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Over the past year, a large portion of my research time has been diverted from the work I expected to do on liturgy to reflection on a report by my denomination’s Committee on Church Doctrine concerning the theological relationship between Christians (specifically Canadian Presbyterian Christians) and ‘the Jewish people’. In June 2010, at the annual General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Committee presented a statement which they proposed be adopted as the denomination’s official position and a study paper that supported it. The documents were sent down to regional church courts and other national committees for study and review so that the Committee on Church Doctrine could present final recommendations to the 2011 General Assembly for a vote.

Last year, I looked at the statement and study paper hoping beyond hope for good things, for balance and generosity, maybe even innovation. After all, I once blithely said to Alana that I thought Canadian Presbyterians had a good track record of attending to theological issues which affected neighbouring Jewish communities; indeed, as a ministry candidate I studied under a professor of Hebrew scriptures who strove mightily to ensure that her students’ preaching and teaching would be sensitive to the need to move beyond harmful stereotypes of Judaism. However, when I read the documents I was dismayed by much of what I found–dismayed enough that, after a long time thinking about it, I submitted comments to the appropriate committee of the presbytery to which I belong, with the hope that they would add them to their report to the national Committee on Church Doctrine. I also wrote and presented a paper about the stereotypes apparent in the documents for an academic conference.

Unfortunately, I have recently learned that, for some scheduling reason or other, my comments were not properly considered by my local committee and definitely never made it to the Committee on Church Doctrine. I might shrug this off, except now General Assembly is once again at hand: as part of next week’s meeting, the documents will be presented for a vote, and it turns out that the consultation since last year has not resulted in any substantial changes to the proposed official statement. (The Committee simply added a preamble quite rightly defending their choice not to mention the conflict in Israel/Palestine in a statement about Judaism–though, really, they got themselves into that problem by deciding to mention Israel as a Jewish homeland while de-emphasising Canadian Jewish communities.) Therefore, I have decided to present the comments I originally submitted here on our blog, with the hope that maybe, just maybe, someone going to this year’s General Assembly might see them and convince the Assembly to amend the proposed statement.

Mostly what I submitted at the beginning of January holds up, I think. If I were writing it now, though, I would add a couple of things: more emphasis on the need to allow various Jewish communities to define themselves, and a request to add to the proposed statement the blunt statement that Jesus was Jewish. But here are my comments.

Comments Concerning “Canadian Presbyterian Statement on our Relationship with the Jewish People”

First of all, the Committee on Church Doctrine should be commended for the obvious time and effort they put into drafting the proposed statement and its accompanying study paper. Any official statement of the church declaring what we believe asks for the utmost diligence, as such statements are capable of shaping the theological thought of coming generations. Because of this it is important to examine them very carefully when a General Assembly sends them down for study and report.

The proposed statement does very well in making explicit certain Presbyterian beliefs, such as that Christians and Jews worship the same God, that both Jews and Gentiles are included in one covenant of grace which God makes with humankind, and “that Jews have not been supplanted or replaced by Christians” (A&P 2010, 355). The call for solidarity and dialogue and the common pursuit of peace and justice make extremely positive inclusions. The drafters of the statement have also made the important step of formally repudiating anti-Semitism while offering contrition for the church’s “complicity in the persecution, exclusion and expulsions of the Jews” (A&P 2010, 356).

There are, however, some troubling omissions. For a Canadian Presbyterian statement, the text says very little concerning Canadian Jews and Canadian Jewish communities. The statement does declare “We are grateful for the establishment of a homeland for the Jewish people and we express our commitment as Canadian Presbyterian Christians to their right to flourish” (A&P 2010, 355), but the only mention of Canadian Jewish communities appears in the section on The Presbyterian Church in Canada’s historic missions to evangelise Jews in Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg (A&P 2010, 356). A Canadian statement should go beyond affirming the right of the state of Israel to flourish and include an affirmation of the place of Jewish communities in Canadian society, and of Jews as just as Canadian as any members of The PCC might be. The lack of such an affirmation of Jews not only as neighbours but also as fellow citizens becomes glaring in the face of two other choices made by the writers of the statement and the study paper: first, they chose to make little mention of the history of anti-Semitism in Canada, emphasising instead events that occurred either far away or in the distant past; second, they chose to use such phrases as “Jews in Canada” (occurring eight times), “Jewish people in Canada” (once), or “Jewish community” (six times). This choice of language is particularly problematic for, while the phrases “Canadian Presbyterians” and “Canadian Presbyterian” occur twelve and eleven times respectively, the phrase “Canadian Jews” never occurs and “Canadian Jewish” only appears in the name of the Canadian Jewish Congress. The “in Canada” formulation suggests that Jewish people are just visiting, that they do not really belong. Is that the message The PCC desires to proclaim?

