- Created: February 25, 2010
- Written by General Assembly Mission Council, Presbyterian Church (USA)
Prepared by a Presbyterian working group in consultation with Jewish representatives and commended by the General Assembly Mission Council of the Presbyterian Church (USA) for adoption by the 219th General Assembly, July 2-7, 2010.
1. The General Assembly Mission Council recommends that the 219th General Assembly (2010):
- Approve for study and reflection the paper, “Christians and Jews: People of God” and distribute it to the church electronically,
- Commend “Christians and Jews: People of God” to governing bodies and congregations as guidance for the occasions in which Presbyterians and Jews converse, cooperate, and enter into dialogue.
- Commend “Christians and Jews: People of God” to governing bodies and congregations as guidance for the development of programs and resources.
This recommendation is in response to the following referral:
2004 Referral: Item 06-09. On Re-Examining the Relationship Between Christians and Jews and the Implications for Our Evangelism and New Church Development—From the Presbytery of Hudson River (Minutes, 2004, Part I, pp. 20, 440).
CHRISTIANS AND JEWS: PEOPLE OF GOD
“A Theological Understanding of the Relationship between Christians and Jews”1 was approved by the 199th General Assembly (1987) as “a pastoral teaching document to provide a basis for continuing discussion within the Presbyterian community and to offer guidance for occasions in which Presbyterians and Jews converse, cooperate, and enter into dialogue.”
In response to four separate actions by the 216th General Assembly (2004) that created tensions between the American Jewish community and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Assembly directed the Office of Theology and Worship, the Office of Interfaith Relations, and the Office of Evangelism to “reexamine and strengthen the relationship between Christians and Jews and the implications of this relationship for our evangelism and new church development” in continuing response to the 211th General Assembly’s (1999) mandate to guide the church in “bearing witness to Jesus Christ in a pluralistic age.”
In partial response to the General Assembly’s mandate, staff from the offices of Theology and Worship, Interfaith Relations, and Evangelism met eight times with representatives of the National Council of Synagogues. These conversations led to four consultations that included rabbis from the Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism, and Presbyterian pastors, theologians, and governing body staffs. The consultations focused on a review of the 1987 Presbyterian paper, and three central topics: the Land, evangelism, and community identity.
“A Theological Understanding of the Relationship between Christians and Jews” noted that “Theology is never done in a vacuum. It influences and is influenced by its context.” Specifically, four contextual realities were identified that affected the issue in 1987: 1) an increasingly global and pluralistic situation, 2) interpersonal and intercommunal dynamics, 3) the church’s commitment to the living Word as witnessed to in Scripture and tradition, and 4) the church’s own heritage of Scripture and theological tradition. These contextual realities endure, but our post-1987 context also includes a worldwide increase in overt anti-Jewish rhetoric and action, a sustained cycle of violence in Israel-Palestine, repeated breakdowns of the Israel-Palestine peace process, two American-led wars in the Middle East, the increase in world-wide terrorism, and more.
Furthermore, the past two decades have seen a number of statements on Jewish-Christian relations from ecclesial and academic groups. Specifically, “The Willowbank Declaration on the Christian Gospel and the Jewish People” (1989), “Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity” (2000), “A Sacred Obligation: Rethinking Christian Faith in Relation to Judaism and the Jewish People” (2002), and new attention to the papal encyclical, Nostra Aetate (1965) have deepened and enriched Christian theological understanding. In addition, scholarly publications and symposia on the history, theology, and moral dimensions of Jewish-Christian relations have multiplied.2
The current context also includes developments within the PCUSA that affect Jewish-Christian relationships generally and Jewish-Presbyterian relationships specifically. Turn to the Living God (1991), Between Millennia (2001), Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ (2002), The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing (2006) and Invitation to Christ (2006) are signs of renewed Presbyterian attention to foundational theological issues and to the challenge of witnessing to Christian faith in a religiously plural world. The past two decades have also seen an increase in the number of PCUSA presbyteries, congregations, and ministers who have developed close ties with Jewish organizations, synagogues, and rabbis.
