Jew and Christian face each other at Christmas. The Christian recalls that his Saviour was born a Jew. The Jew, who has chosen across the centuries to live largely in Christian nations, often recalls the past sufferings that have been his lot as he sees symbols of Christianity glittering in annual array.
In cities where the two faiths confront each other, Christmas is a time for problems in public policy. Pittsburgh’s City Council ponders whether it should put a $4,500 Nativity scene in downtown Mellon Square. The Albuquerque, New Mexico, schools decide whether pupils should sing what the Civil Liberties Union complains “are very clearly Christian hymns.”
When Jewish youngsters shun roles in school Nativity playlets, they are sometimes considered uncivil. When they do take part, it is often in the bit parts, like one of the wise men—a role sometimes reserved for the local rabbi’s son.
In the context of church-state court rulings in recent years, the school plays and carol-singing raise the question to what degree public education should become a medium for mirroring sectarian beliefs. But Christmas is also a fact, cultural and otherwise, and is part of the American heritage. The Yuletide haggling is thus part of the broad debate over how public education should handle religion, which is one of the major cultural forces in American life.
To some Gentiles, this public side of Christmas is homage to the world’s Messiah. To others, it is a purely secular phenomenon. But to most Jews it is an irritant of minority sensitivities. The objections to public notice of Christmas are one result. Another is the fact that “Hanukkah is loved by the Jewish people in a measure out of all proportion to its position in the ceremonial round of the Jewish religious year.” The words are those of Rabbi Solomon Bernards of B’nai B’rith, in an Associated Church Press article.
Hanukkah marks the dedication of the Temple in 165 B.C., but to a great extent it symbolizes the nationalistic side of Judaism, for the Temple was saved by the exploits of the Maccabean warriors. Bernards says that if the Jews hadn’t fought the Syrians, “Judaism would have disappeared, and Christianity and Islam would not have come into being.”
Perhaps. But a Christian can forget this historic debt, and show the smug superiority of numbers as he looks at his Jewish neighbor’s awkwardly relabeled “Hanukkah bush.” And he may also be irritated by the fact that Jews can be very upset about a school Christmas concert while making full use of the same festival’s sales potential in their stores.
As a reminder that anti-Semitism is not a problem restricted to Christian countries, an ad hoc panel of U. S. religious and civic leaders this month said that since the officially atheistic Soviet Union is depriving its Jews of their “character, dignity, and future,” it should permit large-scale emigration of its Jewish citizens to Israel. And ninety of the 100 U. S. senators urged the Soviet to grant its Jews full rights.
While in Paris this month, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin said Russian Jews “can be reunited” with their relatives in other nations, while at the same time denying charges of anti-Semitism. Jewish leaders in the United States and Israel welcomed the possibility of emigration.
If petty tensions at Christmas 1966 sometimes counteract the ideal of “on earth peace, good will toward men,” the year just ending has done much to apply the idea to Jewish-Christian relations.
The American and British Roman Catholic hierarchies formed commissions to implement the Vatican Council decree which made clear that Jews have no more collective guilt for Christ’s death than mankind in general. Guidelines for U. S. interfaith relations were drafted by Monsignor John Oesterreicher, himself a convert from Judaism, who believes the council decree “will lead to a grace-filled coexistence.” Catholics in Belgium and Austria are checking references to Jews in religious textbooks, and Jewish relations led the agenda at last July’s German Catholic Day Congress at Bamberg.
Protestants joined with Catholics in a major August conference in Cambridge, England, attended by many leading Jews, which explored interfaith relations. Participants said anti-Semitism is on the rise in some parts of the world. At that meeting, it was revealed that the National Council of Churches in the U. S. A. has been holding unofficial, off-the-record monthly discussions with Jewish leaders for nearly two years. In America, interfaith conferences were held at Lutheran St. Olaf College and Harvard Divinity School.
At the Harvard session, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum of the American Jewish Committee proposed an International Center for Advanced Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations. Tanenbaum admits “there has been a considerable amount of anxiety in the Jewish community” about theological dialogues with Christians.
Striking evidence of such anxiety came late last month at the meeting of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations. The most conservative of Judaism’s three branches said Jews must reject “any endeavor to become engaged in dialogues concerning our faith and its theological foundations. We do not deem it proper or appropriate to discuss our eternal verities with members of other faiths, nor do we see such discussion as serving spiritual or social weal.”
