Thursday, August 15, 2013

What Can Christians Learn from the Jews?

“Christianity . . . may be entering the equivalent of its own ‘Rabbinic Era’, a age marked less by direct revelation and less hierarchically controlled channels to God.  In this scheme, the lay people of God play a more influential role in discerning God’s purposes and carrying out divine mandates.”
Rabbi Irving Greenberg

            Rabbi Irving Greenberg is a pioneer in Jewish/Christian dialogue and has thought deeply about the brutally failed relationship between Christianity and Judaism.  That relationship has been undergoing a slow, cautious renaissance with many fits and starts in the aftermath of the murder of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis.   It became appallingly clear in the wake of the Shoah that Christian teachings of contempt for Jews and Judaism had at the very least rendered millions of Christians indifferent as their neighbors disappeared and at worst encouraged and enabled their slaughter.  Greenberg suggests that a chastened and more reflective Christianity could emerge from this tragedy—an outcome that would be good for both Jews and Christians.  But this would require Christians seriously rethinking their relationship with power.

            The seduction of Christianity by the imperial power of Rome in the aftermath of Constantine’s conversion is a common enough trope these days.  Some lay the blame for everything wrong in contemporary Christianity at the feet of the servile bishops of the imperial church.  Others contend Constantine’s influence is overstated or was, in fact, a good thing.  But there is no doubt that the Christian Church in the West (and in the East, for that matter) greatly benefited from the support of emperors and kings.  The benefit was mutual.  Rulers wanted a unified state and this was enhanced by a common religion.  So emperors as diverse as Constantine and Justinian weighed in on the Christological conflicts of their days.  The goal of such interventions was one God, one Lord, and one king or Emperor ruling over one people.  For centuries, in Europe at least, this was more or less the case.

            Now, however, it has become clear that the influence of the church in the west has been in decline for the last two centuries at least.  European countries have disenfranchised their state churches or marginalized their influence.  Even in the United States the moral and spiritual influence of the church has been compromised—in spite of the quadrennial orgy of civil religion we call the presidential election.  We have, as Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon famously said, lost our home field advantage. Realizing this, some religious leaders have been reduced to the equivalent of toddler-like temper tantrums to get attention.  This has, to say the least, been ineffective and more than a little embarrassing. 

            Greenberg suggests Christians pay attention to what happened to the Jews.  By the time the second temple was destroyed in 70 CE the Jews had been without real political power for more than a century.  The Torah, of course, had been and remained central to Jewish life and experience.  But the temple, its priesthood and rituals had long been a critical element of the glue that bound Jews together--whether they lived in the land itself or in the diaspora.  Following the disastrous rebellion the Jews were forced to rethink the nature of Judaism.  What did it mean to be a Jew when the temple was destroyed and the land was lost?  This was the burden of the “Rabbinic Era.”  The courage, foresight and genius of the ancient rabbis enabled the Jewish people to survive through centuries of powerlessness and oppression.  The rabbis were not priests.  They served no sacerdotal function. They were teachers and interpreters of Torah. They were men of prayer and learning, bearers an ancient and flexible tradition.  They served the community as a whole, not a church or even, for that matter, a synagogue.  Through them Jews inculcated a way of life, a culture, rooted in the very words of Moses and the prophets. 

            What have Christians done as their political and cultural power disappeared?  Roman Catholic leaders like John Paul II and Benedict the XVI marched into battle against the evil secular world and attempted by dint of their intellect, and in the case of John Paul II at least, their charisma to turn the tide.  In the United States the “religious right” has regularly and frantically denounced people and practices they deem contrary to Christian faith.  They appear incapable of recognizing the loss of political and social power and the realities of a diverse society.  And they have largely succeeded in making themselves and their views odious to a large number of American people.  The more liberal, mainline tradition dithers, unsure of its message and place in the world.  It too seems to cling to the old illusions of power and influence as the tide inexorably moves out.  Perhaps the “mega-churches” are the most obvious sign of Christian attempts to restore power and influence.  The massive complexes seem to shout, “See, we are still important!  We are still a big deal!”  All of this is the equivalent of running down the aisle of a train in the opposite direction it is travelling.

            As long as Christians were supported by the wider culture of Europe or the United States, the church was satisfied to “form” individual Christians, not a genuine community of faith and practice.  Among Evangelicals it seemed that a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” was enough.  Add to that a few significant do and don’ts (mostly don’ts and mostly associated with sex) and you’re good to go.  Mission was about converting individuals and producing places of worship, not forming communities and following the commands of Jesus.  Perhaps it is time, as Greenberg suggest, for Christians to move away from “hierarchies” and orthodoxies.  Perhaps it is time to move toward the formation of a people.  Christianity has a rich tradition to draw from.  Followers of Jesus are not without resources or examples of such communal formation.  But this will require church hierarchies and pastoral leaders letting go of their power.  It will require them permitting and even encouraging some of the messy realities of life with people in community.  It will require the church giving up on the Constantinian vision of one church, one emperor, controlled from the center.  And, perhaps most important, it will require paying attention to the actual teachings of Jesus and what he expected of a people committed to representing in their communal experience the presence of the kingdom.  The rabbis provided a way forward for the Jewish people.  Can they, perhaps ironically do the same for Christian