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As a Christian minister, I have often struggled to find the right tone when preaching or teaching about issues which touch on other faiths while attending to the religious pluralism of our world. Most certainly, I have not always got it right. Sometimes language and theology which I have believed to be helpful, such as the idea that eucharistic hospitality embraces the whole world, have turned out to sound dismissive in the ears of the religious other. I am thankful for a spouse from another faith tradition who tells me these things, not hesitating to let me know the difference between what she hears and what I think I am saying. So, by no means do I want to claim a position of perfect righteousness on this. However, what I can say is that I am getting more sensitive to the issues involved. I also believe that my critique of other theological positions comes out of an attempt to plead for generosity, grace, and hopeful possibility rather than a desire to embarrass or hurt others. I pray that I am right on that at least.

It is out of such sensitivity and my desire for hope that I presented a paper on the stereotypes of Jewish people apparent in my own denomination’s recent theology at a conference on religious stereotypes in April. The conference provided an interdisciplinary look at religious stereotyping in the world today, ranging from discussion of tropes in journalism to lectures on Biblical studies. Much of the work revolved around the way that stereotypes very often act as barriers for interfaith dialogue, though people need to be able to classify others somehow in order to make sense of the world. In other words, there are good stereotypes, which are starting points for further constructive interaction, and bad stereotypes, which work to penalise entire groups of people based on creed, ethnicity, nationality, gender, etc. I learned that there are so many layers to the way we try to fit other people into our own understanding, and so many of them have something to do with being too afraid to be generous. But I also learned that a broad spectrum of people of different faith traditions and disciplines are working on remedying the problematic kinds of stereotypes, which makes me hopeful. But it all starts with awareness.

The paper which I gave was a reflection on a recent study paper on supersessionism and a proposed official statement on the relationship of The Presbyterian Church in Canada with the Jewish people. (The PCC documents can be found in the Acts & Proceedings of the General Assembly of 2010, in the report of the Committee on Church Doctrine, pages 290 to 356). I would like to share some excerpts from my reflection because I want to make an appeal for theological courage. Christian churches do not need to be insular to survive; we Christians do not need to be afraid of those who are different in order to be Christian. We do not have to make everyone just like us in order to follow our calling to love all God’s children. I wrote that

The proposed statement addresses the long history of Christian contempt for Jews, calling on Presbyterians to repudiate anti-Semitism while standing in solidarity with victims of hatred and bigotry. The document also encourages church adherents to engage in dialogue with the Jewish community around them. The study paper has a section on the responsibilities of Presbyterians in their relationship with Jewish people. Even more emphatically, the statement and its study paper declare that God has not rejected or abandoned the Jewish people, maintaining a doctrine of a single covenant which includes both Jews and Christians. Yet, in the ways that these declarations get worked out, and in their theological underpinnings, the documents tell a different story than simply that of penitence and attending to others. In this story, there are few, if any, actual Jews. Certainly, ‘the Jewish people’ remain an amorphous group; most notably, Canadian Jews appear in this story mainly as those towards whom Canadian Presbyterians have historically aimed missions of conversion, or as anonymous figures in hypothetical situations. This story also has little room for Judaism as a living, continuing faith tradition. What the story does have room for is the upholding of a Presbyterian or Reformed identity, as well as the proclamation of the uniqueness, finality, unsurpassability, and universal salvific relevance of Jesus Christ. The theological choices made by the drafters of the documents to safeguard these things at all costs—to give primacy to a particular view of salvation history, and to focus on the status rather than the role of Christ—governs the direction in which the discussion goes. These preoccupations also translate into a type of blindness towards hints of socio-political stereotypes and to questions about national identity and the acceptance of those who are other as neighbours. In the end, the documents tell a story of fear, of an attempt to buttress community walls (ecclesiastical and other) which are felt to be in danger of erosion. It is a fear which fuels religious stereotypes because it cannot allow religious strangers to have viable theologies or religious practices, to be seen as individuals with rich and complicated personal stories, or to be much other than foils for one’s own identity. Like so many similar stories, this one tells more about its tellers than its subject.

Theological choices have repercussions. Anxiety over uncertainty can provoke a wish to force closure on divine action in the world–in the face of mystery, Christian theologians have always been tempted to impose boundaries on the power of God, limiting it at the extent of our own knowledge–but the consequence can be the domestication of Jesus and an attempt to hold God’s Spirit captive. This can never be a good thing.

But I will write more about that in a future post. Right now I want to unearth some of the stereotypes people use to fence away people of other religions. One move that is clearly evident in the Presbyterian study paper and proposed statement is to present one group with great detail, stressing their particularity and diversity, while presenting the other group as abstractly as possible. Thus the documents narrow the focus to The Presbyterian Church in Canada on the one hand, but talk of ‘the Jewish people’ on the other, making little attempt to recognise or point to the variety within Judaism. By making the latter group much more homogeneous than it actually is, this deprives the members of the group of individuality, distancing them from the more nuanced presentation of Presbyterians. The one Christian group gets to be situated, gets to belong in a particular place with a rich history of social participation; the collapsing of all Jewish communities into an undifferentiated people keeps them from being grounded and taking on roots, something which contributes to the diminishing of their humanity.

This leads to a second way to stereotype others–describing them as we perceive them to be. This works especially well with hypothetical situations, even if you are trying to make other members of your own group reconsider matters. At my panel, I spoke about the way that

When the [Canadian Presbyterian] report does get around to presenting Jews who remain Jewish, it presents them as part of a list of hypothetical situations. Here are a few:

1. A family invites a Jewish friend for dinner. This person is fervently committed to the Jewish faith, emotionally devoted to the State of Israel, and somewhat outspoken in her criticisms of Christianity.
2. A Jewish professional walks into a community meeting and says, “That banner on the wall that says ‘Christ binds us together’ speaks for everyone here except me. It excludes me.”
4. Some members of a congregation bring a Jewish friend to church and the gospel reading is from John chapter eight.
5. A young couple, one of whom is a Jew and the other a Christian, ask the minister to conduct their wedding.(A&P 2010, 335-6)

The list aims to impress upon the reader the significance of this entire theological exercise, that what you believe about Jewish people could have consequences for many actual circumstances. The paper goes on to declare that

Jewish people live in the house next door to us. They teach in our schools and universities. They practice in our medical institutions. They serve in our armed forces and in our government agencies. They write columns in our newspapers, they are our colleagues at work. They share our community concerns. Their places of worship are around the corner, sometimes their children marry our children. They are our neighbours and our friends (A&P 2010, 336).

Unfortunately, instead of getting readers concerned about real people, particular human beings with particular stories and concerns, the study paper just succeeds at outlining stereotypes, some ubiquitous ‘they’ who acts as the mirror or shadow of all our imaginations and fears about people who believe differently than the reader does. ‘They’ do not give evidence of diversity within Judaism; ‘they’ do not have complex lives.

A third way to stereotype a different religious group is to alienate them from where you are. Concentrate on their nature as immigrants, imply that their real home is elsewhere, and you get the bonus of solidifying your own grasp on the land where you are. Thus the 2010 reports on Presbyterians and their relationship with Jews do not fail to connect Jewish people to Israel but neglect to elaborate on the history of Jews as Canadians, an especially notable absence when the report is supposed to help Canadian Presbyterians relate to and dialogue with Jews who are their neighbours and fellow inhabitants of the same country.

But more on this next time.