July/August 2005 Newsletter
Association of Contemporary Church Historians
(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)
John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia
I take the liberty of sending you this month a paper I recently read to a meeting of the Commission internationale d’histoire ecclesiastique comparée in Sydney, Australia.
Missions to Israel: The rise and fall of Protestant missions to the Jews, 1800-2000
University of British Columbia
Mission is fundamental to the life of the Christian Church. But the earliest and longest continuous Christian mission – that towards the Jewish people – has undeniably been one of only limited success, and more often has been marked by frustration and failure. These were the sentiments which by the fourth century had led to the polemical anti-Judaism of the ancient church fathers like Chrysostom. More ominously these animosities promoted the kind of hostility, social and political as well as theological, which characterized Christian attitudes towards Jews for so many centuries. Nor did the Reformation bring about a significant alteration. As the example of Luther shows, mediaeval anti-Judaism could easily be carried over into Protestantism.
We therefore need to find some additional factors which led to the surprising re-invigoration of missions towards Israel at the end of the eighteenth century, despite the accumulated evidence that Jews were ready to suffer persecutions, expulsions and martyrdom rather than desert their historic faith. The first factor was the remarkable revival of the Protestant prophetic tradition, beginning with the English Puritans of the seventeenth century, and the German Pietists of the eighteenth century, which coalesced into the notable evangelical impetus, through the growth of missionary societies, in the nineteenth.
Interest in mission to the Jews can in part be traced to that branch of Protestant thought which took literally the biblical prophecies concerning the restoration of Jews to Israel and their conversion. Thereby they rejected the doctrine, prevalent since the time of Augustine, that the Church had superseded the Jews as the Chosen People of God. Calvinist preachers in particular honoured the Old Testament, named their children with Jewish biblical names, and in so doing dissociated themselves from all mediaeval i.e. Catholic anti-judaic antagonisms.
In the ranks of the growing Pietist movement in Germany in the eighteenth century, the influence of Philip Jakob Spener was considerable. His belief in the need for the conversion of the Jews was linked to his millenarian expectations, which in turn were taken up by others, for example, in England by the group of Protestant non-conformists who adopted a similar theology.
These Calvinist-indoctrinated groups defined the Jews as heirs of ancient Israel whose return to their homeland in Palestine had long been prophesized as a prelude to the return of the Messiah. This eschatological train of thought was undoubtedly greatly reinforced by the traumatic political events associated with the French Revolution. Many earnest Protestants came to believe that what was happening before their eyes was the apocalyptic sequence of events prophesized so long ago. Dispensationalists placed the Jews in the centre of Christian hopes for the end time. Their desire was also to save individual members of the Jewish people from dying in unbelief. Such eschatological hopes, however, would be much expedited by promoting the return of all Jews to their promised land, since their role was to be a blessing to the nations, whose conversion would be the prelude to the final end of the world. 1)
The institutional embodiment of these ideas was the establishment of the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews, later the Church Mission to the Jews, in 1809. It was part of the great expansion of missionary endeavours launched in these decades, when British and later American evangelicals took advantage of newly-developed technologies to promote their missionary vision world-wide.
As men’s geographical horizons expanded, so did their religious ambitions. The notable and successful campaign against the slave trade being organized during these years was, as is well known, sponsored by the evangelical church party in Britain Its ability to mobilize the enthusiasm, organizational skills and often the heroic self-sacrifice of its individual supporters became a model for all nineteenth century missionary endeavours. In reaching out to the Jews, however, it is notable that few British evangelicals were equipped for this task. For several decades the first recruits for the Church’s Mission to the Jews were all drawn from German Pietist ranks. In the initial stages, the majority of those targeted for this mission were in Europe. In the 1820s and 1830s, together with parallel societies established in Berlin, the Rhineland, Saxony and Detmold, mission stations were established in eastern Europe as well as in trading centres where Jews were settled such as Constantinople, Aleppo, Beirut, Baghdad and Cochin. The distribution of tracts in English, Hebrew and German reached astonishing totals.
