National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  September 19, 2003

Interfaith dialogue: beyond ‘tea and cookies’

Most experts in interreligious dialogue say that if relationships are to mature, they have to grow beyond the “tea and cookies” stage into the capacity to challenge one another. The problem is that issuing challenges tends to make people mad in a way that tea and cookies rarely do.

A clear example in Birmingham came with the summit’s last panel, composed of three rabbis: Marc Ellis and Michael Kogan of the United States and Dan Cohn-Sherbok of England. Up to that point, most participants had used their five-minute speaking blocks to outline how pluralism could be accepted from within their traditions.

Ellis, however, flung down a gauntlet.

He denounced what he called an “ecumenical deal” in Jewish-Christian dialogue, which in his opinion works like this: Jews agree to forgive mainline Christian churches for anti-Semitism, and in return Christians agree not to push Jews on Israel’s conduct in Palestine. Criticism of Israel is interpreted as a reversion to anti-Semitism. The end result, Ellis said, is that out of guilt over the Holocaust, Christians end up being silent on another historical crime.

One consequence of this “ecumenical deal,” Ellis said, is that Jewish dissenters (and he counts himself one of them) are frozen out of the dialogue. One example, he said, is that he had been asked in advance of the pluralism summit not to address the Palestinian problem.

“This deal is upheld by Jews such as Eli Wiesel and by mainstream Christian organizations such as the World Council of Churches,” Ellis said. “Some people in this room are among the architects of the deal.”

Sparks flew.

Kogan later said that had he known in advance the Palestinian problem would be on the table in Birmingham, he would not have come.

“Unless we’re also going to deal with the caste system in India, and the oppression of women in Arab states, and the problems of the American Indians, etc., to focus exclusively on the sins of Israel seems to many Jews to be scapegoating,” he said.

Kogan insisted on focus.

“We can’t get hijacked by social and political issues. This isn’t a deal, but a matter of what we choose to cover and not to cover.”

Interestingly, however, the most passionate reaction came from Christians.

Perry Schmidt-Leukel of the University of Glasgow argued that relationships across religious boundaries aren’t ready for the kind of “tough love” Ellis proposed.

“When it comes to interreligious criticism, historically it served only one purpose, which has been to denigrate the other and claim one’s own superiority,” Schmidt-Leukel said. “For now we should stay with the prophetic function of criticizing one’s own tradition. We might find forms of interreligious criticism after friendship develops.”

Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight asked aloud if the pluralist approach inherently implies bracketing some criticism in order to advance understanding.

Ellis wasn’t buying it.

“When you’re silent, you actually denigrate us,” he said. “It’s patronizing.”

Wesley Ariarajah, a former official of the World Council of Churches, largely agreed with Ellis.

“We dare not say there’s anything wrong for fear of being accused of anti-Semitism,” Ariarajah said. “The Jewish community is so well-organized to [curtail] dissent they don’t get the criticism they need to become a more mature religious community.”

Ariarajah said that as an Asian, he is frustrated that so much in the Jewish-Christian relationship pivots on 20th century European history, especially the Holocaust.

“We need a relationship between two mature communities, not so overburdened by European history. The dialogue has to relate to Christians in all parts of the world.”

Michael von Brück, a German Protestant theologian, said there are other “ecumenical deals.”

“Catholic dissenters accuse us Protestants of the same thing,” he said. “They complain that we dialogue only with the Roman Catholic hierarchy and freeze them out. In effect, they say that we Protestants are no longer protesting, and we should be ashamed.”

-- John L. Allen Jr.

National Catholic Reporter, September 19, 2003

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