Bradley Burston Perhaps We Killed Christ After All

What would it take for some of the top U.S. Jewish organizations to collectively express 'deep distress' over the actions of the largest American Presbyterian denomination?

Bradley Burston
Haaretz Correspondent
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Bradley Burston
Haaretz Correspondent

It's been some time since the actions of a mainstream Christian church were so deeply offensive as to be able to bring Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform Jewish leaders closer together.

But you have to hand it to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In publishing a church document whose expressed purpose was to promote Presbyterian vigilance against anti-Jewish bias, it has done just that.

What would it take for a dozen of the most prominent U.S. Jewish organizations to state collectively that they were "deeply distressed" and "profoundly hurt" by the actions of the largest Presbyterian denomination in America?

What would it take for Jewish leaders who believed that their years of painstaking dialogue with the Presbyterians had finally resulted in mutual understanding, only to sense in shock that they had been stabbed in the back, betrayed by a quietly rewritten church position paper that now smacked of understanding for depictions of the Jew and the Israeli as Christ killer?

What it would take is this: An official church text which acknowledged Presbyterian expressions of anti-Jewish sentiment, released in May to warm praise by leading U.S. Jews, was quietly and without explanation withdrawn, deleted, and replaced this month with a document that a broad coalition of major Jewish groups then publicly denounced as "infused with the very bias that the original statement condemned."

The new text, lurching to a curious and condescending finale, maintains moral neutrality in the face of suggestions by some Christians, that if the Jews may not have killed Christ some 2000 years ago, they may be doing so now.

When Christian liberation theology considers "a situation of oppression in which the oppressing power is a state that is Jewish, with a population and leadership predominantly made up of Jews," the revised report reads, "Christians suffering oppression at the hands of the Jewish state, its army or its citizens, identify with Jesus in his suffering.

"Sometimes Palestinian Christians liken their experience to the passion of Jesus, or describe themselves as being crucified as Jesus was crucified," the text continues. "The implication of such descriptions is that the state of Israel and its policies are the crucifying power."

What does the paper view as the problem here? "Such a characterization of the situation is inevitably construed by most Jews as an echo of the classic anti-Jewish accusation that all Jews everywhere are guilty of killing Christ."

Leaving alone the issue of whether these Jews have misconstrued the characterization, the statement begs a second question: If not all Jews everywhere are guilty of killing Christ, are some Jews somewhere, in fact, to blame?

We read further. "For Jews this is terrifying, because the narrative of the passion and crucifixion has been used as a theological basis for the ghettoization, denigration, and killing of Jews for nearly twenty centuries."

Still no definitive word on whether we killed Christ, then or now. But that remains beside the point. This situation, it turns out, poses a dilemma for the church.

"As Presbyterians, we have a very difficult but very important differentiation to make. On the one hand, we are called to support the efforts of Palestinian Christians to speak theologically about what is happening to them at the hands of Israel and as a result of its policies. At the same time, we are also called to discern echoes of, and to confess our own complicity in, the historic condemnation of Jews as 'Christ-killers,' and to eschew any such anti-Jewish teaching."

Therein the answer. A tie. No decision.

This week, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is holding its General Assembly in San Jose, California, The church, facing eroding membership and "disaffiliation" of some of its 10,000 congregations, as well as theological rifts over gay ordination and the true nature of Jesus as lord and savior, will have little time to spend on relations with the Jews.

A committee on peacemaking did take one step, narrowly defeating a resolution which called for a temporary suspension of U.S. military aid to Israel "because of documented atrocities committed against Palestinians."

But after the delegates head back home this weekend, they might take a moment to consider that there is a difference between seeking peace and seeking punishment for the perceived guilty party. They might consider that there are many of us here in Israel who despise the occupation and are working for justice for Palestinians, and even so, would like to see a church secure enough in its teachings to be able to do without the Jewish Christ killer.

They might look again, as the original church document did, at the exclusive assignment of blame on Israel, the characterization of the nation's actions as the single evil at the root of the conflict, and how that impacts on peacemaking. "Many Presbyterians have become aware," the old text stated, in a passage missing in the new one, "that strains of an old anti-Jewish tradition are present in the way we ourselves sometimes speak" regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Or they might just consider that there are not one, but two peace-loving peoples in the Holy Land. And that both peoples, not one, should be held accountable for the violence they cause. And that the theme of the San Jose conference, "Do justice, Love kindness, Walk humbly with your God," suggests that church doctrine, once revised, can be revised again.



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