At the same time, secular developments leading to the emancipation of the Jews in many parts of Europe encouraged some Christian authorities to believe that Jews would now be willing to embrace the theological insights of the majority culture. With the opening of the ghetto gates, the last remnants of the Middle Ages would vanish. It was a unique opportunity for the presentation of the advantages of the Christian faith.
These great ambitions and exalted claims were most clearly spelt out in the project launched in the 1830s for collaboration between the Prussian monarch, Frederick William IV, and the British government, along with the Church of England, to set up a jointly-managed episcopal see in Jerusalem, specially to convert the Jews resident there. 2) The endorsation by these two major Protestant powers of their belief in the restoration of Israel was a triumphant vindication of the ideas of the London Society’s members, led by the prominent evangelical Lord Shaftesbury. The appointment in 1841 of the first bishop. Michael Alexander, a former Prussian citizen of Jewish origin and now ordained in the Church of England, seemed to symbolize the mission’s international and interfaith character. As one commentator remarked: “The prospect of a Jewish successor for Saint James was an entrancing one. It would demonstrate both the respect with which the House of Israel should be treated by Christains and the opportunities in the Church open to converts” 3)
This assertion of a British presence in Palestine, which was nominally if corruptly ruled by the Ottoman Empire, was strongly promoted by Shaftesbury as a part of his zealous pursuit of what was to be known as Christian Zionism. Certainly these endeavours were motivated by the desire to show compassion for the sufferings of the Jews, to promote their welfare in Palestine and to demonstrate a spirit of Christian love and kindness, which would be markedly different from the contempt of earlier centuries. But at the same time, the millenial hopes for the conversion of the world beginning in Jerusalem played a significant role. In Shaftesbury’s view, this could best happen under the umbrella of British protection.
Inevitably, however, political circumstances in both Europe and Palestine came to affect such lofty ideals and the fortunes of this new Mission. By the 1850s the romantic notion that Britain could lead the cause of the restoration of God’s ancient people to the land of their forebears was being actively disputed by both Catholic France and Orthodox Russia in quarrels which played a role in causing the outbreak of the Crimean War. The conflation of religious and political considerations was, not for the last time, to prove both contentious and troubling for those seeking to bring the Kingdom of God nearer to hand.
The restoration project launched by these evangelicals was based on modern hopes and ancient promises. But by the middle of the nineteenth century, its momentum diminished. Certainly the major drawback was the reluctance and indeed obstruction of the Jewish authorities to participate in a Christian venture, however much they looked forward to a return next year to Jerusalem. In Palestine itself, the resident Jewish population proved determined to preserve its own identity. The Church’s Mission to the Jews was always peripheral, and the new Jerusalem bishopric became increasingly more involved instead with providing services to the Arab population, almost totally neglected and badly in need of health and education.
By comparison with other aspects of the European missionary expansion, the Missions to Israel had a narrower range. They could not boast of large-scale successes, nor could they be seen as part of the civilizing process of Europe’s widening empires. But, upheld by the stricter Calvinists’ belief in the election of the Jews to be God’s chosen people, and prompted by their millenarian expectations, the supporters of the mission expanded their mission stations and indeed received remarkably large donations for this purpose.
But few Jews, or Moslems, were converted to Christianity. The failure of the joint bishopric in the 1880s, due to nationalist pressures, only led to the conclusion that the evangelical impulse was better pursued by the individual missionary societies. In essence, however, the Christian presence in Israel became preoccupied with its own affairs, or catered to the ever-growing number of tourists. Mission to the Jews had to contend with the indifference of the majority Christians in the Holy Land, as indeed elsewhere. Indeed, in many countries, the object of missionary activity was as much to encourage warmth of Christian feelings towards the Jews as to promote Jewish faith in Christ.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the rise of Zionism as a political movement designed to attract Jews back to their former homeland, the overthrow in 1917 of Turkish rule, and the subsequent establishment of the British Mandate, opened a new chapter for Jewish missions. Reactions were mixed. Some of the missionaries welcomed Zionism for its idealism and purposeful resolve, and supported the revival of Jewish culture and society in Palestine. But others deplored the fact that the moral tone of Zionism was explicitly secular and even atheist. But even here, fervent evangelicals thought they might find a divine purpose. The decay of traditional Jewish faith and observance would surely create a spiritual vacuum which Hebrew Christianity would eventually fulfill. To read the inter-war reports of Jewish missions is to encounter a mood in which excitement and frustration mingled. There was undeniably a good deal of self-deception. Even those who claimed there was an increasing demand for the New Testament among the new settlers in Palestine could hardly deny that the growth of Hebrew Christianity was minuscule. Its limited success was almost entirely dependent on outside support and promotion. And worse was to follow. In Europe, the fatal rise of antisemitic hatred and violence, particularly in Russia, Poland and Germany was only infrequently opposed by mainline Christians. In Nazi Germany, its racist overtones blended with and were even supported by earnest Protestants and Catholics alike.
