Speaker says Christians must repent of
their age-old mistreatment of Jews
March says church must change in this age of
by Alexa Smith, Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE -- 8-March-2001 -- While calling on
Christians to repent of their mistreatment and misrepresentation of
Jews, the A.B. Rhodes Professor of Old Testament at Louisville
Presbyterian Theological Seminary (LPTS) suggested a few of the first
steps toward change -- not the least of which is adopting a new attitude
toward other religions, just beginning with Judaism.
The Rev. W. Eugene March, who has taught Hebrew Bible
at LPTS since 1982, delivered a series of three addresses during this
year's annual Caldwell Lectures, part of the seminary's "Festival
of Theology." The series was titled, "Joining With Jews in
Repairing the World: A Next Step for Christians in Repentance."
March urged Christians -- specifically, Presbyterian
Christians -- to articulate a God-centered theology that is not rooted
in divine exclusivity, and to look for ways to join with Jews to form a
better relationship and a better world.
In Hebrew, the term, Tikkum Olam, meaning
"the repair of the world," sums it up aptly, March said,
drawing on a concept from Jewish mystical tradition that aims at
gathering together sparks of the divine light that was shattered in
creation and scattered throughout the world.
"God calls us to the task of spreading good news
of love, healing, shalom. In carrying out our mission, we must see that
we are not the only ones God has called to such tasks. Jews have been at
work at the task far longer than we. Perhaps now we have a new
opportunity to challenge old ways, to indicate our sincere desire to
work alongside of Jews (and others) whom God has made our sisters and
brothers," March told a semi-full chapel of seminary faculty and
The way to begin?
For Christians, repentance is essential, March said.
Also, the Bible must be read with fresh eyes,
contextualizing the sections that have "poisoned" Christians'
understanding of and relationships with Jews, he said. And third, he
went on, Christians need to jettison the belief that the church has
replaced, or superseded, God's covenant with Jews, and begin to rethink
theology from a non-exclusivist, non-triumphalistic position.
Finally, March said, Christians need to engage in
dialogue and common action with Jews, and with people of other faiths,
so that so that each community may reach deeper self-understandings and
a new grasp of how God works redemption.
March couldn't have chosen a more timely topic.
Since last summer, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has
been mired in a controversy about whether
non-followers of Jesus may or may not be saved.
The debate began after a Presbyterian clergyman, the
keynote speaker at the denomination's peacemaking conference, suggested
that God may reach non-Christians in other ways. Eventually, 21 church
sessions and one presbytery called for one of the church's top governing
bodies to discipline the Rev. Dirk Ficca,
who is director of the Chicago-based Parliament of the World's Religions
-- an action that the General Assembly Council has said it has no
authority to do.
At least two conservative churches have threatened
judicial action against the council itself for allowing the speaker's
remarks to go unchecked -- because Ficca's remarks drew fire from some
evangelicals within the denomination who believe that giving credibility
to other religions denigrates the Lordship of Christ.
March, however, said the whole question is being
"Certainly all the commotion testifies to the
climate of uncertainty and defensiveness that pervades the PC(USA)
today," he said. "The question folk should be asking is not
whether humans have more than one way to God. It is rather, 'Does God
have more than one way to humans?' Good Reformed Christians can only
answer the latter question by saying, 'The sovereign God may do
whatsoever the sovereign God desires,'" he said.
March emphasized that Ficca didn't say anything
"We are in a context now of religious pluralism,
and our theology needs to be reconsidered in that light," said
March, who added that, if it is heretical to give God such leeway, then
that makes the famous German theologian Karl Barth a heretic too.
Insisting that Scripture portrays God as one who has
made commitments to both Christians and Jews, March said, it doesn't say
much about other people.
"What hints we do get suggest that God both cares
for and has the ability to work with people quite removed from Jews or
Christians," March said, adding that God works repentance among the
Ninevites; relates to Job, who is an Edomite; and even speaks through
the donkey belonging to a non-Israelite called Balaam.
"God does require of us exclusive allegiance, but
that does not automatically define or limit God's relationship to
others," he 'said. "We simply do not know how God relates to
that theoretical person all alone on an island who has never had any
opportunity to learn of God.
"But why should we think for a minute that God
does not redemptively love such a person, hypothetical or real?"
Affirming that, for Christians, Jesus Christ is Lord
and Savior and that fact is central to faith and practice, March said
Christology needs to be refashioned by a reconsideration of the nature
and character of God. After all, he said, Jesus taught little, if
anything, not already found in the Jewish tradition; he was very much a
Jew, reflecting the thought and practice of his community during his
Where March wants pastors, religious educators and
pew-sitters to begin that reconsideration is with the Bible --
specifically the texts that have been read historically as anti-Jewish,
including parts of Luke, John and Hebrews.
Jews, too, he said, have some accounting to do for
"The church does stand in a saving relation to
the covenanting God, but not as the only covenant partner. The church
must recognize with humility its particular mission without denigrating
or denying the reality of other 'missions' given to other people in
other places, or the validity of their relationship with God,"
March said, describing the sobering and saddening reality of Christian
intolerance and evangelistic zeal, most particularly in relation to
"It is not ours to do the work of the Jew, but it
is ours to participate as part of the larger human family in doing in
our share. ... It is time for us to turn to the positive task of
Tikkun Olam, to work in every way possible to assist in the work of
restoring God's world to its proper order in anticipation of the
Messianic era when all will be accomplished."
