Many Christians aren’t quite sure what to do with the Jews. On the one hand, we share part of the Jewish Scripture and part of the Jewish history in such a way that they have become our Scripture and our history.
Thus, we gratefully admit an enormous debt to Jews and Judaism. On the other hand, we struggle to interpret the Jewish “no” to Jesus. And despite two millennia of restating its case–sometimes with a ferocity that now haunts the Christian memory–Christianity has not persuaded the Jews to embrace the claims of the gospel.
Christians’ solution to this double-mindedness has habitually been (1) to usurp the Jewish history of the Bible, while (2) castigating the Jews as “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, forever opposing the Holy Spirit,” to quote Stephen’s judgment in Acts 7. Neither of these habits, however, serves Jesus’ followers very well as an action of Christian discipleship. The first is a violation of the 8th commandment; the second is a violation of the 9th.
Instead, Baptists need to dialogue with Jews as a matter of Christian discipleship. Or, to state the matter more self-servingly, Baptists should dialogue with Jews and Judaism because dialogue teaches us how to be more authentically Christian.
In the first place, dialogue compels us to live forwardly.
Religion is notoriously retrospective, drawing much of its identity and mission from looking backwards–back to sacred writings, back to sacred figures, back to sacred happenings. But the Jewish-Christian past is marred by caricatures, slanders, and the inevitable violence that accompanies such animosity. For Jewish-Christian relations, the past may be our teacher but it need not be our model.
Discipleship, however, is eschatological; it is forward-living. Dialogue, too, is forward-living as it attempts to recalibrate our religion not according to the past but toward inhabiting a sacred future. Dialogue creates a future for Christians and Jews that our respective pasts simply cannot envision.
In the second place, dialogue reminds us that discipleship requires humility.
When we choose to dialogue with Jews and Judaism, we set aside two competing, less humble approaches: Apologetics (convincing Christians we’re right!) and Proselytizing (convincing Jews we’re right!).
Both are inadequate because, lacking humility, they cannot muster the honesty to affirm that Judaism speaks a compelling testimony about the God we both witness. Without humility in our conversations with Jews, we may have information sharing, we may have well-stated defenses of positions, we will certainly have stereotypes and misconceptions, but we will not have dialogue. Yet only dialogue truly serves our commitment to discipleship.
In the last place, dialogue teaches us that religious difference is not failure.
Jews and Christians understand that theological compromise or reconciliation is unacceptable, even undesirable. This is an admission that strengthens, not weakens, the participants and the process.
No one wants watered-down Judaism or watered-down Christianity, just to make them look more alike. Jews and Christians do indeed worship the same God and ascribe authority to shared writings, but we also understand God’s redemption and revelation in starkly different terms.
This is difference, not failure! Dialogue that looks squarely at these disagreements and addresses them honestly will help each religion become more robust in understanding its own unique insights into this common God we serve.
Christian discipleship, in its essence, is about becoming new. But to become something new, we must cease, in some ways, to be something old. And that, in all of its historical implications, is the promise of Jewish-Christian dialogue for Christian discipleship.
Daniel Goodman is associate professor of New Testament at Gardner-Webb Divinity School.
This column first appeared in the June 2004 issue of The Baptist Studies Bulletin, published by The Center for Baptist Studies at Mercer University. It is used here with permission.