Dr Peter Carnley
Beyond Mere Tolerance: The Vocation of the Three Abrahamic Faiths in Creating the Conditions for World Peace
I want to begin to explore the value of tolerance, such as we know it and appeal to it as a fundamental value in our kind of society, by placing it in what I believe is its original historical context.
I think we must acknowledge at the outset that the fundamental understanding of human destiny and human morality in our kind of society is not just Judeo-Christian, at least not in some kind of pristine or unadulterated sense. We belong to a western liberal democracy in which we also inherit the values of the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Enlightenment, with its heightened awareness of the powers of individual reason, encouraged the questioning of all authorities and stressed the autonomy and freedom of the individual to make up his or her own mind on just about everything. The Enlightenment is thus the source of our basic liberal democratic values, including basic or natural rights to individual freedom of thought and expression, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and of course, free enterprise in the economic realm. We are all children of the Enlightenment insofar as we all tend to start with the assumption that these natural rights and freedoms apply universally to all human individuals. Whether that is in fact so is another matter, for freedoms and rights may be historically conditioned and relative to particular communities and cultures, but that tends to be our inherited basic assumption.
The stress on the freedom and autonomy of the individual to make up his or her own mind, and do his or her own thing, has also led us in our kind of society to the making of a clear distinction between public and private, and the need for the tolerance of a broad range of private moral and religious points of view.
Tolerance thus became the key value of the Enlightenment. In our kind of post-Enlightenment society an individual has the freedom to do and say his or her own thing, so long as it does not encroach upon other people's space and freedom to do likewise: 'You do your thing and I'll do mine'. In our kind of society religion and morality are by and large understood to be private matters of individual lifestyle, which, along with one's political persuasion, we try to avoid discussing at dinner parties for fear of breaking up the group. Better simply to underline the value of tolerance of a wide range of optional viewpoints.
So it comes as a package: individual independence and autonomy means individual rights and freedoms; the unavoidable resulting diversity dictates the need for tolerance. Thus an editorial in a recent Weekend Australian spoke of the need to welcome more migrants, who for their part must accept what were termed our institutions and core values. And our core values were defined in terms of 'democratic freedom, the rule of law, and respect for individual rights' or, in other words, tolerance. This means that, as children of the Enlightenment we are all small "l" liberals. Some of us are conservative liberals, others liberal liberals, others ultra liberal liberals, but we are all liberals in the sense that we recognise the freedom of the individual to determine his or her own lifestyle as an independent and autonomous human individual.
The individualism of this political and social philosophy that under girds not just Australian society but many other modern western liberal democratic societies is ingrained in our psyche. Even if we have never studied the political philosophy of John Locke and David Hume and others of the English and Scottish Enlightenment, or John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century, it is drilled into our corporate sub-conscious by its constant replaying in the mythic images that our kind of society regularly holds before itself in art, literature, and particularly in the media. The ideal hero is mostly portrayed in highly individualised terms. The cowboy who is not selfish and who rides into a community and helps rid it of cattle rustlers or hostile Indians but then rides away again to find his own destiny essentially as an individual, is a good example. He never really becomes a member of the community he serves. Or the detective who resists being drawn into an essentially corrupt community by offers of bribes or drugs or sex and so finds his destiny in independence of the community is a more recent classic example.
Now, it is important to note that in the political philosophy of which these mythic images of the heroic self made individual are simply an expression, society itself is regularly portrayed negatively. In other words, we tend to think of society as a potential threat to the individual and his or her rights and freedoms. Thus, in our kind of society we are urged to be tolerant of diversity, but when somebody encroaches on our space or does not respect our rights, we rely on law to impose limits to protect them. Hence the importance of the rule of law. It is the role of government in such societies to act as a kind of umpire so as to ensure that individual rights and freedoms are not eroded by the aggressive, the selfish, and the self-interested - all those who will not respect the rights and freedoms of others in their own individual quest to get on in the world at others' expense. Against this kind of background it is easy to see that one is more likely to think of human destiny in this kind of social environment as a individual achievement over against society, rather than as something that is found and worked out as a contributing member of it. It is difficult to love your neighbour when the whole weight of the culture invites you to see your neighbour as your economic rival. Indeed, I think the cult of the individual easily leads to quite intolerable economic selfishness, and shonky commercial practices designed to serve individual self-interest of the kind we have recently witnessed in Australian society.