March said that calling the Bible of the Jews the Old
Testament is offensive to some Jews and misleading to Christians,
because the word "old" culturally often signifies something at
the end of its usefulness. He suggests calling it the First Testament or
the Primary Testament or the Earlier Testament. Jews themselves use the
acronym, Tanakh, to refer to the Torah, Prophets and Writings.
"We stand under the authority and cherish
Scriptures which emerged before Jesus and after Jesus," he said.
"It is incumbent upon us to find proper language that acknowledges
this fact without directly or indirectly suggesting that our claim on
the Scriptures supersedes or denies the legitimacy of the claim Jews
rightly make." said March.
March also proposed using the terms C.E. or B.C.E.,
for Common Era and Before the Common Era to refer to time after and
before Jesus. It signals to Jews, he said, that we do live in a Common
Era with them, and that there was a time -- before the Christian faith
community existed -- that is important in the story of God.
March said, too, that failing to change the order of
Scripture readings sends parishioners an unexpressed message that the
value of the texts is implicit in the ordering in which it is presented
-- and the New Testament is often read last.
On a more complicated level, March said there are ways
in which Scriptures can be properly put in context.
For instance, not all Jews wanted a militaristic
Messiah, which is what ministers often preach, particularly at Easter.
Only some did; so it is appropriate to use qualifiers. Often, when
Scripture mentions "the Jews," he said, the term
"Judeans" would be better because it recognizes the contrast
between Jews from Judea and those from Galilee, who were divided on
their support of Jesus. Other texts simply represent the antagonism that
developed between the synagogue and the church by the end of the first
century -- and that simply needs to be said.
March came down hard on the Christian tendency to
absolutize certain texts as doctrinal statements of Jesus, while
contextualizing others. John 14, he said, "is one of the most
blatantly misused texts," in which Jesus tells His disciples,
"I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father
except through me."
"The context in which these words were spoken
does not suggest that Jesus was making a declaration about or against
people of other faiths," March said. "People of other
religious traditions were not on the horizon. In the context of John,
Jesus was talking with some of his Jewish followers about discipleship
and what it would mean to be a follower of Jesus."
March lamented that the text is often used as a test
for orthodoxy, and that misplaced zeal around it has been the cause of
deep damage inflicted by Christians upon Muslims and Jews.
"It should be noted," he said, "that we
have not felt it equally necessary to absolutize or universalize other
words of Jesus. For instance, all the Presbyterians I know definitely
want to contextualize Jesus' word to the rich, young ruler: 'Go, sell
all you have and give it to the poor.' This word certainly cannot apply
to everyone in all times and places!
"Why, then, do we not contextualize John
Wrapping up his series, March urged congregations to
get involved with Jewish congregations -- or, if that isn't possible, to
study Judaism itself. March said it is up to pastors to make the first
overture, because rabbis may be uncertain as to motives and to
He said seminaries, too, need to hire non-Christian
faculty in order to broaden the conversation.
"Each group holds stereotypes and is generally
quite misinformed. Few people have had the opportunity to sit with a
person of another faith and really talk about belief and practice,"
said March, remarking that topics for dialogue are limitless: What is
Sukkoth, the Feast of Booths, really about? Why do you call "Good
Friday" good? Why do Jews get disturbed about the doctrine of the
Trinity? How can Christians possibly claim to truly worship only one
God? How can Christians be so sympathetic toward Palestinian terrorists?
How can Jews justify the harsh treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli
"Once you know a person of a different faith well
enough to get beyond the superficial and sentimental level," March
said, "profound changes in perception about oneself as well as the
other begin to take place." He said the Presbyterian document,
"A Theological Understanding of the Relationship Between Christians
and Jews," adopted by the 1987 General Assembly, may be a good
place to start.
Relationship, he said, must not stop with dialogue,
but move into action -- in projects advocating peace and justice within
a community or in tackling more controversial issues, such as the death
penalty, or religion in the public schools.
Christians may need to demonstrate respect, for
example, by not scheduling a school Homecoming dance on a major Jewish
"Dialogue and common action provide a major path
along which we may travel together. With Jews, if they are willing, we
may seek to refashion our understanding of ourselves and those of other
faiths," he said, adding that it is an opportunity to better define
common commitments and to reach new understandings of how God works in
redemption "for others as well as ourselves. Tikkun Olam
is a profoundly important task with far reaching implications."
March, one of the authors of the 1987 General Assembly
paper, concluded with a reading of its final paragraphs.
"Both Christians and Jews are called to wait and
to hope in God. While we wait, Jews and Christians are called to the
service of God in the world. However that service may differ, the
vocation of each shares at least these common elements: striving to
realize the word of the prophets, an attempt to remain sensitive to the
dimension of the holy, an effort to encourage the life of the mind, and
a ceaseless activity in the cause of justice and peace. These are far
more than ordinary requirements of our common humanity; they are
elements of our common election by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,
and Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah," he read.
"Precisely because our election is not to
privilege but to service, Christians and Jews are obligated to act
together in these things. By so doing, we faithfully live out our
partnership in waiting. By so doing, we believe that God is
March's individual lectures were titled,
"Refashioning Our Understanding and Use of the Bible,"
"Moving Beyond Supersessionism: Let's Sing a New Song," and
"Educating Through Dialog and Common Action."
March, who is widely known for his adult Bible lessons
published in The Presbyterian Outlook, has long been involved in
interfaith dialogue. He is the author of Israel and the Politics of
Land, published by Westminster/John Knox Press in 1994; the
commentary on Haggai in the New Interpreter's Bible, 1996; and
the just-released revision of A. B. Rhodes' 1964 book, The Mighty
Acts of God, from Geneva Press.