“We Christians cannot speak of the ‘promised land’ as an exclusive right for a privileged Jewish people. This promise was nullified by Christ. There is no longer a chosen people – all men and women of all countries have become the chosen people.” – Melkite Catholic Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros
“By stating that God’s Covenantal promise of land to the Jewish people, ‘was nullified by Christ’ and that ‘there is no longer a chosen people,’ Archbishop Bustros is effectively stating that Judaism should no longer exist. This represents the worst kind of anti-Judaism, bordering on anti-Semitism.” – ADL National Director Abraham Foxman
My most memorable Christmas Eve was spent underground. I won a drawing at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv for a coveted spot in the grotto in Bethlehem where Jesus is said to have been born, and at midnight a young priest appeared with several assistants and began conducting a Mass in Arabic, a language that no one in the group spoke. Surprise gave way to collective disappointment as we struggled to follow the Mass in the local language. After the service I discovered that the Syrian priest spoke fluent Italian, so I asked him why he had conducted the service in Arabic. His response was very revealing, and I can still quote it almost verbatim: “Lo faccio perché presto non ci saranno più cristiani arabi qui.” [“I do it because soon there won’t be any more Arab Christians here.”]
This young priest’s fears are apparently shared by Pope Benedict XVI, who convened this month’s “The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness,” a special synod of bishops at the Vatican. One of the world’s great rabbis, David Rosen, was invited to address the 185 bishops and the Pope, along with Shiite and Sunni leaders. The plight of Christians in Muslim-majority countries like Iraq, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia was analyzed and debated by the attendees. Apart from general expressions of sympathy for the Palestinian people, there was little mention of Israel during the meetings. At the conclusion of the conference the bishops issued a series of 44 “propositions” to the Pope for his consideration. The only one directly addressing Judaism states in part: “Reading the Old Testament and getting to know Jewish traditions lead to a better understanding of the Jewish religion. We reject anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism, while distinguishing between religion and politics.” So far, so good.
However, the synod also issued “A Message to the People of God,” which was not as well-received by some Jewish leaders. Section 8, which addresses Catholic-Jewish issues, starts with several great statements: “The same Scriptures unite us; the Old Testament, the Word of God is for both you [the Jews] and us…We believe in the promises of God and his covenant given to Abraham and to you. We believe that the Word of God is eternal.” Unfortunately, any goodwill generated by this reaffirmation of the Abrahamic covenant was considerably lessened by the inclusion of this subsequent statement: “Recourse to theological and biblical positions which use the Word of God to wrongly justify injustices is not acceptable.” [Although Jews may feel that they were the main targets of this injunction, I have a sneaking suspicion that Evangelical Christian Zionist theology was also in the bishops’ crosshairs]. After Archbishop Bustros made his above-referenced comments at a press conference announcing the synod’s official message, he was immediately criticized by officials from the Israeli Foreign Ministry (“a libel against the Jewish people and the State of Israel”) and several prominent Jewish organizations. An official papal decree responding to the synod’s message will be issued next year, but damage control will need to be done in the coming weeks and months by Catholic and Jewish leaders.
Now for a little perspective – and a few suggestions. I honestly think that outraged Jewish leaders are losing sight of the forest because they’re staring at one big Melkite tree. Let’s not forget that the Pope gathered dozens of mostly Arab Eastern Rite Catholic bishops for two weeks to discuss the Middle East. A prominent rabbi was invited to speak to them, direct criticism of Israel was kept to a minimum during the proceedings, a fairly pro-Jewish proposition made the final list submitted to the Pope, and the official message crafted by the bishops reaffirmed the Abrahamic covenant and acknowledged the needs of Israelis and Palestinians. Why should we expect the bishops’ final document to read as if it had been written by the Israeli Foreign Ministry? Given the ethnic and cultural backgrounds of the participants, I’d call the conference an overall victory. Sure, one bishop (out of 185) says something objectionable, but he does not represent the Vatican’s position. I’m sure that the Pope will not reference the archbishop’s statements in his official response next year.
That said, there are several steps that Jews can take to promote genuine understanding among Jews, Catholics, and other Christians. This tachles list has only one goal: to make more friends for Jews and Israel in the world.
1) The first step is not to overreact every time a Christian leader makes a statement that raises Jewish eyebrows. While issuing press releases and public letters may impress donors who expect immediate action from Jewish organizations, they make Jews seem insecure about their faith and their status in the religious world. Had the archbishop gone on to denounce Mormons in his press conference (a group familiar with persecution and criticism), I doubt very much that any Mormon group would have bothered to respond publicly. A few phone calls and meetings might be arranged behind the scenes, but it’s hard to imagine that any Mormon would lose sleep over the remarks of a single bishop of another faith. I realize that the Catholic-Jewish relationship is older and more complex, but the principle is the same. Jews need to look more confident and self-assured when they feel their religion is under attack.
