As the Church of Scotland’s 2013 General Assembly began, I posted some theological reflections on a report called “The Inheritance of Abraham? A Report on the ‘Promised Land’”. I noted that the original report had been withdrawn after a meeting of representatives of the Church of Scotland Church and Society Council and various Jewish organisations and that, as I was finishing my post, the revised version had been released. In advance of today’s discussion on the report, it would be prudent to ponder the revisions that have been made. Again, I will not be talking about the fair criticism of Israeli government policy, but rather the theological assumptions being made by members of one religion concerning another.
First of all, credit should be given where credit is due. Those responsible for the report listened to the concerns presented to them and agreed to make changes. They admit that whatever goes to the General Assembly also enters ‘the public square’ and resolve to be clearer in their use of language (IA.ii, 3). Not only do they provide a new introduction to the report, but they also make emendations throughout. The revised report drops several passages which had made questionable or unclear assertions, many of a historical nature but some theological ones, too. The new version omits this paragraph, which was near the beginning originally:
This assumption of biblical support is based on views of promises about land in the Hebrew Bible. These views are disputed. The guidance in the Bible, notably the interpretation in the New Testament, provides more help in responding to questions about land and covenant. It also provides insight (discussed later in the report) into how Christians might understand the occupation of Palestinian land by the state of Israel, threats to Middle East peace and security, human rights, and racial intolerance, especially in the forms of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia (IA.i, 2).
This paragraph had seemed to associate all the suspect interpretations of the promises about land with the Hebrew Bible and the majority of proper guidance for interpretation with the Christian New Testament. Removing this passage shows an awareness that Christians cannot simply appeal to the authority of the New Testament and expect people of other faiths to agree with a Christian interpretation.
The revised report no longer applies the words “exclusive” and “particular” to Judaism. It also notes that European colonialism is ‘repugnant [also to] many others of all three of the monotheistic faiths’ (IA.ii, 4).1 The revisions include making sure to say that understandings of the land derived from the New Testament are Christian ones (IA.ii, 9), while cutting out phrases like ‘Jesus offered a radical critique of Jewish specialness and exclusivism’ (IA.i, 8), thereby minimising the problematic notion that Jesus’ teaching represents an almost complete break from the Law and the Prophets before him. Overall, the changes made to the report demonstrate an understanding that sensitivity must be used when approaching interfaith matters of any kind. The changes are a step in the right direction: they constitute a movement towards recognising that striving for justice includes greater consideration of how we talk about and treat all others, as well as reflecting on the what theological formulations might be teaching and perpetuating concerning whole groups of people.
However, sensitivity is not enough. Yes, in the new introduction, the authors of the report ‘acknowledge that some of the words we have chosen may have been misunderstood’ (IA.ii, 2). Putting aside the standard non-apology here which places blame on the understanding of the reader rather than the writer (should not Christian theologians do better than this?), there is little recognition that the Christian churches might be perpetuating teaching which harms people. It is true that such a recognition might be expecting too much from this particular report, which is about a specific land and issues of justice there, where walls separate people more than they provide shelter. But I live in hope.
The report changed some language, omitted some passages, toned down the negativity being attached to Judaism. Still, underlying assumptions are difficult to shake, and theological language does not always shift easily. A few of the changes made show this, and it is illuminating to compare the original version and the revised one in detail for certain passages.
1. On Jonah
The original text stated:
The book of Jonah is a key text for understanding the Hebrew Bible’s promise of the land to Abraham and his descendants. Written at a time when Jewish people were turning inwards, the book presents Jonah as a Jewish nationalist to drive home the point: God‘s universal, inclusive love is for all. God in Jonah is merciful, gracious, a liberator of the oppressed and sinful who looks for just living. The people of God even include the hated Assyrians. So Jonah suggests a new theology of the land, because God was not confined within the land of Israel, but also embraced the land of Assyria (IA.i, 7).
The revised text reads:
For Christians the book of Jonah is a key text for understanding the Hebrew Bible’s promise of the land to Abraham and his descendants. Written at a time when the people were turning inwards, the book presents Jonah as a nationalist to drive home the point: God‘s universal, inclusive love is for all. For Christians, God in Jonah is merciful, gracious, a liberator of the oppressed and sinful who looks for just living. The people of God even included the hated Assyrians. So to Christians, Jonah suggests a new theology of the land, because God was not confined within the land of Israel, but extended his reach to include the land of Assyria. In saying this, we recognise that a Jewish Theological interpretation of Jonah may not go as far as a Christian one, perhaps being more contextualised in time terms (IA.ii, 9).