Back To Bethlehem
The continuing agitation this month between Jewish Israel and Muslim Jordan casts a pall upon Christians celebrating one of their two great festivals. In a rare moment of cooperation, however, Israel and Jordan agreed to grant passes to about 5,000 Christian Arabs who live in Israel to spend thirty-six hours in the holy cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Jordan this month symbolized the status of its Christians by ordering all private schools (most of which are Christian) to close on Friday—traditional Muslim day of rest—as well as Sunday.
Westerners among the more than 15,000 visitors to Jordan will find that there is literally no room at the inns of Bethlehem or Jerusalem unless bookings have been made months in advance—despite the fact that Christmas is celebrated three times. Protestants, Greek Catholics, and Roman Catholics mark the traditional December 25; the Greek Orthodox follow the January 7 of the Julian calendar; Armenians celebrate on January 19, Epiphany on the Julian calendar.
In Bethlehem’s brightly lit square at the Church of the Nativity—Christendom’s oldest church still in use—the pilgrim is greeted with popping flashbulbs, the low rumble of buses loaded with tourists, and bands playing carols under bobbing colored lights. If he resists the wiles of shopkeepers with their olive-wood camels, Crusader scarves, carved Dead Sea stones, and mother-of-pearl crèches, he may yet manage to salvage the Christmas spirit.
The worshipers come from all lands. There are shepherds and princes, the dark- and the light-skinned, their voices swelling in a babel of tongues but with one spirit. After an hour of chanting in the Nativity Church, the Patriarch of Jerusalem moves into the grotto where a golden star inlaid in a slab of pure white Italian marble marks what is thought to be the spot where Christ was born. The patriarch reads the Christmas story. Then for hours men, women, and children kneel in wonder and place their lips to the star. The heat from a thousand candles, incense pots, and human bodies is suffocating, but every face radiates adoration.
DWIGHT L. BAKER
The Orthodox Jews were but little warmer toward the Vatican’s decree, which was said to contain “a gratuitous undercurrent of absolution and a complete absence of any open and frank acknowledgment by the church of her historic guilt for the unspeakable atrocities committed by her adherents.…”
In other segments of Judaism more interested in dialogue and more optimistic about the Christians, the younger faith is often misunderstood. For instance, proclamation is one of its essential characteristics, and Christians are not supposed to discriminate against Jews by withholding the Gospel.
At the World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin, observer Rabbi Arthur Gilbert said “a significant dialogue can now begin between Jews and evangelical Christians,” but that the latter would have to recast their theology because “Christians need not convert us.” And at the St. Olaf’s consultation, Rabbi Myer Kripke of Omaha, Nebraska, said Christians should declare a moratorium on seeking to convert Jews. Two Roman Catholic-Jewish dialogues were held this month, and at one of them St. Louis Rabbi Joseph Rosenbloom said Christians need to “recognize the right of Jews to remain Jews.”
A halt in evangelism is as unlikely as judicial review of the trial of Jesus Christ, which has actually been discussed in Jerusalem. It was revealed this fall that Israel’s first Supreme Court Justice, Moshe Smoira, considered the possibility carefully after appeals from Christian theologians, but decided the matter was outside the court’s competence.
But unofficial retrials continue, and latter-day Israeli Justice Haim Cohn asserts that the trial was exclusively a Roman affair in which Jesus was executed for being a pretender to the kingship of the Jews. Cohn theorizes that the Jewish priests and scribes met at night with Jesus to implore him to save his life by denying his kingship.
This reconstruction of history is as imbalanced as the Middle Ages canards from Christians which gave Jews all the blame. The centuries of unchallenged anti-Semitism have left their mark within Christianity, and this history overshadows the search for the elusive meeting point between the two Semitic-based world faiths.
After taking 23-year-old Kentuckian William Minor to the scene of the crime, Columbus, Ohio, police charged him with first-degree murder in the brutal bludgeoning of noted clergyman Robert W. Spike (Nov. 11 issue, page 57). Police said the two met while Minor was burglarizing the Ohio State University United Christian Center.
John Cogley reportedly will resign as New York Times religion editor for health reasons.
The Rev. Charles Blakney, 38-year-old United Church of Christ missionary, was fined $42 by a court in Southern Rhodesia for a sermon last summer deemed likely to expose police to “contempt, ridicule, or disesteem.”
The Rev. Stuart G. Turner, 41, hired at $9,000 a year to investigate prisoner complaints after a Maryland prison riot in July, was charged by a grand jury with taking $930 from two inmates in return for seeking paroles for them.
The Rev. Jose Chavez, Baptist pastor in San Antonio, Texas, was permanently crippled by a gunshot wound in the spine during a youth gang battle near his home.
