Assemblies of the World Council of Churches

by Allan R. Brockway

Contents
1. The Missionary Movement
2. The Shoah
3. Amsterdam
4. The Christian Approach to the Jews
5. Evanston and New Delhi
6. Uppsala, Nairobi, and Vancouver
7. Conclusion

Close attention to positions relative to the Jewish people taken by Assemblies of the World Council of Churches since the founding of the WCC in 1948 reveals something of the last brief chapter in an almost 2000-year history of relationship between the Jewish and Christian communities. It is a far, far different chapter from most of those that preceded it.


1. The Missionary Movement

Though the documents here reproduced begin with the First Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1948, the chapter of which they are the most recent part began in the nineteenth century with the modern missionary movement. As missionaries accompanied and followed explorers, conquerors, and colonizers to almost every part of the then "unknown" world with the goal of bringing the gospel to everyone "in this generation" (to adopt a phrase made popular by John R. Mott at the turn of the twentieth century), they encountered people who apparently found complete satisfaction through their own, "non-Christian," religions. And the suspicion began to grow that perhaps God had ways with people that were different from those of Christianity. At the very least, the missionaries encountered people who were worthy of respect. Their religions, of course, were considered to be false but that could not be laid to their account: they simply had not had the opportunity to encounter Jesus Christ. The opportunity was now to be theirs.

Jews presented a special problem for missionaries, however, for Jews had never been without the opportunity to accept the gospel--unlike, for instance, Hindus, Buddhists, or traditional religionists. Further, Jews were neighbours of European and North American missionaries, not pagans "in some distant land." At the same time the ancient scandal that the Jews continued to refuse to admit that Jesus was the Messiah remained and, with it, the urgency of their conversion. But. in contrast to earlier centuries, Jews as individuals, as human beings, were not considered degenerate or evil by the missionaries. On the contrary, felt love for Jews expressed itself in an intense desire to bring them the gospel and thus into the church. Because Christians loved the Jews, it was their Christian duty to convince them that the Messiah for whom they waited had already come. Indeed, one argument went, not to preach the gospel to the Jews was antisemitism itself.

That this nineteenth and early twentieth century attitude towards Jews represented a radical shift from that of preceding generations (when Jews, far from being loved, were actively hated and persecuted) cannot be emphasized enough. Perhaps the shift can be dated from the Enlightenment and then the Emancipation, when Jews were released from the ghettos and encouraged to become part of the general society. As Clermont-Tonnerre, a French philosopller, put it: "Everything should be denied to the Jews as a nation; everything should be granted to them as individuals." It therefore became tremendously important that individual Jews be converted to Christianity, while the concept of the Jewish people all but entirely vanished from consciousness.

The missionary movement was not the only movement concerning Jews current at the time, however. About the middle of the nineteenth century, politicians discerned that political capital could be gained by playing upon the animosity towards Jews inherited though the centuries when the church accused the Jewish people of deicide and ostracized it, and all within it, throughout Christendom. So the term "anti-Semitism"[1] came to mean hatred of Jews on what was .supposed to be a racial basis, and politicians, imbuing it with honour, ran for office on anti-Semitic platforms. Jewish peoplehood. understood as "race," was paramount for the anti-Semitic movement; individual Jews were but instances of the Jewish "race," which was thought to be destined, through social Darwinism, to an eternally inferior place in society and history. Tragically, the "enlightened'' missionary movement, with its emphasis on the individual Jew, was unable to muster the awarencss necessary to counter racial and political anti-Semitism, with its negative emphasis on Jewish peoplehood ( "race"), when the latter came to political power in the Third Reich.

For the missionary movement, however, antisemitism was anathema. Instead, Love for "the Jews" was the order of the day. Under the auspices of the International Missionary Council and the leadership of John R. Mott, two conferences on "The Christian Approach to the Jews" were held in 1927, first in Budapest and then in Warsaw. The findings of the Budapest conference noted that: "Our message to the Jews is the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, glorified, the fulfilment of the Law and the true Messiah. He is the incarnate Word, the Redeemer of the world, the Saviour from sin, who is bringing Israel to her destiny -- viz., to become a blessing to all humanity."[2]

Antisemitism was seen to be a dreadful evil. When the third conference on "The Christian Approach to the Jews" was held in Atlantic City. New Jersey (USA), in 1931, Dr. Frank Gavin of the General Theological Seminary in New York could declare that "I do not believe that there is such a thing as 'religious antisemitism'... But when we look close into the cause of antisemitism, there is just enough color of the allegedly 'religious' element to make it seem plausible that it is a factor. . . For Judaism when practiced by observant Jews, certainly appears to the non-Jew a religion apart from the ordinary world. Within this quite limited meaning of the word 'religious intolerance' there is some basis for its existence, but the creating word, the determining factor, is not to be cast up to the gentile but to the Jewish side of the ledger."[3] In sum, antisemitism was blamed on the Jews themselves.