The professional missionaries to the Jews were early on alerted to the dangers of such bigotry. It made their efforts even more difficult, if not impossible. Their sympathy, arising out of eschatology and revivalism, was clearly not enough to protect Jews from Christian antisemitic zealots So too they were dismayed to find that many church authorities, especially in Germany, displayed an increasingly hostile attitude. Some of these church leaders even ceased to see the mission to the Jews as necessary or even justifiable. As one correspondent lamented as early as 1914: “When will the Judenmission at last cease to be the Cinderella of the Evangelical Church and the preserve of a tiny minority of pious Christians?” 4)
For their part the missionaries did what they could to engage their church opponents in a propaganda campaign to emphasize the positive values in Judaism. But they were handicapped by their inability to leave behind the attitudes of paternalism, superiority and supersessionism which effectively denied Judaism any future. This was the stance adopted by Germany’s most noted Protestant scholar in the late nineteenth century, Professor Adolf von Harnack, whose verdict was that Judaism was a “fossilized relic” destined to be replaced by the more progressive liberal Protestantism – a view which he widely propagated among the German middle classes.
Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and the immediate implementation of sharp antisemitic measures placed the German missionary societies in extreme jeopardy. Their principal purpose directly contradicted the Nazis’ aim to make Germany judenrein. And though some Nazis approved of their desire to restore Jews to Palestine, their motives were entirely at cross purposes. Already at the end of the 1920s, the pro-Nazi faction in the German Evangelical Church – the so-called “German Christians” – openly called for repudiation of missions to the Jews, whom they regarded as a “profound danger for our racial and ethnic identity”. These churchmen welcomed the Nazis’ discriminatory legislation, and are not known to have raised any protests against the Nazi antisemitic fanaticism From 1933 on each and every appeal or utterance from the Judenmission was liable to misrepresentation or censure. The German Jewish Mission societies were faced, on the one hand, with the strident demands of the “German Christians” for the removal of all Jewish influences from German Protestantism, the excision of the Old Testament, the refusal of baptism for Jews, the expulsion of all “non-aryan” ministers and the so-called “purification” of all Church texts, hymnals and prayer books. 5)
On the other hand, the new government was quick to demonstrate its still more forcible hostility. Already by 1935 the Central Society for Jewish Missions (Zentralverein) and the Cologne Society of Friends of Israel were closed down by the Gestapo. A few months later the Leipzig Society dissolved itself. On Crystal Night in November 1938, the Berlin Society’s premises were ransacked. And in January 1941 the Gestapo ordered this mission to be dissolved, prohibited its activities and confiscated its property and bank accounts. Abandoned by its parent church, the Mission’s 130 years of witness was extinguished as an unwanted survival from the past, unfit for any place in the Nazi totalitarian and racist state.
