By The Venerable Doctor Christopher A. Brown

The last time I saw Clara, we were both still in college. We had dinner together. Afterwards we walked in the woods behind the sports fields, and stopped to meditate, sitting in lotus position on the soft ground. It was the seventies. That is what we did back then. A couple years later, I learned that Clara had married and joined an ultra Orthodox Jewish sect in Chicago.

I had known Clara longer than I could remember. She was my first friend. When I was two and she was a year older we would crawl around on the floor together. We attended many of the same schools. All the years I knew her, Clara had long, dark hair that she wore in a braid. She couldn’t have looked more Jewish. And yet, I never thought about her Jewishness; the culture in which we grew up was almost entirely secular. When she became a Hassidic Jew, I understood completely. I had become a Christian believer by then, I knew something about reclaiming your spiritual roots.

Clara’s parents spoke with a German accent, especially her father, who taught mathematics at Harvard (or was it MIT?). Her mother was a diminutive woman; warm, jolly and easygoing. It was only when I was much older that I learned that she was the only person in her family to have survived the Nazi Holocaust. The others all died in the camps.

Who may sing Gregorian Chant?
In 1937, a German Lutheran pastor and seminary teacher named Dietrich Bonheoffer said, “Only those who cry out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant.”

The statement was a response to the docile acquiescence of the German Church to the new order of National Socialism. In the mid 1930’s, as Adolf Hitler began to turn his long stated hatred of the Jews into a government policy of repression and eventual eradication, German Christians either cheered him on, or looked the other way. The Church ignored what was going on in the streets and neighborhoods of Germany. It turned inward, and became preoccupied with liturgical enrichment and the aesthetics of worship – hence, Bonheoffer’s reference to Gregorian chant, which had roots in early Jewish worship.

On November 9, 1938, now remembered as “Kristallnacht,” mobs incited by the Nazis burned over a thousand synagogues throughout the country. The next day, the local newspaper in the city of Gottingen declared, “We have seen how the temple of the vengeful god of the Jews has gone up in flames. In view of the most recent events, in our city too there must no longer be any remembrance of a race which has raged worse than the plague among the people of the earth.” Looking back, Bonheoffer said, “The church was silent where she should have cried out…she is guilty of the deaths of the weakest and most defenseless brothers of Jesus Christ.”

The Doctrine of Supercessionism
Much has been said about the complicity of Christians in the Nazi Holocaust – not just in Germany, but throughout the world – including in
the United States. For most, this was a complicity of inaction, since, as Eli Wiesel said a few weeks ago at a presidential event at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., the Holocaust could have been stopped. It was the complicity of an underlying discomfort with Judaism – often unrecognized and unacknowledged, but subtlety (and not so subtlety) expressed in Christian teaching and preaching.

The theological hinge of this underlying negative attitude toward Judaism is the doctrine of “Supersessionism.” This is the view that because the Jews rejected Jesus, God has rejected the Jews. The New Covenant has superseded the Old, and the Jews are forever under a curse. Reinforcing this negative outlook is a reading of the Apostle Paul’s doctrine of Grace that identifies Judaism with a purely legalistic salvation by works, contrasted with the saving gift of grace through Christ. (By contrast, modern scholarship recognizes that 1st century Jews regarded God’s covenant as an expression of grace, and obedience to the Law as a grateful response to God’s initiative.)

The decades since the Holocaust have seen a pervasive shift in Christian attitudes to Judaism. Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, and Mainline
Protestants almost universally acknowledge a sense of kinship with Judaism. Whereas a century ago, the term “Jewish” had negative overtones, today, Christians are eager to explore the Jewish roots of Christianity. It is an obvious but overlooked point,: Jesus was a Jew, as was Peter, and John, and Paul, and all the others. Christians are discovering that openness to Judaism enables them to draw closer to Jesus and better understand the Gospel. We are still working out the implications of this new attitude toward Judaism. All sorts of questions present themselves. How did things get so bad between Christians and Jews? What is the relationship between the Old Covenant and
the New? And where does Jesus fit in? Moreover, residual negative assumptions persist.

“I don’t like the angry vengeful God of the Old Testament. I believe in the loving God of Jesus.” So said a parishioner during an early morning Bible Study. He was not anti-Semitic; he had Jewish friends. His negative response to the Old Testament was more a reaction to fear-mongering revivalist preaching than to Judaism. Like many people who juxtapose the vengefulness of the Old Testament God with the loving God of Jesus, he did not recognize that he was giving voice to an ancient and enduring anti-Jewish prejudice. As we have seen, this was precisely the terminology used by the Nazi press on the day after Kristallnacht,and it can be traced back to the early Christian
heresy of Marcionism.