Nevertheless, the delegates to the 1931 conference. meeting as they were on the precipice of the Nazi terror, passed a short resolution that read: "We, the assembled delegates to the Atlantic City Conference on the Christian Approach to the Jews, associate ourselves in sympathy with the widespread suffering among Jewish peoples (sic) in Central and Eastern Europe and commend all well-directed efforts to provide relief to the support of Christian philanthropy."[4]

Whereas from the beginning of the Christian movement until the Enlightenment, the Jewish people had been a theological reality for the church, in the missionary movement it was de-theologized, becoming "the Jews" or "the Jewish peoples." As individuals, Jews were suitable targets for Christian evangelism while, at the same time, they were subjects of Christian compassion when they were oppressed, just as were other deprived or persecuted children of God. But, as the Jewish people. Jews were perceived to have no significance for Christian theology or ecclesiology .

Though Christian opposition to antisemitism could only be of benefit to the welfare of Jews, it provided a way for the church to sweep the theological significance of the Jewish people under the carpet. The otherwise laudable emphasis upon antisemitism as violation of human rights became, therefore, a substitute for wrestling with the critical issue of the theological significance of the Jewish people for Christian self-understanding. Misguided as it was, medieval persecution of Jews because they had "killed God" nevertheless took the Jewish people with theological seriousness, as the missionary movement, by and large, did not.


2. The Shoah

The Nazi attempt to eradicate the Jewish people led to some new thinking within the church that, while building upon the missionary perception of Jews, demonstrated the theological importance of Israel and, in particular, the theological significance of antisemitism. In a statement issued at Darmstadt on 8 April 1948, the Bruderrat of the Evangelical Church in Germany[5] declared:

It may rightly be said that after what has happened, after all that we allowed to happen in silence, we have no authority to speak now. We are distressed about what happened in the past, and about the fact that we did not make any joint statement about it... Today when retribution is being meted out to us for what we did to the Jews, there is increasing danger that we may take refuge from God's judgment in a new wave of antisemitism, thus conjuring up all the old devils once again. In this perilous situation and amid this temptation God's word speaks to us and helps us to find the right attitude to the Jews.

But even though "the burning question of Judaism and the Christian church lies on our hearts like a stone", the German Protestants defined the "right attitude to the Jews" precisely as the missionary movement had done:

The Bible tells us, and the Creeds of our Churches confirm, that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew, a member of the chosen people, Israel... But the church is not allowed to teach that it makes no difference that Jesus is a member of the Jewish people, just as it is not allowed to ascribe him to any other nation or race. . .

Since the Son of God was born a Jew, the election and destiny of Israel found its fulfillment in him...

Since Israel crucified the Messiah, it rejected its own election and its own destiny . . .

Through Christ, and since Christ, Israel's election has passed to the church, which is composed of all nations both Jews and Gentiles.

This understanding of the Jewish people led, however, to an insight about antisemitism that was absent in the missionary movement and, certainly, during the Nazi years. It is significant enough to warrant quoting in full:

Because the church recognizes the Jew as an erring brother destined for Christ, a brother whom it loves and calls, it is not permissible for the church to regard the Jewish question as a racial or national problem, and to let that determine its attitude towards the Jewish people, or towards individual Jews. Furthermore, the church must show the world that the world is mistaken if it thinks it can settle the Jewish problem as if it were a racial or national one.

It was a disastrous mistake when the churches of our time adopted the secular attitude of mere humanity, emancipation and anti-semitism towards the Jewish question. There was bound to be a bitter retribution for the fact that anti-semitism rose and flourished not only among the people (who still seemed to be a Christian nation), not only among the intelligentsia, and in governmental and military circles, but also among Christian leaders. And when finally this radical anti-semitism, based on racial hatred, destroyed our nation and our churches from within, and released all its brutal force from without, there existed no power to resist it--because the churches had forgotten what Israel really is, and no longer loved the Jews. Christian circles washed their hands of all responsibility, justifying themselves by saying that there was a curse on the Jewish people. Christians no longer believed that the promise concerning the Jews still held good, they no longer preached it, nor showed it in their attitude to the Jews. In this way we Christians helped to bring about all the injustice and suffering inflicted upon the Jews in our country.