2) In the specific case of the Catholic Church, it is very unwise to hold the Jewish-Catholic relationship hostage to every Catholic misstep, real or perceived. Demanding clarification from the Vatican because a lone bishop speaks at a press confidence seems rather unnecessary. The Vatican made a strategic decision decades ago to create a new relationship with the world’s Jews, and I think that its sincerity at this point should not be questioned. It may not always see things the way that Jews do, but that is the dynamic in any interfaith relationship. I am always disappointed to hear Jews publicly question the Vatican’s motives and sincerity whenever an issue like this arises. Once again, such actions make Jews seem insecure.
3) Catholic theology concerning Jews needs to be put in a greater Christian context. I clearly recall the response of Evangelical Pastor John Hagee, one of Israel’s greatest Christian supporters, to Rabbi David Woznica’s question about the fate of Jews after death. The pastor responded that he didn’t know, but he hoped that some special grace from God would be given to Jews so that they would not be sent to hell for their unbelief. He frankly admitted that this special grace does not appear anywhere in the New Testament. Well, if Jewish leaders can tolerate this belief, they should also welcome the post-Vatican II official Catholic pronouncements concerning Jews, which are more favorable to them than those espoused by many other Christian churches. [I am indebted to a senior Catholic official for taking the time to review these points with me]. Catholics officially believe that the vital Jewish covenantal relationship with God continues and has never been revoked. They also believe that salvation is only possible through Jesus Christ. Therefore, baptism is necessary for the salvation of Christians. However, the church is open to the possibility of an “encounter with Christ” at the moment of death or after death for non-Christians, allowing them to receive His grace. There should be nothing objectionable to Jews about a Christian church that that affirms the continuity of the Abrahamic covenant and holds open the possibility of a special dispensation of grace for them in the next life. That certainly sounds like Hageeism to me.
4) While I appreciate the support of Christian Zionists for Israel, their anti-Islam message turns off many people in the Middle East and elsewhere. There is no question in my mind that the archbishop’s comments were aimed squarely at Christian Zionists who hate Islam. I believe that Jews should encourage their Christian supporters to focus on supporting Israel, not denigrating Islam. Bigotry in the defense of Israel is no virtue.
There is one troubling issue that needs to be mentioned. I was disappointed to learn that the Italian edition of the anti-Israel Kairos Palestine Document was presented during the synod (albeit not as an official part of the proceedings) by the former Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. The current Latin Patriarch wrote the preface to the document. It represents a frontal assault on the legitimacy of Israel and the Jewish people, and educational programs must be created to inoculate both Christians and Jews against its distortions and half-truths. The original Kairos Document was written by anti-apartheid pastors in South Africa, and the Palestinian reincarnation is currently being used to persuade Catholics, mainline Protestants, the World Council of Churches, and liberal Christian groups to oppose Israel’s policies. [The Kairos Document is not endorsed by the Vatican].
I believe that the Jewish focus should always be inward, not outward, when it comes to refuting offensive statements. How many Jews, especially young ones, can articulate why the Abrahamic covenant is valid today or why Jews have a right to settle in Israel? I recall stumping two Jewish college students a few years ago by asking them why Jews had a privileged right to the land, given that Abraham was promised the land from the Nile to the Euphrates, almost all of which is currently occupied by the descendants of Ishmael, not Isaac. I also asked them why Ishmael was circumcised by Abraham if he was not part of the Abrahamic covenant. They had no idea how to respond. One of them finally admitted that he didn’t really believe in biblical stories, but felt that since Jews had always believed them, they had a connection to the Land of Israel. So a belief in fables entitles a people to land? He emitted a nervous laugh and I ended the interrogation. Truth be told, I wonder how many Jews are concerned about the archbishop’s remarks because they aren’t sure how to refute them in a convincing way.
By all informed accounts, the Catholic Church is in the “friend” column of the Jewish people. Nothing that happened at the recent synod should affect the special Jewish-Catholic relationship, a model for the religious world. It is my prayer that people of goodwill of both faiths will be able to address this and any future issues in a meaningful, sincere way that will increase respect for both Jews and the church.
I will be lecturing on Jewish themes in Mormon history and doctrine this Thursday, October 28 at 7:30 p.m. at the Santa Monica Stake Center (3400 Sawtelle Boulevard, Los Angeles). The lecture is free and the public is invited.
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