I have already mentioned that the kind of individualism of which I have been speaking finds expression in the moral and religious pluralism of our age. Provided I do not encroach on your patch of space, I am free to do as I will in modern liberal democratic societies. Being free of the moral restraints and the conventionally agreed upon values of the community, means standing loosely to community standards or publicly shared moral truths, and following as an autonomous independent individual one's own privatised set of values. But this in fact undermines our sense of living together in community with a shared set of values. Instead we are left with an ethic that centres on the protection of individual rights against the erosion of those rights by the community.
This is why most of our moral debates are not about our responsibilities to others in community, but about the preservation of individual rights, even stem cell research is judged against the individual embryo's basic rights to protection and life. Once again, in relation to the individual, society tends to be portrayed negatively. By contrast there has been very little about more communitarian responsibilities of the individual to his or her neighbours and neighbourly care in the press. The occasional press article about the person who does some unselfish thing is remarkable because it is contrary to the expected norms of behaviour.
Now, I think this fundamental focus in our kind of society on the value of individual autonomy and independence poses us with something of a social dilemma insofar as we have to rely very heavily on the tolerance of diversity to try and hold society together. This shows in a number of ways. For example, in educational circles it produces something of a philosophical tension, for over and over again we affirm that the basic aim of education is to equip people to be or become autonomous, thinking individuals with a certain independence of mind. But this is apt to leave a deficit in our thinking about the importance of the school itself as a community and of human destiny as something that is to be worked out not in independence of others but in community with others.
As I listen to speech night addresses of Principals and head students there appears to be little awareness of belonging together in community, or of the mutual interdependence of the learning exercise, little talk about mutual stimulation to learning or about bouncing ideas off one another, little talk of what we receive from one another, little talk of grace, in other words, or of gratitude for the gifts that flow to us from outside of ourselves - from others let alone ultimately from God. Rather, human destiny is usually conceived in terms of increased individual human effort; the emphasis is usually on individual achievement, standing on your own two feet, getting the most out of the opportunities offered by the school, even exploiting the opportunity, being an autonomous and independent individual, almost as a self-creating atom of decision making.
In the area of welfare the aim is invariably the same, even in our Christian welfare agencies. We do not just want to apply band aids and provide handouts; we rightly want to break the dependency cycle so as to allow a person to take charge of his or her own life and navigate his or her own individual destiny as an autonomous, independent, human being.
While all this sounds commendable enough, there is a downside to it. Indeed, I believe that some of the more negative implications of the individualism of modern liberal democratic societies are beginning to come home to roost. We did not really need Osama bin Laden to tell us that things are not well in western liberal democracies; still less did we need him to take misguided corrective action into his own hands to bring the West to its knees. But one only has to look at some of the more obvious problems with which we are ourselves grappling at present to know that western liberal democracies are in big trouble - the difficulty individuals seem to have in sustaining relationships, divorce, even a reluctance to commit to marriage in the first place, youth suicide, the widespread prevalence of depression, and the ubiquitous use of Valium and Prozac, not to mention an increasingly inequitable distribution of well being between rich and poor, drugs and alcohol abuse, and its associated rising crime and violence, and the ensuing need for security systems just about everywhere to protect us not from international terrorism but from ourselves.
At another level we are also becoming aware that the assertion of individual rights and the pursuit of individual interests and the consequent diminishment of a sense of community seems to be finding expression in the emergence in Australia of an increasingly litigious society that we can no longer afford. We seem to be facing the legal need to impose limits so as to protect us from being sued by one another, as witnessed by the recent collapse in the world of medical indemnity insurance, or the quandary now facing surf lifesavers as to whether they can safely place 'bathe between the flags' signs for fear of being sued for breach of the duty of care should somebody hit their head on a sandbar. This has given rise to the current sick joke expressed in the form of a question and answer: 'What do you want to do to earn a living when you grow up?' Answer: 'Sue people'. Now, let me suggest to you that the underlying political and social philosophy which we have somewhat uncritically inherited from the Enlightenment may itself be in large part responsible for this state of affairs. Once, Enlightenment values of individual independence and autonomy piggy backed on a fundamental Judeo-Christian ethical matrix, so there was a balance between an emphasis on the interests of the individual and those of the community. But that is disappearing along with the rise of secularism, leaving the values of the Enlightenment increasingly to go it alone, as it were, and to stand on their own feet. Hence the rise of a more aggressive individualism along with a diminishing sense of belonging together in community. This may be more serious than we think and it raises a question about whether an uncontrolled diversity of individual viewpoint on moral and religious matters does not at some point have its limits, and whether the need for the Enlightenment value of the tolerance of the views of others in the face of this open ended diversity is a value that by itself is really robust enough to hold society together.
