Jewish-Christian dialogue and the WCC

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Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, general secretary at the international conference of the International Council of Christians and Jews

Stati Uniti d'America       27/06/2005

Extract from the address by Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, general secretary at the international conference of the International Council of Christians and Jews, Chicago, 24-27 July 2005
The WCC was among the first, if not the first, major international non-state organization to recognize the State of Israel. It did so at its inaugural Assembly in Amsterdam, Holland, in 1948. That was in the context of recognizing the disorder of humankind in the face of God’s design for the world. A prayer says it in the following words: “Your design is the glory of a world reconciled to you and signed by the harmonies in all creation. We wait in hope for it still.” The WCC recognized the State of Israel in the context of a conviction that "to the Jews our God has bound us in a special solidarity linking our destinies together in His design. We call upon all our churches to make this concern their own".5 Although it is true that these words, dense with theological significance, were put in the chapter on a Christian approach to Jews, which did include the call to mission, they nevertheless put on record the inextricable link between Jews and Christians and indicated the need for Christians to seek with Jews reconciliation and healing of memories. The famous call to the WCC member churches remain a motto, which is still valid: “We call upon all the churches we represent to denounce anti-Semitism, no matter what its origin, as absolutely irreconcilable with the profession and practice of the Christian faith. Anti-Semitism is sin against God and man.”
The dialogue between Jews and Christians, as it has been furthered by the WCC, has taken the need for reconciliation very seriously indeed. Neither peace nor healing comes by easily. We know that peace is costly. We know that reconciliation is necessary before we can talk about healing. There is no shortcut. The goal of reconciliation, to bring about healing and wholeness to the fractured human community, may well be the greatest challenge that faces the religious traditions today. This is according to the WCC international conference on mission and evangelism, which was recently held in Athens. God has sent us into a fragmented and broken world. We are as Christians united in the belief that we are “called together in Christ to be reconciling and healing communities” knowing that all true healing comes from God.6 The fact that the Jewish people have suffered so much at Christian lands throughout history has made Christians painfully aware that the latter alone cannot decide on the proper day or time for healing to begin. The same would go for Africa. The world cannot decide when Africans should be gracious enough to magnanimously forgive the world centuries of humiliation, denigration, abuse, slave-trade and apartheid. It is still difficult for many of us difficult to read verses in our holy scriptures deprecating Africans. But we know that we must find a way that allows us to unlearn and to meet the other not as a racist but as a fellow human being. I have earlier hinted to the series of meetings between African Christians and Jews, now recorded in the book “Worlds of Memory and Wisdom - Encounters of Jews and African Christians” published at the same time in English, French and Hebrew. The book records a discussion on how we are to deal with our memories; whether one can allow oneself to forget in order to live; whether this would be the same as forgetting the crime which was committed. Is forgetting an act of humiliation in regard to those who died and those who survived and who want to know who killed their parent, child, relative or friend? How does one safeguard the memory while at the same time allowing room for pardon and forgiveness?
There is a risk with excessive retention of memory, where the past conditions the present. We come across it often in many of our discourses when we label today’s events using metaphors from yesterday. One must be wary of simplistic metaphors, dividing the world into good or evil in too facile a way. One must realize that there may come a time when one allows oneself to consciously discontinue remembering. One must realize that there is a relationship between memory and idolatry. When one becomes a slave to one’s memory, there is a risk of becoming idolatrous. This is a challenge also in peace-building: In the pursuit of peace, there is a danger in becoming overwhelmed by wrath and anger. Anger can become idolatry, when you lose sight of the living the face of the other. Is there a place for silence or the healing of memory through forgiveness and a letting go?
These questions, highlighted in a unique dialogue between Jews remembering the Holocaust and Africans remembering Rwanda, tell us something of the particular contribution Africans and Jews make to the Jewish-Christian dialogue. These dialogues teach us something about the risk of too easily falling into the categories of healing, forgetting the need for costly reconciliation. Reconciliation is an act that is necessary not only as an event of the past but as something that Jews and Christians need to embrace, in order not to fall prey to a simplistic use of metaphors.
The issue of the churches calling for divestment from companies that profit from conflict in Israel and Palestine, must be seen in this light. I know that this issue has been received as something utterly disturbing by many Jews. There is a risk and perhaps a temptation to fall into readily available metaphors, comparing the WCC Central Committee minute on divestment with a call for boycott of Jewish goods and Jewish persons as in Germany in the 1930s. I understand that one is tempted to look upon the minute as something directed against the very existence of the State of Israel. But the minute is explicit. The churches are to examine whether they are economically linked to illegal activities in occupied territories, beyond the internationally recognized borders of Israel. There may be those who fear that the minute on divestment is an act of antisemitism directed against all Jews. We can only re-state what we always have stated, “antisemitism is a sin against God and man (that is, the human person)” and that our member churches are to repudiate antisemitism and all forms of teaching of contempt. I would like to echo what my predecessor, Emilio Castro, once wrote to member churches: "There is a special obligation for Christians to make sure that antisemitism is combated wherever it appears...The Christian churches are still committed to look into their own traditions, where teachings of contempt for Jews and Judaism proved a spawning ground for the evil of antisemitism. This is why I appeal to Christians in countries where the spectre of antisemitism again haunts the Jewish people, not to fail in their resolve to take action against these acts of racism and to be available in human solidarity."7
Our concern is peace and justice for both Israelis and Palestinians. This is our vision and our prayer and our hope. We have in the last months come across Israeli Jews and Palestinian Christians and Muslims who have dared to go beyond their own communities in bold moves and prophetic action. They go beyond just talking about peace, they go beyond just loving peace, they fulfil the words of the Psalm, they “seek peace, and pursue it” (Psalm 34:9). In a certain way, they are making sure that reconciliation precedes our eagerness for healing. It is a long and arduous road.
It would be tragic for those who are suffering if the WCC minute on divestment is not recognized for precisely what it says and exactly what it is. It would also be a denial of our larger commitment from our respective faiths, as I have already mentioned, to attaining shalom, wholeness, including the payment of one's debts to others. Thus, on this delicate issue, I would like to do what I can to provide a safe space for listening to each other, and for discussing how and where we need to go. We cannot accept the impasse, if there is one, as the end of a renewal of the relationship between Jews and Christians that Rabbi James Rudin once called “the miracle of the 20th century.” The WCC knows that all has not yet been achieved, but we have come a long way.
The WCC has helped to advance the dialogue beyond the traditional scene of Jewish-Christian relations. Inviting Asian Christians to a dialogue with Jews opened up other agendas than the ones that so far had set the stage for the conversations: questions of the meaning of being a minority in a religiously plural world have enriched our conversation. Inviting African Christians to dialogue with Jews has not only provided the common reflection I have already alluded to: what are we to do with our experiences and memories of violence? Africa's specific contribution is the philosophy of ubuntu which, by embracing everything which makes us human, also emphasizes the link between the individual and the collective. Ubuntu provided the spiritual basis for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. It underlines the fact that, for reconciliation to be meaningful, it has to be costly because it involves restoring the sense of common humanity lost in actions of violence. It has also, through exposing Jewish understandings of the Hebrew scriptures, contributed to a necessary reaffirmation of African tradition and religion that Africans need in order to embrace with dignity and pride their destiny and future. The ongoing conversation between the ICCJ and the WCC helps us to assess our Christian self-understanding. The findings in Jewish-Christian dialogue are of vital importance for Christianity in a religiously plural world. These achievements are to be continued and expanded while we seek ways of together contributing to a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
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