Monday, December 19, 2005

Family Dynamics: The Jews, Christians and God

By Michael Forrest

The issue of "the Jews" seems to be ever-present, doesn't it? How is it that this relatively miniscule group of people and their tiny country manage to persistently elicit such strong, visceral reactions, both pro and con, and to remain so firmly entrenched on the world stage? Is this just a coincidence? Or is it perhaps a sign of something else?

Lately, it seems that the Jews are drawing an increasing amount of attention, if that is possible. A recent article by Yitzchok Adlerstein addresses a case in point ("google" his name and mainline Protestantism). Although I do not agree with everything written in the article, I think it is at least accurate in relation to the unfortunate and increasing hostility of liberal, mainline Protestantism toward the Jews and Israeli Jews in particular. Of course, there are also many other groups and individuals with various animosities toward them as well. Perhaps these sad developments are caused largely by the Adversary prompting a classic "two for one" error as he is wont to do (encouraging an initial error which spawns a subsequent error in over-reaction to the initial error): absolute, unequivocal support of Israel as veritable angels in certain quarters igniting a converse reaction in other quarters which posits the Jews/Israel as quasi-demons, Christ-haters or the perpetrators of every kind of conceivable conspiracy. And it seems that either extreme disposition in regard to the Jews and/or Israel unites people who may have little else in common.

I believe we must strive not to over-react in either direction. We should reject either automatic, unequivocal approval or knee-jerk hostility and animosity toward the Jews and/or Israel. Unfortunately, I have seen both dressed up to appear as honest opinions formed by independent, objective scholarship and/or investigation when in reality it's just a matter of someone with a predisposition regurgitating back the work and opinion of a few others because those others are saying what that person already believes. In doing so, such individuals try to pass themselves off as authorities and experts. Then others pick up the same pseudo-research and scholarship and use it as well. Before long, a whole network of self-anointed "experts" and followers may find each other, really believing they have independently happened to reach the same conclusions. I've experienced a great deal of this battling in the pro-life movement, from abortion to homosexual "marriage". One can always find someone who has written a book or article that fits one's agenda and preconceptions, unfortunately. Of course, there are even those who make little pretense at fairness and objectivity, too. Those are at least easier to spot.

But in the particular case I mentioned first, I think it would be incredibly unfortunate if this negative disposition emanating from mainline Protestantism (anti-Jew, anti-Israel) infected Catholic circles in the same way that other liberal, mainline Protestant ideas have (liberal Scriptural exegesis, moral theology, ecclesiology, etc.). Sadly, I believe there is a disturbing amount of strong anti-Jewish, anti-Israel sentiment in many Traditionalist circles. As Catholics, we have a rich and balanced tradition from which to draw and it doesn't make sense to substitute a deficient counterfeit for the real thing.

In addition, while I certainly do not claim to be an expert or scholar on this issue (although I have done a fair amount of research and discussion on the topic) I disagree with the idea of what might be termed extreme, absolute supersession, i.e. that the Jews, as Jews, no longer play any role in God's design for man's salvation and that the Catholic Church has entirely and utterly replaced the role of the Jews in every way in regard to promises, eschatology, etc related to Israel. It seems to me that there is a typical, Catholic "both/and" going on here. The Church is certainly the "New Israel" in a very real sense (as both Scripture and the Fathers attest), and a Jew who becomes Catholic is more deeply and authentically Jewish than one who is not Catholic.

But the Jews, as Jews, also continue to be dear to God's heart "for the sake of their fathers" as St. Paul puts it in Romans 11. They are the "natural branches" irrespective of whether they become expressly Catholic, as St. Paul also makes clear in the same chapter. Gentiles are adopted, "wild branches" that are "grafted" into the tree and the Jews are the "natural" branches that were cut off, but who may be readily grafted back in (even more readily than we, the gentiles, the "wild branches", again Romans 11).

God still pursues "earthly Israel ", if I may use that phrase, in part because of their identity, their lineage. There is a special relationship, a history there that cannot be erased. Of course, there is no reason for gentile jealousy as this relationship is inferior (in the theological sense) to that of a baptized Catholic, but it is real and persistent, nonetheless. This relationship that "earthly Israel" has with God is, of course, a shadow of the ultimate relationship which is consummated in Catholic baptism, when the natural branch is grafted back onto the tree. The first covenant flows by birth and is exclusive to "earthly Israel", but the second is solely by adoption and is open to all, including earthly Israel. No one is "born a Catholic."

I do believe the Jews have a unique role to play, as Jews, in our day and age and in prophecy, including what I tend to believe will be an unusual conversion/restoration of some sort in the future, an occurrence that I believe St. Paul references (again, Romans 11 and many Fathers, saints, orthodox theologians, the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia and a Pope expressly refer to this. I have compiled many of these quotes in the past and have subsequently found a few more without expending great energy. I suspect such quotes could be multiplied).