All of these developments indicate that it is time to supplement the teaching of “A Theological Understanding of the Relationship between Christians and Jews,” providing Presbyterians with a deeper understanding of the bonds between Christians and Jews , and broader resources for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s relationship with the Jewish community in America and beyond. “Christians and Jews: People of God” is not meant to replace “A Theological Understanding of the Relationship between Christians and Jews.” The 1987 study paper represented a significant advance in Christian theological understanding and in Presbyterian-Jewish relations. Its “Affirmations and Explications” remain a valuable resource for discussion within the church. The present paper is intended to refine and deepen the theological understanding of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism as well as to provide a further resource for discussion in the church and for conversations between Christians and Jews.
“. . . to share the rich root of the olive tree . . .” [Romans 11:17]
The relationship between Christians and Jews is not simply a particular instance of “interfaith relations.” The relationship between Christian faith and Judaism is unique, foundational, and enduring. The New Testament bears consistent witness to this relationship – the mercy of God in Jesus Christ embraces both Jew and Gentile; it does not abandon Jews in favor of Gentiles or forsake Jews in favor of the church. Supersessionism, the belief that God’s covenant with the church has replaced God’s covenant with Israel, and that the church has supplanted the Jewish people, is contrary to the core witness of the New Testament and is not supported by the mainstream of the Reformed tradition.
Unfavorable New Testament references to “the Jews” do not refer to all Jews of the first century, and certainly not of the twenty-first. The fact [is] that many first century Jews and most Jews since then have not placed faith in Jesus as God’s Messiah but it does not cancel God’s continuing fidelity to his people Israel. “Has God rejected his people?” asks Paul; “Have they stumbled so as to fall?” His answer is clear: “By no means!” (Romans 11:1,11).
Even when Paul draws the differences between Jews and Christians most starkly, he proclaims God’s enduring faithfulness to Jews: “As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts of God and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:28-29). Because God remains true to Israel, Christians have confidence that God will remain true to us. Karl Barth asks, “Do you believe that it lies with us to exclude the Jew from this faithfulness of God? Do you really believe that we can and may deny him this?” He then gives voice to the Reformed theological tradition: “God’s faithfulness in the reality of Israel is in fact the guarantee of His faithfulness to us too.”3
The relationship of the Christian church to the people Israel is not that of a replacement, but of “a wild olive shoot” grafted into “the rich root of the olive tree” (Romans 11:17). While the New Testament contains numerous references to God’s “new covenant” in Christ, these cannot be taken to mean that “new” cancels God’s previous covenants. Just as the covenant at Sinai did not dissolve the covenant with Abraham, so the new covenant sealed in Christ’s blood “does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise” (Galatians 3:17).
Throughout the centuries, the way that Christians relate to Jews has been a barometer of the church’s spiritual health. Too often, persecution and pogroms, forced “conversions,” ghettos, multiple forms of discrimination, and subtle modes of contempt have indicated that Christians have become “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise” (Ephesians 2:12). Often, these attitudes and events have resulted from uninformed stereotypes of Jews and Judaism. Genuine knowledge is essential, not only for the sake of Jews, but also because Christians can fully understand who we are as people of faith only when we understand who Jews are as people of faith. Understanding who Jews were in biblical times is insufficient; we must recover in our time the good news that Christ “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2:14).
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is called to explore more deeply what it means to affirm that Christians and Jews now worship and serve the same God, and how this differentiates Christian-Jewish relations from Christian relationships with adherents of other religions.
“. . . and to remember his holy covenant . . .” [Luke 1:72]
John Calvin, devoting an entire chapter of the Institutes to an explication of “The Similarity of the Old and New Testaments,” declares that “The covenant made with all the patriarchs is so much like ours in substance and reality that the two are actually one and the same.”4 Clearly, there are differences in “the mode of dispensation” between the two, so that Calvin readily acknowledges that there are differences between the Old and New Testaments. “I freely admit the differences in Scripture, to which attention is called,” says Calvin, “but in such a way as not to detract from its established unity.”5
Christian faith is firmly grounded in the faith of Israel, for Christian faith affirms that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the one triune God. Superficial contrasts between “the wrathful God of the Old Testament” and “the loving God of the New Testament” are not only inaccurate readings of both Old and New Testaments, but also denials of the very foundations of Christian faith.
