Presbyterian Church in Canada and the Jews- 2011 edition

Jews who follow interfaith are always asking: what are those Presbyterians saying today? Unlike Lutherans or Catholics in which there seems to be a clear course of reconciliation, Presbyterians are more hesitant, cautious, and less in common cause.
In 1987, the Presbyterian Church in US issued “A Theological Understanding of the Relationship Between Christians and Jews.” where following Catholics and the majority of mainline American Protestants they repudiated supersessionalism, antisemitism, and any condemnation of Judaism. But by 2004, Jews found the Church’s views on Israel/Palestine not to their liking

The Canadian Church recently issued a statement that reiterated the 1987 statement as understood by recent documents and discussions. They also affirmed their recognition of Israel, prided themselves over the role which Presbyterian countries played in offering Jews religious freedom, yet it concluded by calling for mission to the Jews and messianic synagogues.

A Presbyterian minister married to a Reform Jewish academic offers a full analysis as well as what he wished the document to have actually said.

The proposed statement does very well in making explicit certain Presbyterian beliefs, such as that Christians and Jews worship the same God, that both Jews and Gentiles are included in one covenant of grace which God makes with humankind, and “that Jews have not been supplanted or replaced by Christians” (A&P 2010, 355). The call for solidarity and dialogue and the common pursuit of peace and justice make extremely positive inclusions. The drafters of the statement have also made the important step of formally repudiating anti-Semitism while offering contrition for the church’s “complicity in the persecution, exclusion and expulsions of the Jews” (A&P 2010, 356).

Here are some selections from the document:

Statement of The Presbyterian Church in Canada on our Relationship with the Jewish People

In stating our relationship with the Jewish people we reaffirm a central tenet of our Reformed faith expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith, that there is one covenant of grace embracing Jews and Gentiles and therefore, not “two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations” (VII, 6).

Accordingly, we affirm that the Jewish people have a unique role in God’s economy of salvation and healing for our world. Jesus himself taught that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22) and the Apostle Paul stated: “to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, God who is over all be blessed forever. Amen” (Romans 9:4-5). The Jewish people have a pre-eminent place in God’s covenant, John Calvin finely said, for they are “the firstborn in God’s family.”

We affirm that God has graciously included Gentile Christians, rightly called “posthumous children of Abraham” (J. Calvin), by engrafting them into the one people of God established by God’s covenant with Abraham. This means that Jews have not been supplanted and replaced by Christians in the one covenant. As Paul teaches, God has not rejected or abandoned them: “I ask, then has God rejected his people? By no means!” (Romans 11:1).

We believe that both Christians and Jews worship and serve the One Living God.

We confess God’s grace, mercy and faithfulness in the miracle of Jewish survival and the continuing existence and witness of the Jewish people. We are grateful that the State of Israel is a place the Jewish people can call home and we express our commitment as The Presbyterian Church in Canada to their right to live in peace, both in the Middle East and throughout the world. We also commit ourselves to pray for the peace of Jerusalem so all the children of Abraham may freely worship and live in a place they call holy.

It is always good for us to confess our sins to God. We acknowledge with shame and penitence the Church’s long complicity in the persecution, exclusion and expulsions of the Jews through the “teaching of contempt”, beginning in the first centuries of the Christian era, gathering strength during the Crusades and culminating in the Shoah or Holocaust. As Christians we have failed to demonstrate to the Jewish community and to individual Jews that love which Jesus Christ commanded us to show. Of this lack of love and teaching of contempt and the attitudes and acts which proceeded from it, we humbly repent.

It is also, however, a matter of historical record that countries in which the Reformed tradition and its “one covenant of grace” theology took root have provided refuge for this persecuted people. The Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community has lived in the Netherlands (and Dutch colonies like Curacao) with full citizenship rights since the 17th century. There were no pogroms in Scotland. During the Puritan Commonwealth Jews were re-admitted to England and have flourished as a community both there and in what became the United States. We are thankful for Christians, of all traditions throughout the ages, who have stood in solidarity with Jews. We call upon our people to eschew the use of language and innuendo which may disparage, slander and harm Jews and we urge Christians to show solidarity with Jews when acts of hatred, such as the desecration of graves, synagogues and schools are perpetrated against them.

