John O. Ifediora.

In all nations, the quality and relevance of countervailing social institutions matter. That this is the case is particularly of import since institutions are rules that govern individual and collective behavior in any society. In this regard reference is here made to primary and enabling rules and observances that inform and guide conduct, specifically religious, political and economic institutions. In nations where these social institutions have evolved to the point where individual rights and freedom of choice are accorded universal cognizance with appropriate checks and protection, the polity is reasonably well-adjusted. Under this state of affairs, malfunctions in any of the constituent institutions are unlikely to have lasting effects, and minimal corrective measures are needed to restore normalcy; this sentiment enjoys durable currency in advanced democracies such as the United Kingdom, France, Japan, and the United States, where abnormalities are generally reflections of discontent, and may pose no serious danger to established norms unless left unattended. It is thus presumed that advanced democracies have built-in mechanisms that inexorably return them to long-run equilibrium in the event of temporary malfunctions in any of its institutions. Events within the last decade, however, have made this presumption less serviceable.

Religion-inspired violence is of ancient origin, and has found expression in many established faiths. In the normal run of things, malfunctions in religious and political institutions are always and everywhere responsible for all forms of societal neurosis that inflict a nation’s psyche in times of stress and uncertainty. That individuals, in extreme cases, are willing to kill the innocent in order to advance religious and political goals attest to the potency of deranged and malfunctioning institutions that guide and inform collective action. Suicide bombers readily come to mind; but whether society acknowledges it or not, these suicide bombers, once well-functioning members of society, were mentally deranged. No well-adjusted person wants to die; only the neurotic choses to die. And to a large extent, they are victims of distorted religious and political institutions that cut across nations at various stages of socio-political development. The ancient relationship between Christians and Jews provides an excellent context to this narrative, and would be used as a case-in-point in this discourse.

The Essence of Religion

Religion encompasses much; but chief among its defining features are rituals, symbols, practices, and a body of beliefs that afford meaningful interpretations of the meaning and purpose of human existence. Everything else associated with religion is only meaningful within the context of this defining belief system, for it provides the rationale by which rituals and symbols are reasonably apprehended. It is in this sense that theology is regarded as the foundation for faith; it is also in this regard that the search for the roots of violence inspired by religion must necessarily begin with the foundational theology, and doctrines that inform any religion’s answer to the question of salvation.

Certain types of theologies define precise and constrained bounds within which individual practitioners of the faith are accepted as true believers, and are thus deemed religiously legitimate. Such religious perspective is often accompanied by a strong belief of exclusive ownership of the ‘true’ meaning and purpose of human existence in relation to the Divine; but almost invariably this belief system implicates self-righteousness and exclusivity, both of which, under the right circumstances, are conducive to fanaticism. The intolerance of other faiths generated by such exclusive claim to the ‘truth’ has been the source of unimaginable inhumanity visited upon individuals, groups, and communities throughout history.

Of particular relevance to the discourse of theologically induced intolerance is what Glock and Stark referred to as ‘religious particularism.’ By this they mean a doctrinal claim that redemption or salvation is available only to certain individuals that meet specific criteria. More specifically, “religious particularism is the belief that only one’s own religion is legitimate. To the particularistic mind there are no faiths, but one true faith”(Glock and Stark, 1966). The ardent believer thus sees himself as one of the select few that comprise the chosen, ‘the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a prince disguised in meekness who is destined to inherit this earth and the Kingdom of heaven’(Hoffer, 1951).

But in modern societies that accommodate pluralistic views, particularism may be liberally or conservatively expressed. A liberal expression is more likely to accept all religious faiths as legitimate so long as they subscribe to the existence of one God; whereas a conservative strain of particularism may insist that religious legitimacy resides only in one faith, and delegitimize all other expressions of religiosity. It is in this regard that Colerideg writes, “He who begins by loving Christianity better than the truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all”(Mailer, 1963). Whether liberally or conservatively expressed, particularism delegitimizes all religions that are outside the confines of what is deemed the proper faith. The practical implications of the breadth of particularism are substantive, for they implicate exclusivity, and the potential for conflict amongst people of faith.

So far, the impression of particularism is that one who holds such view is very likely to view his religious status superior to others, and engage in invidious self-righteous judgment of the legitimacy of other faiths. But it is one thing to hold such view and altogether another to act on such held belief of superiority. It is when both are combined that particularism is especially potent and dangerous. The implication here is that some people of faith are perfectly capable of harboring particularistic views but do not act on them; while this capacity is atypical, it holds a powerful means by which people of differing religious status can reach a common understanding and acceptance.

But of import to this discourse is the situation where particularism leads to hostility, specifically its manifestation in Christendom dating from early antiquity. In this regard, the troubling questions are: how did Christian particularism lead to antisemitism, and what factors made it possible? In the Christian tradition an overarching issue involves the matter of salvation, and what practitioners need to do to be redeemed, and ultimately saved. Thus in order to uncover the factors that led to Christian particularism, it is necessary to look at its criteria for salvation, and what existing social conditions would enable its implementation. Thus, to generate and sustain particularism, the controlling Christian theology must first sow the seeds of particularistic ideas that consist of a generality of doctrinal claims informed by a body of beliefs that are proclaimed to be universally true, and contain the only ‘truth’ that is exclusive of those held by other faiths. Existing social factors and conditions would then limit the extent to which such particularistic ideas are implemented.