One of the earliest challenges faced by the Christian church came from Marcion’s attempt to detach Christianity from its Jewish heritage. He set out to remove all references to the Old Testament from Christian writings: only an edited version of Luke’s Gospel and edited versions of Paul’s letters remained once Marcion had excised all favorable mention of Israel, the law, and the justice of God. The church rejected Marcion’s assertion that the God who “has spoken to us by a Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2) is not the same God who spoke “in many and various ways by the prophets.” The early church preserved the truth of the gospel, yet both mild and virulent versions of Marcion’s heresy have endured.
Inappropriate uses of the historical-critical method of studying Scripture can reduce the Old Testament to a mildly interesting account of what people used to believe long ago and far away. For Christians, the Old Testament is more than a record of ancient Israel’s faith; it is Christian Scripture. Jesus proclaimed, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).6 Similarly, Paul says that “Christ is the telos of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes [telos – “end” – not as “termination” of the law, but as the law’s “goal, purpose”]. Christian interpretation of the Old Testament is properly theological while also employing historical-critical tools.
Well-intentioned replacement of the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament” by “Hebrew Bible” and “Early Christian Writings” can have unintended yet unfortunate effects. They combine to imply that the “Hebrew Bible” is “their Bible,” not Christian Scripture, and that “Christian Writings” are confined to the New Testament. Using the common term “testament” for both indicates the integral, inseparable connection between the two. “Old” and “New” may be retained because the former does not mean outdated or inferior and the latter does not imply the replacement of the former. (“Older and Newer Testaments” or “First and Second Testaments” are alternatives that also convey this connection.)
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is called to explore more deeply the singular reality that Christians and Jews share Scripture. At the same time, the church is called to recover the Old Testament as Christian Scripture.
“. . . and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility . . .” [Ephesians 2:14]
Many Christians mistakenly equate contemporary Jews with New Testament Pharisees, and the current state and people of Israel with Old Testament Israel. There is a sense in which the latter is an understandable mistake, for modern Middle Eastern cities and states often bear the same names as they did in the past – e.g., Egypt, Syria, Jerusalem, and Israel. However, biblical realities should not be read into present-day political situations, nor should modern political situations be read into biblical narratives or accounts of the gospel. Twenty-first century Christians do not live with Egyptians under the Pharaohs, Assyrian conquerors, Babylonian captors, David’s Jerusalem, or the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Christians live now with the modern heirs of those peoples, shaped by all of the intervening events and forces of history. Today's Judaism is not the ancient Judaism that we see in the Bible, but Rabbinic Judaism. It is a faith that is rooted in Scripture, but one, like our own, that has been shaped by centuries of faithful interpretation, change and renewal. Today's Jews must be understood in relation to their long history since the time of Jesus, and in light of the faith, ethics and practice that marks their lives today.
The survival of the Jewish people, in spite of hostility, exile, diaspora, and holocaust, is significant. Karl Barth relates the story about Frederick the Great asking his personal physician for a single proof of the existence of God. The physician replied, “Your Majesty, the Jews!” Barth comments that, “in the person of the Jew there stands a witness before our eyes, the witness of God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and in that with us all.”7 It is a witness to the faithfulness of God, and the faithfulness of the Jewish people. The survival of the Jews comes in spite of suppression, separation, and persecution, most lamentably by Christians. Christian teaching of contempt for Jews and the subsequent history of ghettos, pogroms, and even holocaust is not simply a distant memory. Anti-Semitism is a continuing reality throughout the world, including within the Christian church.
The New Testament does not merely encourage toleration of the Jews. The New Testament surprise is not that Jews are encompassed within the grace of God, but that God’s mercy extends beyond Jews to include the Gentiles. It is the people of the other nations, the “Gentiles” (the overwhelming majority of the church) who were “without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise.” It is they who have been brought near by the cross of Christ (Ephesians 2:12-13) so that “there is no longer Jew or Greek . . . for all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). The good news of the New Testament is not confined to the first century; its proclamation has enduring significance. Paul’s affirmation that God has not rejected his people Israel, that the Jews have not stumbled so as to fall, and his declaration that “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26) is as true today as Paul’s proclamation of our salvation in Christ.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is called to examine its interpretation of Scripture, its theology, its educational materials, and its public policy in order to avoid explicit or implicit teaching of contempt for Judaism and Jews. Continuing conversation with Jews should include faithful exploration of inaccurate and offensive characterizations of Jews and Judaism.