Indeed, I think some very concerning difficulties face us in handling the ensuing diversity of moral, religious, and even political viewpoint that flows from the concept of individual independence and freedom, secured by an appeal simply to the virtue of tolerance. A society based on an almost absolute individual freedom, and the hope of holding it all together with the shared value of tolerance alone, does not strike me as having much of a future. For a start, tolerance can very easily degenerate into a dangerous form of indifference. The uncritical tolerance of moral and religious pluralism means we end up with having to tolerate every conceivable individual behaviour whether it has a community value or not. Just about everything must be tolerated - for who are you to say that your values are better than mine? Perhaps we could be a little less attached to a purely private understanding of morality and a little more concerned to foster a public discussion of moral truth, so as to become corporately a little more discriminating, and a little more directive of the young than we today tend to be.
For, the privatisation of morality and the tolerance of individual life style choices (you do your thing and I'll do mine) means that there is today less and less incentive in the community even to try to work out by rational conversation and debate what the best or most desirable or agreed or publicly shared values might be for living life well in community with others. Rather, a welter of conflicting viewpoints and sectional commitments are simply asserted and tolerated, as though one is as good as another. This means that the idea of moral truth tends to go out the window in liberal democratic societies because we are schooled in a liberal minded tolerance of a plethora of competing privatised viewpoints. It has been said that a liberal is a person who leaves the room when a quarrel begins because he is too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.
If our starting point is that we must simply tolerate a diversity of lifestyles or moral viewpoints and that one lifestyle or viewpoint is really as good as another, there is really no incentive to try to arrive at conventionally agreed upon public truth or shared community standards. As a consequence, in our kind of society moral debate often degenerates into the often strident assertion of competing positions. Resolution of moral debate is rare. The end result is at best an uneasy truce of conflicting positions. We have to tolerate more or less everything. Even worse, instead of rational and civilised moral debate, protest becomes the more characteristic way of expressing a moral point of view as each person defends his or her own positions and rights.
This also accounts for the shrillness of protest, and explains why moral indignation is a most widespread emotion in our kind of society. This is not to say that protest is not sometimes effective in gaining a political end; the one who shouts loudest is sometimes the one who is heard. But it is not rationally effective in the way that a community conversation and debate with a view to achieving an agreed outcome might be effective.
So the crucial question I want to pose to you tonight is: Should we be moving beyond the mere tolerance of moral and religious pluralism, to try and discern the outline of a publicly shared community consensus about some basic moral values for the living of life well, and even a less privatised and much more public discussion about some of our basic religious beliefs? The first step is to start with the belief that an agreed or shared outcome might just be possible.
In other words, I am suggesting that in our kind of society we are not really committed to working out community values, or committed to a public discussion of religious beliefs, while ever we are sub-consciously content to leave individuals free to do their own thing and while we are simply prepared to tolerate whatever the outcome might be. If we do not spend much time trying to work out conventionally agreed upon community standards and faith commitments that we can live by ourselves, then it follows that we do not have a great deal that we can confidently commend to the young.
In other words, it follows that one further negative outcome of contemporary moral and religious pluralism and the ensuing abandonment of the quest for something that might in the past have been termed public moral and religious truth is that, as a society, we have become more and more reticent about teaching morality to the young. And I suspect that is why religious and moral education in this country has become so difficult and why across the educational spectrum it is really in a parlous state. In Church schools and synagogues we try to rectify the situation but we are struggling against the tide of the culture. Indeed, subconsciously even in our own self-talk we devalue the very importance of it, for our own schooling in the value of independence furnishes us with a voice which says: 'Who are you to tell me how to live my life?'
There is a deficit in western liberal democratic societies largely created by an excessive individualism and the often uncritical acceptance of a diversity of lifestyles, relying on the virtue of tolerance to get by. Formerly tolerance of this kind went hand in hand with a roughly agreed set of community standards which we could commend to the young, and these community standards were rooted in the ethical monotheism of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The role of this tradition has now become so eroded that we rely more and more on the tolerance alone of individual viewpoints to get by, even to the point where we tend to have to tolerate the intolerable!
