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Jews and Christians Must Persevere in Lifting Their Voices in Dialogue

September 10, 2009 By:
Philip A. Cunningham
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Philip A. Cunningham

A few weeks ago, at its annual meeting in Berlin, the International Council of Christians and Jews issued a major assessment of the present state of Christian-Jewish relations. Titled "A Time for Recommitment: Building the New Relationship between Jews and Christians," the statement reviews the long, ambivalent history between both faith communities, commends the positive developments of the last six decades and outlines the work ahead in nurturing the new relationship.

Endorsed by representatives from 23 nations, it begins with 12 specific points that call upon Christians, then Jews, and finally, Muslims and members of other religious traditions to persevere in the work of interreligious reconciliation.

The new "Twelve Points of Berlin" recalls a 1947 document known as "Ten Points of Seelisberg," produced in the aftermath of the Holocaust in a small Swiss town during the "Emergency Conference on Anti-Semitism." Having studied the history of relations between Jews and Christians, conference participants were painfully aware that a perennial Christian "teaching of contempt" for Jews and Judaism had been exploited by the Nazis to horrific effect.

Determined to remedy such teachings, the Seelisberg group helped launch a new era in interfaith relations and contributed to the founding of the ICCJ, which today promotes Christian-Jewish dialogue in dozens of countries. Headquartered at the former home of Martin Buber in Heppenheim, Germany, the ICCJ has received major financial backing from the German government for many years.

It was fitting, therefore, that last month in Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel praised the achievements of the past 60 years of dialogue when she spoke at the ICCJ meeting:

"For a long time you have produced the evidence that fruitful dialogue involves critique, and that it is not the search for the lowest common denominator," noted Merkel. "Dialogue does not lead to a syncretism of religions of whatever sort. Dialogue is not idle chatter, but serious grappling with one another. In the process, your work transcends Christian-Jewish dialogue in the narrow sense, and for good reasons. Anti-Semitism, racism, hostility toward strangers, violence and contempt for democracy form an unholy alliance -- an alliance of contempt for human beings. What has been learned in Jewish-Christian dialogue is therefore also important for other endangered relationships between people."

"A Time for Recommitment" summarizes lessons learned during six decades of Jewish-Christian conversation, and emphasizes that those lessons might be helpful for other interfaith interactions.

It observes that profound interreligious conversation requires the ability to be self-critical, to recognize deep-seated patterns of thinking and prejudice, as well as a willingness to confront together the hurts and wounds of the past -- even at the cost of rethinking aspects of each community's self-understanding.

"We have learned that substantive dialogue requires an atmosphere of safety and trust and a respect for the religious integrity and distinctiveness of the other," the new document explains. "We are convinced that authentic dialogue never seeks to persuade the other of our own faith convictions, but rather to change one's own heart by understanding others on their own terms, to whatever degree possible."

Though the Christian-Jewish dialogue has done much to undo past suspicions, polemics and caricatures, the work of building a lasting rapport has only just begun. The inimical habits of almost 2,000 years are not unlearned in a mere six decades. As such, misunderstandings erupt on a regular basis; members of both communities sometimes seek to revive theologies of disdain or dismissal; and insensitivity can quickly reawaken old fears.

But today's Jews and Christians live in unprecedented times. We meet each other in a climate of openness that our ancestors could never imagine. We owe it to those past voices that were silenced by polemic, persecution and pogrom to persevere in lifting our voices in dialogue.

Philip A. Cunningham, Ph.D., is director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations of St. Joseph's University. As a vice president of the International Council of Christians and Jews, he guided the composition of its new statement, "A Time for Recommitment."

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