The first document, “Christian and Jews: People of God,”1 revisits a 19872 pastoral teaching on the relation between Christians and Jews in light of renewed anti-Jewish rhetoric worldwide and escalating cycles of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. The paper begins by reiterating regret for the longstanding Christian teaching of contempt for the Jewish people, a 2000-year history of contempt, stereotypes, persecutions, pogroms, forced conversions, ghettos, and multiple forms of discrimination. It affirms that Christians do not replace Jews as the people of God (supersessionism), but are rather “a wild olive shoot” grafted onto Israel’s cultivated tree (Romans 11:17).
When it comes to discussion of the land (arguably the most controversial), it reiterates the earlier 1987 statement that “The state of Israel is a geopolitical entity and is not to be validated theologically.” The updated statement also draws on the Barmen Declaration in warning against the merging of state and religion lest one get co-opted by the other. Then the document goes on to reaffirm Presbyterian policy on the right of both Palestinian and Israeli people to secure homelands, and a two state solution. Finally, the document critiques demonizing rhetoric — especially noted here is Palestinian rhetoric that likens the Israeli occupation and treatment of the Palestinian people to “Christ-killing,” a reference that echoes historic Christian accusations against the Jewish people.
The document as a whole has been criticized by Palestinian Christians for being too soft on the Israeli occupation of West Bank and Gaza, and for its critique of the aforementioned Palestinian rhetoric vis-à-vis Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian people. The most serious critique, however, is the absence of any serious Palestinian Christian partnership in the dialogue process that led to the writing of the document.
By contrast, the Middle Eastern Study Committee3 engaged in discussion with religious representatives of Israeli, Palestinian, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities both in the United States and in the Middle East. The report claims to affirm historic PC(USA) positions on the Middle East conflict in calling for the U.S. government to take immediate action toward just peace that guarantees secure states for both Israel and Palestine (the two state solution), an immediate freeze on the construction of Israeli settlements on occupied territory, the relocation of Israel’s “separation barrier” to the internationally recognized 1967 border, a shared status for Jerusalem, and equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel.
The most controversial recommendation of the report calls for the U.S. government “to exercise strategically its international influence, including the possible withholding of military aid, as a means of bringing Israel to compliance with international law and peacemaking efforts.” The report then once again affirms Israel’s right to exist but calls the continued occupation of the Palestinian territories illegitimate and illegal. The critique of this document has been swift and hard-hitting. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish rights organization, has already declared that the report de-legitimizes the state of Israel and is sure to damage interfaith ties with the Jewish people.
Let me suggest, however, that while these documents are not perfect, with corrections, they can point us towards perspectives we ignore at our peril. And let me begin where I think all Christians, and especially western Christians, should begin: with our relationship with the Jewish people. The backdrop of both documents is a very painful history. From the very beginning of the Christian movement, our relationship with Judaism was been fraught with tension — from the highly stylized accounts of the Jews as legalistic and unyielding in the first three Gospels to the Fourth Gospel’s highly polemical references to the Jews as the children of the devil (John 8), our sacred texts have problematic accounts of Judaism inscribed upon them. According to many scholars, these texts reflect the wounds of the wrenching apart of Judaism and Christianity that was taking place at the end of the first century. Tragically, the painful parting of the ways reflected in the New Testament fueled the later church’s teaching of contempt against the Jews.
A few examples of this teaching will suffice. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, anti-Jewish laws were enacted forbidding the building of new synagogues and the repairing of old ones, on the assumption that if Judaism is the old religion and Christian is the new replacement, then Judaism should play the part. Continuing this tradition, the bishops at the Council of Oxford in 1222 reenacted anti-Jewish laws — Jews were prohibited from competing with Christians in farming and small manufacturing, from serving as judges or holding public office, and could hold no authority over Christians in the army, civil service, law, or economy. As a rule the Jews of the Middle Ages were stateless and without rights, forced to live in ghettos. It’s important to note that each of Hitler’s anti-Jewish Nuremberg laws found precedents in medieval canon law.4 Whether or not the Christian teaching of contempt for Judaism led to the Holocaust is a matter of debate. What is without question is that it played an influential role in what became one of the worst genocides of human history.
Any serious account of this history in the post-Holocaust era demands that Christian theology must be done with vigilant attention to the teaching of contempt in whatever form it takes — towards Jews, Muslims, other Christian groups, or other ethnicities. Indeed, the Christian theology of the cross provides the resources we need for such vigilance. The theology of the cross is a penitential theology, for it draws our attention to all the crosses that litter the landscape of our lives and the world. In particular, it draws attention to teaching of contempt and abusive practices that ensue. The theology of the cross is a penitential theology that also draws our eyes toward the horizon — the arc of God as it brings resurrection and life out of a death-tending world.
The interpretive lens by which we view the world is, therefore, twofold. The hermeneutics of suspicion5 asks the question, Who or what is being crucified? The hermeneutics of grace asks a second question, Where is God bringing life, or resurrection and sanctification, out of the death-tending idolatries of the world? Thus a theology of the cross that begins with penance, and proceeds with suspicion and grace, is also a prophetic theology. Here again the movement is twofold: as a prophetic theology it stands with and seeks justice for those who are victims of stereotype, contempt, and oppression; yet as a penitential theology, it recognizes our own complicity in past and present practices of contempt, and so it is refuses to demonize one group or another.
What this means for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that as a penitential people we should stand with Jews and Israelis, recognizing our historic complicity in atrocities that led, in part, to the creation of the state of Israel, and as a prophetic people we call for the end of terrorism from Palestinians and the end of threats from neighboring states. At the same time, as a penitential people we should stand with Palestinians recognizing that we, in the U.S., are not unlike Israel in certain ways. We gained wealth and land on the back of slaves and native peoples, so we must be penitent, humbled but prophetic in calling for an end to the abuses of power on behalf of Israel that includes an end to the occupation and to Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, a dismantling of the wall, and an end to the violence against and humiliation of the Palestinian people. As a penitent, prophetic people, we should stand with both Israelis and Palestinians calling for secure homelands within two states (including the relocation by Israel to the 1967 border.) And we also call on our own government to be an honest power broker, realistic enough to use its power to secure justice and an end to violence against a beleaguered people, and idealistic enough to press for peace and security for two peoples.
The two documents before us are not perfect. I wish the Christian-Jewish document had developed a more prophetic theology of the cross, and I wish the Middle East document contained definitive statements about Israel’s need for security. Nonetheless, with such corrections, they could helpfully point towards much needed dialogue.
ROGER J. GENCH is pastor of New York Avenue Church in Washington, D.C.
1 The paper can be found at: www.pcusa.org/gamc/business/feb10/actions/C104.pdf
2 A Theological Understanding of the Relationship between Christians and Jews was approved by the 199th General Assembly (1987)
3 This report is found at: www.pcusa.org/middleeastpeace/
4 See Clark Williamson, A Guest in the House of Israel: Post-Holocaust Christian Theology, pp. 4-7
5 “The hermeneutics of suspicion” is a phrase coined by Paul Ricoeur that refers to attention to hidden biases or ideologies embedded in interpretations of texts that are oppressive or dehumanizing