A Document for This Season: Response to A Sacred Obligation

Rev. Dr. Jay T. Rock

Interfaith Relations Director, National Council of Churches of Christ USA

Baseball fans know that a game played in September is not at all like a game in May. But to those who don't follow the game, any nine innings of play seem much the same. Both are right: every baseball game has the same structure and possibilities, and the significance of any particular game depends on when it is played and its relationship to the unfolding dramas of the teams and players. So it is with a document like
A Sacred Obligation: it is not much different than the many documents on Jewish-Christian relations that have preceded it, yet it is important because of its timing and place in the story of Christian-Jewish relations in the United States.

Since 1948, when the World Council of Churches condemned anti-Semitism as sin, and especially after the groundbreaking 1965 affirmation by the Roman Catholic Church of God's unbroken covenant with the Jewish people in Nostra Aetate, churches and ecumenical groups of Christians have produced a stream of documents. In the United States, these have included statements and study documents by state Councils of Churches, and by at least nine national communions (The American Baptist Churches, the Christian Church [Disciples of Christ], the Episcopal Church in the USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Mennonite Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops). Some of these churches also have issued statements or study documents regarding other inter-religious relationships, and/or less specific documents about interfaith relations more broadly considered. 

A Sacred Obligation adds very little to these documents; it basically summarizes and brings together the main points made in them. This is helpful in itself. What is added is some additional sharpness in articulating several of the central affirmations already current in Jewish-Christian relations circles, and some more challenging restatement of others.

Helpful clarity is found, for example, in point #5, which brings our attention to "new ways of reading [the Bible] that provide a deeper appreciation of both traditions," and clearly states the important point that Jews and Christians "have developed different traditions of interpretation." Likewise, point #9 reaffirms a tenet found in a number of other documents: the central significance of Israel to the Jewish people. It adds a typical sentence about seeking a just peace, but insists crisply that "Christian theologians can no longer avoid" the issue of developing a "Christian understanding of Jewish attachment to the land of Israel."

The game begins to get a bit more exciting in two notable re-workings of standard "plays."

Point #6 makes clear, and radical, the consequences for Christian self-understanding of affirming God's eternal covenant with the Jews: "Christians can now recognize in the Jewish tradition the redemptive power of God at work. If Jews, who do not share our faith in Christ, are in a saving covenant with God, then Christians need new ways of understanding the universal significance of Christ." Point #7 goes on to welcome "opportunities for Jews and Christians to bear witness to their respective experiences of God's saving ways." What is remarkable here is that the writers not only affirm, along with a great many Christians, that God is present and at work in Jewish life, but also go beyond the usual reluctance in the Christian community to describe this presence and power as complete and sufficient for salvation. 

For most Christians, these are quite challenging statements. This use of the language of "salvation" dissolves the tension found in Nostra Aetate and most other statements, which affirm the eternal covenant and presence of God and God's Spirit in the lives of Jews (and people of other faiths) while seeing the fulfillment of this presence only in God's saving activity in and through Jesus, the Christ. Many Christians would not accept the formulation found in
A Sacred Obligation, even though it seems difficult to think of an eternal covenant between God and a people that is not somehow redemptive. But at the same time, many, though certainly not all, are ready to explore "new ways of understanding the universal significance of Christ."

Another re-statement of a common theme is problematic in a different way. In their final point, the writers rehearse the work for social healing that Jews and Christians have done together in the U.S., and call for strengthening such efforts. They conclude, "These common efforts by Jews and Christians offer a vision of human solidarity and provide models of collaboration with people of other faith traditions." This picture is too rosy, I fear. It must also be said that other aspects of the Christian-Jewish relationship in the U.S. provide, rather than such a vision, examples of human dividedness, of willingness to pursue too often a dialogue little connected to pressing life issues, of genuinely bad behavior over policy on the Middle East or other matters. The picture as presented is also incomplete: useful models for inter-religious collaboration do come from the rich experience of Christian-Jewish interaction, but such models also are available out of Christian-Muslim, Hindu-Christian, and multi-religious efforts. The Christian-Jewish relationship and its models are not always the best starting point for entering into interfaith cooperation and community building.

A Sacred Obligation we have, then, a handy restatement of the content of many documents, with a few provocative highlights. In baseball terms, it's a well-played, but not terribly exciting game. But we are now at a point late in the "season" of Jewish-Christian relationships, both internationally and here in the United States. Much work has already been done, and the attitudes and, more importantly, the teaching, in our churches regarding Jews and Judaism have changed markedly. Yet it is still very possible to hear supersessionist sermons in many of our churches, and to find inaccurate or denigrating portrayals of Jews and Judaism in Sunday school materials. At the same time, we have seen how the crisis in Israel-Palestine has stirred up a resurgence of anti-Semitism, acts that have gone far beyond the expression of opposition to Israeli military actions or government policy, to vandalism, harassment and violence directed at Jews because they are Jews. 

It is the timing of
A Sacred Obligation which makes it most important. It comes at a time when we need to be reminded of what we have already affirmed regarding Christian-Jewish relationships. Revitalizing our efforts to build "a new teaching of respect" in place of the distorted "teaching of contempt" is needed now. The work is far from complete. 

In addition, continuing and intensifying our work to undo falsehoods about each other is essential in order to begin to dismantle the ways our people dehumanize and demonize, and then inflict suffering on each other. We need to be sparked to embrace once again our commitment to be true to who we are without being false to each other.

This impulse is indeed one that, from a Christian perspective, applies to all of our inter-religious relationships, and to our own integrity. In the words of another statement, the NCCC Policy Statement on Interfaith Relations and the Churches:

Being made in God’s image we are created to live a life of relationship and called to claim the unity in our human diversity…. We confess that as human beings we have a propensity for taking the gift of diversity and turning it into a cause of disunity, antagonism and hatred…. We sin against God and each other…. We must struggle to reject or reform all those human actions and systems that destroy or deny the image of God in human beings or that tear down the structures of human community. On the other hand, we must seek to affirm all human impulses which build up true community…. As we wait for the fulfillment of God’s promise, we commit ourselves to work for fuller and deeper community in our own time and place. (pages 5-6, #21-29)

We should give our thanks to the authors of A Sacred Obligation and use it to keep ourselves and our churches on course, so that we do our part in moving toward the pennant, the healing of human violence and brokenness in this world.