Phineas and French racial violence

Yesterday’s Le Monde has a distrubing piece on the profanation of a Jewish cemetery in Lyon, blogged here a few days ago. According to the Lyon police, evidence at the scene links this crime to the murder of a young North African man last week.

Le lien entre la profanation du cimeti?re juif de Lyon et une agression raciste ?tabli

La justice a ?tabli vendredi 13 ao?t avec certitude la corr?lation entre la profanation, le 9 ao?t, du cimeti?re juif de Lyon et l’agression ? la hachette, quatre jours plus t?t, d’un homme d’origine maghr?bine, permettant aux enqu?teurs de resserrer l’?tau sur l’auteur de la profanation.

Le procureur de la R?publique de Lyon, Xavier Richaud, a indiqu? qu'”on a retrouv? l’ADN de la victime de l’agression de Villeurbanne sur la hachette laiss?e lundi soir sur une des tombes profan?es”. […]

Le 5 ao?t au matin, un homme d’origine maghr?bine ?tait agress? ? la hachette dans une rue de Villeurbanne. Cette agression avait ?t? revendiqu?e par t?l?phone ? la police par un individu se pr?sentant comme “Phineas”.

L’inscription “Phineas” avait ?t? retrouv?e quatre jours plus tard, le 9 ao?t, trac?e ? la peinture noire sur plusieurs des quelque 60 tombes profan?es dans le cimeti?re juif de la Mouche, ? Lyon. […]

L’outil avait ?t? laiss?, accroch? sur une tombe, pos? en ?vidence pour qu’on le voie.

Link established between the profanation of the Lyon Jewish cemetery and a racist attack

On Friday, 13 August, Investigators established with certainty the connection between the profanation of the Lyon Jewish cemetery and the attack with an axe against a man of Maghrebi origin four days earlier, allowing detectives to tighten the vice on the perpetrators.

The Lyon Procurer of the Republic [more or less the District Attorney or Crown Prosecutor, for Anglophone readers], Xavier Richaud, said that “we have found the DNA of the victim of the Villeurbanne attack on the axe left on one of the vandalised graves Monday night.” […]

On 5 August, a man of Maghrebi origin was attacked with an axe on a street in Villeurbanne. An individual calling himself “Phineas” telephoned police to claim responsibility.

The name “Phineas” was also found several days later, on 9 August, written in black paint on several of the 60 vandalised graves in the Mouche Jewish cemetary at Lyon. […]

The instrument was left hung up on a gravestone, placed so that someone would see it.

The name “Phineas” has a special meaning in Christianity, and particularly to right-wing racist Protestant churches like the Christian Identity movement in the US. The article goes on to point out that a number of attacks in recent years in the US have been labelled as “Phineas Acts.” France has its own traditions of racism and racist mythologies. It seems a little strange to see them borrowing American ones.

Phineas is a Bible name, from the Old Testament, specifically Numbers chapter 25:

1 While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women,
2 who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate and bowed down before these gods.
3 So Israel joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor. And the LORD’s anger burned against them.
4 The LORD said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of these people, kill them and expose them in broad daylight before the LORD , so that the LORD’s fierce anger may turn away from Israel.”
5 So Moses said to Israel’s judges, “Each of you must put to death those of your men who have joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor.”
6 Then an Israelite man brought to his family a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.
7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand
8 and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear through both of them-through the Israelite and into the woman’s body. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped;
9 but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.
10 The LORD said to Moses,
11 “Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites; for he was as zealous as I am for my honor among them, so that in my zeal I did not put an end to them.
12 Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him.
13 He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.”

From the New International Version (NIV) translation, because I’ve never much liked the King James Version

There are a number of interpretations of this part of the Bible, but I won’t bother you with the mainstream present-day ones. Traditionally, these verses are used to show that God hates miscegenators, that the punishment for marriage or intercourse with people outside of one’s own race is death, and that God specially rewards the enforcers of this command. In more recent years, the meaning among Christian Identity theologians and some other far right wing Christian movements has expanded. Any act of violence – especially terrorism – undertaken to enforce God’s law is called a “Phineas act” and its authors are rewarded with membership in the “Phineas priesthood.”

