Judaism.
Hamerton-Kelly's account of Judaism, as well as his account of Paul, like all interpretation, teaches us a great deal about him and his ideology. For the certainty of faith, we find here substituted a certainty borne of “the preunderstanding we [Hamerton-Kelly] bring to the text,” which is “well founded on the evidence not only of the texts it interprets but also on other evidence from the human sciences” (61). For Hamerton-Kelly it is simply a fact that the Jews killed Christ, that their religion was a religion of Sacred Violence, and that God/ Paul rejected the Jews because of the essential evil of their “way of life”: “The Law had created a way of life founded on sacred violence and the crucifixion of Christ is the logical outcome of such a way of life” (66 and 71)! Hamerton-Kelly does not even present this characterization as Paul's and criticize it but rather produces a discourse supported by “the evidence from the human sciences” [i.e., Girard!] which asserts its authority as a description of Judaism. He interprets Philippians 3:8, in which Paul refers to his former achievement as σκύβαλα (dung), as Paul's characterization of “the Jewish way of life.” Hamerton-Kelly somewhat softens the translation to “refuse” and then asserts that this is “what the Law really is” (68). He thus relies ultimately on both the authority of Paul and that of Girard (science) in support of his own political/theological agenda. When we read the Pauline passage in question, however, we find that Hamerton-Kelly's interpretation of it is far from ineluctable. The passage reads:
Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ.
ἀλλὰ μενοῦνγε καὶ ἡγοῦμαι πάντα ζημίαν εἶναι διὰ τὸ ὑπερέχον τῆς γνώσεως Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ τοῦ κυρίου μου δι' ὅν τὰ πάντα ἐζημιώθην, καὶ ἡγοῦμαι σκύβαλα, ἵνα Χριστὸν κερδήσω.
I think that a reading of this verse much more likely than Hamerton-Kelly's is that Paul is precisely not referring to what his former life “really is,” but rather emphasizing that even though it was of value, he counts it now as dung in comparison to the excellency of the knowledge of Christ and in order that he may win such knowledge (Sanders 1983, 44–45; Barclay 1991, 243). In fact, the figure works precisely only if that of which he is speaking is not “really dung.” It is not Paul here who is anti-Judaic, unless any disagreement or cultural critique is to be defined as anti-Judaic.
In fact I give Hamerton-Kelly much more credit than he does himself. He claims to have endorsed Paul's attack on Judaism; I think he has created it. For example, Hamerton-Kelly writes:
The agent of my action in this situation is the sin “that dwells in me”; namely “in my flesh” (τοῦτ' ἔστιν ἐν τῇ σαρκί μου) (Rom. 7:18). In the light of my argument this might be paraphrased, “no good thing dwells in me, that is, in my culturally embedded (Jewish) self.” (147)
Even granting the undecidability of texts, the multivariate nature of hermeneutics, and my own personal investments that lead me to read one way and not another, I find it hard to imagine that anyone who is not already inclined toward Hamerton-Kelly's hatred of Judaism will find his paraphrase in Paul's language, and I think it unnecessary even to produce an alternative reading in this case. Hamerton-Kelly's affirmation of this proposition, whether or not it is Paul's, reveals that he still somehow manages to imagine that there is a self that is not culturally embedded. Paul says nothing so nefarious but certainly does hold out the positive hope of a humanity that will not be differentiated by cultural specificities. Paul can be forgiven his na;auiveté. Hamerton-Kelly is, however, intellectually and morally unforgivable for his ignorance of the critique of universalism mounted in recent criticism. (His appropriation of “theory” seems limited to Girard, and Girard alone.) In the wake of the horrors that have been perpetrated in the name of such visions of a humanity “not culturally embedded,” Hamerton-Kelly's remark is simply inexcusable. I want to underscore this point: If for Hamerton-Kelly, “cultural embeddedness” is the sin that dwells in our flesh, then his politics will be a politics of the eradication of cultural embeddedness, which we know, by now, means the assimilation of all, willy-nilly, to the culture that is defined as not specific—that of white Christian European males.
The obvious charge that suggests itself is that Hamerton-Kelly is engaging in sacred violence and scapegoating of his own. He is certainly aware, although contemptuously dismissive, of this accusation. Indeed, he devotes an entire section of his book to “refuting” it:
If the solution to sacred violence is the renunciation of rivalry, and if faith can take different forms, each of them valid as long as they can be classified under the heading of agape, why have I endorsed Paul's attack on Judaism? Have I not been engaged in precisely the rivalrous behavior that I have been criticizing, rivalrously condemning rivalry? (183)
Hamerton-Kelly's answer is that, “Clearly, a religious system that kills innocent people ‘righteously’ has less rational and moral justification than one that cherishes all in love” (183). It follows, therefore, as the night follows the day, that “the sophistic taunt that Paul scapegoats Judaism is, therefore, unworthy of serious consideration” (184). Indeed, such a “taunt” would be inappropriately directed at Paul, because Paul does not mount his critique of Judaism on such false grounds; it can well be directed, however, at Hamerton-Kelly, and it is more than a “sophistic taunt,” a formal contradiction. It is a damning charge which discredits entirely any pretense he has to a hermeneutic which claims to “escape mimetic violence into a new community of agapaic cooperation” (184).
The burden of Hamerton-Kelly's book is that the Jews really are Christ-killers. Now we do not know if “historically” there were any Jews involved in the killing of Christ, nor is there any reason to suppose that even if there were, they represented the whole People or its religion. What we do know, however, is that millions of Jews have been killed in Europe (and in the “Europe” imposed on the rest of the world by Europeans), owing at least partly to this scapegoating slander.