So the question in my mind is: Is it thinkable for us to move beyond the mere tolerance of a variety of different moral, religious and political points of view, to achieve by shared community conversation and debate a common community viewpoint where that is possible, and where that is not possible to note the complementarity of other viewpoints that may be different from ours, and to delight in the nuances we find in one another's belief systems, but all the while with a more positively communitarian sense of contributing together to a unified and harmonious society of shared values aspirations and goals? I am suggesting, in other words, that we need to move beyond the mere tolerance of diversity of highly privatised views to a much more public discussion and engagement.
For example, instead of just tolerating a range of different points of view it may yet be possible, with a little more openly generous conversation and debate, to develop a shared communitarian ethic for the living of life well. Instead of a kind of cool and uneasy social truce in which I allow you to do your thing while you permit me to do mine, we may with friendly dialogue enter into a deeper sense of belonging together in Australian society in which we can with more confidence commend a shared set of moral guidelines and contribute positively together to achieve a greater good than just our own.
So, my chief point tonight is to argue that we need to move beyond mere tolerance in the form of an uneasy stand-offish kind of truce, which can be little more than a very fragile consensus, in order to embrace a newfound and more enduring social unity within our diversity.
This, it seems to me, is the current challenge of multiculturalism. Apart from simply tolerating ethnic and cultural diversity and moral pluralism, there is a need so to engage with one another with much more energy than we have experienced to date, across our religious and cultural divisions, to build a more profound national and international community of genuinely shared moral commitments and socio-religious ideas. In this circumstance we would not just tolerate one another but enter into a kind of partnership together to build a more sustaining peace.
In the future of Australia which lies before us such a dialogue seems inevitable. The release by the Australian Bureau of Statistics on 17 June of the results of the 2001 national census makes it clear that Australia is becoming increasingly multicuitural and religiously diverse. While 68% of Australians still claim allegiance to a Christian denomination, at least as fellow travellers, 5% of Australians now claim to belong to a religion other than Christianity. There are now more Buddhists in Australia than Baptists, more Moslems than Lutherans, and more Hindus than Salvos. We can anticipate that in an increasingly multicultural society there must inevitably be increasing dialogue, particularly amongst the three great monotheistic religions.
In amongst this diversity, Islam, almost certainly is for most of us right now the most unknown and strange and in a sense threatening. We inevitably feel somewhat alienated from the Moslem world, particularly in the wake of the tragedy of 11 September. But who can doubt the importance of the engagement of world religions in mutual respect for the future peace of the whole world since that fateful day? Some have imagined that the traumatic and tragic events of September 11 have inaugurated an entirely new world order. That might be an over-statement. But it has become clear that we in the West all have a good deal to learn about Islam, and probably nearly as much to learn about the Judeo-Christian roots of our own culture and civilisation as well, if we are going to enter into a positive engagement with Islam in decades to come.
We all know with the top of our heads that we must in a society which allows religious freedom to its citizens to be tolerant of the presence amongst us of Moslems in Australia. We note the steady increase in mosques around this country, but what happens beyond their high walls is largely unknown to us. We carry a stereotype of Moslems at prayer picked up from a few fleeting TV clips and that is about the extent of it; exactly what those behind those walls believe and the precise nature of their moral commitments by and large remain a mystery to most Australians. So the question is: can we move beyond this very minimal relationship of tolerance, to enter more fully together into community life as partners in dialogue?
So where might the conversation begin? Those of us who see ourselves as standing in the Abrahamic tradition of ethical monotheism all worship the same God, but as soon as we begin to explore our respective ways of thinking about God and the nature of God and of his will for us in the living of our lives we tend to part company. I am not entirely sure if I can put my finger on precise points of shared belief that might inform a Moslem/Jewish dialogue, but if I can focus, by way of example, on the perhaps less threatening possibility of Christian/Moslem dialogue for a moment, I can certainly see there are some common elements that can provide a basis for genuine engagement. This is despite the sad history of tension between Christians and Moslems, particularly since the Crusades, which gives us the impression that they are as religious systems almost irreconcilable.