Yeah, it seems a bit far-fetched when you read the text. But that doesn’t stop people. For those readers less familiar with American Protestantism, this is a very radical interpretation at present which even most radical theocratic movements like Christian Reconstructionism reject. It should go without saying that this is not a mainstream interpretation of the Bible anywhere in the world. In the past, the idea of a Biblical interdiction on miscegenation was more mainstream, but it has never been seen as a strong basis for Christian terrorism. At present, it is linked to the Christian Identity movement in the US, to opportunistic racist movements like Stormfront, and to some degree to elements of Afrikaaner separatism in South Africa. Also, in order to make sense of this interpretation, you have to understand that its advocates generally believe that everything in the Old Testament that applies to Jews applies only to Christians today, and even then possibly only to some racially defined subset of Christians. They may believe in some version of the “Aryan Israel” thesis – which claims that the white Germanic people are the real Jews and the people who claim to be Jews are fakers – or they may believe in some kind “transfered covenant” theology that claims that since the Jews rejected Jesus, God changed his mind about just who are the “chosen people” and transfered his blessings to white Germanic people.

It’s sick stuff, with its own internal logic and ontology. But it offers a convenient logic to those already disposed to its conclusions.

At any rate, in the past this sort of thing has had very little traction in France or in Catholic couintries in general. It appeals to a Protestant theology and to a Germanic or quasi-Germanic identity. Sometimes Celts are granted some sort of “honorary German” status in the ontology of racist branches of Protestantism, but that’s as far as it stretches. Racist factions in Catholicism have traditionally justified their anti-Semitism and racism in very different ways. This is a step in a new direction for French xenophobic movements.

A link between American racism and French racism is somewhat embarrassing to those who want to see a specifically French abberation in recent racist attacks. If this is indicative of a new presence of American racist ideologies in Europe, will we start seeing the French press blame America for French racism? It would be a foolish conclusion to take from these events, but no more foolish that concluding that France is particularly anti-Semitic just because its tiny Neonazi minority has been more active lately.

11 thoughts on “Phineas and French racial violence

  1. You’re on a fantastic tear at the moment Scott. Keep up the good work, mate!

  2. I’m american and I’ve never heard of “Christian Identity.” There are of
    course an extraordinarily large number of american religions and it’s
    hard to keep track of all of them.

    I can though say with certainty that this statement is misleading:

    “Yeah, it seems a bit far-fetched when you read the text. But that doesn?t
    stop people. For those readers less familiar with American Protestantism,
    this is a very radical interpretation at present which even most radical
    theocratic movements like Christian Reconstructionism reject.”

    The problem being the implication that this “Phineas act” business is
    somehow characteristic of American Protestantism. I’m no expert
    on religions but I know enough to know that’s not true.

    Protestant in the american context simply means ‘christian but not
    Catholic.’ Other than not being Catholic there is no coherence, other than
    historical, to the term. Therefore it’s difficult to make any sensible statement
    about what “protestant” means. You certainly can’t, legitimately, make the kind
    of characterization that Scott is making.

    I know — I caught the copout, “not a mainstream interpretation” — but I think
    the copout is there precisely to defend the author from the obvious point that
    this likely has little to do with the other religions called Protestant, while
    at the same time speak of ‘Protestants,’ without specifying whom is being talked
    about, except that it’s american (which is of course a good part of the point
    of the exercise).

    The only group actually named is something called “Christian Identity.” Even
    there I note there are no links to any of this group’s literature so that a reader
    can verify that Scott’s characterization is in fact accurate.

    Something else that leaps out to my mind. If this “Christian Identity” or
    some other like group had done acts of the sort now occuring in France it would
    be in the news.

    Moving on, these sentences by Scott also leap out to my mind as being objectionable:

    “It appeals to a Protestant theology and to a Germanic or quasi-Germanic identity.
    Sometimes Celts are granted some sort of “honorary German” status in the ontology
    of racist branches of Protestantism, but that?s as far as it stretches.”

    This assertion of characteristics of ethnic identities is unencumbered by
    evidence. More problematic it’s a racist reasoning. Implicitly what matters
    is not the individual but rather the group. It’s easy to make assertions about
    groups that are statistically true, in the sense that behavior X is more likely
    to be demonstrated by a member of such a group than a member of another group.

    But that in a nutshell is racism; that’s all that racism is. And as natural as
    such a reasoning may appear it leads to all sorts of trouble.

  3. France has its own traditions of racism and racist mythologies. It seems a little strange to see them borrowing American ones.

    Dismaying, maybe, but not strange. We’re living in a very networked world these days in which like-minded people can easily collaborate and share ideas, and this is as true of extremists as of anyone else. The filtering of the Phineas concept to French racists is no more surprising than, say, the filtering of blood libels to the Arab world or the adoption of Western-style racism in east Asia. I suspect that in the future we’ll see more convergence between worldwide racist movements, not less.