Throughout the proposed statement and the study paper, the Jewish people—at least, the Jewish people with whom we are supposed to be relating, rather than those uncovered in Biblical exegesis—remain an almost faceless other. Modern Judaism does not make much of an appearance, let alone the variety of practice and theological opinion held by particular people adhering to the faith. Without a statement recognising multiplicity within the Jewish people and faith, we run the risk of turning “the Jewish people” into whom we imagine them to be, rather than who they are: particular people with their own particular stories. Along with a statement acknowledging such variety, it would be even better if the statement recognised that people who are different from us have a right to be different, including having the right to have different theological opinions concerning God.

It also remains unclear whether “the Jewish people” refers to an ethnic group or a faith community. This ambiguity may be deliberate—certainly there is no clear and universally accepted distinction—but for the purposes of an official denominational statement, some discussion might be in order. Is The PCC being asked to stand in solidarity primarily with an ethnic group, which would leave the question open concerning the value and validity of Judaism as a faith, or primarily with another faith community in the Abrahamic family, which would signal a generous recognition of the right of that faith community to determine its own theological path? Certainly, when the statement talks of “Jewish or Gentile background” it seems to be leaning toward ethnicity (A&P 2010, 356, emphasis added). However, one would hope that a theological statement would deal with Christianity’s relationship with Judaism as a modern and continuing faith. It might be important at least to note the ambiguity involved.

In terms of the way that the statement affects the behaviour, beliefs and understandings of Canadian Presbyterians, contrition for complicity in oppression is a good step, but it does not go far enough. Any solidarity with another group which has been wronged in the past must include as much as possible the amelioration of thoughts and beliefs which have provided motive for mistreatment. The study paper notes misreadings of Scripture and “misconceptions such as the idea that Judaism is all about law-keeping whereas Christianity is all about grace”, and urges Presbyterians to change our ideas as necessary (A&P 2010, 337, and see also the first part of the study paper which discusses Biblical foundations of faith and covenant). This encouragement should be made explicit in the statement as a call for Presbyterians to seek better and more helpful theological understanding.

The proposed statement provides some sense of the historical relationship between Canadian Presbyterians and Canadian Jews in the note on past missions that I have already mentioned. However, the more recent history of The PCC’s participation in formal interfaith dialogue such as the Canadian Christian-Jewish Consultation sponsored in part by the Canadian Council of Churches has been omitted, even though the study paper discusses such participation (A&P 2010, 335). Thus, to be honest about our history and the breadth of approaches to which members of The PCC have been called, the statement should be emended to note this part of the church’s engagement with Canadian Jews, too.

Overall, the ten paragraphs of the proposed statement testify to tension at the heart of the endeavour. On the one hand, the drafters encourage Presbyterians to offer friendship and solidarity towards Jewish people, as well as urging a high view of the place of Jews in God’s covenant with humankind. On the other hand, the stress on “the uniqueness, finality and unsurpassability of Jesus Christ the sole mediator of the one covenant of grace” in the context of a statement on relationship with people adhering to another faith reveals that such friendship, solidarity and dialogue is seen as possibly perilous to Christian identity (A&P 2010, 356). Of course, there is nothing wrong with tension existing within theological thought: tension can provide space for reflection and growth, as well as an opportunity to refine definitions and understandings of the concepts at the heart of our spiritual lives. However, in the case of the proposed statement, the tension does not seem to allow much room for development or for learning from others. There seems little place for actual Jewish voices in the relationship which this theology encourages; in fact, the statement goes so far to appropriate Jewish theology to our theological goals with the words “As Christians and Jews we look forward in hope to God’s full redemption” (356; emphasis added). Jews may indeed look forward to this, but the claim seems a bit gratuitous when Jewish opinions are given no place in the statement otherwise. It feels as if the statement might be summarised by saying that we want friendship, solidarity and dialogue, but only on our terms—and we would prefer if our dialogue partners actually were like us.