For example, though the Moslem use of the name 'Allah' tends to give us the impression that the Moslem God is somehow different from ours, it is perhaps useful to know that the name 'Allah' was used by Arabic speaking Christians to refer to God long before it was taken over by Islam. Indonesian Christians use the name 'Allah' for God to this day.
Islam and Christianity work with different views of the unity of God, since for Moslems God is one in a simple numerical sense, whereas for us Christians the unity of God is achieved within complexity - it is the unity of love between persons that both makes God one and allows us to become one in him and with one another. But this difference of view about the unity of God is simply a ground for further dialogue.
Also, Christians and Moslems can together celebrate the fact that the Koran itself holds a positive place for Jesus as a prophet. For us Christians he is a prophet and more than a prophet, the incarnation of the love of God. But in the Koran the life of Jesus holds a positive place, at least up to the story of the crucifixion and resurrection. For the Moslem Jesus as a prophet of God cannot be imagined to suffer without calling in question the sovereignty of God in the world, and so Jesus is understood somehow to by-pass the trauma of death to go directly to heaven, without passing Calvary and without passing through the tomb, but collecting glory on the way, as it were. But there is certainly ground for a positive conversation to take place with Islam about Jesus, as about being patient of suffering as an index to the character of God.
A friend of mine who was until recently Dean of Portsmouth and who is an Arabic scholar with many contacts with the Moslem community in Britain, decided after September 11 to told a forum on Moslem beliefs in Portsmouth Cathedral. After an address by an Imam, at the question time, a very angry fundamentalist Christian woman stood up and berated the Dean for holding such a function, accusing him of confusing Christian believers. 'What do you think you are doing?' she demanded. At this my friend turned to the Imam and said, 'Perhaps you would like to answer this question. What do you think we are doing?' The Imam startled the assembly by saying 'I am here because I love Jesus'. And turning to the woman he said: 'Do you?' Christian fundamentalists are not accustomed to having that kind of question put to them so directly by Imams.
I think it may also be useful for all of us to know that when Mohammed gave Medina its constitution, and this is the earliest and most original way there is of being a Moslem State, Mohammed provided that there should be equality for Moslems, and Jews and Christians. It was only later, and particularly under the Ottoman Empire that a more intolerant and aggressive regime emerged.
So the point I want to make is that if we are to help the world to move beyond an uneasy truce and beyond the mere tolerance of one another, genuine and honest interfaith dialogue, is, if anything, more important today than ever. In dialogue with Islam we will hold up its own better insights, we demonstrate by good example our Australian willingness to grant freedom of religious observance to Moslems, and call for reciprocity for Christians and Jews in places where they are cruelly persecuted by a Moslem majority. Certainly, the future of western society is in dialogue between the religious traditions. Indeed, the future peace of the entire world demands it.
I am personally pleased that the Churches of the Anglican Communion have over the last year set up an official dialogue with AI Azhar AI Sharif, the esteemed centre of Islamic studies in Cairo, and possibly the oldest university in the world. But dialogue across the faiths must be pursued with much more energy at all levels of the community.
Let me ground this sentiment by giving you just one small but concrete example of what stands to be achieved. Shortly after 11 September the then Ambassador of the Taliban to Pakistan declared a Jihad on Australia. As it happened this was announced in banner headlines in the Australian press on the very day that the national Heads of Christian Churches were meeting in Sydney. It was suggested that we should seize the initiative and visit a significant mosque as a way of assuring the Moslem community that we were well aware of the deep divide between ethical and religious Islam and political and aggressive Islam. It was clearly important at that moment to assure our Moslem brothers and sisters in Australia that they were not immediately thought of as terrorists and to invite them to join us in building a relationship that would make for peace. Some Heads of Churches were at first reluctant starters; a visit the very next day was said to be too soon, they needed time to think about it; they needed to go home and consult their constituencies; the time was not opportune. Had that view prevailed the opportunity would have been lost.
To cut the story short we visited the Lakemba Mosque in Sydney for Friday prayers and were very warmly received. The visit was widely reported both in the Australian press and around the world in the Arabic press, including Indonesia where there had been some quite horrendous attacks on Christians. Indeed, it was later reported to us that at one Indonesian meeting that was set up to try to broker a peace settlement after violent island massacres and Church burnings, a local Imam held up a newspaper showing coverage of the Lakemba Mosque visit, and used it as a positive example that in Australia Christian and Moslem leaders enjoy congenial relations. That report became the basis of at least one Indonesian peace agreement. Clearly, the promotion of dialogue between the great religious traditions is of enormous importance to the future of the whole world.
