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Speaker says Christians must repent of their age-old mistreatment of Jews

March says church must change in this age of religious pluralism

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 alumni.

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 And third, he went on, Christians need to jettison the belief that the church has replaced, or superseded, God's covenant with Jews, and begin to rethink theology from a non-exclusivist, non-triumphalistic position.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 wrongly framed.

"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 new.

"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 lifetime.

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 antagonistic teachings.

"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 Jews.

"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."

Simple changes?

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 14?"

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 "hidden agendas."

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 military?

"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 holiday.

"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 glorified."

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.



GA actions ratified (or not) by  the presbyteries   

A number of the most important actions of the 219th General Assembly are now being sent to the presbyteries for their action, to confirm or reject them as amendments to the PC(USA) Book of Order.

We're providing resources to help inform the reflection and debate, along with updates on the voting.

Our three areas of primary interest are:

bullet Amendment 10-A, which would remove the current ban on lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender persons being considered as possible candidates for ordination as elder or ministers.

bullet Amendment 10-2, which would add the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions.

bullet Amendment 10-1, which would adopt the new Form of Government that was approved by the Assembly.

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Some blogs worth visiting

PVJ's Facebook page

Mitch Trigger, PVJ's Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!

You can post your own news and views, or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.


Voices of Sophia blog

Heather Reichgott, who has created this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:

After fifteen years of scholarship and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy, students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and thoughtful community.


John Harris’ Summit to Shore blogspot

Theological and philosophical reflections on everything between summit to shore, including kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology, politics, culture, travel, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood by a progressive New York City Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in Flushing, NY.


John Shuck’s Shuck and Jive

A Presbyterian minister, currently serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tenn., blogs about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and lightening up.


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