My facebook status right now reads:
“Kind of touched to hear how concerned the Presbyterian Church in Canada is that I have a chance to hear about Jesus. Here’s a tip: with two graduate degrees in theology and a church writing my paychecques, I think it’s probably a fair bet that I have heard the name before, at least once or twice.”
This was my response after listening to the latest round of debate on the Committee on Church Doctrine’s proposed statement of relationship between Canadian Presbyterians and the Jewish People. Yes, when frustrated by things beyond my control, I tend to take refuge in sarcasm. It’s a personal failing. I’m working on it. (Just… not very hard.)
One of my best friends (I don’t think it’s violating his privacy to note that he’s a fairly convinced atheist, and also a bit prone to sarcasm) wrote this in reply:
“But… you’re still Jewish. Clearly, you didn’t hear about Jesus in the *right* way. Let me tell you all about Him…”
…which, right at this moment, falls firmly into the category of “So funny I forgot to laugh”, as we used to say on the playground.
Because, listening to the debate, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that a sizable number of commissioners to this year’s assembly–or at least the ones that bothered to make their way to a microphone to speak–really, truly think that. Because how else am I supposed to account for the longest debate on a statement that has so many problems being on whether to amend it (an amendment which did pass, eventually and to my great dismay) to make perfectly clear that Jews are still fair game for “prayerful witness”?
Now, I have some sympathy with the one woman who suggested that, in her understanding, witness is more about how one lives one’s life than about any active attempt to convert. But, as another speaker pointed out, it’s hard to imagine that anyone really needs this specific document amended to tell them that they’re supposed to live a life that witnesses to the Gospels. Context is important, and a reference to “prayerful witness” at this particular point, in this particular document seems to my ears to be much less about being nice to people and much more about the sort of heavy-handed witness that’s meant to lead to conversion.
In spite of anti-immigration scaremongering, the population of Canada (and the US, and Europe) is mostly Christian. Moreover, it is culturally Christian, which is to say that most public discourse is carried on within a framework which assumes a working knowledge of Christianity. The vast majority of non-Christians that a member of the PCC is likely to encounter aren’t non-Christian because we’ve never heard of Jesus. And that’s even more true for those of us who work in interfaith dialogue. The insistence of inserting as many references to “prayerful witness” as possible into the document on relations with the Jewish people–a document which, as another astute speaker pointed out, will become a foundational reference text for interfaith dialogue–seems to me to be based in the assumption that if Jews (by which I mean… me) haven’t converted yet, it’s because nobody’s witnessed to them properly.
Even leaving out the speakers who suggested that we should consider the Reformed tradition friendly to Jews because Reformed theology always permits for conversion, or that (and this is a direct quote that I typed out immediately because I couldn’t believe I’d actually heard it properly) “I can think of no more antisemitic act than to deny the people the Gospel of Christ”, who I hope are representative of the fringe, rather than the majority view of the PCC, this attitude is a bit troubling and, yes, a bit insulting.
It’s insulting to me, because not only does it evidence no respect for my agency, my ability to make informed decisions about what is best for my spiritual life, it also assumes that I never bother to actually listen to any of the people I speak to. It’s insulting to… well, just about every Christian who’s ever spoken to me, up to and including my co-workers, my doctoral supervisor, and my spouse, because it assumes that not a single one of them has ever done a proper job of witnessing to me. And it makes a laughingstock out of every other claim the PCC has made about openness and respectful dialogue.
Now, pretend that the above paragraph isn’t just about me and my life, but about every other Jewish person in Canada. Because, with the exception of details like the Presbyterian spouse, it is.
One of the first conversations I had with Mark, right after I moved to Scotland, he invited me to church. Not to a worship service, but to a Friday evening group that was intended to support immigrants (primarily international students) adjusting to Glasgow. He didn’t know I was Jewish, and certainly couldn’t know about the culture of evangelism on college campuses in the Southeast, which was the last place I’d lived before that–a culture which involves inviting students to low-key social events in order to build a relationship with them before turning on the pressure to accept Christ. Coming with that in my recent experience… well, Mark found himself pretty quickly plunked in the “Avoid at all costs” box, and it took a long time and a series of unlikely coincidences before I worked my way around to trusting him enough to talk with like an ordinary human being. Because nothing is more destructive of trust than the feeling that the person you’re talking to is just biding their time until they can try to convince you to remake your life in their image. Nothing.
This isn’t to say that Christians should be ashamed of Christ or the Gospel. Far from it. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that, in a foundational document for interfaith relations, the weight should fall first on relation, on meeting–and treating–the religious other as a human being instead of an object for ideological reprogramming, on the kind of witness that doesn’t need to be explicitly spelled out.