Interest in question

You know what it’s like – sometimes you are in a conversation with someone and suddenly their response seems out of all proportion to what you thought you just said. Or the conversation takes a weirdly unexpected turn and you wonder, “Where did THAT come from?” The answer of course is that we never know exactly what is going on inside someone else’s head, what connections our words make, or what buttons are there just waiting to be pushed. Sometimes it can feel as though Jason Bourne (eponymous hero of Robert Ludlum’s trilogy) had been triggered to action by hearing a particular word spoken.

I hope Revd Lesley will forgive me if that happened to her in an exchange we had yesterday when the subjects of usury and homosexuality came up. What probably seemed to her a relatively uncontroversial analogy in a genuine, though hypothetical, question about homosexuality led to some thoughts I’ve been having about our relationship with our banking and financial systems.

The issue of usury turns out to be an interesting one in relation to the sexuality issue that threatens to divide the Anglican Communion today. The Hebrew Bible gives a clear prohibition to the Israelites against lending “at usury” to their “brothers” – taken to mean any other Israelite. The Hebrew word used indicates any form of interest (as does the Arabic word used for a similar prohibition in the Qur’an). It suggests that charging interest was considered to be a form of exploitation which was not conducive to good social relationships in Israelite society.

During the medieval period, the Western Christian Church maintained a prohibition (based on a reading of the Hebrew scriptures which replaced Israel with the Christian Church) on Christians charging other Christians interest on loans. During the twelfth century this was enshrined in English law. Of course this made things rather difficult for kings and rulers who wished to wage war but didn’t always have the required cash at hand to pay the troops. No pay, and they began to drift back to their own lands to carry on feeding themselves. Solution? Borrow from the Jews, who could charge interest to Christians. No ecclesiastical or civil laws broken, people able and persuadeable (if not always entirely willing). Job done. No sins committed on either side.

Except, of course, that this charging of interest fuelled a certain amount of resentment against a people who were already branded as “Christ-killers” by then-current Church teaching. Financial and economic resentment was stirred into the theological antisemitism that has remained a toxic mix over many centuries.

Skip forward a few centuries, and interest is everywhere in the financial landscape and no respecter of religious or ethnic groups (with the exception of Muslims, which I will come to in a later post). What has happened? No, seriously, because I’d like to know more.

First, we find that during this period theologians (no less) have identified a number of situations where it is (apparently) OK to lend and borrow at interest. So people start doing it. By the mid sixteenth century laws are passed in England restricting the amount of interest that may be charged. This is not to say that it is immediately accepted as a Good Thing. The Merchant of Venice shows that in Elizabethan England, most people still regard interest as a Bad Thing. But the stage has been set.

Secondly, we find that terminology has changed, in the English language at least. That good old word “usury” has now come to mean not simply (any) charging of interest but the charging of “excessive” interest. So when people hear or read the Bible (Authorised/King James Version at any rate), they may hear or read the same physical word, but what they now understand by it is different. One might say that sin has been redefined. What was once considered unacceptable – an affront to Christian society and to God – has now become acceptable.

So where are all the sermons and articles railing against Christians who take and pay interest on their savings and loans? Where are the placards and picket lines outside General Synod protesting at the way the Church Commissioners do their business? Why aren’t we bothered any more?

Messianic Judaism – Christian or Jewish? (3)

The question whether one can be both Christian and Jewish (posed at the end of my last post) is one that would have had early Christians puzzled. As E.P. Sanders, Geza Vermes, Tom Wright and many others have reminded us, the Gospels present a picture of Jesus who, for all his re-interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, lived as a Torah-observant Jew, though many questioned some of the company he kept. For the disciples in the post-Pentecost church, the issue was whether one had first to convert to Judaism (with all that implied) before joining the Christian community. The book of Acts narrates some of the story of how Gentiles began to become part of the Church without being circumcised and becoming Torah-observant. That this acceptance continued to be a cause of dispute is evidenced by Pauls Letter to the Galatians and other NT epistles.

Of course, pressure from both Christian and more orthodox Jewish communities began to tell as increasing numbers of Gentiles joined the church. By the mid-second century CE, Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew illustrates how each community’s view of the Hebrew scripture was being formed and developed in opposition to the other. This was a process which would continue and sharpen the divide between an almost exclusively Gentile church and Rabbinic Judaism, which now felt the need to commit their oral traditions to writing in order to face life in a new exile from the Temple and the  Holy Land.

As noted before, throughout history there has been a small trickle of Jewish people who have converted to Christianity, for a variety of reasons. For the most part this has been achieved by individuals leaving the Jewish community (often at great personal cost) and joining the various Gentile traditions of the Christian Church. And until fairly recently it has been assumed by all that this is “as it should be.”