But what are we to say about the prospects for a deeper dialogue today between Christians and Jews? Christians have, of course, long enjoyed reasonably cordial relations with Judaism in Australian society. There are regular signs of progress in Jewish/Christian relations, even in what might appear to be small and trivial ways.
Indeed, even within my own lifetime I can discern some quite positive changes for good. We Christians used to speak, for example, of the Old Testament Scriptures and of specifically Christian writings as the New Testament. These days we are a little more sensitive to the possibly offensive sound in Jewish ears of talk of 'old' and 'new' testaments, as though the old is succeeded and replaced by the new. Thus in university departments of theology and studies in religion it is much more common these days to hear references to the study of the 'Hebrew Scriptures' rather than the Old Testament. But I wonder if, with a little more open dialogue, Christians and Jews might yet move beyond even this to speak of 'The Shared Testament'.
Within my own lifetime we have been enormously helped in the understanding of Christian origins by the contribution of Jewish scholars. Jesus was, after all a Jew; his teaching in relation to the Torah and Jewish prophetic traditions cannot be understood other than in the original context out of which they come. I think of the seminal work of Gesa Vermes, Jesus the Jew, for example, or Pinchas Lapide on the idea of resurrection in the first century traditions of pharisaic Judaism, or in the United States of America of the work of the Jewish scholar Alan Segal on the historical Jesus, not to mention the huge contribution of those who since the late 1940s have studied the Dead Sea Scrolls and the religion of the Essenes to throw light on Christian origins. Certainly, Christian origins cannot be understood apart from Judaism and Christian studies are no longer the preserve of Christians alone.
But let us not side step the need to confront some inherited difficulties posed by some Christian texts that appear to be unhelpfully hostile to Judaism. I am thinking, particularly, of those Christian texts that from a Jewish point of view can justifiably be called 'texts of terror' for they have been used through the centuries for the evil purpose of fostering antisemitism, most notably and frighteningly in Nazi Germany at the time of the Holocaust.
The author of St John's Gospel regularly blames 'the Jews' for all the misfortunes that befell Jesus. There is a variety of texts that could be cited but Chapter 8:31-59 is the most difficult section: Let me make you all uncomfortable by reading to you John 8.44, a verse addressed to the Jews: 'You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.' The Jews are said to have the devil as their father, to be the children of the devil. This is said to the Jews and it is said to have been said by Jesus. The parallel to his own claim that his Father is God is that their father is the devil, and they are identified with murder and lying, and a complete disregard for truth. This must be as complete a condemnation as any of us could imagine.
This passage has historically been used by Christians against Jews and it has been used by others in an appalling succession of anti-Jewish polemics. In 1945 the propagandist Julius Streicher the editor of the Nazi newspaper Die Stuermer used it to defend himself at his trial at Nuremberg: 'Only the Jews had remained victorious after the dreadful days of World War I', he said. 'These were the people of whom Christ said: "Its father is the devil".' (Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, Sacra Pagina Series, Vol. IV, Collegeville, Minnesota, p. 274).
What is even more scary, if you go to the neo-Nazi website http://www.stormfront.org under the heading of 'What world famous men said about the Jews' the words attributed to Jesus in John 8:44 are there quoted even today. How do we respond to the historical use of this text to justify the most terrible crimes imaginable against Jews and its continued used to this day by Christians and others to vilify the Jews and to ferment racial hatred and tension?
Christian responses have ranged the argument that this text is so objectionable that it should simply be left untranslated or certainly not read in Churches: it has been omitted from the post Vatican 11 Roman Catholic Lectionary and from recent Anglican and ecumenical lectionaries.