Once universality of a body of beliefs is claimed, the extent to which Christian theology may engender particularism is determined by the degree of specificity of its theological tenets. Thus, the more elaborate and detailed the tenets are, the greater the specificity of the theology. But specificity alone is not a sufficient condition for Christian particularism; there must be, in addition, a clear conception of people who do not meet the requirements of Christian religiousness as articulated by the tenets of its theology. It is this last step that makes Christian particularism partially whole. But being particularistic does not automatically lead to hostility towards the Jewish faith or Islam. The history of paganism and cultism shows that both belief systems were sufficiently detailed in their claims and doctrinal values of their gods; this is especially true of African, Roman, and Greek gods but none claimed universality of their beliefs. And as such, they were all able to co-exist peacefully. Only when the Christian theology was imbued with the aura of universality did it become fully particularistic.

Once the Christian church had developed its particularistic sensibilities, there remained a question of how to implement it. The missing ingredient in this regard was power – the ability to impose Christian ideology on non-believers, in this case the Jews. It must, however, be noted here that the question of how a particularistic body wields power in society is a function of its numerical status. A majority with a particularistic idea has the potential to be both violent and vicious in the face of resistance from bodies with opposing beliefs; indeed a majority need not have a particularistic theology to be violently repressive. On the other hand, when a minority is particularistic, it risks hostile confrontation with the majority that may oppose such imposition on several grounds, one of which is a perceived threat to existing ways of life informed by socio-cultural institutions. A historical case in point is the attempt to impose Judaism on the classical world. Olson explains:

“The ancient Jews having spread colonies throughout the Mediterranean world, armed with their particularistic view of a true and only god, embarked upon a campaign of active proselytization although in a minority status. The antagonistic response of the classical society followed. Even Rome, with its permissive, and eclectic, and somewhat instrumental approach to religion, the Rome which boasted of raising temples to the gods of every conquered nation, found itself unable easily to accommodate a religion that claimed not merely to be true, but to be singularly true” (Olson, 1962).

Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity gave the Church the requisite instrumentality for the enforcement of its particularistic theology; for it then rose in triumph over the remains of the Roman Empire, which, by all accounts, was one of the most militaristic and efficiently organized pre-modern societies in human history. The outcome was a vicious and brutal imposition of the Christian version of the means to salvation. The hierarchical organization of the Church facilitated concentration of power in a Supreme Pontiff, which enabled both a monolithic expression of the Christian ideology, and effective suppression of internal dissent (internal dissent appeared much later). The Church was now a combination of potent social factors —a particularistic theology, a majority status, centralized internal power, and derived external power. History shows that the early Church did not wield these powers with care or restraint.

With the historic Jews in a minority status, two dominant issues defined their relationship with Christians. One pertained the mutual claim to the Old Testament by both Jews and Christians as their common heritage. But in order for Christians to claim this heritage, they would also have to claim descent from Judaism, the faith of Moses, and by extension, recognize that ancient Jewry enjoyed a unique religious status that pre-dates Jesus, and had exclusive claim on the Old Testament. The second issue was the assertion that the Jews had fallen out of favor with God, thus leaving Christians as the sole inheritors of God’s grace and favor. This claim was based on interpretations of events in the Old Testament as the means through which the Jews forfeited their special relationship with God. On these disquieting issues, Hilberg elaborates:

“A crucial issue in the theological disputes between Jews and Christians during the first three centuries C.E. concerned legitimate succession from the Old Testament faith. Having emerged from its initial status as a Jewish sect, when Paul won Peter and his followers to the doctrine that gentiles could come into the faith without adopting Mosaic Law, Christianity, nevertheless, was irrevocably committed to the Old Testament as a prophetic basis for New Testament fulfillment. The proclamation of the divinity of Jesus was not to be taken as raising up a new god; rather Jesus was claimed to be the Son of the Old and eternal Yahweh, and Christianity the final resolution of an established religious tradition”(Hilberg, 1961).

The Jews rejection of the claim made by the Church would not settle the matter, nor was it the answer the mighty Christian majority expected from Jews; the Church needed legitimacy, but more importantly, it needed the Jews’ approbation of its theological formulation to affirm its claim as the legitimate heir to God’s favor. Something had to be done, but the extension of a friendly hand of persuasion was not part of the devised means; meanwhile more rejections of other aspects of Christian orthodoxy were to come, and the consequences would be unimaginable. The grounds for sustained repression of the Jews were now being laid.