To be sure, the minority of German Evangelicals who formed the Confessing Church vigorously upheld the right of Jews to join the church through baptism, and strenuously rejected any state interference with the church’s autonomy in defining its membership. But even the Confessing Church was too nationalistic to oppose the Nazis’ political goals. The result was a striking ambivalence. Martin Niemöller, for example, preached a traditional Lutheran anti-Judaism, at least until he was incarcerated in Dachau concentration camp. And even Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in 1933, would seem to have expressed the usual attribution of Jews being persecuted for their failure to acknowledge their Messiah. His later theological evolution was very much a singular experience, unshared by even his closest followers. 6)
After 1939, Hitler’s manic determination to eliminate the entire Jewish race led to the escalation, across the whole European continent, of campaigns of persecution, segregation, imprisonment and eventually mass murder. The Jewish Missions’ supporters were caught in an insoluble dilemma. They were virtually impotent to prevent or oppose these virulent antisemitic atrocities., which we now know as the Holocaust. Nevertheless true to their origins, they sought to find some theological explanation for such murderous violence. Some could even see Hitler as a modern-day Nebuchadnezzah. At the same time they struggled to avoid being infected or overawed by the regime’s massive and incessant antisemtic propaganda. Instead they strove to uphold their ideal that Christians had an obligation to bring the Gospel of Love to these sorely oppressed and persecuted Jewish victims. But, along with the rest of the German Evangelical Church, their silence or inaction in face of the Nazi crimes was notable. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted already in 1940: “the church was silent when she should have cried out because the blood of the innocent was crying to heaven. She has witnessed the lawless application of brutal force, the physical and spiritual suffering of innocent people, oppression, hatred and murder, and she has not raised her voice on behalf of the victims and has not found ways to hasten to their aid. She is guilty of the deaths of the weakest and most defenceless brothers of Jesus Christ.” 7)
It was therefore left up to the supporters of Jewish Missions in other countries to denounce publicly the evil ideology which seemed to have captured the hearts and minds of so many Germans. The International Missionary Council’s Committee on the Christian approach to the Jew was unequivocal in deploring the effects of antisemitism. The bishops of the Church of England repeatedly called for government action to assist the stricken Jews of Europe, and the Church’s Mission to the Jews actively participated in relief efforts where possible. But the outbreak of war in 1939 cut off most opportunities for aid, and instead revealed the impotence of the churches to prevent the catastrophe of the Holocaust. Instead, emphasis was placed on plans for post-war reconstruction. The churches were called to embark on a re-Christianization of Europe to replace the spiritual corruption of Nazism and its pernicious ideology.
In 1945, when the Nazi dictatorship was overthrown, the surviving members of the German societies for mission to the Jews resolved to start again where they had been forced by the Nazis to leave off. At the end of 1945 the Zentralverein was resurrected. In 1947 the Berlin Israel Mission opened its doors again. By 1949 there were parallel organizations for the Lutheran churches in Frankfurt and Hannover. The International Missionary Council encouraged such revivals.
But, as their publications showed, the familiar themes of earlier Christian Mission to the Jews were once again repeated as though the Holocaust had neverhappened. Or if the terrible murder of six million Jews was mentioned, it was only as an inducement to renewed missionary efforts. The Jews, in their plight, seemed to be in even greater need of the Christian love and witness which these earnest and pious evangelists were offering. “We must discover”, declared the Director of the International Committee on the Christian approach to the Jew, “new and ethically legitimate methods and recognize and stress the responsibility of the churches for Jewish evangelism”. 8)
It is impossible to believe that such zealous enthusiasts for Christian mission to the Jews after the Holocaust had ever consulted the intended recipients of these endeavours. Had they done so, they would surely have been obliged to shed many of the illusions which they apparently still maintained. In 1945, for the majority of the surviving Jews, Europe was a charnel house. The bitter memories of the policies of the so-called Christian nations which had inflicted these terrors on them, and the minuscule amount of support and assistance which they had received from individual Christians, filled most of the remaining Jews with revulsion against what appeared to them to be the utter hypocrisy of such professions of loving-kindness. Jewish survival was their prime necessity. So these offers of conversion to Christianity, which so many held responsible for their dreadful fate, was doubly repugnant. It would be a disastrous betrayal of their identity. It would only serve to complete the “Final Solution” for the Jewish people. It was an impossible option.
It was notable that in these post-1945 missionary circles, with their still keen commitment to evangelize the Jews, there was a marked reluctance for many years to recognize the full implications of the Holocaust. For their part, the German supporters of Judenmission saw themselves as also being the victims of Nazi oppression. But any acknowledgment of guilt for the complicity of German Christianity in the Holocaust or their failure to prevent these crimes was long delayed. Only later did the Christian churches begin to be conscious that the Holocaust was not just a Jewish tragedy, but rather an event of enormous significance to the whole Christian church, which indeed raised excruciating questions about the credibility of Christianity. Over a decade was to pass before a theological reappraisal began, which eventually led to striking changes, in particular on the vital issue of Christian mission to the Jews.
