Miracles Do Happen

January 05, 1994|By MURRAY SALTZMAN

St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine, contemporary church fathers of the 4th century, wrote and sermonized about Judaism and the Jewish people. Stunned by the continued viability and attractiveness of Judaism to newly converted Christians, both of these influential contributors to early Christian thought sought to portray Jews as pariahs.

Chrysostom virulently condemned them as ''lustful, rapacious, greedy, perfidious bandits.'' St. Augustine consigned the Jewish people to be history's eternal wanderers as punishment for their refusal to accept Christianity. He suggested that Jewish homelessness and suffering are vindication of Christianity's truth and merit against Judaism and the Jewish people's evil nature.

Vatican recognition of Israel is a long awaited repudiation of these teachings preserved and transmitted by the Roman Catholic Church. For close to 2,000 years the invidious teachings of Chrysostom and Augustine instigated bigotry, humiliation and death-dealing attacks on Jewish people living in Christian lands.

The accord signed with Israel last week is the culmination of a historic reconciliation process initiated by Vatican II. That council, convened by Pope John XXIII, negated the deicide charge which held Jews of all time responsible for the death of Jesus. Step by step the church has cleansed itself of these theological inconsistencies which promoted bigotry, persecution and human degradation instead of love, compassion, reconciliation.

Now the church has taken a further crucial step in the healing of brothers and sisters, Jews and Christians. By accepting the reality of a Jewish homeland with diplomatic recognition of the state of Israel, the church is faithful to the commitment made in ''Nostra Aetate'' to ''deplore all hatreds, persecutions, display of anti-Semitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews.''

There is a further pragmatic ramification to Israel's recognition. The Vatican's initiative at this time also adds to the momentum for peace in the Middle East. The right of Israel to even exist has not been acceptable to the Arab world. In fact, the Arab covenant, still not voided, continues to call for Israel's annihilation. While the Vatican has always recognized Israel's right to exist within secure borders, the failure to extend diplomatic recognition perpetuated a climate of tentativeness, as Israel somehow might go away.

The peace efforts in the Middle East are prompted by the conclusion in the Arab world that this will not happen. Recognition of Israel by the Vatican further strengthens the decision that it is time to pursue a policy that accepts reality and the possibility of peace. The firmness of American recognition of Israel has allowed the U.S. to be an honest broker for peace. So too, the firm resolution of Israel's status in the policies of the Holy See, makes it as well an honest broker for peace.

Finally, all religions gain credibility by this concord between Israel and the Vatican. Over the last 2,000 years the history of religion has been characterized by the making of war and the building of hostile walls dividing human beings. Religious preachments tended to delegitimatize those of differing faith.

If the church can now embrace the Jewish people, and in forgiveness the Jewish people in turn can embrace the Roman Catholic community, each will have made a vital statement about God's infinite love for a diverse humankind.

Then the shameful face of bigotry, in the name of religious exclusivity, can be hopefully transformed. Then the hypocrisy of intolerance will be mitigated by a new vision about God's mysterious presence in all peoples who value human dignity, justice and love. So shall Christianity and Judaism, prayerfully joined by the entire universe of believers and nonbelievers, give new credibility to their own highest aspirations and deepest faith.

Is this not a sign that as one common humanity we can join together for the liberation of God's world as we unite to rescue the hungry, the homeless, the persecuted and the oppressed all over the world? Perhaps, in the new millennium, religions will more justifiably than ever before represent the God of Life and Goodness. Miracles do happen.

Rabbi Saltzman leads the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

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