From the staff

Column: Christians and Jews in Triangle confront ancient feuds

jmurawski@newsobserver.comJune 14, 2013 

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JLEONARD@NEWSOBSERVER.COM — JULI LEONARD

Last fall, a group of strangers in Raleigh undertook a seemingly puny attempt at repairing a family dysfunction that shook the Middle East some 2,000 years ago.

Two dozen Christians and Jews filed into the all-purpose room at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, not exactly sure what awaited them. For the next six months, we earnestly discussed history, theology, readings, biblical passages and our personal reflections and experiences.

If I had to summarize the point of the half-year-long interfaith project while standing on one leg, I’d put it this way: Treat other religions as you’d like your religion to be treated.

Easy to say, right?

Let’s face it: Bad blood has divided the two sister religions from the outset. Attitudes have accumulated over centuries, and, like suppressed childhood traumas, working through them can resemble group therapy.

Many faith backgrounds

Our interfaith backgrounds spanned Baptists to Episcopalians, including a missionary worker, Christian educator, five ordained members of the clergy and the spouse of a Jew. The Jewish participants came from Reform, Conservative and Renewal backgrounds, and included a synagogue cantor, spouses in mixed marriages, and one who converted to Judaism as an adult.

When we got underway, I was fresh off a mission trip to Central America that I had organized for the Presbyterian church I attend in Raleigh with my family.

I consciously played the role of a double agent. The product of a Gentile father and an ethnically Jewish mother, I was baptized as a Catholic in Poland, the country of my birth. But I was able to emigrate as a result of the Communist government’s anti-Zionist campaign and expulsions of Jews in the late 1960s. Our family’s exodus from the permafrost of Mitteleuropa was sponsored by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Discussion guides

Our weekly interfaith discussions in Raleigh were guided by Joe Ward, a Presbyterian minister, and Raachel Jurovics, a rabbi in the Jewish Renewal movement. The third rail of the project was Stacy Grove, an ordained interfaith minister, director of the Raleigh nonprofit HeartSpace Spiritual Resources and an associate chaplain at WakeMed hospital in Cary.

“There are no other places where people can go and have these awakenings,” Ward said. “People begin to examine the standard model assumptions from their church Sunday school, and they start to engage.”

As winter thawed to spring, our group dynamic had warmed to a genuine trust. Today the Jews among us are not so amused by goy jokes and perhaps even awed by this Jesus fellow. And the Christians among us became attuned to the Jewish Jesus – or Yeshua Ben-Yosef, as he would have been known to his contemporaries – and the tragic consequences of persistent attempts to blot out that fact from the scroll of history.

“The Shoah is indeed the very large elephant in the room,” Jurovics said, using the Hebrew term for the Holocaust. “Jews and Christians share a particularly treacherous history, and there’s a lot of mutual denigration that has to be dealt with.”

Ours was the third interfaith group that the Raleigh trio of clerics has guided. Jurovics recalled a particularly poignant moment for her: when a Jewish participant set aside his simmering hostility and came “to be an advocate for the inherent beauty of the Christian story.”

It’s not uncommon for participants to experience a spiritual disorientation, followed by a flash of illumination.

Christians heard, usually for the first time, that from the Jewish perspective, the Pharisees were not some band of hypocrites, legalists and conspirators. Rather, they are regarded as innovators who, over many centuries, developed a vibrant form of worship – Rabbinic Judaism – that would no longer be dependent on the Jerusalem Temple, a hereditary priesthood or animal sacrifice.

A turning point for me was confronting the second-century Christian bishop, Marcion of Sinope, who left a profound and lasting imprint on Christendom. Marcion taught that Jesus’ mission was to destroy the perfidious god of the Jews and to reclaim Creation for the glory of the true God.

Marcion succeeded in giving the world an ethnically sanitized messiah, the alabaster Jesus of popular culture today. Though he was excommunicated and declared a heretic, Marcion’s demonization of Judaism was absolute, and his teachings long outlived him.

For centuries this contagion circulated in our cultural bloodstream, undiagnosed.

Our interfaith group delivered just the slow-drip antidote: once-weekly infusions, two hours per session, administered over the course of half a year.

John Murawski is a business reporter for The News & Observer.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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