Beyond Jew or Christian: Opening New Space for Interreligious Conversation

Print More

interfaith banner

Credit: Creative Commons/Svadlifari.

From before I started my bar mitzvah training, I was terrified of Christians. I was born in the shadow of the Holocaust and grew up with the specter of anti-Semitism in the air. For better or worse, I didn’t actually get to know any “live” Christians throughout my childhood in an overwhelmingly Jewish part of Los Angeles, so my stereotypes of Christians as Jew-haters was left largely intact until I moved to Berkeley for college in the early 70s.
It was as much a shock to me as to my kosher-keeping grandma, then, when at the end of my college years, I was baptized Roman Catholic. I had been taught to be proud of my Jewish heritage, and I was, but the “religious” part had seemed to my youthful, arrogant mind largely obsolete and rather ridiculous. Here it was, the late 20th century: how could one actually take seriously ancient stories of miraculous manna and mountaintop encounters with God? I was not looking for God or religion. Yet, after a pair of powerful experiences of an inbreaking Presence, I found myself on a quest to discover if and who God might be.
Christianity was about the last place I expected to end up. I grew up knowing nothing at all about Jesus or the New Testament. All I “knew” were rumors and suggestions. Discovering Jesus was an exciting surprise. And, of course, he was Jewish, from the day of his birth until the day of his death.
What I had “known” was that Christians blamed Jews for “killing the Lord,” while Jews thought that Christians were stupidly mistaken for reveling in a crucified messiah. In the nearly four decades since those first steps on my spiritual journey, I have discovered that both “sides” seemed to be stuck in a basic misperception: that Jesus came along to replace “Judaism” with something else called “Christianity.” Jesus’ whole life was a deep engagement with a tradition that was thoroughly and completely “Jewish.”
My entire adult life has thus been an inter-religious dialogue with myself. I’ve never felt a desire to renounce “Judaism,” yet I have found in Jesus a model of who God is and what it looks like to be truly human in a world of oppression and empire.
I left a career in law in the mid 80s and eventually took up studying and writing about the Bible while working as a peace activist in the interfaith and ecumenical communities in Seattle. My first book on John’s gospel (Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship) argued, among other things, that Jesus’ reviled opponents were not “Jews” but “Judeans,” rendering the Greek Ioudaioi according to its more precise, historical meaning. The “Judeans” were those whose defense of the unjust Jerusalem status quo left them closed to the possibility that the God of Israel was at work among the poor in a new way that would bring the shalom people so longed for amid Roman imperial tyranny.
Working on this project opened up numerous questions for me that I’ve begun to address in my most recent book, “Come Out, My People!:” God’s Call Out of Empire In the Bible and Beyond. Central to that project is the historical claim of nations to have God “on our side” in the events of war and economics. What I argue is that the Hebrew Bible is itself an argument between two radically different perspectives on who God is and what kind of social, political and economic world God wants people to live within. One of these perspectives I call the “religion of empire.” It is characterized by social hierarchy, urban centralization, economic exploitation of the poor, exclusion of outsiders, and the use of violence to maintain its “order.” In opposition to this worldview is the “religion of creation.” This perspective is inclusive, egalitarian, earth-centered, and grounded in the love of all people and all creation. In one sense, each of these could be considered “Judaism,” for each claims YHWH as its foundation. At the same time, the word “Judaism” doesn’t help us to decide which of these is “true” or “good.” Both forms go back to “the beginning” of the written tradition.
I’ve recently been involved in a more public interfaith conversation around this theme with a Jewish teaching colleague and a Muslim friend. My Jewish colleague notes that, as someone who claims Jesus, I have it easy: despite Western history, the Jesus of the New Testament clearly sided with the “religion of creation” and against the “religion of empire.” Jews, on the other hand, must continue to grapple with both perspectives, since both are contained within the Tanakh. Another friend who was raised Jewish, appalled by the excesses of “religion” and having therefore not engaged in formal religion throughout his life, read the comparison chart in my book and declared about the religion of creation, “that’s what I’ve always believed!” For both of us, traditional religious labels such as “Jew” or “Christian” no longer worked to express our understanding of and commitment to the One who creates and sustains life.
Beginning to write for Tikkun is, in a way, a homecoming for me. Throughout my decades engaged with the ecumenical Christian community, I’ve always felt that my deepest place of belonging was the one into which I was born. I hope my writing here will open up some possibilities for engaging shared biblical and historical traditions among people deeply yearning for a path to personal, communal and planetary healing. I’m very grateful for any of you who would like to be companions on that journey.
Wes Howard-Brook has been teaching and writing at the intersection of church, society and academy since 1988. Previously, he was an attorney for the federal and Washington state governments, including a stint as counsel to the US Senate Judiciary Committee (1981-83). He teaches theology and scripture at Seattle University and at churches and gatherings around the Pacific Northwest and the U.S.