Both Christians and Jews look forward in hope to God’s full redemption which Christians believe will occur in the Second Advent when Jesus Christ returns, a hope which includes the Jews, for as Paul teaches in Romans 9-11, in Jesus Christ there will be an ingathering of people, whether of Jewish or Gentile background: “so all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26). The Presbyterian Church in Canada has sought to serve Jewish people in Canada in the name of our Lord through specific mission efforts in Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg. The most well known of those was the Christian Synagogue in Toronto which evolved into the Scott Mission. Finally we encourage our congregations and people to take the initiative and to reach out in friendship and hospitality to neighboring synagogues and Jewish people and where they can, to engage in Jewish Christian dialogue to promote better mutual understanding and to pursue and ensure the establishment of peace and justice and the good and betterment of the wider community. Read the full version here.

6 responses to “Presbyterian Church in Canada and the Jews- 2011 edition

  1. Thanks for the link–though I should offer a slight correction: I’m not a Rabbi, just a PhD who teaches in Theology/Religious Studies.

  2. Leaving aside the elephant in the room that the closing statement proclaiming their commitment to missionizing to Jews essentially totally undoes any openness and acceptance they may have tried to project to the Jewish community, in many ways, the published statement is superior to the proposed edits of the “Kippa and Collar” blog. It is quite clearly that a considerable source of of those edits is not so much a desire to be more accepting of Jews as it is really about being more – as in the blog’s tag line – Reform(ed).

    That said, the Presbiterians’ continuing commitment to missionizing to Jews is troubling. When a Christian missionizes Jews, even with the most peaceful and pleasant of intentions, he or she cannot escape the heavy weight of history linking him or her to the violent Inquisitors, Crusaders and other sundry Christian antisemites of the past. For the sake of continuing progress of interfaith work, and for the sake of a more peaceful, tolerant society, they should learn to be more reserved in this area.

    • Thank you for your comment, Arie, but would you mind sharing what in particular about the proposed (in my dreams) emendations to the statement makes it read as concentrating more on being Reformed than on openness? My attempt was to make the statement–which could never be more than a one-sided statement as it was never written by or addressed to anyone other than Canadian Presbyterians–more focused on acceptance of Jews as Jews and less focused on evangalism and upholding Reformed Christian identity at the expense of other faiths; if I’ve failed at that, I’d like to know exactly how, so I can do better.

      P.S. To anyone following the link to the final statement: the link takes you to the whole record of acts and proceedings of the 2011 General Assembly, which can be unwieldy for even the most dedicated Presbyterian. The final statement can be found starting on page 42.

  3. Let’s see. How about: deleting the word “homeland” when referring to Israel, leaving only “safe haven”? Israel is not just a safe haven and wasn’t created as a response to the Holocaust, it’s our historic home, whether we are her citizens or not and whether we live there or not.

    How about: adding “all the surrounding regions” to the Presbytarian commitment to pray for Jerusalem, which, while a noble addition, is really entirely out of place there, unless one wants to relativize the importance of Jerusalem for Jews?

    In a different vein, the proposed emendations also seek to push one particular view of how Christians should see Jews, namely as having an equally valid covenant. I am flattered. Of course I do believe in the validity of the Jewish covenant, but really, I never bother demanding that from Christians (I actually go around telling my audiences in interfaith meetings that I do not need external validation for my faith; I am sufficiently secure and truly trust Jewish tradition – that suffices for the validation of my path to salvation). The proposed emendation seems to me to come from a why can’t we all get along your religion is right my religion is right ecumenical mindset. That seems reformy to me, though not necessarily Jewish Reform, just reform / liberal.

    I am not sure what was meant with the emendation replacing “As Christians, and Jews we look forward in hope to God’s full redemption” with “As Christians, we share with Jews a hope in God’s full redemption,” but it surely seems to create additional commonality, ignoring the fact that there are some very significant differences in how Jews and Christians each imagine “God’s full redemption.” So this seems more of the same, see the immediately previous paragraph. The very last emendation, a closing statement, is similarly inspired by this kind of spirit, which more orthodox people of all faiths may formulate very differently.