“. . . the LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” [Genesis 12:7]
As the 1987 Statement reminded the church, a faithful effort to understand the relationship of Christianity to Judaism, and of Christians with Jews, "cannot avoid the reality of the promise of land. The question with which we must wrestle is how this promise is to be understood in the light of the existence of the modern political state of Israel....The state of Israel is a geopolitical entity and is not to be validated theologically."
Addressing this issue is extremely difficult today, first, because of the unresolved conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and the fact that assertions about the land figure centrally in political debates and determination of policies. The long occupation of Palestinian territory and the suffering of the Palestinian people has sometimes been justified on the basis of the biblical promise. Some Jews, particularly in the settlers’ movement, and some Christians have misappropriated the biblical promise, employing it as a political instrument. Moreover, some see any discussion of the issue of land as de facto part of a position on the Middle East, or on Israeli-Palestinian peace. The positions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on these matters are clear, and are to be found elsewhere.8 It remains to explore the biblical promise of land, and how it can be understood in the context of the Christian-Jewish relationship.
In Christian reading and interpretation of Scripture, the concrete particularity of the Biblical promise of land has often proved to be a stumbling block, in a manner similar to the particularity of the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18-25). God acts in and through the concrete realities of Jesus’ life and passion. In the same way, the Bible witnesses to God's election of one people out of many, and God's promise to one person, Abraham. It is not possible to deny the particularity of God’s gift of a specific land to the people of God’s covenant. At the same time, it is necessary to ask what this gift means for all the people of the world, and for the people of that particular place, both Israelis and Palestinians, at this time in history.
In the biblical account, the land of Israel is the land given by God to the Jewish people. This land was promised to the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. It is this land that was the promised place in which God’s people were to keep God’s covenant, live according to God’s will, and be a light to the nations. “If you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my particular treasure from among all the peoples, though all the earth is mine. And you shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).
In the Scriptural account, the land is integral to the responsibility of God’s people. The land is given not just as a place to live, but primarily as the place in which the people Israel can live out the covenant and carry out God’s commandments. The concrete gift of land, as presented in the biblical text, comes less with rights than with distinctive responsibilities. The gift of the land is conditional upon the following of God’s way. The Scriptures warn repeatedly that failure to do so will result in God casting the people out of the land (cf. Leviticus 20:22; Deuteronomy 8: 11-20, 30: 15-18, etc.). The Scriptures also speak of this land in proclaiming the return of God's people from exile; the land is central to the redemption of God’s people. God found this particular people “in a desert land, in a howling wilderness” (Deut. 32:10), and appointed them to be the Lord’s people. God gives this particular land to them, in which they are to fulfill His will, in order to establish the Sovereignty of God on earth.
In the words of Christian biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann,
The land for which Israel yearns and which it remembers is never unclaimed space but always a place with Yahweh, a place well filled with memories of life with him and promise from him and vows to him. It is land that provides the central assurance to Israel of its historicity, that it will be and always must be concerned with actual rootage in a place which is a repository for commitment and therefore identity. Biblical faith is surely about the life of a people with God as has been shown by all the current and recent emphases on covenant in an historical place. And if God has to do with [the people] Israel in a special way, as he surely does, he has to do with land as an historical place in a special way. It will no longer do to speak about Yahweh and his people, but we must speak about Yahweh and his people and his land.9
While Brueggemann encourages us to acknowledge the concrete reality of the land for biblical faith, other Christian biblical interpreters have understood God’s gift of land in more spiritual or metaphorical terms. They assert that with the coming of the new covenant, God is no longer concerned with physical land, but with the human heart, and not solely with one particular people, but instead with all of humankind. God’s gift of this particular land to this particular people is seen by these interpreters as a demonstration of God’s gift of the potential for life, for fruitfulness, and for the pursuit of holiness and justice to all people.