Christianity’s Regime of Intolerance And Brutality in Early Antiquity

The Old Testament is essentially the history of the Jews, and without equivocation proclaimed Jews as the Chosen People of God. But the same Hebrew texts are indispensible to Christianity, thus acceptance of the primary thrust of the Old Testament would threaten the legitimacy of Christianity, a non-Jewish faith. The question to be resolved by the early Church was how to reconcile its non-Jewish status with the doctrine of the Chosen People. The theology developed by the Church as a solution to this unsettling issue was simple enough: Jesus was God’s revelation to the world, thus fulfilling the prophesies of the Old Testament, and marks the beginning of a new set of rules for God’s relationship with humanity. The death of Jesus of Nazareth was atonement for sins committed in the past, and now only through the Son of God, Christ, and his acceptance as the Messiah would one qualify for the Kingdom of God. Given that Jews have rejected the Messianic status of Jesus, they are hence unredeemed, and until such time as they see fit to accept Christ as the Saviour, they remain fallen from grace and out of God’s favor. Legitimate succession has now passed from Jews to Christians, and the Old Testament has been fulfilled in the New Testament, thus preserving its continuity. The Church thus staked its claim, and justified its existence.

But the Church was not done; the most powerful charge against the Jews was yet to be incorporated into its orthodoxy— the charge of deicide. For more than two millennia the crucial issue that strained Jewish-Christian relations was the presumed collective role played by Jews in the crucifixion of Jesus. Early Church writers strongly believed that the Jews were responsible for this act, and should be held accountable. The ensuing vitriolic, and persecution were brutal and bloody, and culminated in the most unspeakable horror visited upon Jews both in medieval times and in recent history. The charge of deicide undergirded antisemitic actions against Jews by early Christians, and continues to inspire modern day antisemitism. The Council of Nicaea’s 325 C.E. creedal proclamation of Jesus as the “Very God of Very God” and “One of substance with the Father” provided strong justification for early Christian belief that Jesus, being the Son of God, was an extension of Divinity. Killing him was akin to killing the Divine (Gager, 1983). The statement by Stephen in the Book of Acts did not help matters:

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers”(Acts 7:51-52, NRSV).

The canonization of New Testament Scriptures at the urgings of the Councils of Laodicea in 363 C.E, Hippo in 393 C.E., and Carthage in 397 C.E. further exacerbated the inexorable deterioration of Jewish-Christian relations (Grosser, 1983). The individual Christian who played a significantly noticeable role in damaging Jewish-Christian relations, and the consequent attacks on Jews is John Chrysostom (ca. 345-407). While in Antioch, he produced a series of eight sermons directed against Jews or Judaizers. His first Homily read as follows:

“Do not be surprised if I call the Jews wretched. They are truly wretched and miserable for they have received many good things from God yet they have spurned them and violently cast them away – The Jews were branches of the holy root, but they were looped off” (Chrysostom, quoted in Littell, 1975).

The theological antisemitism inspired by the Church, in due course, became the inspiration for secular antisemitsm. Beginning in the fourth century, Church leaders began to put in place restrictive measures against Jews, for if conversion of Jews would take longer than desirable, they felt it wise to prevent Jews from ‘contaminating’ Christians. Some of the more draconian measures put in place precluded intermarriage, sexual intercourse, eating together, and all significant social contacts between Jews and Christians. The Third Synod of Orleans, in the sixth century, banned Jews from employing Christian servants, and prohibited their presence on the streets when Passion Week was being observed. The Talmud, the Jewish Holy Book, was ordered burned in the seventh century, and in about the same period the Synod of Clermont prohibited Jews from holding public offices (Rothman, 1982). These edicts from the early Church formed the basis of cultural traditions of discriminations against Jews, and ultimately provided sustenance for Nazi atrocities in the mid 20th century. The following edicts are illustrative:

We decree and order that from now on, and for all time, Christians shall not eat or drink with Jews, nor admit them to feasts, nor cohabit with them, nor bathe with them. Christians shall not allow Jews to hold civic honors over Christians, or to exercise public office in the state.”

———– Pope Eugenius IV, Decree, 1442.


  1. Marriages between Jews and citizens of Germany or kindred stock shall be prohibited. Marriages concluded despite the law shall be considered void even when they were concluded abroad.
  2. Nonmarital sexual intercourse between Jews and citizens of Germany or kindred stock shall be prohibited.
  3. Jews shall not employ in their households female citizens of German or kindred stock under 45 years of age.


—— German law enacted September 15, 1935.



Antisemitism has been, and would remain in the foreseeable future, the ‘elephant in the room’ in any serious discussion of Jewish-Christian relations; recent neo-Nazi activities in Europe and the United States of America furnish grounds for such pessimism. The source of Christian antisemitism may still be found, with relative facility, in the body of beliefs that inform Christianity, and its traditional orthodoxy.

The point of this historical narrative is to allay any presumption that religion inspired intolerance and violence is of recent origin. What the world is now witnessing is a different strain of particularism; this time it is extremist interpretation of Islamic theology in contradistinction to other faiths, and Western cultural and social sensibilities. The relevant question now is what inspired it and how will it end? The perception of unfair treatment by adherents may not be unreasonable.



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