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Christians and Jews building connections

Lutheran college professor offers insights

Gustavus Adolphus religion professor Darrell Jodock explains the difference between “justification” and “sanctification” to students. Jodock, an expert in Jewish-Christian relations, will retire in June. Photo provided by Gustavus Adolphus College

Lutherans have had a long history with the Jewish community, much of it not particularly commendable. In Minneapolis, arguably the nation’s “most Lutheran” city, anti-semitism was so prevalent at one point during the past century that Jewish families moved to places like St. Louis Park to escape intolerant neighbors. It took a principled mayor, Hubert Humphrey (not a Lutheran), to confront the problem head-on.

Why have Lutherans not done so well relating to the Jewish community — and how might the climate be improved between these two faith groups?

A soon-to-retire college professor has been working on this question for much of his academic career. Gustavus Adolphus College religion professor Darrell Jodock, who also specializes in Lutheran identity issues in colleges of the church, has had an interest in Jewish-Christian relationships for decades.

Jodock agreed to an interview on this topic. Contributing writer Michael Sherer asked the questions for Metro Lutheran. Here’s what Jodock had to say.

Metro Lutheran: What led you to have an interest in Jewish-Protestant relationships?

Darrell Jodock: I did not have contact with any Jews while I was growing up, and virtually none in college or seminary. My first contact with Jews occurred during graduate school, but this was incidental. Although I had done some studying of the Holocaust before moving to Muhlenberg College [an ELCA school in Allentown, Pennsylvania] in 1978, it was there that my interest took root and grew. Four things happened. (1) About 15-20 percent of Muhlenberg students were Jewish, and my teaching assignment included an introductory course on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. There were always a significant number of Jewish students in that class. So, without any background in the subject, I needed to teach Judaism to Jews. I enlisted the help of area rabbis, came to know them, and started to learn more myself. (2) Only a few days after I arrived, one of those rabbis proposed a course in the Holocaust. After some conversation, he and I decided to team-teach the course during the spring semester. We continued to offer it each year. He became a significant mentor, helping me understand Judaism. (3) About 5,000 Jews lived near the college. Churches in the area had a history of events aimed at Jewish-Christian dialogue. I was soon invited to speak at some of them. (4) Eventually, with the help of others, I started an Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding. In 2009 it celebrated its 20th anniversary.

Some Lutherans seem surprised to learn that Jesus and his disciples were Jewish. Does that surprise you?

No. And I do not remember being surprised by it. I’m not sure why.

There was clearly some serious conflict between Jews and Christians in the first century CE. It shows up in polemical ways in some of the Gospels, notably John. How should a Lutheran Christian in the 21st century deal with these texts?

Lutheran Christians should be reminded that those texts refer to “some Jews” (more specifically the Temple leaders who were considered by many Jews of that day not to be legitimate priests since they did not come from the priestly line), just as they need to be reminded that the references to the Pharisees should be understood as “some Pharisees” (there were two competing schools, and Jesus more often disagreed with one school than with the other). The Gospel of John was written down after the synagogues who accepted Jesus as the Messiah began to split from those who did not. By this point, this distinction between those Jews who opposed Jesus and those who did not had lost its importance.

On a slightly more general level, some teaching needs to occur to help Christians recognize the significance of 70 AD (the destruction of the Temple). The situation after 70 AD (when at least three of the Gospels were written) is quite different from the situation in Jesus’ day. What had been two groups within Judaism (those in one group were the Jewish Christians) now become two separate groups, with all the pain associated with such a divorce.

What are the reasons, as you see them, for the difficulty Christians have relating to Jews in positive ways? Is xenophobia at work, or is something else going on?

There are several reasons. Among them are:

* The legacy of Europe, where the Jews were guests of the prince in societies that were organized as “Christendom” (a social arrangement where everyone is expected to be Christian and Christian values are given a privileged position — legally and otherwise). Socially, Jews were “the other.” They were given the jobs no one else wanted. Many of the resulting social attitudes were brought from Europe to the U.S. Jews first came to the Colonies in 1656, and the U.S. Constitution forbids government support for any one religion, and yet many American Christians still assume that this is a “Christian nation.” In other words they perpetuate “Christendom.” And this makes Jews “outsiders.”

* Christians tend to find Jews troubling, because Jews do not accept Christian claims about Jesus and do not read the Old Testament prophecies the same way Christians have traditionally done. In other words, they look at the same materials and yet come to different conclusions. On some deep level this raises anxiety. Jews wonder, are Christians missing something? If the Jews are right, are Christians wrong? Sometimes this causes Christians to want to show that Jews are wrong (not just uninformed, but wrong). It’s hard to have positive relations with a group that arouses Christian anxieties about their own beliefs.

* As already indicated, Christians can find in their Scriptures negative judgments about Jews (as in John 8). This seems to authorize any pre-existing reluctance to develop positive relations.

Martin Luther said some unfortunate things about Jews. The ELCA has recently apologized for this, although other U.S. Lutherans have not. Do U.S. Lutherans have more work to do in building bridges to the Jewish community? What should be on the agenda for the near term?

I think there is a lot of education that needs to occur on the local level. This should be our priority for the near future.

Simultaneously, Christian thinkers need to develop ways of speaking that overcome those formulations that cast Jews in negative ways and articulate Christianity in ways more respectful of Jews and Judaism. (Just as we’ve learned to preach Reformation sermons without bashing the Catholics, so we need to learn to preach sermons on the Gospel readings that do not bash the Pharisees, the ancestors of rabbinic Judaism.)