The denial of "religious antisemitism" voiced by Dr. Gavin in 1931 was rejected and responsibility of Christian teaching and doctrine for the Shoah acknowledged. But the theological understanding of the Jewish people remained that of the missionary movement. In the paragraph immediately following the one just cited, the German Protestants confessed "with shame and grief what a great wrong we have done to Israel, and how deep our guilt is. As a church we have failed to be the witness of salvation for Israel."


3. Amsterdam

This was the situation at the time of the World Council of Churches' founding Assembly in August/September 1948; the ambiguity in the churches about guilt for the Shoah and the desire to convert Jews was profound. The churches had come to a more accurate comprehension of antisemitism and their own involvement in it--and drew the conclusion that an even greater effort should be made to convert Jews to Christianity. A statement by the Protestant Commission on the Witness to Israel of the Protestant Federation of France, [6] prepared for the WCC's First Assembly, summed it up:

To the persecuted people. the church must say that their sufferings are not God's vengeance for the death of Jesus but an appeal to conversion and to turn from their unfaithfulness. It is obviously very hard to use this language to the survivors of the Nazi massacres. But Christians cannot attempt to proclaim the Gospel to the Jews unless they begin by affirming that Jesus really is the Christ, the Son of God. and that their unfaithfulness consists in their refusal to recognize him as the Messiah foretold in the prophets.

A shift was beginning to take place in Christian understandings of the Jewish people but only beginning. Years prior to Vatican II, the French Protestants appear to have been on the verge of rejecting the deicide charge, but they remained convinced that Jewish suffering--the Shoah!--is the consequence of Jewish refusal to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. It is not surprising, therefore, that the French paper should make the most explicit statement possible concerning the purpose of efforts at conversion:

It follows that, unless we are to be at cross-purposes. a clear distinction should be drawn between anti-semitism and the anti-Judaism which is involved in every summons to conversion... The aim of general conversion cannot be anything less than the spiritual destruction of Judaism.

Thus, in the years immediately after the closing of the death camps very little changed in the church's theological perception of the Jewish people with the exception that awareness was growing of the Christian contribution to antisemitism. Christian mission to Jews, however, was seen to be more imperative than ever. At the same time, references to "the Jewish people" began to creep into church documents, often mixed with "the Jews" but nevertheless there. Change was coming--very slowly. The Shoah had placed "the Jewish question" squarely on the agenda of the church.

But the Shoah clearly was only part of the reason the churches were concerned about the "approach to the Jews". The other part was the missionary activity, and the theological issues thereby raised, carried out by the International Missionary Council and the organizations within it.

Both of these aspects are clearly evident in the statement "The Christian Approach to the Jews", that was debated and received by the Amsterdam Assembly. Though the humanitarian concern for Jews as people who had suffered is present, the statement was discussed within a theological context. Thus its opening sentence constituted the beginning of a new theological approach to the Jewish people: "A concern for the Christian approach to the Jewish people confronts us inescapably, as we meet together to look with open and penitent eyes on man's disorder and to rediscover together God's eternal purpose for his church."

The statement then proceeds to note that: "No people in his one world have suffered more bitterly from the disorder of man than the Jewish people. We cannot forget that we meet in a land from which 110,000 Jews were taken to be murdered. Nor can we forget that we meet only five years (sic) after the extermination of 6 million Jews." The very next sentence then states unequivocally that "To the Jews our God has bound us in a special solidarity linking our destinies together in his design."

The church's "special relationship" with the Jewish people was made even more explicit in the second paragraph, where the delegates acknowledged: "In the design of God, Israel has a unique position. It was Israel with whom God made his covenant by the call of Abraham. It was Israel to whom God revealed his name and gave his Law...." [7]This insight from Amsterdam stands as the first and most basic of Assembly documents dealing with the Jewish people and may legitimately be the foundation upon which new efforts within the ecumenical movement can build forty years later.

The implications drawn from acknowledgment of Israel's special relationship with the church were those of the missionary movement:

It was Israel to whom He promised the coming of his Messiah. By the history of Israel God prepared the manger in which in the fullness of time He put the Redeemer of all mankind, Jesus Christ. The church has received this spiritual heritage from Israel and is therefore in honour bound to render it back in the light of the Cross. We have, therefore, in humble conviction to proclaim to the Jews, "The Messiah for Whom you wait has come." The promise has been fulfilled by the coming of Jesus Christ.