Marcion was a Christian priest who lived in Rome during the Second Century. He taught a doctrine of radical “dualism,” which posited two separate gods: the vengeful and evil God of the Old Testament and the loving Father of Jesus. Marcion was the first to develop a “canon” of scripture, or list of inspired books. He rejected the entire Old Testament, and most of the New Testament as too Jewish. Marcion’s Bible consisted only of the Epistles of Paul and an edited version of the Gospel of Luke.

In 144, the Church excommunicated Marcion and condemned his teaching. In rejecting Marcionism, the Church irrevocably affirmed its continuity with Judaism. This continuity of Apostolic Christianity with Judaism and the Old Testament became (and remains) a key mark of Christian orthodoxy that distinguishes it from various Pantheist (God is everything) and Gnostic (salvation through “inner knowledge”) heresies.

Despite the Christian affirmation of the Hebrew Scriptures as divinely inspired, the historical reality of two related but competing faith communities led to centuries of hostility. When Constantine the Great embraced Christianity in 313, competition gave way to the overt persecution of one by the other. It has only been since the Holocaust that this rift has begun to heal. As a result, Christians are able to hear the Scriptures in a new way, and rethink our connection to the people of Israel.

Messiah of Israel and Lord of the Church
The Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, taught in Germany before being deported by the Nazis in 1935. In the 1950’s, he addressed the place of Israel in God’s election.

“Jesus is the crucified Messiah of Israel. As such he is the authentic witness of the judgment that God takes upon Himself by choosing fellowship with man… Jesus Christ is also the risen Lord of the Church. As such He is the authentic witness of the mercy in which God in choosing man for fellowship with Himself turns toward him in His own glory….we cannot call the Jews the “rejected” and the church the “elected” community. The object of election is neither Israel for itself, not the Church for itself, but both together in their Unity….What is elected in Jesus Christ (His “Body”) is the community which has the two-fold form of Israel and the Church.”

Our Jewish friends obviously do not recognize Jesus as their Messiah – this is not a theology to bring to the next interfaith ministerial association meeting. This is a theology for a renewed understanding of Christian identity: Jesus is, first, the Jewish Messiah, and secondly, he is Lord of the Church. Hence Israel and the Church are inextricably connected.

God’s gifts and call are irrevocable
The Apostle Paul had said nothing less when he spoke of his “fellow Jews” and “kinsmen,” in the Epistle to the Romans. “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ.” (9:4-5)

Recognizing the tension between the Church and Synagogue, Paul admits “as regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” Then in an emphatic yet much overlooked statement, he declares, “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (11:28-29) The Covenant with Abraham still stands. The Jews remain God’s people.

Paul is convinced that the rift between Church and Synagogue is merely provisional. But it is also providential, since it provided the occasion for the Gospel to reach the Gentiles, thereby fulfilling, in Christ, Israel’s vocation to be a “Light to the nations.” As Paul says, “through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles.” (11:11)

For Paul that is not the end of the story. Paul anticipates a final coming together of Israel and Church – when God raises the dead! “If their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!...For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?” (11:12,15)

Few modern Jews will be persuaded by Barth or by Paul. In their view, to do so would be to abdicate their own Jewishness. The fact that we disagree, that we believe Jesus to be their Messiah while they do not, does not change the fact that we recognize our “kinship.” It does not alter the fact that God’s call is irrevocable, and that in God’s time God will gather the scattered tribes of the Lord.

The question inevitably arises: does this mean Jews can be saved simply by virtue of being Jews – apart from the death and resurrection of Jesus? Some liberal theologians suggest as much. I disagree. Jesus alone is the way to the Father. But as Karl Barth stresses, Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, just as he is our Lord. He is the fulfi llment of Jewish promise. If, like Abraham, the Jews hold fast to that promise, might God not accept that as a sort of faith in the One who fulfills that promise? We are not in a position decisively to answer this question – it is “above our pay grade.” But the example of Abraham suggests that we might reasonably hope, since “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3) And for the sake of the Lord whom we serve, we can come to love the Jews – who are, as Bonheoffer reminds us, “brothers [and sisters] of Jesus Christ.”

Published in the May 2012 issue of The Albany Episcopalian

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