The reluctance of these missionary circles to see the implications for the whole Christian community of the mass murders of Europe’s Jews meant that for several more years their publications repeated the traditional themes of Christian triumphalism, Judaism’s supersessionism, the reprobateness of the Jews’ rejection of their Messiah, and the desirability of conversion as an act of Christian beneficence. But in fact these conventional attitudes were to be fundamentally challenged by the events taking place on Christendom’s periphery in May 1948. In that month, the British Mandate in Palestine was disbanded and the creation or re-creation of the State of Israel was proclaimed. The impact was immediate and inescapable. Christian relations with Jews could never be the same again.
After more than two thousand years of political impotence and often banishment from their original homeland, Jews had succeeded once again in setting up their own state. It was a dream which had long eluded Christian potentates over many centuries. It signified the Jewish people’s re-emergence from powerlessness, and a new political dispensation for the Holy Land, so beloved by Christians as the very place where Jesus Christ was born and buried.
The shock of these events, and the success of the secular-led Zionist movement, was profound, especially among the Christian missionary community. To be sure a small group of liberal Protestants in the USA, for humanitarian reasons, welcomed the Zionist political achievement because it would offer a new haven for the Holocaust’s survivors. And subsequently, President Truman liked to believe that he fulfilled the biblical role of Cyrus in restoring the Jews to their homeland. But for the most part, the Christian churches reacted with confusion. The supporters of Christian Zionism,because of their philo-Judaism, trusted that the best face of Judaism would prevail in the new state, and that Christians would suffer no loss of religious freedom. But the societies for Jewish mission could not fail to see that this rival ideology of Zionism was sure to prove more attractive. And many of the missionaries in Palestine now became fearful for the future of their Arab parishioners. But principally, the missionary movement, and the Christian churches as a whole, were now obliged to face the fact of Jewish revival in a Jewish homeland, fulfilling what seemed to be Jewish biblical prophecies, even if under secular auspices.
The churches were thus obliged to recognize that one of their treasured and centuries-old beliefs, that the Jews’ expulsion from the Holy Land was a sign of divine punishment for their alleged crime in putting Jesus to death, was no longer valid. On the contrary, the visible revival of Judaism and its embodiment in the state of Israel, clearly contradicted the Christian theological myth of Jewish national demise. The churches and their missionary bodies were now forced to find a new basis for theological concepts of Israel and its significance for Christian doctrine.
This was a major challenge. Not since the defeat of the Crusaders centuries before had the churches found it necessary to rethink their basic presuppositions about the Holy Land. In the meanwhile Protestants particularly had resorted to evasive tactics. For many of the more liberal Protestants such terms as the Promised Land, Zion, Jerusalem or Israel had been universalized or spiritualized. They were applied metaphorically rather than geographically. William Blake could build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land, while in John Newton’s hymn, “Glorious things of thee were spoken/Zion city of our God”, but no connection was made whatsoever to the Middle East.
Other Protestants continued to regard Palestine purely as a historical museum, useful for guided tours of the Christian holy sites of two thousand years ago. Many were keenly committed to preserving the image of shepherds, donkeys, vineyards and fig trees. Such pious endeavours had no interest in the vibrant activity of rebirth undertaken by the Jewish settlers, affirming in a highly positive but modernistic way their own concept of how to redeem the land.
So too the missionaries of the mainstream Christian churches based in Palestine – the majority of whose adherents were Arab – quickly adopted a critical attitude towards the changes brought about by the State of Israel’s rapid expansion. After the expulsions and injustices suffered by many of the indigenous Arab populations, Christian humanitarian concerns were widely expressed, and continue to be expressed. But there was certainly a political partisanship involved, which effectively placed a barrier against facing the theological issues of a revived Israel and its future destiny. It was many years before any Christian body, let alone any missionary society, could begin to regard the restoration of Israel as a positive step, or one which could become a source of theological renewal for Christians and Jews alike
By the end of the 1950s, a gradual world-wide recognition had taken place of the enormity of the crimes perpetrated against the Jewish people during the second world war. As the historical details of the German atrocities were spelled out, the term Holocaust came into use to describe the whole corpus of Jewish sufferings from 1933 to 1945. But it was not until the 1960s that the repercussions of these events for the Christian churches, Christian theology and Christian missions came to be acknowledged. There was a reluctant but nevertheless inescapable process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung for the fateful role of the churches during these traumatic years. But the tentative acceptance of these insights did not yet lead to a radical rethinking of the inherited theological bases of Christian missionary activity. Resolute condemnations of (other people’s) antisemitism were only half the battle. What was needed was a much more far-reaching theological re-orientation, or even the contradiction of what the churches had preached and practised for centuries.
