United Church of Christ Theological Panel on Jewish-Christian Relations
Message to the Churches
Posted with the permission of the Office of General Ministries of the United Church of Christ
The Theological Panel on Jewish-Christian Relations was appointed in 1987 to study and interpret the resolution of General Synod 16 on "The Relationship Between the United Church of Christ and the Jewish Community." Its membership represents a broad spectrum of theological viewpoints and political perspectives, and includes consultants from the Jewish community and Arab Christian community. The Panel held three hearings on the resolution (Columbus, OH; Boston, MA; and Berkeley, CA), read extensively in the literature of Jewish-Christian dialogue, listened to specialists, and heard and responded to papers on disputed questions (the meaning of covenant as it relates to Jews and Christians, the relationship between covenant and 'land,' the understanding of Christ vis-à-vis the Jewish people, conversion, official church documents on 'supersession' and 'anti-supersession,' Arab-Israeli issues, etc.)
The hearings and discussions were occasions of learning, passion and growth for all of us. The following comments rise from our struggle with the issues at hand as they have been informed by the voices of our constituency at the hearings and our participation in the Jewish-Christian dialogue, and as they have been shaped by the traditions of the United Church of Christ. We offer them as a resource to congregations, Conferences, instrumentalities and others in our Church who have been moved by both the pain and hopes of the times, and by the power of the Holy Spirit.
1. The new context for the very old question of the relation of Jews and Christians is the epochal event of the twentieth century. "After Auschwitz" the world looks different. The Holocaust has sent Christians back to their texts and traditions to re-examine their theology and to ask about their own complicity in the anti-Semitism that gave rise to this horror. The Shoah has also sensitized us to the continuing and sometimes growing virulence of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism in our country and other parts of the world.
The formation of the state of Israel in 1948 is also a new setting for examining old ideas. Some see the state of Israel in the context of God's promise of land to the descendants of Abraham and Sarah; some view it as a haven for victim people; some judge the creation of the state as the expropriation of a country belonging to others and the occasion for continuing victimization of others; and others see some validity in these and other views. This new political fact colors all we have to say on the subject of the resolution.
The same new political fact also causes us to look again at relationships among Jews, Christians and Muslims who live in the land of Israel-Palestine. The brokenness of those relationships in the present configuration of political power underlies the Uprising. That event also has changed the way the world looks and feels, and it focuses for us the theological question of the role of all of Abraham's descendants according to the promises of God in the outworking of God's purposes. The importance of this development has been brought home to us with special poignancy through the witness of Middle Eastern Christians.
The outpouring of theological commentary on all these events since World War II represents a new framework for viewing the place of the Jewish people in God's plan of salvation. This vast literature includes a spate of official church documents calling for a reconsideration of traditional theological opinion on the relation of the Christian faith to the Jewish people and with it, the rejection of the view that Judaism has been superseded and invalidated by Christianity.
As a church whose Constitution calls us "to make the faith its own in each new generation," and whose Reformation founders pressed us to let "new light and truth break from God's holy Word," we believe that these events and developments compel a new perspective on our faith, and call us to new duties.
2. The deeper understanding of God's holy Word to which we are being called in today's context is expressed in the New Testament reference to the chosen people cited by the Synod Resolution: "The gifts and call of God are irrevocable" (Romans 11:21). As we walk Paul's own path of struggle with the place of the Jewish people in the purposes of God after the coming of Christ (Romans 9-11), we affirm with the apostle that God has not abrogated their covenant. Such an irrevocable call, with its supporting gifts, contradicts the supersessionist view that God has rescinded the covenant with Israel. We believe that to deny God's irrevocable covenant with the chosen people has led and continues to lead to the "teaching of contempt" for Jews, with its horrifying results. We reject that view and call the members of the United Church of Christ to search their hearts and Scriptures for a deeper understanding of God's unbroken relationship with the Jewish people of today.
3. In the same breath in which Paul affirmed God's unswerving covenant with the Jews, he also declares that "faith Comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ" (Romans 10:17). He believed with all his heart that in Jesus, the Jew, a radical new event had taken place: "God shows his love for us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).
The conviction that God changed the course of the world in Jesus of Nazareth is the basis of our covenant as the United Church of Christ. As our Statement of Faith expresses it, we believe that "in Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Savior, (God) has come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death..." We cannot be who we are without this belief in the singular deed God has done to redeem all the world in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We celebrate this good news in Christian worship, proclaim it in word and share it in deed.
Our deep belief in the God of love and justice known in Torah and the prophets, and manifest in Jesus Christ, as the gospels attest, is what presses us to be in solidarity with Jews, and all others, in their suffering, and to be self-critical about our teaching and actions toward this covenant people.
4. Our commitment to the particular act of God in Christ is a word we hold as firmly as our avowal of God's unrescinded covenant with the Jewish people. When we hear this two-fold word, we overcome a distorted picture of the New Testament.
To affirm that "God was in Christ reconciling the world..." (II Corinthians 5:19) and to affirm, simultaneously, that the "gifts and call of God" to the Jewish people are "irrevocable" (Romans 11:13) is to witness to the faithfulness of God. We have examined a variety of ways of interpreting this double affirmation, and are drawn to some and reject others. Our affirmation both of the continuing covenant of God with the Jewish people and of fulfillment of God's promises in Christ appears to be a paradox. Yet, through this double affirmation we are invited into a deeper understanding of our faith. We welcome, therefore, the General Synod resolution as an opportunity to explore once again the richness and complexity of Christian faith. To that end, we provide study materials and further commentary for the use of our denomination.
5. Biblical formulations of God's covenant with the Jewish people include the promise of land. God's concrete gift of land to one people is a symbol of God's grace in giving the earth to all people. The fulfillment of the promise of land is tied to the people's faithfulness and the doing of justice in the land. Some Jews and some Christians consider the creation of the contemporary state of Israel to be the fulfillment of this promise. We do not see consensus in the United Church of Christ or among our panel on the covenantal significance of the state of Israel.
We appreciate the compelling moral argument for the creation of modern Israel as a vehicle for self-determination and as a haven for a victimized people; we also recognize that this event has entailed the dispossession of Palestinians from their homes and the denial of human rights. Successive General Synods of the United Church of Christ have asserted that both Israelis and Palestinians should enjoy the right to self-determination in their lands and that both people are entitled to security and justice. In view of their complicity with past injustices to both peoples, Christians of the West bear a special responsibility to work for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue that assures the human rights and dignity of both peoples.
In the land called Holy, prophets heard the word of God and, Christians believe, the Incarnation of God's love took place. Can not the Holy Land become for our time a symbol of hope, a community of all believers, a wellspring of peace for the whole world?
In our hearings and our studies, we have learned of countless ways in which the United Church of Christ can implement the purpose of the General Synod resolution and our own convictions as stated above. Instead of detailing these here, we are preparing supportive materials. As one hearing testimony expressed it, we must "unleash imagination in our pursuit of ways of witnessing as Christians to the continuing covenant of God with the Jewish people."
Our own experience has convinced us of one sure way of pursuing this goal. It reflects the very premise of our Church, as a "united and uniting" community of faith. We believe that the right context for an understanding of the issues, and action upon them, is a forum of different voices. As a Panel we are very diverse in background and perspective. Understanding came hard, and agreements were modest. The grace of accord does not come cheap. Yet there is a joy as well as a cost in this kind of covenanted life together. We, therefore, recommend our own mode of conversational theology, with the kind of diverse voices heard in our forum. It has made possible this message of shared conviction and direction. Come with us on this journey, trusting the promises of our covenant God.