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Note: As I was completing this post, the General Assembly was beginning, and the revised version of the report on ‘The Inheritance of Abraham’ was published in the Assembly Papers for Sunday to Monday, starting on page 13. Some of the most problematic passages have been removed; words like “exclusive” and “particular” are no longer directly applied to Judaism. However, the report does not exactly note the problem of Christian triumphalism: it actually assumes that all Christians should believe that their religion represents progress towards inclusivity, thus implying that Christians should believe that other religions are not inclusive. Because of this, I still think it is important to discuss the original report and its underlying assumptions.

Today, the Church of Scotland’s annual General Assembly gets underway in Edinburgh. Although we no longer live in Scotland, the years I spent in Glasgow and the ties made to people and churches all keep me very interested in what might happen.

Now, some years can be pretty quiet at any Presbyterian-style church’s General Assembly: there are few apparently earth-shattering issues, and little to get worked up about. That does not mean that commissioners in those years are not faced with important issues or that the decisions they make will have less value, just that there is nothing too controversial. It does mean that there are General Assemblies whose deliberations have long-lasting consequences that go almost unnoticed. Because of that, I have heard people of various Presbyterian persuasions wish that the media would take more notice.

For the Church of Scotland, this is not one of those years. This is the year that the special Theological Commission on Same-Sex Relationships and the Ministry presents its report, the latest step in a process that began four years ago when the Assembly heard an appeal of one presbytery’s decision to sustain a call to a minister in a same-sex relationship: the 2009 Assembly upheld the call, but invoked a special committee whose 2011 report led to the special theological commission. Like that 2011 report, this year’s version is an oddity which asks the General Assembly to choose between two options, something exceedingly rare and a little depressing after years of consultation and discussion. Basically, option A would make accepting the ordination/induction of ministers in same-sex relationships possible but a matter of freedom of conscience, so that people who oppose the move do not have to be involved; option B would forbid such ordinations/inductions (except for those who have already been ordained). Personally, for the “revisionist” side to headline freedom of conscience makes me raise my eyebrows theologically: why not make it a clear justice issue? If it is about safeguarding the unity of the church, then have they not failed already if some members are allowed not to recognise the ordinations of others, which is what it amounts to? Well, the world will see what happens next Monday, with pretty much the whole day set aside for an ecclesiastical battle royale.

However, that is not the only major report facing this 2013 Assembly. There is also a report related to the upcoming (2014) referendum on Scottish independence, laying out implications for the Church of Scotland. This Assembly also finds itself deciding if it should create a standing Theological Forum, changing the way a Moderator (the person who moderates the General Assembly and serves as symbolic representative of the Church throughout the next year) is selected, hearing reports on human rights and poverty, and facing the problem of a low number of younger people entering ministry compared to those retiring over the next ten years (see page 10 of this report), among many other matters.

But with all that going on, I want to point to another report which has caused controversy over the last couple of weeks, a report on Israel/Palestine entitled “The Inheritance of Abraham? A Report on the ‘Promised Land’”. To summarise, this document argues that the divine promises presented in the Bible concerning land should not be used in the present day to claim that one specific group of people has more right to a particular area than any other group: this is presented as part of the Church’s vocation to seek justice—in this case, justice for Palestinians.

Various interfaith and Jewish groups read the report with dismay. Media organisations ranging from the United Kingdom, Israel, and the United States ran news stories on the document, many declaring that it claimed that Jews have no right to the land of Israel. The Israeli ambassador to the U.K. proclaimed outrage. Eventually, after a meeting ‘facilitated by the Council of Christians and Jews’, the Church and Society Council, the agency within the Church of Scotland with responsibility for the report, agreed to take it down from the denominational web site in order to provide ‘a new introduction to set the context for the report and give clarity about some of the language used’, according to the statement which has replaced the report on the Church of Scotland site. [Correction: this joint statement has in turn been removed from the C of S site and replaced by the revised report. The joint statement made with other organisations has also disappeared from the church’s website (in favour of this statement as of 17 May), but the joint statement is preserved by the Council for Christians and Jews.] The General Assembly will discuss the report as revised on 23 May. (A list of many of the media reports can be found here. And here are some others, too.)

The report certainly wades into some very tangled territory, trying to negotiate social justice issues, interfaith relations, Biblical exegesis, theology concerning sacred space, hermeneutics, and soteriology. Whether criticism of the government of the state of Israel is opposed to the work of uprooting anti-Semitism becomes the surface issue resting on these complex theological reflections and pronouncements.1 The ten pages of the report are hardly enough.

For the record, I do not believe that criticising the policies of the government of Israel is necessarily anti-Semitic, and I am definitely not writing this post to defend that government’s policies. I also am not going to argue that the Church of Scotland has no right to criticise the government of Israel, because the C of S actually has pastoral care responsibilities there: the Church has two congregations within Israeli territory, and runs a school, a guesthouse, and a hotel. The year Alana and I lived in Jerusalem, I worshipped regularly with one of those congregations, and learned much from the minister. For the Church of Scotland to exercise pastoral care towards its people in Israel/Palestine, it must be able to raise critical issues there as well as in Scotland.