So why, at the end of the twentieth century, and the beginning of the twenty-first, should the phenomenon of “Messianic Judaism” have arisen? Is it a “theological sectarian mistake”? What, if anything, does it owe to American fundamentalism? How should the Christian church regard it, and does it have anything to teach us?

To be continued…

Messianic Judaism – Christian or Jewish? (2)

In my previous post I outlined the sad story of the separation of Rabbinic Judaism and Gentile Christianity, and the resulting Christian anti-semitism.

Messianic Judaism revolves around the issue of religious identity. The question “who is a Jew?” has a variety of answers, with both ethnic and religious aspects. Ethnically, Jewish identity may be considered in the same way as other ethnic identities, regardless of religious affiliation. For religious purposes, however, one is a Jew if one has been born to a Jewish mother (fathers alone don’t count here) or has undergone a process of conversion, circumcision (for males, obviously) and reception into the Jewish faith. The process includes instruction in Torah, not just as an intellectual exercise but as a basis for living and making the hundreds of decisions we encounter each day. For universal acceptance, this must be done by a recognised orthodox rabbi – liberal and progressive conversions are not recognised by orthodox Jewish communities or the State of Israel. Those who complete the stages of this process are understood to be included and incorporated into the covenant with God inaugurated through Moses at Mount Sinai.

Christian identity, of course, revolves around following the teaching and example of Jesus of Nazareth, with baptism as the outward sign of initiation, although a few groups, such as the Salvation Army, dispense with this. Christians, too, understand themselves to be covenant people of God – in this instance mediated through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus refers to this new covenant at the Last Supper, and the Letter to the Hebrews can be regarded as an attempt to work out the implications of this.

The question then arises as to whether it is possible to be both Jewish AND Christian. The answer to this will depend very much on how one views the identity and purpose of Jesus and on the view one takes of the relationship between the two covenants. What does it mean when we talk about a “new” covenant? Does this imply that the “old” covenant is completely superseded or is there any sense in which it could still be said to be valid?

To be continued…

Messianic Judaism – Christian or Jewish?

A few days ago I became involved in an exchange with clayboy (Doug Chaplin) in which the subject of Messianic Judaism came up. In a comment, he stated

“And I share with most Jews and most Christians the view that most Messianic Judaism that differentiates itself from Christianity is a theological sectarian mistake, over-influenced by American fundamentalism. That sweeping generalisation (to which I certainly think there are some exceptions) is a topic for another post.”

Rather than wait for Doug’s post, I decided to take up his suggestion and offer some of my own thoughts on the subject of Messianic Judaism. However, as I thought more about it, I began to realise that it would be difficult to do justice to this topic in one blog post, nor do I have time to deal with the issue comprehensively at one sitting. So this will be the first of a number of posts.

The first thing to acknowledge is that Doug is right to say that for most Jews and most Christians, Messianic Judaism is regarded as a theological sectarian mistake. As is well known, the history of relations between Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity is, for the most part, not a happy one. From the second generation of the church onwards, Christianity has been a largely Gentile phenomenon, rejected by the vast majority of Jewish people. Since then the church has attempted to exert pressure of various kinds to “encourage” conversion – from the medieval “disputes”, often heavily rigged by Christian rulers to demonstrate the superior claims of Christianity, to the horrors of the Inquisition which threatened torture and death to those who refused to submit. Sometimes conversions happened, but these were frequently either in response to overt pressure just mentioned, or in order to better an individual’s or family’s social, financial or political standing in a Gentile Christian world.

At the heart of much of the Christian response to Judaism has been an assumption of the superiority of Christian faith over against that of Judaism. In this view the life, death and resurrection of Christ abolished almost everything that makes the Jewish faith so distinctive. A supersessionist, or replacement, theology taught that God had now finished with the Jewish people, that the first covenant had effectively been anulled and that the Church had replaced Israel (indeed now WAS Israel) in God’s scheme of things. In such a view, the only way in which Jewish people could have a part in God’s plan of salvation was to renounce their former faith and join the (Gentile) Church. At the Reformation, Martin Luther began with high hopes that the removal of Catholic “errors” would see Jews flocking to a reformed Christianity. When these hopes proved to be unfounded, he then spewed forth some notoriously anti-semitic invective.

With this history, it is hardly surprising that the name of Christ, and almost everything the Christian church stood for, became an object of fear and loathing to Jewish communities and individuals across Europe. As Christian thinking and practice developed, so did that of Judaism, frequently in response to the other. The result of this, almost inevitably, was that an individual converting from one religion to the other (mostly in the Jewish – Christian direction) was ostracised by their original community. The faiths were regarded by both communities as being mutually exclusive. Converting Jews were expected to live in exactly the same way and adopt the same cultural and religious practices as their gentile neighbours.

Having set the scene in this post, I intend in future posts to consider why Messianic Judaism has arisen during the last few decades, what are its influences and to what extent it might or might not have validity in terms of both Judaism and Christianity. I would be interested to hear your thoughts.