The major factor for such a change taking place was the combined impact of the feelings of guilt about Christian complicity in the Nazi crimes and the re-creation of the State of Israel. The American theologian Paul van Buren may well be right in claiming that neither of these two events alone could have caused such a change. Only when the shock of the horror of the Holocaust was coupled with the other, even greater theological shock of the existence of a Jewish state, do we begin to see the first reversals of the church’s teachings about the Jews. 9)
One of the main hurdles to be overcome was the long-held belief that the Church had replaced the Jews as God’s Chosen people, and that Christians had inherited the covenant relationship, leaving behind Judaism merely as a fossilized relic in the limbo of history. Such a view had led to the widespread teaching of contempt for Judaism, against which the French scholar Jules Isaac had raised his voice in 1946. But abandoning the supersessionist view had major implications for the Judenmission. Already in the 1930s the English theologian James Parkes had argued on these grounds for the cessation of Christian missions to the Jews. He was ignored as a maverick and isolated clergyman with extreme views. But by the 1960s, German theologians of repute were beginning to voice the same opinions. In 1961, at the time of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, a new forum within the large-scale Protestant Rally or Kirchentag in Berlin took the unprecedented step of calling for a new relationship between Christians and Jews, and even invited Jewish rabbis and scholars to take part. Their working party’s statement unequivocally and unprecedentally stated: “Jews and Christians were indissolubly bound together”. But the consequences were also drawn: “At the present moment, especially in Germany, the right form for a new meeting with Israel is dialogue not mission”. 10)
Such statements were of course strongly challenged by the supporters of the Judenmission, as well as by conservative Christians of many denominations. They seemed to repudiate the whole missionary enterprise world-wide. Within the German Evangelical Church the debate became quite heated. The supporters of the traditional mission accused their critics of a sell-out of an essential component of the Christian faith, and a capitulation to what was now becoming seen as “politically correct”. They refused to be persuaded that historical circumstances, however catastrophic, could be used to revise traditionally established Christian doctrine, or to justify the abandonment of the church’s continuing missionary responsibilities.
The advocates of a new stance, however, were convinced that only a new approach to the Jews based on a position of penitence and at least verbal reparation, could restore the tattered shreds of Christian credibility. They were extremely sensitive to the argument widely heard in Jewish circles that the terrible events of the Holocaust had been the result, at least in part, of the accumulated hatreds of nineteen centuries of Christian prejudice, despite the evident efforts of most missionaries to combat such bigotry. They could not fail to see that, from the point of view of the Jewish recipients, the well-meaning endeavoiurs of Christian missionaries were indistinguishable from more sinister forces. Or as the Jewish scholar Raul Hilberg expressed it:
“The missionaries of Christianity had said in effect: You have no right to live among us as Jews. The secular rulers who followed had proclaimed: You have no right to live among us. The German Nazis had at last decreed: You have no right to live.” 11)
To many of the more open theologians, the only way to overcome the burden of this dreadful legacy was to call for an entirely new beginning. They were to be greatly encouraged and assisted by similar efforts being undertaken at the same time by the Catholic Church in the much more public forum of the Second Vatican Council. The 1965 document produced as a result, known as Nostra Aetate, was a ground-breaking and indeed astonishing reversal of Catholic doctrines inherited from the past. As such it was greeted by the more progressive Protestant theologians as a fine example of what the new spirit of Christian ecumenism could lead to.