Some have argued that the Jews in Israel today seem to have historical amnesia because they treat Arabs the way the Germans treated Jews in the 1930s. Is there any merit in this argument?

No. The situations are too dissimilar.

A corollary to the above question might be this one: When Israelis say, “If you oppose our policies, you’re anti-semitic;” critics respond, “Israel and the Jewish community are not the same thing.” Who’s right?

One needs to be careful here. Because Jewish identity places a high value on the land as one of God’s promises to Abraham, it is easy for Jews to feel that some criticisms of Israel deny significant parts of their identity. However, were I to choose between the two options presented, I would say that those who distinguish between the policies of Israel and the Jewish community are relatively more right. There clearly are many American Jews (to say nothing of Israelis themselves) who are critical of Israeli policies while at the same time feeling very connected to Israel. And Christians with a track record of good relations with Jews can criticize the policies of Israel without being accused of anti-Semitism.

The difficulty is that there are two “black and white” narratives—one pro-Palestinian and the other pro-Israel. Each side would like American Christians to endorse its narrative. In my opinion, Christians should be a “third voice,” recognizing the grievances, anxieties, and pain of both sides and working constructively for peace, while not becoming a spokesperson for either narrative.

Why do you think it is that during the 1930s the Lutherans in Germany were so complicit in the infamous “final solution”?

First off, the “final solution” was not put into place until 1941. That’s when the “Einsatzgruppen” began their work and the first death camp was opened. Much of what happened in the 1930s was aimed at expulsion — forcing the Jews to leave. By 1939 roughly two-thirds of the Jews in Germany itself had left. The problem was that many of them got swept back into Nazi control when the surrounding countries were conquered.

But, back to your question:

* Some Lutherans were complicit because the Nazis were so good at co-opting various segments of society. The Nazis used vague terms, such as “positive Christianity,” which gave the impression they were supportive of the traditional Protestant Church. Christians were led to believe that they would be allowed to retain their traditional privileges. Moreover, the Concordat between the Pope and Hitler in 1933 seemed to signal that Roman Catholics would be allowed to practice without interference.

* What is very worrisome to me (when we compare then to now) is that too many Germans had only a superficial understanding of Christianity. They thus did not notice how familiar terminology was being used for quite different purposes. I say this is worrisome, because evidence seems to suggest a similar decrease in any understanding of Christianity within our own society.

* Many of the most active German Christians (though clearly not all) were deeply imbued with the traditional anti-Judaism, which had developed over centuries. Even some of those who came to oppose the Nazis were affected by this outlook, which said that Judaism was a “dead religion,” a “fossil from the past.”

* Many Lutherans had been taught a defective version of the “two kingdoms.” It said that things political should be left to the state and not be the concern of the church.

* The more entrenched Nazism became, the more difficult/dangerous it was to oppose it. Many lacked the moral courage to do so. Instead, they compartmentalized their lives, “doing their job” according to one set of standards, and living the rest of their lives according to another.

* Lutherans who served in World War I were not immune to the brutalization of trench warfare and chemical warfare.

* Many Germans, including Lutherans, experienced the 1920s as a time of growing chaos. Severe economic hardships occurred. The government set up by the Allies after World War I seemed incapable of responding. The Nazi promise of order and jobs was hard to resist.

Because of the Nazi experience do Lutherans have any sort of special obligation toward the Jewish community, such as perhaps going the extra mile toward building understanding, collegiality and respect?

Yes. But I would add that the Lutheran tradition also has the resources to make this possible. I’m thinking, for example, of its recognition that the church is always in need of reform, its recognition that our insight is always limited (theology of the cross), its recognition that the justified are also always sinful, and Luther’s strong emphasis on God active in the world (on God’s ongoing creation).

In your conversations with Jewish scholars and other leaders of that faith community, what is one significant discovery you’ve made or insight you’ve gained?

The most significant discovery is a deeper insight into our calling to be “co-creators,” co-responsible with God for the care of the world. The Jewish image of “mending the world” is a wonderful way to express some of what’s found in a Lutheran understanding of vocation, only to do it in a far more corporate way.

What can the Jewish community teach Lutherans today?

* a new appreciation of Scriptural passages that deal with God’s desire for shalom in the world and our calling to foster it.

* a deeper appreciation for the power of story.

* a deeper appreciation of the importance of deliberation within the community of faith.

* a reminder that our behavior does matter. It affects others, and it matters a great deal whether it is better or worse, even if it is never perfect. In other words, morality matters.

* a reminder of the importance of a long-range perspective and a sense of humor about ourselves.

* an open-ness to challenging God (as did Abraham and Moses).

* a sensitivity to what it feels like to be non-Christian in America.

What can Lutherans teach the Jewish community?

I do not think I’m the best one to answer this. It should come from a Jew, not from me. However, I’ll try on some possibilities anyway:

* that theology matters.

* that it is possible to re-think one’s tradition without losing it.

* that humans can be channels of God’s forgiveness, just as they can be channels of God’s goodness, compassion, and justice.

* I very much hope that Lutherans can be trustworthy enough partners that Jews will find it possible to cooperate in matters of justice and shalom.

What else do you think readers of Metro Lutheran should understand about Jewish-Christian relationships, and more specifically Jewish-Lutheran relationships?

* that one implication of the Lutheran message of God’s undeserved grace is that we do not need to be defensive. Our security rests in a gift, not our own doing. So we can listen and learn, without having to settle every question in advance.

* that a deeper understanding of Jews and Judaism can enrich one’s understanding of and appreciation for one’s own Christian faith.

* that fostering healthy Jewish-Lutheran relations is part of our calling, our vocation.

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