This particular conclusion was not unanimously accepted by the delegates, however.[8] For instance, in plenary session Dr. Herman Heering of the Remonstrant Brotherhood (Netherlands) moved that the entire statement be dropped: "It contained many telling statements, but to all who had at heart the sufferings of the Jews it must seem impossible to preach to a people which had gone through so much. They must first be given an opportunity of living at all."[9] But, by its vote to receive the statement, the majority agreed with Dr. Benjamin Mays of the National Baptist Convention (USA) that it was imperative for the Jews to be brought "into full Christian fellowship here and now".

Thus the conclusion drawn from recognition of "the special meaning of the Jewish people for Christian faith" had only to do with that aspect of Christian faith contained in the Great Commission: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19) -- including, especially, Jews. And, since the relevant issue was understood to be how best to go about fulfilling that commission, some barriers had to be overcome, "particularly.. . the barriers which we have too often helped to build and which we alone can remove". The "barriers to be overcome" clearly were understood to be antisemitism.[10]

The paragraphs that follow were worded with a sensitivity and awareness of the actual nature of antisemitism that has seldom been repeated in ecumenical documents:

We must acknowledge in all humility that too often we have failed to manifest Christian love towards our Jewish neighbours, or even a resolute will for common social justice. We have failed to fight with all our strength the age-old disorder of man which anti-semitism represents. The churches in the past have helped to foster an image of Jews as the sole enemies of Christ which has contributed to anti-semitism in the secular world.

Here we find that antisemitism is an "age-old disorder of man" and that the churches are at least partially responsible for "anti-semitism in the secular world." Further, the admission of failure to have a "resolute will for common social justice" gives evidence of future willingness to cooperate with Jews in the pursuit of justice and peace.

Then follow the sentences that were to be reiterated and adopted by the New Delhi Assembly in 1961:

We call upon all the churches we represent to denounce anti-semitism, no matter what its origin, as absolutely irreconcilable with the profession and practice of the Christian faith. Anti-semitism is sin against God and man. Only as we give convincing evidence to our Jewish neighbours that we seek for them the common rights and dignities which God wills for his children, can we come to such a meeting with them as would make it possible to share with them the best which God has given us in Christ.

In this section concerning antisemitism, which was entitled "Barriers to be overcome", the terms used for the subjects of antisemitism were "the Jews" and "our Jewish neighbours"--that is, Jews as individuals. But in the preceding section on "The special meaning of the Jewish people for Christian faith" and in the following one on "The Christian witness to the Jewish people" the reference is almost always collective. The earlier
emphasis on the individual Jew was maintained with reference to anti semitism, but virtually abandoned in terms of conversion. The call now was for conversion of the Jewish people. "In spite of the universality of our Lord's commission and of the fact that the first mission of the church was to the Jewish people, our churches have with rare exceptions failed to maintain that mission."

The fifth section has to do with "The emergence of Israel as a state". The Amsterdam Assembly delegates simply did not know how to respond to the Jewish people's claim to statehood. It adds, they said, "a political dimension to the Christian approach to the Jews and threatens to complicate anti-semitism with political fears and enmities". Certainly the state of Israel was to "complicate" the relation between the ecumenical movement and the Jewish people for a very long time to come. Nevertheless, in 1948 the Assembly elected to withhold judgment: "On the political aspects of the Palestine problem and the complex of 'rights' involved we do not undertake to express a judgment. Nevertheless, we appeal to the nations to deal with the problem not as one of expediency--political, strategic or economic--but as a moral and spiritual question that touches a nerve centre of the world's religious life."

This last sentence, extraordinary for its social and theological astuteness, became part of the statement as a consequence of deliberation in the Alternates' Committee IV; it was not in the original draft. The official report records the following:

Dr. Baines [Canon Henry Wolfe Baines, Church of England] thanked the chairman and the Assembly for allowing him, as an alternate, to speak in this matter. He was the more glad that this had been the case, as he wished to make a point agreed upon by the Alternates' Committee IV, dealing with the Jewish question. It was stated in the report that the Assembly had no wish to interfere with such questions at the government level, and with this the Alternates' Committee had been in entire agreement. But it was within the province of the Assembly. indeed it was the duty of the Assembly, to affirm to the responsible authorities of the nations concerned that this problem was more than a political one, it was spiritual. If the Assembly failed to say anything to that effect, the Alternates' Committee had held that it would be failing in its bounden duty, and missing an opportunity never likely to recur [emphasis added]. He wished to move an amendment to section V, to read as follows; beginning at the word "judgment": "... we appeal to the nations to deal with the problem not as one of expediency, political, strategic or economic, but as a moral and spiritual question that touches a nerve-centre of the world's religious life."

