Christians Relating to Jews: Key Issues in Public Statements

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Over the past six decades a number of public documents have been issued relating to the Christian relationship with Jews. These public documents have been written by the International Council of Christians and Jews (I.C.C.J.) (first in 1947), the Vatican (notably in 1965), the World Council of Churches (W.C.C.) and some of its agencies, and--especially in the past two decades--a growing number of individual Christian denominations. (1) These documents have canvassed a range of issues, which have taken the relationship into areas that are, at times, stimulating, challenging, and fraught with difficulties.

Many of these documents have taken pains to begin by stating the "common denominators" that exist between Christianity and Judaism. Practitioners of each faith have been able to focus on a set of key affirmations to which each believer might give assent. Because of the direction in which these documents look--from the Christian perspective, looking toward the Jewish religious experience--these shared affirmations are most often expressed in Christian terms. However, they point the way to fruitful developments in the relationship in the future.

The documents also canvass a range of issues that have difficulties and dangers embedded in them--some because of the emotional freight attached to them from history, others because of the way in which they shape current perceptions and behaviors of Christians in relation to Jews. Both evangelical fervor and persecutory actions have characterized ways that Christians have related to Jews in past centuries, up to the present day. Such matters are named and discussed in a number of these documents. In the process of exploring these issues in careful and sensitive fashion, a number of questions have been identified that merit deeper and more rigorous consideration. Such questions relate to the role of "covenant" in this relationship, the place of the Messiah in the respective faiths, models of "salvation" that might inform this relationship, the common activities that might be undertaken by Christians and Jews in partnership, and how Christians might address the difficulties inherent in Jewish commitment to the Land of Israel within the contemporary religious and political context.

The basic stance adopted throughout the range of documents is that Judaism is a living faith that is to be respected as an integral part of the contemporary religious scene and with which it is important for Christians to engage in mutual dialogue and common action. While this stance is not always explicitly noted, it is evident in the various documents. Nostra aetate, the 1965 Vatican statement on relationships with non-Christian religions, refers to the "spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews." (2) A decade later, the Roman Catholic bishops of the U.S.A. developed this terminology with their affirmation of "our common patrimony and spiritual ties with Jews," (3) while a 1985 document from the Vatican itself refers to "the faith and religious life of the Jewish people as they are professed and practiced still today." (4)

In more recent decades documents emanating from the W.C.C. have referred to "the continuing vocation of the Jewish people," (5) their "rich history of spiritual life," (6) and "the living tradition of Judaism." (7) The Anglican Communion has described Judaism as "a living and still developing religion," (8) Australian Catholic bishops have referred to "the living and complex reality of Judaism," (9) and U.S. Methodists have noted that "Judaism and Christianity are living and dynamic religious movements." (10) The Evangelical Churches in Austria "recognize Judaism as a living and diverse entity," (11) while the Uniting Church in Australia has affirmed Judaism as "a living faith possessed of its own integrity and vitality." (12)

Such statements about Judaism, while obvious to the observer of the contemporary world religious scene, are needed because of the widespread tendency within the churches to regard Judaism entirely through the lenses provided by a traditionalist (and uncritical) interpretation of the Christian Scriptures--often resulting in a stereotyped and inadequate view of Judaism as legalistic and moribund. …