Historically, a wide-spread, traditional interpretation of Scripture has argued that, because the Jews rejected Jesus, God rejected the Jews, put the church in the place of the Jewish people as God's chosen ones, and cast them out of the land. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has clearly rejected this supersessionist teaching, affirming that “the church, elected in Jesus Christ, has been engrafted into the people of God, established by the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Therefore, Christians have not replaced Jews.”10
A minority of modern Christian interpreters attributes the creation of the modern state of Israel directly to God, and sees the ingathering of Jews to that state as a fulfillment of prophecy, or as the beginning of the end times. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has rejected such dispensationalist biblical interpretations, which purport to discern the time and order of God's future activity.11 Presbyterians are also wary of attributing too much theological significance to a state, rejecting with Barmen “the false doctrine, as though the state, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the church’s vocation as well.”12
Reformed and Presbyterian interpreters, however, have usually understood the promise of “land” primarily as an earthly and historical reality. The foundational events of Christian faith also took place in this land; it is here that the Word became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew who lived in this same land, then under Roman occupation. History and the concrete material world are foundational to our understanding of God's work of salvation. In biblical perspective, life in relation with God always involves actual human communities in concrete places, struggling to live within God’s kingdom.
Both the Old and New Testaments are clear that “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). The earth is God's creation, and God alone is holy and to be worshipped. Other texts go on to suggest that “in the end” God will create a “new heaven” and a “new earth,” in order to accomplish God’s own intentions (Isaiah 65:17; 66:22; Revelation 21:1-5). No one but God has everlasting ownership of land on this earth, and because God owns the land, no one has ever been more than caretakers of the land of Israel, or of any other land. At the same time, God’s people, whether we mean the particular Jewish people or are speaking more universally, are not less than stewards. God has given the land as a trust for safekeeping, a place for responsibility, and an arena in which to deal justly with one another and with the land. (Exodus 19:6).
“. . . to provide for those who mourn in Zion . . ." (Isaiah 61:3)
The connection between the Jewish people and the particular land of Israel has been expressed in every generation of Jews, in liturgy and poetry, in daily prayers and charitable giving, and in periodic movements to return. Their connection with this land has been, and remains, a part of Jewish self-understanding, from antiquity through today. Though there are Jews who do not find this connection to either the Biblical land or the modern state essential to their self-understanding, for the great majority of Jews the Biblical land, the state of Israel, and Jewish identity are inextricably intertwined.
Most Jews understand that the land of biblical Israel and the modern state of Israel are two distinct realities: the state is a contemporary secular and political entity, whereas the land is the geographic place promised and given by God in the Torah, the boundaries of which are not exactly defined. Nevertheless, the two are closely related elements of Jewish peoplehood.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) affirms the ongoing covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people, and the continuing commitment of Jewish men and women to live out God's will in daily life, for the sake of fulfilling God's purpose for all humanity. Yet it is difficult for Christians to understand how the modern state can play a role for Jews, similar to the role of the ancient land, in the fulfillment of this covenant. In light of Christian experience through time, it is difficult for us to accord a contemporary state spiritual or religious significance. Moreover, as citizens of the United States, our thinking about the state is affected by the American understanding of the separation of church and state.
Most Christians find it far easier to understand the modern state of Israel as a haven of refuge for the Jewish people. Their long history of repeated displacement and persecution may remind American Christians of the need for refuge that brought many of our forbears to this country. Some Christians assert that this reality of Jewish history is being used politically in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The church needs careful conversations with Jews in order to come to a fuller understanding of these issues.
It is certain that no clear geographical boundaries of the ancient land of Israel can be established from the Biblical text. Thus, it is also certain that no boundaries of a modern state can be established from the Biblical text. It is dangerous, and involves ignoring nearly two thousand years of intervening history, to embroil the Bible in the defining of the boundaries of Israel or any modern state.
While we affirm that God's gift of land was, like the incarnation, particular and concrete, we also give thanks God as the giver of the potential for life, fruitfulness and justice to all of humanity. God’s gift of land, and the potential and responsibility that goes with that gift, pertains both to the Jews and to the Palestinian people who live along side them in what was the ancient, biblical land of promise. Both peoples have claims on the same land. Jews and Palestinians give voice to incompatible historical narratives and political claims, each assumed to be “correct” by its narrators. What is not often clearly said in the midst of the conflict is that both people, in different ways, are recipients of God's gift and responsibility.
The tradition of God's gift of land in the Biblical account does not resolve this conflict, or provide any basis by which to settle modern territorial disputes. Neither the Israeli state nor the Palestinian Authority has a divine right to the land. Both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples do have the right to secure homelands in which to live responsibly, and pursue their national and cultural aspirations. Policies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict make clear that an end to all forms of violence, together with the establishment of two viable states through a negotiated resolution of this conflict, are desperately needed for peace, security and justice for both peoples.