V. Raymond Edman, 66, former president of Wheaton College, suffered a heart attack just before Thanksgiving and was expected to be in a St. Charles, Illinois, hospital most of this month.
President of the new Lutheran Council in the U. S. A., which opens its New York office January 1, is Malvin Lundeen, former full-time secretary of the Lutheran Church in America, who outlasted twelve other candidates at last month’s organizing convention. Missouri Synod’s C. Thomas Spitz, Jr., continues as general secretary.
President Oliver Harms of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod wired President Johnson to commend him for the holiday ceasefires in Viet Nam and urge him “to pursue permanent peace in this tortured land.”
President Johnson was elected an elder of First Christian Church (Disciples) of Johnson City, Texas, where he has belonged since 1923. The post purportedly will be an active one, not honorary.
One Roman Catholic priest preached at a Thanksgiving service in Dallas’s North-lake Baptist Church; another has been chosen social-service advisor at Meredith College, a North Carolina Baptist women’s school.
U. M. Dorairaj, a Hindustan Bible Institute missionary in Alwar, India, has been missing two months and is feared kidnapped by religious enemies.
A four-man committee is administering Abilene Christian College during the recuperation of President Don H. Morris, who had a stroke last month.
Dr. Elmer L. Severinghaus, long-time teacher at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, was elected president of the United Church of Christ’s Board for World Ministries.
J. Manning Potts, editor of the Upper Room—which has the largest paid circulation among devotional literature—will become executive director of the Methodist assembly center at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, January 1.
WALTER POPE BINNS, 71, Roanoke, Virginia, pastor who became a veteran leader of the Southern Baptist Executive Committee and president of William Jewell College; retired two months ago as chairman of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs; in Falls Church, Virginia, of a heart attack.
ANATOL KIRUKHANTSEV, 41, pastor of the Leningrad Baptist Church and one of the Soviet Union’s key Protestants: of a heart attack.
HUGH D. FARLEY, 52, executive director of Church World Service from 1961 to 1965; in Key Biscayne, Florida, of a heart attack while playing tennis with his wife.
President Arnold T. Olson of the Evangelical Free Church says the Roman Catholic move for a common Christian Bible could be used for “carrying out the Great Commission.” Noting evangelicals’ zeal in spreading the Bible, he said “our sincerity to this commitment will now be tested.”
Spain’s Roman Catholics formed councils for lower clergy and laymen seen as a liberalizing move, and bishops told voters to follow their consciences in voting this month on a constitution which widens rights of non-Catholics. The nation’s Supreme Court acquitted five Jehovah’s Witnesses fined for holding a Bible study.
At a week-long meeting in Chiang Mai, Thailand, leaders from twenty nations in the World Fellowship of Buddhists discussed international peace and a proposal that the organization’s constitution prohibit political involvement.
Southern Baptists are seeking 100 preachers for a simultaneous revival crusade in South Africa next September. A South African linguist for Wycliffe Bible Translators, Keith Forster, was denied a visa to work in Nigeria. In New York, the clergy-laden Committee of Conscience Against Apartheid said more than $23 million has been withdrawn from two banks to protest their loans to South Africa.
Three Soviet women, members of the conservative Baptist group that refuses to register with the government, were jailed for three years for holding secret religion classes. A new addition to the U. S. S. R. criminal code now makes even oral criticism of government policies on religion punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment.
In elections last month, Communists in Nazareth, Israel, lost control of the municipal council.
Vatican experts are studying the new Dutch Catechism after conservatives in the Netherlands bypassed their bishops and complained directly to the Holy See. Pope Paul this month issued a warning to the Dutch church.
A survey revealed at a Notre Dame University population conference showed that 53 per cent of Roman Catholic wives in the United States from age 18 to 39 use birth-control methods forbidden by their church. In 1960, only 38 per cent violated the teaching.
The Middle States Association has given St. John’s University, dissent-ridden Roman Catholic school in Brooklyn, one year to refurbish academic standards or face loss of accreditation.
In the United Nations debate before Red China was refused admission, Nationalist China’s Foreign Minister Wei Tao-ming denied that Pope Paul was urging a seat for Red China in his U. N. speech last year.
Mirroring the U. S. economy, the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board is allowing its church-loans division to charge more than 6 per cent interest for loans to finance new church construction.
Joseph D. Morse, 37-year-old odd-job janitor, was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of University of Colorado coed Elaura Jaquette (see August 19 issue, page 52).
U. S. Census Director A. Ross Eckler has decided that no question on religious preference will appear on the 1970 census.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.