Unfortunately, I don’t think “The Inheritance of Abraham?” will be much help theologically for the churches there. The problem is not critiquing government policy, but rather the grounds on which the report seeks to make its claim. It does not help anyone to link justice pronouncements to the denigration of another faith, to seek justice in one area while perpetuating a different injustice; worse still is teaching that injustice to yet another generation. Let us take a closer look and see what I mean.

To begin with, the report lacks clarity concerning its intended targets. Is it trying to refute what is called Christian Zionism, a belief that a strong Jewish state in the Middle East is a sign that the end is near, by showing that the interpretation underlying such a theology is not the only or the best interpretation of sacred texts? Is it mainly in support of Palestinian liberation theology? Is it meant to try to convince people that the Christian understanding of the situation is the most just? The report itself, and the summary still available on the web site (starting from page 34 of the Church and Society Council’s overall report), simply calls itself ‘our latest reflection on the “questions that need to be faced”, as the political and humanitarian situation in the Holy Land continues to be a source of pain and concern for us all’. Perhaps the revision of the introduction aims to make this explicit.

But rewriting the introduction without addressing the troubling theological statements (at least, troubling to people interested in interfaith relations and any theology of collaboration or generosity) in the body of the report would make little difference overall. In an early statement which is still available on the Church of Scotland’ Facebook page, a spokesperson asserted:

The Church of Scotland would never and is not now attacking Judaism and the intent of the report must not be misinterpreted as such. Nor is the report denying Israel’s right to exist, but any group’s divine right to land. To reach that conclusion is not the same as denigrating the Jewish people or denying the right of Israel as a state to exist.Speaking out critically about Israeli government policy cannot be equated with denigrating the Jewish people. A good friend speaks the truth in love, and the truth is there can be no peace without justice.

If this were true, many passages of the report would need emendation, not just the introduction. The language utilised in the report in several places reflects a supersessionist theological view, in which a “good” Christianity replaces or evolves out of a “bad” or outmoded Judaism. The text opposes ‘the particular exclusivism of the Jewish faith’ to ‘the universalist, inclusive dimension of Christianity’ (p. 6). The report points to ‘Jewish specialness’ (p. 8), and implies that Jews believed God to be ‘confined within the land of Israel’ (p. 7) or ‘confined to the place of the Temple’ (p. 8)—at least until a prophetic proclamation like the book of Jonah or the words of Jesus appeared to bring new theology. When the writers of the document look at Paul’s letter to the Romans and his insistence that ‘all Israel will be saved’ (11:26), they highlight the interpretation of this as ‘a vision of a reconciliation beyond this age’ suggesting that God is not with Jews (or any other non-Christians) now.

From the Christian side, the document presents New Testament views on land, people and sacred space as the culmination of a process, so that ‘Previous experiences of land, including the peaceful returns from exile, were stages towards a wider future’ (p. 8). Jesus’ teachings are cut off from the tradition which taught him: ‘The Good News of Jesus is inclusive’; he ‘offered a radical critique’ of Jewish understandings (which was not taken up); and ‘Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple means not just that the Temple needs to be reformed, but that the Temple is finished’ (all p. 8). Overall, when talking about Jesus and Christian scriptures, the report leaves the impression that Christianity is all that Judaism is not. Apparently, Christianity is open, welcoming, universal, not tied to a place as with the old Temple, and presents a God who cares for all people, while Judaism is closed, hostile to outsiders, ethnocentric, tied to a place, and presents God as one who cares mostly for the people of Israel alone.

One can understand why adherents to Judaism might be distressed. While the writers of the report do admit that a plurality of voices and viewpoints appear in the Hebrew Scriptures—looking to the prophets and especially the book of Jonah—there is little sense that such multiplicity of opinion is integrated with Israelite religion all the way through. The report demonstrates hardly any sense of Judaism as a living religion, as a faith tradition which reaches beyond what Christians call the Old Testament. The only time contemporary Judaism is discussed in any detail, it is through the lens of Mark Braverman speaking as an American Jew to critique Israeli treatment of Palestinians; this means that the only view of Rabbinic Judaism that readers get is connected to ‘political Zionism’, a Passover liturgy which reinforces ‘brittle superiority’, and a community bound together by ‘separateness, vulnerability and specialness’ (p. 6). This provides a rather narrow glimpse.

Judging by the response excerpted above from the Church of Scotland’s Facebook page, I’m not sure that the church is really aware of the theological damage which the report represents in its original form. The most recent statement on the matter, however, does declare ‘That the Church condemns all things that create a culture of anti Semitism’. It will be interesting to see if that condemnation includes the Church’s own negative teaching about the Jewish faith. There is no way that the report stands alone, for the only way that the report’s characterisation of Judaism would appear without an expectation of it causing problems is if it is so engrained in the Church’s understanding that such views slip beyond self-correction.