However, Presbyterian commitments to justice and peace for Palestinians and Israelis alike can only stand if we base these commitments on strong support for justice for all people. This means that, in our work for Israeli-Palestinian peace, we must be sure to seek justice and security for both peoples. We must also reject and not make use of the history of Christian anti-Judaism and all of the stereotypes and prejudices that accompany it.
Whenever our critique of the Israeli-Palestinian situation employs language or draws on sources that have anti-Jewish overtones, or makes use of classic Christian anti-Jewish ideas, we cloud complicated issues with the rhetoric of ignorance, subliminal prejudices, or the language of hate. This undermines the church’s advocacy for peace and justice. Critical questions such as ending the occupation of Palestinian territory by Israel or the future of Jerusalem are complex and difficult. We must not make them more difficult by importing anti-Jewish motifs into our discussions.
Arguments suggesting or declaring that the Jewish people are no longer in covenant with God, or statements that echo the medieval Christian claim that the Jews are to blame for the crucifixion of Christ, employ classic themes of anti-Judaism. Presbyterians should be alert to occurrences of these themes and question any assertions that are based on them.
Characterizations of Zionism that distort that movement can all too easily demonize Jews. When Zionism is presented as monolithic or univocal, or solely as an extension of European colonialism and a result of anti-Semitism, the Zionist movement’s history, internal debates, and ethical concerns are distorted. The problems and suffering of the Palestinians are not due solely to Zionism. Many Israelis working passionately for peace are motivated by forms of Zionism. The origins, development, and practices of Zionism and its relationship to the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian situation are much more complex than such a picture presents.
Critique of the state of Israel and its policies is always legitimate and is not, in itself, anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic. It is common among Jews and Christians; Israelis, Palestinians and Americans. However, critique by Christians can sometimes come close in tone or content to a denunciation of Judaism or the Jewish people. Polemic that identifies Israeli officials with Jewish authorities in the time of Jesus is especially problematic, and clouds an accurate understanding of the current situation. In addition, citizens in democracies such as Israel and the United States are responsible before God for the actions of their governments. The citizens of Israel, not the Jewish people as a whole, are responsible for the conduct of Israeli state policy.
Christian liberation theology embraces the Exodus narrative as a story of God’s liberation for all oppressed people. This theology reflects on the experience of an oppressed people and its liberation in light of the experience of ancient Israel. Broad theological use of the Exodus narrative does not abrogate its continuing centrality in the faith and self-understanding of the Jewish people. The Biblical stories of liberation, like those of God’s gift of land, are at one and the same time particular narratives regarding God’s relationship with the Jewish people, and also descriptions of God’s intention to free and provide a home for all peoples.
Some expressions of Christian liberation theology tend to describe the Palestinian experience as oppression by “Jews” or “Zionists” rather than by Israeli state authority, or liken the passion of Jesus to the sufferings of the Palestinian people. Responsible theological critique of state policies should not characterize a whole people as oppressors or “Christ-killers.” Such a characterization of the situation can easily sound like an echo of the classic anti-Jewish accusation that all Jews everywhere are guilty of killing Christ. For Jews this is terrifying, because the narrative of the passion and crucifixion has been used as a theological basis for the ghettoization, denigration, and killing of Jews for nearly twenty centuries. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is attentive to Palestinian Christians as they speaking theologically about what is happening to them. At the same time, Presbyterians are called to discern echoes of the historic condemnation of Jews as “Christ-killers,” and to eschew any such anti-Jewish teaching.
Clearly, the relationships of Presbyterians (or any Christians) and Jews should neither depend on, nor dictate, particular positions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian situation or its resolution. Our relationships with Jewish neighbors do not necessitate approval of Israeli state policy. Speaking out respectfully against actions of Israeli authorities and groups, or of Palestinian entities, is to be expected among Christians and Jews. Disagreements about the dynamics and possible solutions of the Israeli-Palestinian situation are to be expected as well. Jews and Presbyterians may be surprised by the similarity of their critiques of Israel's actions as well as by their shared hopes for the aspirations of Palestinians and Israelis alike.