This amendment was accepted and integrated into the statement that ultimately was adopted That Dr. Baines and the Alternates' Committee felt the opportunity to deal with Israel as a "moral and spiritual" issue was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is indicative of their sensitivity to the political and historical situation. They made their appeal, and the Assembly accepted it.


4. The Christian approach to the Jews

After the International Missionary Council's conferences in Budapest, Warsaw and Atlantic City, a committee had been formed in 1931 related to the IMC called the Committee on the Christian Approach to the Jews. As a quasi-independent committee "sponsored" by the IMC, with its own constituency, independently-raised budget, and constitution, it was composed of representatives from organizations dedicated to Jewish mission, plus various other people with particular knowledge or expertise, including eventually ( 1951 ) representatives from the World Council of Churches.

Since the Committee on the Christian Approach to the Jews (IMCCAJ), which published a quarterly Newsheet and monitored the mainly European and North American missionary activity, was a "sponsored agency" of the International Missionary Council, its inclusion with the IMC in the proposed merger of that council with the World Council of Churches was not entirely automatic. As 1961 approached, when the merger was to occur, long and serious discussions were held within the IMCCAJ concerning the desirability of complete integration into the WCC. The arguments for integration included the observation that mission to the Jews was not a vital part of the WCC and that the committee could rectify that omission by being within the new Division of World Mission and Evangelism. The argument against was that some of the constituent organizations of the IMCCAJ would refuse to remain with the committee if it was in the World Council, and, moreover, the thrust of Jewish mission would be lost in the larger organization. In the end the decision was taken to integrate.

In taking that decision the IMCCAJ decided that the name of its successor committee should be the "Committee on the Church and the Jewish People". A search of IMCCAJ material in the WCC archives has so far failed to turn up records concerning the decision to recommend the name-change. But, prima facie, the change is highly significant, especially in light of the fact that the Committee on the Christian Approach to the Jews was almost exclusively oriented towards mission, which was the emphasis it wanted to maintain inside the World Council of Churches.

As has already been noted, the term (and the concept) "Jewish people" had slowly been finding its way into Christian discussion of Jews and Judaism. Consequently, a collection of essays published under the auspices of the IMCCAJ in 1954 was titled The Church and the Jewish People, edited by the committee's secretary, Göte Hedenquist. This volume, published just prior to the WCC's Second Assembly at Evanston, Illinois, USA, was designed both to implement the Amsterdam call for more detailed study of the relations between Christians and Jews, and to prepare for the next Assembly.

It contained a remarkable selection of papers that, in their diversity, demonstrated the change in attitude that was beginning to be felt, at least in those parts of the church where the Jewish people was taken with theological seriousness. The missionary imperative was stated forth rightly, albeit with genuine concern for the Jews, by Bishop Stephen Neill, and the necessity for Jews as well as Christians to witness to their faith was emphasized by Rabbi Leo Baeck. Hans Kosmala, director of the Swedish Theological Institute in Jerusalem, discussed "State and Religion in the State of Israel". Few who are engaged in Jewish-Christian relations today would agree totally with many or most of the points made in these or others of the articles, though they represented breakthrough positions thirty years ago and must have produced discomfort in some churches. They were "clouds the size of a man's hand" that predicted the time when official church bodies would begin to take cognizance of the development of which they were a part.


5. Evanston and New Delhi

By 1954 the separation between those in the churches who were concerned for the theological significance of the Jewish people and those who saw Jews in solely political terms had already begun, a problem that became an issue at the Evanston Assembly of the World Council of Churches. Under the main theme, "Jesus Christ -- the Hope of the World", came a sub-theme, "The Hope of Israel", which elicited one of the most divisive debates ever to take place at an Assembly. When time came for the discussion of the report on the main theme, efforts were made to delete all reference to Jews or to Israel on the basis that any such mention would be "a disservice to the cause of the World Council in the Near East", and rejection of "any suggestion that political events at present befalling the Jews were associated with the fulfillment of Christian hope". Despite some protests that there were no political implications in the idea that "Jesus Christ was born of Israel as fulfillment of the promises God gave to His people,"[11] the motion to eliminate all reference to Israel or Jews prevailed. The next day a minority report (1954; Doc. 2) was submitted by twenty-four theologians expressing the conviction that the Christian hope included hope for the conversion of Israel. This report was published as an appendix in the Assembly report.

