Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Dialogue between Incommensurate Partners: Prospects for Common Testimony

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Dialogue between Incommensurate Partners: Prospects for Common Testimony

Article excerpt


I shall begin with three premises that seem obvious and important to me and then consider the problematic that brings us together by reference to particular biblical texts.

1. Jews and Christians share deeply and broadly what is most treasured, precious, and definitional in our faith; both Judaism and Christianity are formed and informed by the faith of ancient Israel--Judaism directly and Christianity derivatively. What we share is a deep memory of God's primordial goodness in creating and sustaining the world as a viable habitat; a memory and Conviction of God's saving, delivering engagement in the historical processes of nations, states, and communities; an ethic of command that focuses upon God's holiness and earthly justice; and an abiding hope that God will bring the world to shalom in full and deep measure.

2. Jews and Christians share together, in starkly unequal and incommensurate ways, a mutual history of misunderstanding, distortion, and stereotype that has had disastrous effects upon both communities and, derivatively, upon the larger culture that Judaism and Christianity together inhabit. That misunderstanding, I assume, was rooted in and was at first an internal dispute in the first century of the Common Era between Jews and Jews, a dispute that was acrimonious and hyperbolic, but the sort of dispute that was not uncommon or unfamiliar in Jewish discourse that made its interpretive way through disputatious conflict. That particular dispute, however, unlike many internal, interpretive Jewish disputes, became absolutist and reified into lethal exclusiveness whereby an appropriate practice in interpretive dispute about traditions became a long-term distortion between competing absolutes.

I have said that what is shared in that dispute is unequal and incommensurate, because the vagaries of history have delivered Christians into immense power games so that Christianity was early allied with worldly, imperial power that was able and willing to treat Judaism with imperial abusiveness. Consequently, what was potentially a fair, in-house fight over contested interpretation became a gross and hopeless contest between Christian power and Jewish vulnerability, a sorry tale recently chronicled in various and fresh ways by James Carroll, David Kertzer, and Garry Wills, among others. (1) For reasons of that pitiful and abusive situation, of course, any attempt to understand and share a common tradition, albeit commonly contested, is not and cannot be two communities at equal work but, rather, inescapably involves both a Christian community with inherited worldly power, engaged as it is able in redress and reparations, and a Jewish community appropriately suspicious and vulnerable, seeing what it can risk of truth in an attempt to understand what may be credible about Christians behind the stereotypes and beyond the long history of imperial abusiveness.

3. If it is true that Judaism and Christianity share much in common and that the history of abusive distortion continues to be powerful among us--two propositions that seem to me to be beyond doubt--then, third, it is surely urgent to probe in sustained ways the extent to which Jews and Christians can make common cause beyond that sorry, incommensurate history of abuse. I regard this probe as an imperative, not only because that distorted history is a scandal in the church and because reconciliation is always better than alienation, but also because in a world of increasing despair, cynicism, and nihilism--all expressed as violence on the part of the impotent and in responding violence on the part of the potent--the common conviction of Judaism and Christianity becomes an urgent alternative to that propensity to destructiveness rooted in anxiety. Thus, in the long run, without minimizing the hard work of fresh understanding, it may be our common task:

a. that shared memory of God's affirmative care of the earth and its inhabitants may override the deep displacements among us,

b. …

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