Worse yet, the statement does not allow much explicit room for the freedom of God to act in God’s creation. Human doctrine cannot box up, pin down, close in or be the Lord of God. While we as Presbyterian Christians do affirm the centrality of Jesus Christ to our faith, our identity, and our mission to participate in God’s kingdom of love, justice and peace, and we do so using terms such as “the uniqueness, finality, and unsurpassability of Jesus Christ,” we also know that two millennia of church history and theological reflection remind us that the meanings of such terms remain open to interpretation and discussion. The Committee on Church Doctrine’s statement in 2009 concerning the uniqueness of Christ emphasised an exploratory approach of one interpretation among many rather than a legislative one (A&P 2009, 255). Thus, when we embark on relationships with those different than us, we do so in the trust and hope that God may work through those relationships to further both our own understanding of God’s ways and the building of God’s kingdom in the mutuality of love. We believe that everything that we learn about God must be in accord with the revelation of God’s love shown in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, but our theological claims can never exhaust either the fullness of the identity and work of Jesus or the freedom of God to be God. I believe that if The Presbyterian Church in Canada truly desires to encourage its people to “reach out in friendship and hospitality” to Jewish people that it would be best to acknowledge not only where we are coming from—what it is we believe—but also the limitations of our knowledge in the face of the wondrous mystery of God.

The Committee on Church Doctrine’s work concerning Jewish-Christian relations and a theological reflection on the idea of supersessionism began at the 130th General Assembly in 2004, when the then Ecumenical Relations Committee answered in part an overture to the previous year’s Assembly seeking more intentional evangelism of Jewish persons by asking the Committee on Church Doctrine “to undertake a study” (A&P 2004, 303). Looking back to 2004, one can see that in its response to the original overture, the Ecumenical Relations Committee did something which has not been made evident in the statement proposed by the Committee on Church Doctrine or in the attached study paper: they consulted statements and other documents made by other denominations and ecumenical bodies. Even though this is supposed to be a work by and for Canadian Presbyterians, knowing what others among our ecumenical partners have said would have been very helpful for consideration of the proposed statement, even if we agree to disagree. To that end, I recommend looking at “A Time for Recommitment – The Twelve Points of Berlin: A Call to Christian and Jewish Communities Worldwide,” made by the International Council of Christians and Jews in 2009, to see a different approach. This document addresses four points to Christians, four to Jews, and four to both plus people of other faiths. (It can be found at:
http://www.iccj.org/redaktion/upload_pdf/201011271429260.BThesen_engl_kompl.pdf )

Last of all, before submitting some possible emendations to the proposed statement, I wish to register my sorrow that the subcommittee working on the study paper and statement decided not to delve into the issue of supersessionism and Christian-Muslim relations. As they note in the study paper, they decided that they could only do Christian theology, believing that Christian theology is only that which is founded on Christian sacred texts, none of which are shared with Islam (A&P 2010, 293). Leaving aside a discussion of a view of theology which I myself find problematic, I believe that theological reflection on what it is like to be deemed superseded by another faith would have provided insightful empathy concerning the situation in which Jewish people find themselves with regard to Christians and Christian theology.

Submitted by the Rev. Dr. Mark Godin

Proposed Statement with Suggested Emendations (in bold print)

In stating our hopes for our relationship with the Jewish people we reaffirm a central tenet of our Reformed faith expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith, that there is one covenant of grace embracing Jews and Gentiles and therefore, not “two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations” (VII, 6).

Accordingly, we affirm that the Jewish people have a unique role in God’s economy of salvation and healing for our world. Jesus himself taught that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22) and the Apostle Paul stated: “to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, God who is over all be blessed forever. Amen” (Romans 9:4-5). [I am not sure which translation is being used here: the NRSV has “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.”] The Jewish people have a pre-eminent place in God’s covenant, John Calvin finely said, for they are “the firstborn in God’s family.”