Others seek to resist a fundamentalist interpretation, which suggests that the text somehow came down a golden shoot from heaven with a divine authority and can thus be made to refer to Jews of all times and places to this day, by asking whether this reference is to be restricted to Jesus time, or to John's time of writing? Is it geographically restricted to Judeans rather than to Jews of the international dispersion. Others question whether these are authentic words of Jesus at all. In Matthew's Gospel the phrase 'the Jews' as distinct from specific sub-groups with whom Jesus came into conflict, the scribes and the pharisees, is used only five times, in Mark 6 times and in Luke 5 times. John by contrast uses the expression 'the Jews' some 70 times. In John the polemical tone towards the Jews is intense. Indeed, we can demonstrate not just a proclivity of the author of John to use the blanket term more than others do in relation to Jesus, but that he does so when in the parallel texts in Matthew, Mark and Luke, a more restricted term is used. In Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus is locked in sharp controversy with some Jewish leaders and has harsh critical things to say about 'this generation' but in the Johannine community that is presented in terms of 'the Jews'. So there are good grounds for thinking that the use of this phrase is not so much characteristic of Jesus, but rather is John's way of telling the story of Jesus and his followers coming into conflict with the Jews.
But who can these Jews be that John loathes them so intensely? Is it that this reference is to the Jews particularly with whom the Johnannine community itself came into conflict and who ejected them from the synagogue in that period where Jewish followers of Jesus were struggling for life and eventually for a separate identity? Is the context one of fearfulness of the larger parent community? We also note the power differential in John's account of the fledgling Christian community as 'the little flock', put down, rejected and shunned, by the larger surrounding Jewish community. In this historical context one can begin to see the offending text as a very human outburst in the heat of struggle. Are we witnessing a furious bit of polemical rejection in the context of a family row in which hope of reconciliation has vanished in a situation of total deadlock? Well, I think almost certainly something like that.
What is clear is that there is no plain reading of this text. It is open to a wide variety of interpretation. And it is also clear that when texts are read in different historical contexts they are heard differently. We cannot hear the text of John 8:44 in the aftermath of the Holocaust, or the Foundation of the State of Israel, and of events since then, even the events of the Middle East today, without coming to an awareness of new and painful meaning.
Finally, let me focus your attention on another Christian text which we are tending today to read with new insight. Particularly since the sixteenth century, the Epistle of Paul to the Romans has been of great importance to Christians in developing their understanding of the way we sinful human beings are accounted righteous or made righteous by God. Martin Luther, at the time of the Reformation asked a question about how he might get right with God. The answer he found in Paul's Epistle to the Romans was that justification in the sight of God is not a matter of human works, not a matter of fulfilling the requirements of the law, but simply of trusting faith. Hence, the Reformation slogan: justification is by faith alone. The individual sinner is accounted righteous in the eyes of God, not through his own effort, but purely by grace, the free gift of of alone, appropriated by faith.
That is the received interpretation of the main theme of Romans from the time of the Reformation. Today scholars are less prone to an individualised or psychologizing interpretation of Romans, by interpreting the theme of justification by faith alone in relation to understanding the way the individual gets right with God; instead they are more inclined to first place the Epistle in its historical context. Into what kind of circumstance did Paul address his Epistle to the Romans?
It so happens that the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in 49AD. We know that some 4000 young Jewish men were conscripted into the Roman legions in the previous generation. It is therefore conjectured that there was a Jewish community of about 25,000 people living in Rome between the Tiber and the Sea when they were all expelled in 49AD.
We also know from the historian Seutonius that the expulsion was triggered by riotous behaviour which had arisen from disputes over somebody called Chrestus. Scholars have for many years conjectured that this is a misspelling of Christus. Can it be that the riots were triggered by Jewish and Gentile Christians rubbing up against the Jewish community, and the claim that the Messiah was Jesus the Christ?
In any event, the exit of the Jewish community from Rome in 49AD resulted in economic recession and chaos. Isn't that what you would expect from the sudden withdrawal of the Jewish community from the commercial activities of a city? Imagine Melbourne tomorrow without the contribution of its Jewish citizens. As a result, for economic reasons, in 52AD the Jews were allowed to return to Rome.
Now it is into this historical context that Paul wrote his letter to the 'beloved of God' as he calls them in Rome. It is significant that while Paul's other letters were written to the Church, the Christian community or ecclesia in Corinth or Thessalonica, or wherever, the term 'ecclesia' never appears in the letter to the Romans. Can it be that there is not yet a community with sufficient coherence to be called the ecclesia of God in Rome?