    However, I very much appreciate the attempt to tone down the missionary zeal that seeps through that document, as well as the overt attempt to underline that Jews are every bit as much at home in Canada (and elsewhere) as Christians. And I similarly commend emendations that seek to explicitly include real proper non-misisonizing interfaith dialogue in the document.

  4. Thank you for the detailed response, Arie. (And I hope the moderator of the blog does not mind the discussion continuing.)

    On ‘homeland’ to ‘safe haven’, you make a very fair point. I thought the original (and, let’s face it, final) version of the document was basically suggesting that Jews do not belong anywhere but Israel, and this change was a reaction to that. It is a tough balance to strike, and I am open to other attempts at reaching it.

    As for praying for the regions surrounding Jerusalem, I’m afraid I can’t change that. Do we not want to pray for the peace of Hebron, Tiberias, and Tsfat, too? Aren’t they important for Jews, too? In my experience, Christians are very willing to pray for Jerusalem, but rarely for the rest of the country. But I need to be honest–this is not an issue I considered until my spouse challenged me to consider why Christians never seem to pray for any particular city in the region other than Jerusalem (and occasionally Bethlehem).

    With the declaration that the proposed emendations are ‘reformy’, I think we get to the core of the misunderstanding. The pun in our blog tagline, Reform(ed) refers to both Reform Judaism (my spouse) and Reformed (ie, Calvinist) Christianity (me); when you said that you thought my proposed emendations were aimed at making the document more Reformed, I thought you were accusing me of trying to impose an even stronger Christian framework into the document–I’m a lot happier to be accused of liberal ecumenism. I’m not sure that I would agree that this means simply declaring all religions are okay and hoping that means we can get along. I certainly do not believe that it is about requiring outside validation as if it is necessary for someone to judge the validity of your religion. That being said, the idea of Judaism being an equally valid covenant *is* a tenet of classic Calvinism, and one I would like my church to remember. This isn’t about giving you (or my spouse, or any other Jewish person) external validation–it’s about reminding Christians, at least those who come from roughly the same theological tradition that I do, what our own faith says about how to treat others.

    This moves on to the next point you raise, concerning the change from ‘Christians and Jews’ to ‘As Christians, we share with Jews’. To me it seemed that the original and eventually final reading suggested that the statement being made was a joint effort, when really it came only from Presbyterian theologians. I thought it disingenuous to make any inference that Christians can do anything other than state their own beliefs. I cannot imagine any real interfaith dialogue happening when one group assumes they speak for another, precisely because each group will define terms like ‘redemption’ differently. Thus, what I was trying to accomplish and what you read seem to be utterly opposite, which is more than a little disappointing. How would you suggest amending this passage to respect better the differences in understanding that actually exist?

    All in all, I am flattered by the time you take in reading emendations which went nowhere. Thank you for your comments; they are helpful as I look back over the whole issue. And I greatly appreciate the support you offer on the key point of not forgetting that Canadian Jews belong just as much as other Canadians, and for the call to real dialogue. Thank you so much for the conversation.

  5. With my teacher the blogmaster’s permission, I also hope we can continue this debate here (and I hope others will chime in).

    Thank you for the detailed answer, Mark. I will try to respond to the salient points.

    Your point about Jerusalem is interesting, and I would ask a few Presbyterians to chime in and say how they see what you wrote. Quite obviously I agree we should pray for the peace of all of Israel, and for the entire world. My worry is only that what is supposed to be a statement of support for Jews turns out to be hijacked for Middle East politics. But hey, if the target audience reads it like you do, then you will turn out to be right, and this discussion can then stand as some commentary on the wording.

    Your elaboration of how experience the word “reformy” should remind us – I guess – that, coming from different faiths, we each have our respective cultural baggages, and they are not always similar. I am more likely to be familiar with Reform Jewish concepts than with Presbyterian ones, and my antennas will sooner detect this intra-Jewish debates (though on many points, Reform philosophy has come quite a long way since the Pittsburgh Platform).

    Third point: critique well taken. Perhaps I may suggest: “As Christians, we look forward in hope to God’s full redemption – and we recognize that Jews, too, look forward to God’s redemption, within the framework of their faith and beliefs – …” though it does suffer from being too wordy. Let’s see what other commenters, or the eminent blogmaster, may suggest.

    Thank you, too, for the conversation, and do keep up the efforts to bring about more mutual respect in the world.

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