Onward, Christian Soldiers

CHRISTOPHER M. LEIGHTON

July 27, 1991|By CHRISTOPHER M. LEIGHTON

Twenty-six of the 31 wars currently raging around the worldare rooted in religious or ethnic conflicts. Religious convictions have a way of igniting passions that can burn out of control. Take a fanatical attachment to the Absolute, add a liberal helping of self-righteous indignation, sprinkle with a measure of fear, and bake in an oven heated with the threat of betrayal, and you'll have an explosive outburst.

The six Anglican priests who concocted the Baltimore Declaration seemed to have borrowed ingredients from this ancient recipe and can now take credit for creating a sizable uproar. What will be the fallout from this blast? Have they stirred up anxieties which will polarize opinions and damage the atmosphere for constructive dialogue?

Though the Baltimore Declaration fires a warning and exhorts Episcopalians to march against an onslaught of false teachings, the enemies are hidden behind elusive abstractions -- deists, monists, revisionists and compromises of the one and only Truth. Fortunately, there is little chance that most Episcopalians will parade under a banner which pits the good guys against the bad guys and leads to doctrinal witch hunts. The Episcopal Bishop of Maryland, Theodore Eastman, would have none of it.

We would hope that the six who have proclaimed this state of emergency without a mandate from the diocese would also desist before there were any casualties. These religious leaders claim that they want to initiate thoughtful dialogue about serious conditions which happen to afflict every major Christian denomination.

Churches are peopled with liberals and conservatives who are unable to speak a common theological language or build a broad-based consensus on which Christians can firmly stand. These divisions makes it painfully clear: Christians have not yet learned to live creatively with differences. Those within the Christian camp who dare to differ have historically been branded heretics. Those outside the Church's sanctuary have been targeted for conversion. All too often Christians have dealt with differences by trying to obliterate them.

A growing number of Christians in Baltimore have begun to confront this disturbing legacy. Though the roots of religious intolerance run deeper than most Christians are comfortable acknowledging, there are significant resources within the tradition to overcome a history marred by indifference and hatred.

The authors of the Baltimore Declaration are well aware of this challenge and insist that ''all anti-Semitism in thought, word and deed is vicious and is to be decried and condemned by Christians.'' But they then proceed to ''repudiate the false teaching that eternal salvation is already given to the chosen people of Israel through the covenant with Abraham and Moses, independently of the crucified Christ, and the inference that the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah need not be proclaimed to them.'' (( Were Christians to withhold the saving truth of the Gospel from the Jews, the argument goes, they would practice a far more insidious form of anti-Semitism.

Here is the dilemma. On the one hand, many Christians are eager to disavow any and every expression of religious bigotry. Yet, on the other hand, they also want to pass on the deposit of faith as it was received in all its majesty and beauty, uncorrupted and pure. This tradition is frequently dominated by an evangelical enthusiasm which would have Christians proclaim the Truth until everyone has joined the Church's procession.

The reigning tradition assumes that the meaning of ''the Old Testament'' can only be unlocked with ''the New Testament'' and that a new and improved revelation has made the Old Covenant between God and the Jewish people obsolete. This understanding of the Gospel inspires a mission which would eliminate living Judaism. The horrors of this past century cast a long shadow over any activity, no matter how well-intentioned, which would culminate in spiritual genocide.

Obviously, the framers of the Baltimore Declaration are at liberty to advocate any religious position that they can manage. But the issues raised, the denunciations proposed, and the dialogue advocated have rippled into the larger Baltimore community. Whatever our individual religious or philosophical posture, all of us have a stake in this enterprise.

The way that Christians think about God, themselves, and others, the way they read their Bible, interpret their traditions, and establish doctrinal norms will be felt on the streets of our neighborhoods -- for good or for ill. When the faithful fail to recognize and affirm the spiritual dignity of those who are different, the impact reverberates in our schools and universities, in our state and national governments, in our corporate board rooms, bars and country clubs.

In this decade major Christian denominations are moving evangelism to center stage. The Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies maintains that now is the time for Christian soldiers to put down their weapons and move onward. Together we need to consider the challenges of religious pluralism and to ask hard questions of ourselves and our neighbors. We invite all people to explore Christian understandings of mission at an open forum in the fall. In the process we may uncover those neglected resources within our religious heritages which can prevent a gospel of love from being twisted into an instrument of hate.

The Rev. Christopher M. Leighton is director of the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies.

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