Since the debate at Evanston was to prove critical for the understanding of the Jewish people within the ecumenical movement, Visser 't Hooft's comment on it is worth citing in full:

What had happened? As the crucial vote was taken and I could clearly see from the platform what side the various national delegations were taking I said to myself: the spectre of Hitler is present. Not in the sense that anyone was infected by Hitler's anti-semitism. No, in a quite different way. I saw that the churchmen from countries which had been, for longer or shorter periods, under the national socialist regime had practically all come to feel that Israel had not only a central place in the past history of salvation, but also in the future of salvation. As they had had to face the demonic hatred of the Jews they had found deep meaning in St Paul s interpretation of the destiny of Israel in the ninth, tenth and eleventh chapters of the Epistle to the Romans. Those who had not been so close to the terrible drama of the extermination of Jews in Europe could not see it this way. They felt that to single out the Jews, to give them a special place in history, was--in spite of all good intentions--a sort of discrimination. It was their votes, together with the small number of votes from Near Eastern Christians who were afraid of political misunderstandings, which constituted the majority.

There were some emotional reactions to the vote. But there was really no reason for anyone to feel self-righteous. The minority had to admit that before the days of Hitler they had practically all, including Karl Barth himself, interpreted St Paul's teaching on this point in a more or less allegorical rather than a historical way. And the majority had to learn that the minority had not the slightest intention of discriminating against the Jews, but was motivated by shame that the churches had not understood in time the full spiritual dimension of the Jewish question. This process of clarification would however take time. We would have to wait till the Third Assembly to arrive at a common statement on the subject.

Following the Evanston Assembly the WCC Central Committee asked that a consultation be held jointly with the IMC's Committee on the Christian Approach to the Jews on "Christian convictions and attitudes in relation to the Jewish people". This consultation was duly convened at the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey during September 1956, and its report, though presented to the Executive Committee, was not considered to be sufficiently representative of the churches and further study was requested. The report, however, was published in The Ecumenical Review, April 1956. In addition, some of the member churches of the World Council themselves conducted theological studies on the church and Israel (the results from the study conducted by the Ecumenical Council of the Hungarian Churches were particularly significant). These studies were filed in the World Council archives.

At New Delhi in 1961 the Assembly adopted a Resolution on Anti-Semitism, [12] which, in addition to emphasizing the Amsterdam denunciation and urging the member churches of the WCC "to do all in their power to resist every form of anti-semitism", took a gigantic theological step forward by rejecting the hoary charge of deicide against the Jewish people: "In Christian teaching the historic events which led to the Crucifixion should not be so presented as to fasten upon the Jewish people of today responsibilities which belong to our corporate humanity and not to one race or community." [13]

New Delhi was an important Assembly for the WCC: not only did the merger with the International Missionary Council take place but the Russian Orthodox and other Eastern Orthodox Churches became members. It was no occasion for acrimonious theological debate and the Council leadership made certain it did not happen. What did happen was described succinctly by Visser 't Hooft:

This time the discussion on the Christian attitude to the Jewish people, on which the Evanston Assembly had not been able to find a common affirmation, led to a resolution which was adopted without opposition. We had learned our lesson. We knew that we could speak out together against anti-semitism, but that we had as yet no common mind about the theological questions of the destiny of the Jewish people or about the deeper significance of the creation of the state of Israel. So a resolution was proposed which was wholly concentrated on the issue of discrimination and which made the important point, that the historic events which led to the crucifixion should not be so presented as to fasten upon the Jewish people of today responsibilities which belong to our corporate humanity and not to one race or community.[14]


The debate on the resolution, however, revealed that several delegates were eager that the explicitly theological question, left hanging at Evanston, should he addressed in the antisemitism resolution. Rev. Christoph Schnyder of the Swiss Protestant Church Federation proposed an amendment that would have inserted the sentence: "On the contrary, the Jews remain God's chosen people (cf. Rom. 9-11), for even their rejection for a time must contribute to the world's salvation." At Visser 't Hooft's urging, however, he withdrew the amendment and the debate was over.[15] Since 1961 there has been no attempt to revive the question of the Jewish people's place within the ecumenical theological spectrum at a World Council of Churches Assembly.


6. Uppsala, Nairobi, and Vancouver

At the Fourth Assembly in Uppsala, Sweden, in 1968, barely one year after the Six-Day War, almost nothing was said about the "theological significance" of the Jewish people, despite the "Bristol document" of the Commission on Faith and Order from the year before, which reminded the churches that the creation of the State of Israel "is of tremendous importance for the great majority of Jews; it has meant for them a new feeling of self-assurance and security. But this same event has brought suffering and injustice to Arab people... We realize, however, especially in view of the changed situation in the Middle East as a result of the war of June 1967, that also the question of the present state of Israel, and of its theological significance, if any, has to be taken up."