Most striking was the assertion in Nostra Aetate of the community of the inheritance shared by Jews and Christians. The former should be regarded as the elder brothers of the latter, and treated with all due respect. The ancient calumny of the charge of deicide, or Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus, which had contributed so frequently to popular polemic and violence against the Jews, was no longer to be attributed collectively or applied to later generations. The strong desire for reconciliation and dialogue clearly repudiated much of the traditional missionary approach. And successive Popes since the Second Vatican Council have repeatedly pronounced their support of these objectives.
As for the Protestants, the 1970s saw a vigorous debate on the subject of missions. To be sure, the traditionalists had to acknowledge that Jews could no longer be regarded merely as the objects of missionary endeavour, however charitably intended. Instead, they were now partners whose voices needed to be heard in dialogue. Both faiths needed to explore their common roots and identity. So attempts to convert by stressing the superiority of either faith could only be harmful. In 1975 the national authorities of the German Evangelical Church produced a study of the issues, Juden und Christen, which clearly outlined the gap between the advocates of mission and those of dialogue. But there was a growing feeling that the defenders of the older position were fighting a rearguard battle. Churchmen in many countries were increasingly conscious that the events of the Holocaust with the millions of Jewish deaths for which Christians were at least in some measure responsible, made the repetition of earlier formulations of Christian witness and mission unacceptable and theologically incorrect.
The most notable expression of this new sentiment came in the declaration issued in January 1980 by the Synod of the Rhineland Evangelical Church: “On the renewal of the relationship between Christians and Jews”. Here was an explicit admission of Christian co-responsibility and guilt for the Holocaust. Further the clear-cut claim was made that the continued existence of the Jewish people, their restoration to the Promised Land, and the creation of the State of Israel, should be regarded as the signs of God’s continuing faithfulness towards His chosen people. As a result the Synod concluded:
“We believe in the continuing election of the Jewish people as God’s people and recognize that the church through Jesus Christ has been incorporated into God’s covenant with His people.”
But the most striking paragraph was that which firmly called for a renunciation of the traditional forms of mission:
“We believe that Jews and non-Jews are each in their respective calling witnesses of God before the world, and before each other; therefore we are convinced that the church may not express its witness towards the Jewish people in the same manner as its mission towards other peoples of the world”. 12)
The impact of this pronouncement was profound. It reinforced the growing feeling that the old style of missions with its triumphalist connotations and one-sided assertion of Christian superiority had to be discarded. Eventually such considerations came to be accepted by the supporters of the Judenmission themselves. In 1985 the authorities of the Evangelisch-lutherisch Zentralverein für Mission unter Israel changed the name of the association to the more palatable “Christian Society for witness and service amongst Jews and Christians”. No alteration of the Society’s objectives was intended. The change was solely to avoid misunderstandings, particularly where the word “mission” could be wrongly seen as advocating proselytism. Furthermore, the authorities wished to draw a clear line between their approach to the Jews and to other religions. Their objective remained to strive for a better knowledge of Christianity among Jews, and a better knowledge of Judaism among Christians. Their biblical support was drawn from Romans 1:16: “it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth, to the Jew first and also to the Greek”.
But in fact, only five years later in 1991, when the Society met again n Leipzig where it had been founded 120 years earlier, a more critical note was sounded. The position paper resulting from this meeting acknowledged that no real change of heart had taken place in the post-1945 years. The resulting isolation of the missionary society from other branches of the German Evangelical Church had only led to a polarization of views. Not until the late 1970s when the post-Auschwitz situation (Shoah/Holocaust) came to be more fully recognized could a genuine new start be made. But now the missionary society’s faults had been honestly faced.
“Looking back on its 120 year history, it has be acknowledged that the Society’s course has been burdened by numerous failures. To be sure, the work of the Society for Jewish missions was carried out in ways not nowadays understood or appreciated. From the beginning, love of the people of Israel and a respect for its special place in salvation history were characteristic of the Society’s endeavours. But this was repeatedly linked to a lack of appreciation for the Jewish faith, and even adopted anti-Judaic or antisemitic ideas and sentiments. When the Jewish people suffered their greatest distress, during their persecution by the Nazis, the supporters of this Society did not find the strength or the courage to confront the oppressors or to make common cause with the oppressed. So the Central Society has to admit to its share in the guilt of the Christian churches towards the Jewish people.