Here, to me, is the heart of the theological problem from a Christian point of view: why does it seem necessary to present people of another faith negatively in order to enhance what we think is positive about our own faith? Why do Christian theologians allow the perpetuation of what is clearly a misinformed and biased view of another world religion? Why does our valuing of Jesus rest so much on representing him as severed from his own religious life as a Jewish man? Because it is a Christian theological problem: as much as construing Christianity in opposition to those who are considered “other” harms those others, it also hampers the vision and breadth of Christian theological thinking. You could say that it is simply always easier to blame someone else rather than engage in self-criticism,2 but it goes deeper than that.

One of the major roots of the problem lies in the difficulty which we Christians have thinking through the meeting point of universality and particularity in relation to our faith in Jesus Christ. Theologically, the Christian faith has to deal with this one who is both anchored in a specific historical person and available to all people, times and places as the one who is most intimately connected to the Lord of all that is. Christian spirituality thus resides in the tension between the abstract and the concrete, the local and the global. However, as most human beings quite naturally find irresolution uncomfortable, the theological temptation has always been to resolve the tension, to head in one direction or another. Most often this has meant choosing the universal, partly because the universal has been accorded more value philosophically. The problem is that this tendency can fail to remember that Christianity also has a particular side; at the worst, this can fuel imperialistic visions of the Christian faith in which all other faiths become subsumed in the Church whether their adherents like it or not. The confusion manifests in the ‘Inheritance of Abraham’ report in the way that it values the inclusive, universal qualities of Christianity but also presents Christianity’s exclusive side without even recognising that it is doing so: at one point, after criticising the exclusivity of the Temple, the report declares that ‘The new “place” where God is found is wherever people gather in the name of Jesus’ (p. 8) seemingly without noticing how this excludes all non-Christians from God’s presence. Theology matters because people need to recognise and reflect upon such tension; Christian theologians need to continue to try to express the dialectic central to Christian life in a way that builds up peace and justice for all people.

Another contribution to the report’s problematic presentation of Judaism comes from the shadow side of specifically Protestant theology, namely turning the centrality of Scripture into blinders concerning religious tradition outside the text and a discomfort with sacred space. Now, I would not be a Protestant myself without believing that theology should have a Biblical basis. However, such a basis means identifying themes, symbols, modes of interpretation, literary meaning, and more; it does not mean ignoring everything that has happened since the Bible was written. But too often Protestant theology thinks that theological reflection equals Biblical exegesis. Taken to extremes, it is construed that only what is closest to the time of Jesus counts, but even without going this far, the tendency towards Bibliolatry can mean doing things like assuming that ancient Israelite religion, Second Temple Judaism, and modern Judaism are all exactly the same.

As for sacred space, the implication that the Temple is by definition a negative institution stems in no small measure from a Protestant distrust of anything built that some might claim to hem in God, like shrines, cathedrals, or other holy places. On the one hand, this is a way to remind everyone that nothing constructed by human hands can contain God (no, not even theology). On the other hand, this can represent a misunderstanding of theologies which observe the holiness of particular places, and can push towards a devaluation of embodiment and physicality. This connects back to the point concerning how hard it is for Christians to articulate the theological mutuality of universality and particularity. Human beings are situated in specific places, dwelling and moving in relation to one another and the earth, but this can be seen as too limiting, and as constrictive to values of universality and inclusion. It becomes easier not only to denigrate materiality, but also to map the lesser quality onto whoever is other, whoever you as a Christian wish to differentiate yourself from. Thus Jews become indelibly linked to a temple system which is portrayed as restrictive in its understanding of God and damaging to human equality, while little thought is given to the plurality of viewpoints concerning the temple, let alone the fact that Jews have lived as Jews without the temple for almost two thousand years.

Much more could be said concerning the unconscious beliefs which undergird the original ‘Inheritance of Abraham’ report. Be that as it may, the report most certainly shows that theology matters. Understandings and assertions need careful and rigorous thought. Self-reflection and self-critique might catch some of the more egregious errors,3 and might also provoke questions of those assumptions leading to the negative portrayal of others, questions which might help Christians act with greater theological generosity, humility, and love. It is not that it has not been done before; a 2003 Church of Scotland report on Israel/Palestine took a very different tone, raising the importance of listening to others, and admitting that Christians ‘have no right to dictate to Jews how they ought to respond to their traditions’ and that ‘Judaism has its own integrity, distinctive practices and theological traditions’ (p. 19 of that report). There is always the possibility of doing theology better.

[Note: a follow-up to this may be found here.]

1. For another analysis of the report looking specifically at this issue, see ‘Can Christians advocate for Palestinian rights and not be anti-Semitic?’ by Joshua Ralston.

2. The report does sidestep the responsibility of western (Christian) nations in encouraging the creation of a Jewish homeland. That is, it blames a historical version of Christian Zionism, but fails to mention that such a homeland was deemed as desirable because western countries viewed Jews as aliens who did not belong within their bounds. See this discussion of the framing of immigration matters in the early 20th century.

3. Psst, Church and Society Council: if you are going to quote another Church’s report on land and theology—namely a report of The Presbyterian Church in Canada for its 2012 General Assembly—make sure that you don’t make it sound like it is a report on Israel/Palestine when it is actually a report on ethical issues connected to the international conduct of Canadian mining companies.