Instead, the emphasis had shifted to the political situation in the Middle East and the concern was not for the Jewish people as such but about Israel's conflict with its Arab neighbours, under the general rubric as stated in the resolution, "Towards Justice and Peace in International Affairs": "The Word of God testifies that Christ takes the side of the poor and oppressed."[16]

The Statement on the Middle East asserted that the Assembly was "deeply concerned that the menace of the situation in the Middle East shows no present sign of abating. The resolutions of the United Nations have not been implemented, the territorial integrity of the nations involved is not respected, occupation continues. No settlement is in sight and a new armament race is being mounted." In addition, the statement insisted: "Full religious freedom and access to holy places must continue to be guaranteed to the communities of all three historic religions preferably by international agreement." [17]

Krister Stendahl, a delegate from the Lutheran Church in America who was later to become moderator of the Consultation on the Church and the Jewish People, introduced a motion to add an additional sentence to the statement: "It is the special responsibility of the World Council of Churches and of its member churches to discern ways in which theological and religious factors affect the conflict." A delegate from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch proposed that the word "theological" be removed, to which Stendahl demurred. Nevertheless, when put to a vote, the deletion was accepted, though the remainder of the sentence was incorporated into the statement.[18]

The mood and centre of attention at Uppsala relative to the Jewish people was radically different from what it had been at Amsterdam, Evanston, and even New Delhi. In 1967 the victory of Israel over the Arab armies had caught the attention of the world, including the churches. Twenty years before, the Amsterdam Assembly had not known what to say about the then new State of Israel, though it had appealed "to the nations to deal with the problem not as one of expediency--political, strategic, or economic -- but as a moral and spiritual question that touches a nerve centre of the world's religious life" Stendahl's cautiously-worded addition to the Uppsala statement and its reception indicate that the Amsterdam plea probably would have gotten short shrift at Uppsala.

In 1975 at Nairobi, where the Assembly adopted two resolutions related to the State of Israel (one insisting on the sanctity of the holy places and another calling for cessation in the state of hostility between Israel and its neighbours), attempts to place Israel in an overtly theological context were defeated during debate--as were pleas by delegates from Middle Eastern churches for more explicit affirmation of the Palestinian cause.[19] So the Nairobi statement on the Middle East was devoid of any specifically theological or even religious reference. Instead it affirmed three points that would become the basis of future World Council policy: "Withdrawal by Israel from territories occupied in 1967; the right of all states including Israel and the Arab states to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries; the implementation of the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination."[20]

At Vancouver in 1983, the Sixth Assembly took positions about interfaith dialogue and mission, but nothing about the Jewish people as such. The statement on the Middle East, however, reflected an intensification of the theology that had informed the position taken at Uppsala and Nairobi: peace and justice through standing with the poor and oppressed. That statement, the most recent Assembly statement dealing with the Jewish people, is worth careful consideration.

The introduction notes that the Middle East is the "birthplace of three monotheistic religions", and that the "churches in the area have their roots from apostolic times". These churches "are now facing new challenges and attempting to respond through new forms of witness". It therefore "behoves all churches to strengthen their presence and support their ministry, especially the ministry of reconciliation and witness for peace.
Historical factors and certain theological interpretations have often con fused Christians outside in evaluating the religious and political developments in the Middle East."[21]

There can be little doubt that the phrase "certain theological interpretations" refers to a fundamentalist and millenarian Christian belief that the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel presages the second coming of Christ, on the one hand, and, on the other, the theologies that had developed within some WCC member churches concerning the theological necessity of the Jewish people in their present reality (including the State of Israel) for Christian faith.

From then on the statement is an affirmation of the cause of the Palestinians. The question of justice became entirely a question of justice for the Palestinians--which was alleged to be delayed because of the intransigence of Israel: "The Israeli settlement policy on the West Bank has resulted in a de facto annexation, giving final touches to a discriminatory policy of development of peoples that flagrantly violates the basic rights of the Palestinian people."

Assembly debate about the meaning of the Jewish people for the theological self-understanding of the Christian church came to an end with the ringing denunciation of antisemitism at New Delhi, which poured oil on the troubled Evanston waters: no one since has wanted to stir them again. But the theological importance of the Jewish people did not vanish from the agenda of the World Council of Churches. Two statements made by commissions of the WCC, both of which are discussed in the pages that follow, could have made significant difference had they figured in Assembly debate: the 1967 Bristol statement of the Commission on Faith and Order, and the statement prepared by the Consultation on the Church and the Jewish People, which was commended to the member churches by the WCC Executive Committee in 1982 as "Ecumenical Considerations on Jewish-Christian dialogue."