All this became clearer to us during the recent decades as we seek to renew our witness and service. We have been obliged to rethink our positions and to root out any elements of superiority, of contempt or of anti-Judaism in general. So we can only acknowledge that the 120 years of our history contain both elements of continuity and discontinuity . . . .
We acknowledge that the term Mission to the Jews has become so compromised and misunderstood that it is no longer suitable to express the Society’s real purposes. Indeed we are aware that for many of our Jewish counterparts the use of the term Judenmission arouses great mistrust since they see this as only as a continuation of “the Holocaust by other means”. Instead we therefore wish to substitute the concepts of witness and service which express for us far better our desire to encounter the Jewish people with all due respect and trust”. 13 )
In a similar fashion, other branches of the Missions to Israel followed suit. The oldest English-language group, the London Society, formerly the Church’s Mission to the Jews, changed its name to the Church’s Ministry among the Jewish people. The 1988 Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion received a report clearly rejecting any idea of missions to Jewish people. The same spirit was reciprocated elsewhere. Missions to Israel in their traditional form have now become a matter of past history. It was the end of a 200 year history of pious hopes, misguided endeavours and mistaken interpretations of the Christian faith. But it opened the way for new opportunities of encounter between Jews and Christians, when members of both faiths would join in worshipping the same God, and seeking to establish His Kingdom on earth. As a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Donald Coggan, said:
“Judaism and Christianity have so much in common which is essential for the very life of the world that we should regard it as the truth of which we are common trustees and together we should make its light shine” 14)
The legacy of past prejudices, recriminations and conversion attempts has been abandoned, and has been replaced by a much more sensitive concern for the victims of violence and persecution. It is much to be hoped that on this basis Jews and Christians will collaborate in striving for the future preservation of the world entrusted to their care in the spirit of righteousness, justice and peace.
1) for general surveys, see Barbara Tuchman, The Bible and the Sword. England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour, New York 1956; Christopher M.Clark, The Politics of Conversion. Missionary Protestantism and the Jews in Prussia, 1728-1941, Oxford 1994.
2) John S.Conway, “The Jerusalem Bishopric: A ‘union of Foolscap and Blotting Paper’ in Studies in Religion, Vol 7 Summer 1978, 305-15.
3) Patrick Irwin, “Bishop Alexander and the Jews of Jerusalem’ in Studies in Church History, Vol. 21: Persecution and Toleration, ed. W.J.Shields, Oxford 1984,p. 318.
4) quoted in R. Gutteridge, Open Thy Mouth for the Dumb, Oxford 1976, p. 329.
5) see Doris Bergen, The Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich, Chapel Hill 1996.
6) see Wolfgang Gerlach, And the Witnesses were silent. The Confessing Church and the Jews, New York 2002; also E.Bethge,’Dietrich Bonhoeffer und die Juden’ in ed. E. Todt, Konsequenzen. Dietrich Bonhoeffers Kirchenverständnis heute, Munich 1980
7) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Eng. trans London 1955, p. 45-50.
8) International Missionary Council’s committee on the Christian approach towards the Jew, Basle Switzerland, June 1947 report, p. 5, 16.
9) Paul van Buren, “Changes in Christian Theology’, in ed. H.Friedlander and S.Milton, The Holocaust, Ideology, Bureaucracy and Genocide, New York 1980, p. 286.
10) ed. D.Goldschmidt and H-J. Kraus, Der ungekündigte Bund. Neue Begegnung von Juden und Christliche Gemeinde, Stuttgart 1963, p. 141; see also ed H.Gollwitzer and E.Sterling, Das gespaltene Gottesvolk, Stuttgart 1965.
11) Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of European Jewry, rev.ed. 3 vols., New York 1985, Vol. 1, p.8-9.
12) Zur Erneuerung des Verhältnisses von Christen und Juden. An English translation of the official text is contained in ed. A Brockway, The Theology of the Churches and the Jewish People: Statements by the World Council of Churches and Its Member Churches, Geneva 1988, p. 92-4.
13) ed. A Baumann, Auf dem Wege zum christlich- jüdischen Gespräch, Münster 1998, pp 220 ff.
14) 1992 sermon.