We affirm that God has graciously included Gentile Christians, rightly called “posthumous children of Abraham” (J. Calvin), by engrafting them into the one people of God established by God’s covenant with Abraham. This means that Jews have not been supplanted and replaced by Christians in the one covenant. As Paul teaches, God has not rejected or abandoned them: “I ask, then has God rejected his people? By no means!” (Romans 11:1).

We believe that the Triune God who is revealed in Jesus Christ is the same God who chose and made himself known to the people of Israel. We believe that both Christians and Jews worship and to serve the One Living God.

We confess God’s grace, mercy and faithfulness in the miracle of Jewish survival and the continuing existence and witness of the Jewish people in all the variety of their thought and practice. As Canadian Presbyterian Christians, we affirm the place of Jewish communities as equal partners in Canadian society, acknowledging that Canadian Jews are just as Canadian as we are. We rejoice in the contributions Jewish people have made and are making toward a flourishing, just and peaceful Canada. We also are grateful for the establishment of a homeland safe haven in Israel for the Jewish people and we express our commitment as Canadian Presbyterian Christians to their right to flourish. We also commit ourselves to pray for the peace of Jerusalem and all the surrounding regions so that all the children of Abraham (Jews, Christians and Muslims) may live as neighbours in peace and unity in the Land.

We acknowledge with shame and penitence the church’s long and continuing complicity in the persecution, exclusion and expulsions of the Jews through the “teaching of contempt”, beginning in the first centuries of the Christian era, gathering strength during the Crusades in the “first holocaust” and culminating in the Shoah or Holocaust. As Canadian Presbyterians, we admit the painful history of anti-Semitism in Canada and apologise for the part that members of our denomination have had in excluding Jewish people from equal participation in society. As Christians we have failed to demonstrate to the Jewish community and to individual Jews that love which Jesus Christ commanded us to show. Of this lack of love and the teaching of contempt and the attitudes and acts which proceeded from it, we humbly repent. In our present situation, we call upon our people to eschew all forms of anti-Semitism, including the use of language and innuendo which may disparage, slander and harm. We encourage Presbyterians to note and reflect upon interpretations of Scripture and theology which have motivated hatred, and call upon our people to seek better and more helpful theological understandings. We urge Christians to show solidarity with Jews when acts of hatred are perpetrated against them such as the desecration of Jewish graves, synagogues and schools. We are thankful for Christians through the ages, who have shown how to stand in solidarity with Jews, then and now.

We affirm the uniqueness, finality and unsurpassability of Jesus Christ the sole mediator of the one covenant of grace, while admitting that for now, as Paul declared, we “know only in part” (1 Cor. 13:12), and our theology in no means limits the freedom that God has in acting towards God’s children. and We acknowledge our commission to bear witness to our Lord to all peoples, without distinction, remembering as Living Faith reminds us: “We should not address others in a spirit of arrogance implying that we are better than they. But rather in the spirit of humility, as beggars telling others where food is to be found, we point to Christ” (9.2.1). We confess we have not always borne witness to Jesus Christ in ways that have been faithful to our Lord and sensitive to our neighbours, including – and perhaps especially – our Jewish brothers and sisters.

As Christians, and Jews we look forward in hope to we share with Jews a hope in God’s full redemption, which Christians believe will occur in the Second Advent when Jesus Christ returns. We also believe that a this hope which includes the Jews. for as Paul teaches in Romans 9-11, in Jesus Christ there will be an ingathering of people, whether of Jewish or Gentile background: “so all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26).

In the past, The Presbyterian Church in Canada has sought to serve Jewish people in Canada in the name of our Lord through specific mission efforts in Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg. The most well known of those was the Christian Synagogue in Toronto, which evolved into the Scott Mission. More recently, The Presbyterian Church in Canada has also sought to follow Jesus’ way of love by joining Canadian Jews in formal dialogues, councils, and consultations. Illuminated by the Holy Spirit, we will continue to seek to discern the will of God in our relationship with Jewish Canadians.

Finally we encourage our congregations and people to take the initiative and to reach out in friendship and hospitality to neighbouring synagogues and Jewish people and, where they can, to engage in Jewish-Christian dialogue to promote better mutual understanding and to pursue and ensure the establishment of peace and justice and the good and betterment of the wider community. Let us join together in such relationships with an openness towards learning from one another which would allow the possibility of deepening our understanding of the ways of God.