As mentioned in the post on Canadian Presbyterians and the Jewish people, the Committee on Church Doctrine of The PCC is bringing documents on supersessionism, Christianity and Judaism to this year’s General Assembly for a vote. But while I have criticised the proposed statement on the relationship of The Presbyterian Church in Canada with Jewish people and its accompanying study paper, there are worse possibilities. I would rather a statement that hints at the need for dialogue and seeks a positive relationship than no statement at all. (Then again, I am open to changing my mind on that. Maybe it would be better to have no official statement, allowing people to develop more open theologies. Though right now I think that an amended statement would be far better.)
That there are still difficulties in the way that we Presbyterians approach Judaism (and other faiths) is quite evident. Theologically, we have a difficult time recognising the human diversity in which others, like us, strive to be faithful to experiences of deepest meaning. But it seems that, when it comes to Judaism, Christians have some added difficulties with shared territory that each group, Christians and Jews, claim as our own. We also have difficulties untangling the web of connections around the issues.
These days it seems that Christians have problems discerning between Judaism the faith tradition and Israel the nation state. This may be seen in this year’s report of The PCC’s doctrine committee when they summarise the comments which were submitted as part of the study and review of the documents on Judaism. (The report can be found here for the moment, but this link will disappear sometime after the report’s recommendations have been voted on.) Within the wide range of comments, nine out of sixty-one responses complained about ‘the lack of reference to the current volatile situation involving Palestinian people and the state of Israel’. In other words, almost one in six believe that a theological statement concerning Judaism and Jewish people must also make a declaration concerning justice, or the lack of it, in Israel, as if all Jews by virtue of being Jewish must share complicity in the actions of the state of Israel.
To their credit, the Committee on Church Doctrine try to separate the question of a relationship with people of another faith from the church’s response to what a specific group of people are doing politically. They respond to the complaints only by adding a preamble pointing out that The Presbyterian Church in Canada has other reports on issues of justice and peace in the Middle East, and by noting that the proposed statement intends ‘to address the
relationship between those who identify themselves as part of The Presbyterian Church in Canada and those who identify themselves as Jewish people’. Of course, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the Committee itself makes the link between Israel and Judaism, never really examining the implications of this in its report. It also does not help matters that the committee’s study paper adopts a rather dismissive tone towards those interested in the rights and welfare of Palestinians, declaring that ‘those who would approach the land question merely from the perspective of justice’ see ‘no theological depth-dimension’ in the territorial issue (A&P 2010, 344). It’s news to me that justice is not a matter of theology.
Still, that so many of the responses never questioned the necessity of the connection remains disturbing. One respondent even went so far as to wonder ‘about the appropriateness of dialoguing with Jews when we see the repressive actions of Israel against Palestinians, which they believed was one of the greatest obstacles to Jewish/Christian relations today’. With this we move beyond conflating two differently defined groups of people to blaming all of one explicitly for the actions of another, creating the opportunity for old stereotypes and prejudices to resurge.
Canadian Presbyterians are not the only Christians making this error. Listening to the recent Church of Scotland General Assembly debate on actions the C of S should take to press for justice in Israel-Palestine, you could certainly hear the same conflation. Commissioners stood up and talked about the need to ‘prick the conscience’ of ordinary Israeli Jews. One told a story about being at the house of a rabbi heavily involved in interfaith dialogue after being in a parched area of the West Bank. During the visit, the garden’s sprinklers went on, and the visitor was struck by the scale of injustice in the land. To me, the clear implication was that this rabbi should have known better, that he was blind to what was happening in Israel-Palestine, because his house had irrigation in its garden. One speaker turned his own speech into an article for the progressive, social-justice-oriented Christian thinktank Ekklesia, ending with a plea to lobby communities and governments to boycott goods produced in Israeli settlements ‘for the sake of the Palestinian Arabs, who are the chief victims of this long sorry history, but also for the sake of the Jews of Israel, who in destroying the lives of their Palestinian neighbours are destroying their own souls’. Leaving aside the matter of the boycott or other political actions, what we see in the rhetoric around the issue is the revival of dangerous anti-Jewish tropes–that Jews are blind and cannot see the truth, that we Christians have to save their souls. One might remember the statues of blind Synagoga in so many of the cathedrals of Europe.
Why is it so easy for Christians on other continents to blame Jews tout court for the problems in Israel? Maybe those anti-Jewish beliefs never really went away. Maybe blaming Israeli Jews for a situation in which (Palestinian) Christians are victims grants a type of relief to European and North American Christians interested in justice and peace–finally, here is an issue where we don’t have to say sorry; we can blame someone else rather than having to humble ourselves once again to apologise for our treatment of native people or women or minorities or the environment or you fill in the blank. And if we have to blame ourselves for any part our own actions have played in the trouble, well, then we can point to Holocaust guilt or going overboard to make up for anti-Judaism (which was only the seedbed of real anti-Semitism anyway, just so you know to put the blame on Hitler and not us). Thus, instead of all those justice issues which involve the Church repenting, about the Middle East we think we can blame others and call ourselves prophetic.
I am not saying that we should give up on working for justice. We have a gospel imperative to seek a better world, to help the poor, the weak, the oppressed, and when you stand at the gates of the checkpoint into Bethlehem, you cannot help but see that something is wrong with the way people are being treated. But we need to be careful about the words that we say and the theologies that we invoke. We have to be sure about our motives. We need not only to begin with repentance, but also to keep it in mind in all that we do. Only the repentant church can serve.