Notably, the revision drops the adjective ‘Jewish’ from the description of Jonah’s negative aspects: where the original talked of a ‘Jewish people’ turning inward and of Jonah being ‘a Jewish nationalist’, it seeks to strip away the ethnic/religious characterisation which threatened to equate Judaism with a narrow nationalism. It also makes explicit that the interpretation of Jonah given in the report is specifically Christian, apparently to show that there are alternative views (though apparently not alternative Christian ones). Yet, in the attempt humbly to acknowledge that there is space for other theological opinions, the report still manages to produce a negative connotation for Jewish religion. It says that ‘For Christians, God in Jonah is merciful…’ but surely that does not really aid in reminding readers that, for Jews, God is also merciful and just. The text also makes the rather poor Biblical interpretation that it is only from the time of the composition of the book of Jonah that it was viewed that God’s reach extended to other countries, when there are certainly many other places in the Hebrew Scriptures which assume the universal Lordship of God. Jonah, seen as a nationalist in the report, is never depicted as assuming that God did not reach beyond the borders of Israel/Judah; in fact, the book states that Jonah fled his calling precisely because he assumed that God would be merciful even to the capital of the Assyrian empire (Jonah 4:2). But even more problematic is the way the final sentence of the paragraph is shaped: rather than simply saying that Jewish theologians might have an alternative view, the text says ‘may not go as far’, implying that, while Christian theology goes the necessary distance, Jewish theology has obvious shortcomings. This is decidedly not a refutation of negative views of Judaism. Poor Jonah, swallowed by a marine giant, then pulled into a struggle far ahead of his time.
2. The Temple
Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple means not just that the Temple needs to be reformed, but that the Temple is finished. Stephen‘s speech in Acts 7 makes it clear that God is no longer confined to the place of the Temple. Temple and land give way to a new understanding so Paul can say that all the barriers that separated Jews from the rest are down – “there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male or female in Christ Jesus.” The new ‘place’ where God is found is wherever people gather in the name of Jesus (IA.i, 8).
Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple means not just that the Temple needs to be reformed, but that the Temple which by its order, kept some people separate from others is finished. Stephen‘s speech in Acts 7 makes it clear that God is no longer confined to the place of the Temple., God is in all places and for all people. Temple and land give way to a new understanding so Paul can say that all the barriers that separated people one from another are down – “there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus” (IA.ii, 9).
Here the revision deletes the inference that God is not present where non-Christians gather, as someone has realised how offensive that is in an inter-faith context. However, it does not give up the idea of connecting the Temple to the promises concerning land. In fact, it adds a reason for the symbolic ending of the Temple which it associates with Jesus’ action: it kept people separate. The idea that the Temple was bad seems to have become a standard trope for Christians interested in social justice; the Temple as imagined is viewed as evidence of an exclusivist devotional system. Yet the evidence that this was actually the case—that the Temple headed an unjust system of domination over the people—is more than a little suspect.2 Arguably, the Temple itself has only a minor place in the theology of the land, but it gets accorded a larger role with the effect of heavily suggesting that Judaism as a religious system is inherently full of inequality—even though modern Judaism has no Temple and has a very different idea of devotional practice than the Temple cult. It is not as if Judaism has not had a tension between multiple views of the temple and land throughout its history.
I was going to look at more, but this is enough for me. I might come back to the details sometime, but I will leave that to someone else for now; this all depresses me. But I was listening this morning to the Church of Scotland General Assembly’s worship when the Moderator renamed her reflection ‘Defiant Hope’, thinking on Jeremiah buying land when the fall of Jerusalem was imminent. So here I keep banging away with pleas for theological generosity and reflective practice. Theology matters, because what ministers and theologians preach, what reports declare, affect what people think of other people. And too often I have heard negative comments about non-Christians—mainly Jews—preached from pulpits in Reformed churches which should know better. Not too long ago, I heard a preacher, speaking of Jesus in Nazareth, declaring that ‘Jews despised foreigners’. I have heard it assumed that Jewish culture in Jesus’ time was one of rampant misogyny, hatred of the sick and the young, and a religious system that burdened people with horrible commandments. I have heard the Gospel depiction of Pharisees presented with little or no context. People in the pews hear this, and it works its way into minds and hearts. I have heard people assume this extends to modern Judaism, too. The only way to change this is to change the way we preach and teach as Christian theologians and ministers.
Those of us who get a chance to write reports and theological papers, and compose prayers and sermons, need to know that our words have the power to hurt as well as heal. This is not just having to do with Israel/Palestine. It came up on Monday with the report on ministry and same-sex relationships. The traditionalist viewpoint expressed in the report included language that hurt people, language which was not challenged. My defiant hope is that theologians (and others) will never let hurtful words pass without trying to make them better.
1. Though I wonder what many Buddhists, Hindus, etc., would think of this.↩
2. See Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (New York: HarperCollins, 2007) 149-57 (at least in the Kindle edition).↩