Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Jewish-Christian Relations: The Complexity of an Intra-Christian Discussion

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Jewish-Christian Relations: The Complexity of an Intra-Christian Discussion

Article excerpt

Relations always involve at least two partners, and the same is true of interreligious relations and inter-religious dialogue. Such dialogue can only take place in a real encounter between people of living faiths, to use the wording of the former sub-unit on Dialogue of the World Council of Churches. But sometimes it is worthwhile to stop and reflect on such dialogical relations, and especially on their corollary for our own theological thinking. One such occasion was the sub-unit's well-known meeting in Chiangmai in 1977.(1)

What is true for inter-religious dialogue in general also applies to the encounter between Christians and Jews. There has been regular dialogue between Jews and Christians since the second world war, which has led to serious reflection about relations and sometimes even to fundamental changes in Christian theology.

However, the intra-Christian discussion on Jewish-Christian relations is quite complex, largely due to the contextual background of the theologians involved. This became very clear in two symposia organized by the Middle East Council of Churches and the Council of Churches in the Netherlands, the first in Limassol, Cyprus, 22-25 May 1993, and the second in Oegstgeest, the Netherlands, 31 August-2 September 1995, both under the heading "ecumenical-theological conversations on the church and the Jewish people".

The purpose of this paper is not to describe these events,(2) but rather to consider some of the problems that emerged, problems of a general nature and not limited to theological reflections on Jewish-Christian relations in the Netherlands and the Middle East. In my opinion, three questions arise: (1) How do we describe our own context? (2) How does this context influence or determine our theology, and in this particular instance our theology on the relations between Christianity and Judaism? (3) Is it possible to transcend our respective contexts?

The Dutch (West European) context

The Dutch contextual background to theological reflection on the relation between the church and the Jewish people is of course very similar to the West European context in general, although for obvious reasons it is rather different from the German background. There are four specific aspects of the Dutch context.

The first concerns the shoah (holocaust), the extermination of about 6 million Jews on the European continent. In 1940 there were about 140,000 Jews in the Netherlands; by the end of the Nazi occupation, only 30,000 had survived. In other words 110,000 Dutch Jews were killed or died in Nazi concentration camps -- an extremely high percentage.

As a result there is a strong sense of guilt among Dutch Christians. The Nazi persecution of the Jews has to be seen against the background of the earlier behaviour of European Christians towards the Jews, the long history of suppression, persecution and pogroms, fed by anti-Judaistic trends in Christian theology. Also, Dutch Christians wonder whether they did not in effect desert their Jewish fellow citizens by failing to give them sufficient support and protection (although there were exceptions to this general attitude of indifference). It is remarkable that this sense of guilt has not diminished, but has rather grown during the last two decades. This feeling of coresponsibility for the fate of the Jews has led Dutch Christians, including theologians, to rethink their relations with the Jewish people.

Especially in Calvinist circles (the majority of Dutch Protestants are of Calvinist background) there has always been a keen interest in the Old Testament and the Jewish people, acknowledging God's special relationship with Israel, and motivating Christians to encourage Jews to accept Jesus Christ as their Saviour. In any case, by the time of the second world war the Jews had long since found a safe haven in Dutch society and there had been no pogroms in the Netherlands. …

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