Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Openness of the Presbyterian Church

The Presbyterian Church has released an open letter to its "American Jewish Interfaith Partners." It contains a lovely series of platitudes, but not much else. Seriously, please tell me if you see anything in there that is remotely substantive. I've read it three times and I've got nothing. "Nor does this [resolution] indicate any desire for the PC(USA) to walk away from our deeply held, multilateral Jewish-Christian relationships." I have no doubt that's true, but that does not tell us whether these "deeply held" relationships will yield any productive fruit. "The assembly's action came about through much prayer and discernment." I don't know what "discernment" means in this context, but suffice to say deep thoughts can still be wrong thoughts. I'd wager that much of the Church's history has been spent taking action regarding Jews that is the product of "much prayer and discernment"; the products of said action have an exceptionally ugly history.

For me, at least, what is missing here is any sense of introspection by the Church -- any sense that the products of continued interfaith engagement with the Jewish community may require the Church to act differently than it would like to if left to its own devices. The Church, to borrow from a Christian theologian, desires "cheap grace" -- it wants absolution from Jews without having to give up anything in return. But why should I give them such dispensation? As best I can tell, the offer on the table is that the Church wants to communicate with Jews, so long as the results of that communication do not require the Church to take any action it would not have otherwise done in the absence of the Jewish voice. That means nothing to me. It does address the root of the harm and it does not acknowledge the nature of the sin.

I've thought quite a bit about what it would take to bring the Church "back into Communion", if you will, assuming that they don't rescind the resolution (which they won't). The answer for me has actually been rather straightforward: Condemn "Zionism Unsettled" as an anti-Semitic document. Don't just "disavow" it as not an "official" Church document -- "Hop on Pop" is not an official Church document. "Zionism Unsettled" is representative of a particular Christian worldview vis-a-vis Jews that is deeply oppressive and problematic, and one that (though not always expressed so starkly) has a deep influence on how Christians understand the Jewish experience. The critical question is whether Christians acknowledge that the Jewish vantage point may require painful reassessments of some deeply held commitments. There is no reason that Christians should expect or are entitled to a reconciliation with Jews that is "self-bestowed":
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man’ will gladly go and self all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
Christian reckoning with "Zionism Unsettled" requires that they acknowledge the reality of anti-Semitism in their own community and how that inevitably colors their instincts when they elect to speak on Jewish affairs. Recall that the divestment resolution passed by 7 votes. The resolution disavowing (which is to say, stating that the document "does not represent the views" of the PCUSA) "Zionism Unsettled" received eight negative votes in Committee. In a very real sense, it is the people who do believe in the validity of "Zionism Unsettled" and do believe it should reflect Church policy, that gave this resolution its margin of victory. Will they "pluck out the eye which causes [them] to stumble"? Plucking out eyes hurts, or so I imagine. It is not fun, to be sure. It is costly. Grace, in contexts such as the historical oppression of Jews by Christian, should be costly.

As noted in my last post, a (if not the) key question regarding the entire Presbyterian participation in this debate is why anyone -- Jewish or Christian -- should believe that the voice of institutional Christianity is a credible contributor on questions of normative values in general and Jewish experience in particular. Historically speaking, there is no reason to believe they are and will continue to be anything but terrible at this, in large part because the warp and woof of institutional Christianity thought and practice has been suffused with anti-Semitic ideology from top to bottom. Deconstructing (unsettling?) those foundations is a critical step in demonstrating that the Church recognizes there may be something internal to themselves that requires a change. In order for me, at least, to find talking to the PCUSA valuable, I need to know that they recognize these basic facts about themselves, their history, and their relationship to the Jewish people -- a legacy of prejudice and oppression that renders them deeply suspect (to say the least) as partners.

The Church wants cheap grace. It will not get it. If it wants to speak to Jews, it needs to first reckon with itself.

UPDATE: This op-ed by Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor of the World Union for Progressive Judaism really puts an exclamation point on the above. I'm not exactly one to put a ton of stock in musty position papers sitting in a drawer, but I admit I assumed the PCUSA had one somewhere. That it, apparently alone amongst major Christian denominations, has never undertaken a formalized inquiry into their relationship with Judaism and how their own ideologies may be implicated by historical and theological Christian anti-Semitism is amazing. That really should have been Step 0 before undertaking a move like this.

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