In any event, in this historical context Paul posses the question, not of how the individual can get right with God, so much as how can the gentiles inherit the promises originally made to the children of Abraham. His answer is, not by the outward observance of the works of the law, not by obeying the Torah, but by faith, for, argues Paul, Abraham was essentially a man of faith. Justification by faith is Paul's answer to a missiological question, not a psychological question. He is grappling with the question of how both Jews and Christians can be the children of Abraham and inheritors of the promises of God to Abraham. Can it be that Paul writes into a situation in which returning Jews have come back to Rome from exile, only to find their synagogues occupied by Christians, most of whom may have avoided expulsion because they were Gentile Christians rather than Jewish Christians. Paul is thus grappling with the ensuing crisis, trying to explain how it could be that both Jews and Gentiles can share together in the promises of God to Abraham. The Epistle to the Romans is this what the Germans call a Missionsdokument. Paul is struggling to address the conflict of ideas as returning Jews and Christians can live together.
On a visit to Rome a few years ago I took the train down to Ostia Antica, the ancient port of Rome, now silted up. The ruins of Ostia are very impressive. I knew that Monica, the mother of Augustine farewelled her son from Ostia before he sailed off to Hippo in North Africa in the fifth century. So I went expecting to find the ruins of some ancient Christian churches in Ostia. What I came across was not the ruins of churches but of synagogues. This was the area of Jewish occupation from which the Jews were expelled by Claudius in 49AD. One synagogue ruin I remember very clearly was entirely without walls but the pavement of the Roman floor was in perfect shape, a splendid white mosaic floor. Could it be that this was the kind of synagogue locus of dispute between Jewish and Gentile Christians and more traditional and orthodox Jews over the Christ, which had triggered the social disturbance and riotous behaviour spoken of by Seutonius? Was this a property to which the expelled Jews returned, only to find it occupied by Gentile Christians?
Paul writing to the Romans is appealing not to a clearly defined and organised Christian community or ecclesia of God, but is grappling with the question of how Gentile Christians and Jews can both claim to be inheritors of the promises of God to Abraham and live in harmony as 'the beloved of God'. His answer is, not by keeping the law, the Torah, for that is exclusively a Jewish activity, but rather justification before God is by trusting faith, which both Gentile Christians and Jews share.
Furthermore, in Romans chapter 11 Paul uses the image of an olive tree to caution the Gentile Christians of Rome not to think of themselves more highly than they ought to think. If a wild olive (the Gentile Christians), he says, can be grafted into the stock of an ancient olive tree (the ancient tree of Judaism), how much more easily could God graft a lopped off branch of that original and natural tree back on to the original stock from which it came? Can it be that Paul is saying to the Gentile Christians who had stayed behind when the Jews were expelled, and occupied the synagogues, should not get too uppity, and that it was within the good purpose of God to regraft the Jewish limbs that had been lopped off into the original stock?
That at least is Paul's attempt to resolve this little problem of Christian-Jewish relations. But if this text comes out of such a context in the middle of the first century, is it not a text with which Christians and Jews might well grapple today? Can we together wring a blessing and not a curse from this ancient text?
So my point is that Christians must wrestle with these texts and a few others like them and do so in the context of a newfound willingness to engage with Jewish brothers and sisters a public discussion in which we are prepared to interrogate one another so as to wring a shared truth from it. Just to be content to retreat into our own bunkers, or even to retreat into a cool tolerance bordering on indifference you believe what you want and I'll believe what I want - simply will not do.
But that kind of mutual wrestling with inherited texts so as to wring a blessing from them and not a curse, must be on the agenda of all three of the Abrahamic religions of ethical monotheism. We all worship the same God, and if God is in some way interested in what goes on in this world, then the question that currently confronts us all in the context of our heightened awareness of religious pluralism today, is what is God doing in such a world? What is God up to in the context of the religious plurality of our time? How are we intended to live together under the sovereignty of God? What is our role together in building a more peaceful and just world?
That is why I really do not think a stand-offish tolerance bordering on indifference will do.
I think what I am seeking to express is summed up in some words I recently came across in a newly published book by one of my priests in the Diocese of Perth. He raises the question of whether God might be offering humanity a new opportunity by nudging each of the world religions out of their tendency to introspective self definition and self-reference, forcing all of us out of the comfort zone of our self-enclosure to become public, so that we genuinely engage together, and insistently interrogate one another and learn from one another, and thus enter into a more lively, healthy, and life-giving cross fertilisation, a healthy theology of cross reference. (David Wood, John Vincent Taylor, Poet, Priest, and Prophet, London, 2002, p.2)
I certainly hope that the whole world may be helped to move beyond the mere tolerance of others to a more life giving and positive human engagement.