Questions regarding our understandings of land, and of the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, are central to engaged conversation between Christians and Jews. In order to build relationships of respect and honest understanding with Jewish neighbors, Presbyterians must be willing and prepared to talk with them about our concerns and questions regarding Israel and the land. Presbyterians must also be willing to listen to their expressions of attachment to Israel, their understanding of the biblical promise of land, and the ways that the state of Israel speaks to them of responsibility, justice, and hope.
“. . . the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord calls to him . . .” [Acts 2:39]
Presbyterians share a basic conviction that the Church is called to tell the good news of salvation by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord to all people. In the midst of a world of death and decay, the church witnesses to the reality of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ through its proclamation of the gospel and the character of its transformed life. The church’s incarnational witness has both personal and social implications. The community of faith declares the mighty acts of God, pointing others to Christ rather than to itself. “Evangelism is joyfully sharing the good news of the sovereign love of God and calling all people to repentance, to personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, to active membership in the church, and to obedient service in the world.”13
The church’s evangelistic task is to be witnesses, teachers, practitioners, and sharers, who engage in the struggles of life and extend to others the invitation to become Christ’s disciples. Unfortunately, the history of Christian mission includes some examples of evangelization carried out with little regard for the people to whom the gospel was proclaimed, in ways that have been aggressive, disrespectful, and damaging. Even so, Christian proclamation of the gospel has attempted to be faithful to “the Great Commission” that we follow Jesus into all the world, inviting all to become Christ’s faithful disciples.
In recent decades, Presbyterians have become increasingly aware of two new challenges to evangelism: the secularization of the culture and the religiously plural character of American society. North America is a mission field, and churches can no longer depend on the natural entrance of people into the community of Christian faith. These realities confront the church with new questions about the appropriate character and means of Christian proclamation.
How should the gospel be shared with Jews? Should Christians assume that Jews are without God, cut off from God’s covenant, and so must be converted to Christian faith in order to be restored to communion with God? Or does the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob continue to be present with his people? The New Testament makes it clear to Christians that Jews are not empty vessels, without God, who must be filled with Christianity in order to be restored to divine favor. “I ask then, has God rejected his people? By no means! . . . So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means! . . . as regards election they are beloved . . . that they too may receive mercy” (Romans 11:1,11,28,31). With Paul, we affirm these things, but we also join our voices to Paul’s to affirm that these things are a mystery, and to confess, “Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! . . . For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:33,36).
God remains faithful to the people Israel; God remains faithful to Christians. Jews remain faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Christians remain faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob whom we know in Emmanuel, Jesus Christ. As two peoples who are known and loved by God and who know and love the one God, Christians and Jews are therefore called to be faithful to one another in bonds of love.
One mark of Christian fidelity to Jews is honest sharing of the faith that is in us. Christians are not called to witness to their faith because Jews are outside the embrace of God’s redemption and must be brought into the Christian church. Rather, Christians bear witness to Christ because brothers and sisters who live together in integrity do not withhold their deepest convictions from one another. Jews and Christians are called to live in open relationships of mutual witness in which beliefs and hopes are shared in love. Christians and Jews speak to one another, listen to one another, and learn from one another. And together, Jews and Christians bear witness to the world, showing in word and deed the faithfulness of the one God.
Mutual witness goes beyond formal dialogue to patterns of shared life in which conversation, cooperation, and collaboration develop between churches and synagogues, rabbis and ministers, individual Christians and Jews. It includes mutual disclosure of the ways God is known in the lives of both peoples, respectful listening to and learning from one another. It embraces both mutual affirmation and, when necessary, mutual questioning and correction.
Christian witness should not target Jews in pointed strategies of proselytism, attempting to convert them to Christianity. Especially to be avoided are attempts to present Christian faith in Jewish guise, duplicating Jewish liturgies and practices while avoiding or marginalizing distinctively Christian sacraments and symbols. Faithful, authentic witness to the gospel must always be both truthful and modest. Christian love can never be a Trojan horse for aggressive proselytism, and words of Christian proclamation cannot be used as weapons to coerce conversion. Christians should always be prepared to give “an accounting for the hope that is in [us]; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15.16).