  4. The problem being the implication that this “Phineas act” business is
    somehow characteristic of American Protestantism.

    Scott isn’t making any such implication – all he’s saying is that the roots of the Phineas movement are in Protestant theology as opposed to Catholicism, Judaism and Islam (all of which have generated their own forms of racial extremism). No implication of typicality was intended or made.

  5. I am an American and I have heard of Christian Identity; a group of such persons live in southern Oregon (or they did in the 1990s). Furthermore, there ideology at times is only shade more radical than what one might find say in a gathering of Church of Christers.

  6. Mark – It is characteristic of American Protestants. As Jonathan pointed out, that does not mean that it is a common theology among American Protestants, just that the handful of people who do hold it are virtually all American Protestants.

    I could be wrong on that because I know that some of these ideas have their advocates in Canada and I am simply not aware of trends present in the UK or the more Protestant parts of Europe. However, I am sceptical of claims that this theology has ever been present in Catholicism in any meaningful way, because I have – over the course of life – known people who were close to the less savoury intellectual currents in Catholicism, and I’ve never heard mention of it.

    Christian Identity is a small movement denoted primarily by its radically racist theology. The idea here is not condemn Protestants, who as I said overwhelmingly reject this class of theology, even in movements like Christian Reconstructionism, a theocratic movement of which I have almost as bad an opinion as Christian Identity.

    Nor am I claiming that white Germanic Protestants are particularly racist. However, a racist movement which privleges white Germanic Protestants is unlikely to have a large presence outside of white Germanic Protestant communities. This is not to say that other people do not have their own racist factions. They do. I said that Catholics have their own racist factions, but that they are different in their justifications. But this one is generally unique to this one ethnic and national group.

    In short, I was not claiming any sort of specialism for any group. Just that this strain comes from a particular group of people. If you want to read up on racist movements in the US, use Google. I’ve provided you with ample keywords for doing so. I won’t link to them from here.

    Gary, I know that the CI movement is on some things quite orthodox, but I am unaware of any openly racist movement in the C of C mainstream. In every significant church in the US that has traditionally been a “white” church, there are still individual members, and in some cases whole parishes, where old fashioned beliefs about race are still held. Precious few of them, however, openly preach racism as a Biblical value in this day and age. The official C of C has repreatedly made anti-racist statements and has in recent years even been willing to expose its own role in open racism in days past. What distinguishes CI is its unique and openly held beliefs about race, and the preponderance of theological significance that they attach to them.

  7. Jonathan – I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised when movements I don’t like manage to use global networks. After all, Al Qaeda is nothing if not a highly modern manipulator of just such opportunities. But I would have thought that the language barrier – and the cultural gap in the conception of the relationship of Judaism to Christianity – would have posed a more substantial barrier.

    Still, they have now caught the guy that did it. We’ll see what he comes up with.

  8. However, a racist movement which privleges white Germanic Protestants is unlikely to have a large presence outside of white Germanic Protestant communities.

    According to this, the Phineas idea, and Christian Identity in general, evolved from 19th-century “British Israelism” rather than the Germanic racist movements of the same period. Although CI subsequently adopted some of the trappings of Germanic racism, its theology privileges whites in general rather than Germans in particular, and might thus have a greater appeal to other European racists. Also, I’d be wary of reading too much into roots; extremist movements tend to cherry-pick features of like-minded movements that have some success, hence the popularity of Nazi paraphernalia among American racists.

    I would have thought that the language barrier – and the cultural gap in the conception of the relationship of Judaism to Christianity – would have posed a more substantial barrier.

    Language barriers are overcome fairly easily these days – due, ironically, to the adoption of English as an international standard – and doctrine can often be compromised in favor of pragmatic alliances. If Belgian Jews can vote Vlaams Blok, then there can be French Phineas priests.

    As you point out in your latest post, the perpetrator of this particular attack was a loser who found out about Phineas through a movie. At the same time, I wouldn’t rule out other French racists picking up on the idea the same way, especially now that someone has invoked it in the course of an attack.

  9. Scott,

    Regarding the C of C all I can relate to you is my personal experience with the church and its members. Now, admittedly the C of C has done better over the years, but many of its older members still hold rather “traditional” views of the so-called “races.”

  10. Another American here who has never heard of criminal acts in the US that have some sort of relationship to the bibical Phineas thing. Not being religious myself, this is the first I’ve heard of the early Phineas. Clearly, the US has extreme religious groups, lots of crime, etc. I just thought I’d mentiopn that that I’ve never heard of this type of religious crime/Phineas link.

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