For instance, Pope St. Gregory the Great saw in St. John's description of his and St. Peter's arrival at the tomb a foreshadowing of the restoration of the Jews (which flowed naturally from his understanding of Romans 11). St. John (representative of the Jews) ran ahead and reached the tomb first (as the Jews received the Gospel first), yet he did not enter first, rather, St. Peter (representative of the Gentiles) did. Subsequently, of course, the Pope notes that John did eventually enter. I also find it noteworthy that Pope St. Gregory the Great believed that Romans 11 referred to an unusual return of the Jews and treated this belief as common knowledge among Catholics, not some novel opinion at which he had arrived (both in his commentary on the Gospels and also the book of Job). There is much more, of course, but I would also note that I am not aware of a single direct denial or refutation of this belief from the Fathers or saints, which one would expect if it were not widely accepted as it is certainly far from an isolated view that could easily have been overlooked.

Of course, in balance, there is also reference by relatively fewer Fathers to the notion that Antichrist will be of Jewish extraction as well. However, if the second proposition is accepted (Jewish Antichrist), I believe there is even more evidence to support the first (some kind of unusual restoration of the Jews, beyond a trickle-remnant, to faith in Christ in the future). In my opinion, it would be illogical and odd to readily accept the second and reject the first, as a few do.

I find the very existence of the Jews as a distinct, recognizable people in spite of having no place to call "home" for almost 2,000 years nothing short of miraculous. No other people have maintained their identity under such incredibly adverse conditions. The others have been absorbed, annihilated or a combination of both. Of course, Hitler tried to annihilate them and failed in spite of what many believe to have been a demonically driven and orchestrated attempt. I cannot easily slough these things off as mere inconsequential coincidence and I have never been persuaded by those who do. By this, I am not at all suggesting that God has been uniformly pleased with the Jews and Israel and that their story is one of blessing alone over the past 2,000 years. Far from it. It seems to me there is only one thing that has remained constant through both blessing and curse: God's continuing concern for them as a people, as His first-born.

I would end by noting that any Catholic who decides to be hard on the Jews of today for not expressly accepting Christ ought to be even harder on Protestants if they are to be consistent. Yet this is most often not the case. The Protestants of today are far closer in time to the fathers of their schism than are the Jews to theirs. And while one might argue that at least Protestants "accept Christ", we may also counter the selective rigorist who holds the Jews to absolute, unyielding standards with the fact that rejection of the Church is also rejection of Christ (Luke 10:16 ). I would suggest we ought to give both groups the benefit of the doubt as a whole and assume basic good will combined with ignorance rather than an informed, bad will.

The only certain, consistent combination of full knowledge and bad will of which I am aware is at work in the spiritual realm, prowling the earth in search of human souls to devour. I'm reluctant to cede either group to him so fully and in such a black and white way. And through my experience in reaching out to our Jewish brothers (several of whom I have helped come to their own Messiah in the Catholic Church) I have never seen a single one brought to the fullness of the faith by the proposition that they were in league with Satan, Christ-haters or the like. In fact, I have found remarkable openness among today's Jews about Christ, especially if a relationship of respect and trust is first established. I believe this can be directly attributed to the widespread lowering of imprudent, heated and unproductive rhetoric over recent decades. Ditto for Protestants. We can certainly thank John Paul II for much of this.

Now, certainly, there are some individuals or groups in each camp that may require a harsher response at times (like the ADL or professional Protestant anti-Catholics like Jack Chick). But they are not nearly the majority in my opinion. And to begin posturing, accusing and negatively broad-brushing either group could threaten to destroy the very real progress that has been made. This would be a tragic development. Of course, I am in no way suggesting, as some do, that we remain silent about the truth of Catholicism in order to not offend, only that we use the wisdom, prudence, patience and discernment that naturally flows from authentic, Catholic charity in our evangelism.

This is not unlike my experience in the pro-life movement. There was a time when I tended to assume that all people really understood the issues very well, whether the issue was abortion or homosexual "marriage". And in my incorrect, self-righteous judgment, I lacked the patience and kindness necessary to reach those I might have. When I eventually learned that the majority of people on the wrong side of these issues only THINK they understand them in depth, I changed my approach. Don't misunderstand. Such people can still be amazingly stubborn and maddening. And as they become informed, they may yet purposely choose evil. But they may not. And by the grace of God, without giving an inch on the fundamentals, my passion has increasingly become compassion, and I have found that compassion is capable of bypassing barriers that passion can only crash against in futility.

My prayer is that God will rid all of us, Traditionalist and non-Traditionalist alike, of the pride that hardens our hearts and makes them unwilling to bleed and suffer for every soul He desires, whether Jewish or Gentile. Until then, I pray we continue to do the best we can with what we have and humbly trust in His ability to do great things with even the most flawed work when trustingly placed in His hands.