Yet persons who come to Christian faith from Jewish backgrounds must not be asked to deny their Jewish heritage, even though from a Jewish perspective they are no longer religiously Jewish. In the first century of the church, it became clear that Gentiles did not have to become Jews in order to become Christians. It would also be a denial of the gospel if in the twenty-first century, Jews had to become Gentiles in order to become Christians. Yet Christian communities and all who confess faith in Christ should make clear the Lord to whom they belong, and publicly profess their Christian faith in work, liturgy and life. Because Jews find it difficult to understand how Christian converts from Judaism continue to claim their Jewish heritage, Christians and Jews can engage in careful conversation in order to explore their incommensurate understandings of this matter.
Some Christians and Jews find themselves in “inter-religious marriages.” The history of Jewish-Christian separation, suspicion, and antagonism makes it difficult for both Jewish and Christian partners, as well as their families and religious communities, to discover how each partner can live out their faith with integrity. Too often, the difficulties are such that both partners drift into “no religion.” The birth of children presents parents with the dilemma of how they can share religious faith within the family. Too often, the difficulties are such that children are deprived of any engagement with Judaism or Christianity. “Inter-religious marriages” pose challenges to synagogues and churches, and especially to Christian and Jewish spouses and their families. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) should see this complex matter as an occasion for intensive dialogue with the Jewish community.
PARTNERS IN HOPE
“I am about to do a new thing . . . do you not perceive it?” [Isaiah 43:19].
The relationship between Christians and Jews is not simply a concept. Theological understanding is essential, but theology must never become mere theory, abstracted from life. Paul’s letter to the Romans is not an academic essay, coolly considering the theological question of Jews who have not professed faith in Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Paul grapples with a matter that touches him personally and deeply:
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen. (Romans 9:2-5)
Christians are called to know Jewish brothers and sisters, to listen and learn from them in the sharing of faith and faithfulness, and to give thanks for their living testimony to the enduring fulfillment of God’s gracious promises. In our worship and personal prayers we can join voices throughout the church, praying . . .
God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,
Father of us all, whose Son Jesus was born a Jew,
was circumcised, and was dedicated in the Temple:
thank you for patriarchs and prophets and righteous rabbis,
whose teaching we revere, whose law is our law fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
Never let us forget that we, who are your people,
are by faith children of Abraham,
bound in one family with Jewish brothers and sisters,
who also serve your promise;
through Jesus Christ, our Master and Messiah. Amen.
Almighty God, you are the one true God,
and have called forth people of faith
in every time and place.
Your promises are sure and true.
We bless you for your covenant given to Abraham and Sarah,
that you keep even now with the Jews.
We rejoice that you have brought us into covenant with you
by the coming of your Son, Jesus Christ,
himself a Jew, nurtured in the faith of Israel.
We praise you that you are faithful to covenants made
with us and Jewish brothers and sisters,
that together we may serve your will,
and come at last to your promised peace. Amen.
Book of Common Worship
May Jews and Christians join in voicing our foundational affirmation, “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone,” in mutual witness to the world.
These and other relevant documents are available in the Office of Theology and Worship Church Issues Series No.7, available at www.pcusa.org/theologyandworship.
Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (London: SCM Press, 1949) p. 80.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.10.2. (Philadelphia; Westminster Press, 1960) p. 429.
Calvin, Institutes 2.11.1, p. 449.
Matthew 5:17 is the only New Testament text quoted in the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 116a-b.
Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, p. 75.
A new study on the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will come to the 219th General Assembly. A compendium of the policy of the Presbyterian Church (U.,S.A.) regarding Israel and Palestine can be found at http://www.pcusa.org/worldwide/israelpalestine/gastatements.htm.
Walter Brueggemann, The Land, pp. 5-6. The reference is to Biblical theology; Brueggemann has made clear more recently that this does not confer a "supernatural right" to land in the midst of the realities of political life today, and amidst the rights of others. He says, "What [Israel] claimed to be supernatural does not and cannot carry weight in the world of political-military reality." The Christian Century, January, 2009.
“A Theological Understanding of the Relationship Between Christians and Jews,” Affirmation 2.
See the General Assembly Theological Statement, “Eschatology: The Doctrine of Last Things” ((1978) and Between Millennia: What Presbyterians Believe About the Coming of Christ Louisville: Office of Theology and Worship, PCUSA, 2001)
Minutes of the 201st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 1989, Part I, 359.