7. Conclusion

Throughout the common history of the church and the Jewish people Jews have been treated as a people, while the right to be a people has been denied. As we have seen, the church, until the mid-twentieth century, officially taught that, while Jews had once been a people, they were such no longer, for the Jewish people had been replaced by the new people of God, the church. The Enlightenment welcomed Jews as individuals while denying them peoplehood, following which the missionary movement loved Jews and, because they did, tried to convert them as individuals to Christianity. Antisemites, on the contrary, consider Jews to be a people, every member of which is equally abhorrent.

Some Christians and, through them, some ecclesiastical bodies, were shocked by the Shoah and the creation of the State of Israel into recognition that the genuine theological question was not the salvation of individual Jews nor prejudice against and persecution of Jewish individuals, but was, rather, the fact that the Jewish people existed and had the right to exist, both as a sociological and theological reality. The implications of that recognition (or the denial of it) for the faith of the church, profound as they are, are still being worked out in the theological positions of the ecumenical churches.


1 The spelling "anti-Semitism" should be understood as a historical reference. In subsequent paragraphs the contemporary spelling, "antisemitism", will be employed, a spelling that does not imply discrimination against people who speak semitic languages, but precisely means hatred and persecution of the Jewish people.

2 International Missionary Council, The Christian Approach to the Jew, London, Edinburgh House Press, 1927, pp.l8f.

3 International Committee on the Christian Approach to the Jews, Christians and Jews, New York & London, International Missionary Council, 1931, p.49.

4 Ibid., p.140.

5 WCC archives.

6 WCC archives

7 In following years ecumenical debate tended to deny the reality of any such special relationship: just six years later at Evanston, for instance, the argument was made that to understand the Jewish people in a special way was to discriminate against them!

8 Though the statement on "The Christian Approach to the Jews" was "received" rather than "adopted" by the Assembly, it was thoroughly debated both in Committee IV and in full plenary session. At Amsterdam only matters having to do with such things as the WCC constitution were "adopted". Therefore, the category "received" carried more weight at the First Assembly than it was to bear in later WCC actions. The complete rubric was "received by the Assembly and commended to the churches for their serious consideration and appropriate action".

9 For this and all subsequent references to plenary debate at Amsterdam see: W.A. Visser 't Hooft, ed., The First Assembly of the World Council of Churches, London, SCM Press, 1949, pp. 164ff.

10 The official report of the 1948 Assembly used the spelling "anti-semitism", but the reprinting of the statement in the 1954 volume, The Church and the Jewish People, edited by Göte Hedenquist, secretary to the IMC's Committee on the Christian Approach to the Jews, adopted the spelling "antisemitism". Whether this change was happenstance or the result of conscious decision is not known.

11 W.A. Visser 't Hooft, ed., The Evanston Report, New York, Harper & Bros., 1955, p.78.

12 W.A. Visser 't Hooft ed., The New Delhi Report, London, SCM Press, 1962, p.148.

13 This sentence must certainly have been known four years later to the drafters of Nostra Aetate, the seminal statement by Vatican II on non-Christian religions. Nostra Aetate, paragraph 4, significantly improved on New Delhi by excluding Jews of Jesus' day from culpability for Christ's death: "Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (cf. John 19:6), neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his passion. It is true that the church is the new people of God, yet the Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from holy scripture."

14 Memoirs, Geneva, WCC Publications, 1987, 2nd ed., pp.313f.

15 The New Delhi Report, op. cit., p. 149.

16 Norman Goodall, ed., The Uppsala Report 1968, Geneva, WCC, 1968, p.61.

17 Ibid., p.l89.

18 Ibid., p.l88.

19 By 1975 the tension between those who were concerned for the theological significance of the Jewish people--and thus of the Jewish state--and those who were concerned for justice for Palestinians had become acute. Neither was ready to acknowledge that the tension was unnecessary and mutually counter-productive.

20 David M. Paton, ed., Breaking Barriers: Nairobi 1975, London, SPCK, 1976, pp.162f.

21 David Gill, ed., Gathered for Life: Official Report, Sixth Assembly, World Council of Churches, Geneva, WCC, 1983, pp.147ff. All subsequent quotations from the Vancouver statement are from this source.

This essay is taken from The Theology of the Churches and the Jewish People. Geneva: WCC Publications, 1988, 123-140.