Common purpose could relieve the faithful of a fearsome legacy

After the Evil
February 6, 2004

In this illuminating and sympathetic volume, Richard Harries, bishop of Oxford, wrestles with the religious issues raised by the events of the Nazi era. As a child he went to the pictures where the Pathe News recorded the prisoners of Belsen being released. Such memories form the backdrop for this theological reflection on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity.

According to Harries, the Christian church has been responsible for centuries of anti-Jewish sentiment. From the 2nd century to the 20th, Christian leaders accused the Jews of being Christ-killers. The Temple, they believed, was made desolate and the Jewish nation was sent into exile because of the Jewish rejection of Christ. Such a theological outlook was reflected in legislation against the Jewish nation, which was perceived as depraved.

This fearsome legacy, Harries believes, obliges the Christian community to reconsider the past and see whether, while retaining Christian identity, it is possible to say something theologically affirming about the Jewish nation. Rejecting previous teaching about Christian supercessionism, Harries argues that God is the source of all that is, seen and unseen. The creator, he asserts, is characterised by hesed , loving-kindness.

For Harries, the primal covenant is therefore between God and humanity.

Within this, there are different voices, including Judaism and Christianity. Christianity brings something new into the world, participation in the life of God through Jesus Christ, but this does not mean that the Christian faith supersedes Judaism. Rather, both live in dialectical relationship with one another. The God in whom Christians believe is not just a god for Christians; the God in whom Jews believe is not just a god for Jews. Both traditions affirm God as the creator of heaven and earth with a purpose for every human being.

Given such a perspective, it is inappropriate for Christians to seek to convert Jews. Instead, the Christian community should support the Jewish people in the practice of their own religion. Mission should be understood as acting with justice and holiness, bearing witness to God's truth.

Harries cites Donald Coggan, the former archbishop of Canterbury: "I see two hands, grasped in a common task with Christian saying to Jew, and Jew replying to Christian: 'We have passed from hatred and to tolerance, from tolerance to dialogue. Now, together, we go - in obedience to a common mission - to fulfil a shared task given to us by God.'"

Today, Harries states, it would be inappropriate for Christians to pray for Jews to embrace Christ. This would betray the vision of God's covenant with humankind. To pray for their conversion would be to ask God to make them forsake what is most fundamental to their identity. Instead, Christians should give thanks for the faithful witness of the Jewish people down the ages despite centuries of suffering. Honest dialogue between Jews and Christians should involve sharing one's deepest convictions as well as bringing into the Jewish-Christian encounter those beliefs and practices that differ from those of the dialogue partner.

The purpose of God, envisaged by Harries, is to create a universal society characterised by mutual care that draws on the depth of love within God. To fulfil this purpose, God, he argues, chose the Jew, whose communal life was to be a sign of what God intends for humanity. Jesus came as a personal focus of God's purpose, to reconstitute human society under the loving wisdom of the Father. Jews and Christians can therefore work together to realise their shared hope for the world in which both communities are called to be a light to the nations.

Such a positive assessment of Judaism and a rejection of conversionary activities will be welcomed by the Jewish community. Yet, many Christians will be puzzled by Harries' notion of God's universal covenant with the human race. The implication of his position is that, not only is it misguided to evangelise Jews, but all proselytising of adherents of the other religions should cease. Given that God has revealed himself to humanity in different ways, there is no need for the faithful of other religions to accept Christ. Such a stance seems inconsistent with Jesus'

insistence that his followers "go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28:l9)

Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok is professor of Judaism, University of Wales, Lampeter.

After the Evil: Christianity and Judaism in the Shadow of the Holocaust

Author - Richard Harries
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 239
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 19 926313 2

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