In these days of US presidential debates, it’s interesting to reflect on Jewish-Christian debates and conversations over history and today.
Once upon a time, when a bishop summoned a Jew, the result was a disputation, a theological debate. The positions, claims and theses of the bishop or Christian theologian were not actually open to dispute. Questioning the validity of Christianity was impossible, “which because of its certainty cannot be subjected to debate,” according to the record of Ramban/Nachmanides’ disputation of 1263 in Barcelona.
In many cases the outcome and implications were pre-ordained – the Jew would lose and the Jewish community would suffer as a result. As recently as 1933, another great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, was able to invite a Protestant New Testament scholar to the Jewish Lehrhaus in Stutgart only to have Karl Ludwig Schmidt declare his Christian missionary goals at the outset.
I reflected on this history while peacefully driving home one night last week from the Swedish (Lutheran) Theological Institute, which had invited me to present my Israeli-Jewish critique of the Lutheran bishop’s recent book, in his presence.
Bishop Munib A. Younan has served as the leader of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land since 1998. Previously he was pastor to Lutheran congregations in his native Jerusalem, in Bet Jala and in Ramallah. To date, Bishop Younan has authored two collections of essays and speeches. The present work is entitled “Our Shared Witness: A Voice for Justice and Reconciliation.” The book includes essays about the life and work of Lutherans in the Holy Land, essays and speeches given over the last three years, and several sermons.
As the title suggests, reconciliation is a recurring theme in the bishop’s writing and preaching. He often speaks of “contextual” theology. His writing clearly displays his Jerusalem context in which he’s rubbed shoulders with Jews. Both Jews and Muslims, Judaism and Islam, are addressed in various essays. Christian-Muslim relations are discussed as the Bishop approvingly writes about “A Common Word between Us and You,” which is an open letter (PDF) from Muslim leaders to Christian leaders calling for peaceful relations.
In my critique of the book I was happy to acknowledge the bishop’s familiarity with Jews and Judaism. His use of Hebrew terminology is clearly comfortable. We find him mentioning hessed (lovingkindness), tzedaka (justice-charity), Torah, and the sage Hillel. He highlights the importance of dialog and mentions specific frameworks in which he’s met, conversed with and learned from Jews. I’m proud to have participated in many sessions of the “Jonah” group together with him and other Christian and Jewish religious leaders and teachers. In his own remarks, the Bishop lamented that only thanks to the catalytic effect of a conference in Sigtuna,Sweden, did he commence meetings with Muslims and Jews. The Swedes who convened this book launch can be justly gratified.
Sensitivity to Israelis and Israel is another theme found in the bishop’s writing. In Part 2, entitled “Messages of Reconciliation for a World of Division,” Younan writes with evenhandedness and recognition of Israelis’ concerns. He notes the “fear Israelis face because of ongoing violence” (p.81) and acknowledges the “growth of extremism among both Palestinians and Israelis” (p.100). True to the title of the section, he issues a call to “support Palestinians and Israelis working together for peace” (p. 101). Most importantly, he speaks of Palestinian Christian leaders who endorse nonviolence and support “teaching the Palestinian people to see the image of God in the Israeli people” (p. 102).
In a biographical aside, Younan describes “growing up four minutes from the Jews’ Western Wall” and speaks of Jerusalem as the “center of Jewish religious life” (p. 112). A passage on Jerusalem is summed up with the words “it seems obvious to me that peace will not reign in the City of Peace unless way is made for the three faiths and two peoples to share the city” (p. 113).
My greatest concern was how (and if) these words were heard by the local Arabic-speaking population. I was happy to hear that at the previous book launch, last week in Bethlehem, the book sold out.
Indeed, the word “shared” in Bishop Younan’s title is apposite. There is much that peace-loving Israeli Jews who see God’s image in Jew and Arab alike can share with this pastor’s words.