Reflections on Jewish-Christian Relations and "Controversial" Terms Like "Messianic Judaism", "Completed Jew", and [Christian] "Convert"

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


A Jews for Jesus member witnessing on the street
[photo credit: Paige Saunders; see accompanying article]

These thoughts came about as a result of interacting with a messianic Jew (a Jew who accepts Jesus as Messiah) on the CHNI board.

I think both things are true: it is good to know the Old Testament and the Fathers, and it is also good to know, in addition, as much of the prior Jewish tradition as one can. That's why converted Jews have been an immensely great blessing to the Church and Christianity in general (in the case of Protestants such as, e.g., Alfred Edersheim), because they bring with them that wealth of knowledge that can now be applied to a more developed Catholic understanding.

The term "convert" (applied to Jews who become Christians) was rejected in favor of "completed Jew".

It's a matter of terminology and semantics. I would say much the same about the Protestant-to-Catholic journey. I don't feel that I have rejected Protestantism, so much as I have developed and refined it.

"Conversion" is not a dirty word, though. It simply means to change one's mind from one viewpoint to another. Even though the new belief-system may be a development rather than an overturning or rejection, it is still a conversion in terms of change of mind. The word "convert" remains the quickest, easiest way to convey that one has arrived at a theological / spiritual destination from somewhere else.

Moreover, in terms of the Jewish-Christian divide, the overwhelming number of Jews think that Christianity is a corruption of Judaism, not a development, and so from their perspective, "convert" makes perfect sense. I think any Christian can call himself or herself a "completed Jew" but we must realize that this is a bit of an insult to adherents of Judaism proper.

People in general seem put off by folks who undergo a major change of mind. That is regarded as threatening; oftentimes because the observer somehow feels that their own position is made less secure, and that they may have to study the beliefs involved as well and perhaps change. And people don't like change . . .

My friend then explained how Jews recoil in horror at the word "convert" because, historically, that meant forced conversion and persecution and rejection of the Jewish people in the plan of God. Because of highly negative and offensive, painful connotations, so the argument would proceed, certain words shouldn't be used. This led me on to a wider analysis.

I understand this. And so it would be wise to not use the word when with Jews. I'm not convinced, however, that this particular sordid history means we can't use the word 
at all. I could just as well argue that all words (important ones, anyway) tend to become distorted in their meaning. Consider that the word Christianity itself has quite negative connotations in a non-Christian Jewish mind. You and I would reject that their conception of what it is, represents its actuality and definition. So should we stop using the word? I think not. What we need to do is to be a better personal witness of what Christianity truly is and what it entails.

Same thing applies to the word "Jesus." I think this is partially why many messianic Jews use 
Yeshua instead (and, for that matter, "messianic Jew" instead of "Christian"). It involves more than just being more Jewish. It's probably also often a deliberate attempt to underemphasize the "Gentile" aspects of Christianity and the bad connotations of the past. That may be pragmatically wise, but I would argue that it also suggests a sort of shame in one's own belief-system that ought not be there, simply because terrible sins have happened in the past in the name of Jesus and Christianity.

I think Jews who are so (rightly) horrified about bad events in the past need to ponder and realize (contrary to continuing myths) that Pius XII and the Church were responsible (by reliable Jewish estimates) for the saving of about 800,000 Jews. Why not look at the positive? Don't get me wrong: the horror and dreadfulness and absolute diabolical evil of all these things (Leninist pogroms, the Holocaust) can never be emphasized enough. I don't think a non-Jew can ever totally comprehend the traumatic effect that the Holocaust had in the Jewish psyche and self-understanding (if much at all).

I've studied the Holocaust for years (I was interested in the psychology of evil even before I was much of a committed Christian). I've been through the Holocaust Museum in the Detroit area with a fine-toothed comb. I fully understand and sympathize with that. But there is some "light" here, too! Recent ecumenical efforts by the last two popes are also quite encouraging.

It's unfortunate that for many Jews, this [The Spanish Inquisition and Czarist pogroms were mentioned] is all they see. They don't even consider Jesus Himself because of it. All Christians must hang their heads in shame that this has been the case. But we should be ashamed of what 
people have done, and distinguish that from the religion itself.

Protestants make the same argument from within Christianity itself: some of the medieval popes were whoremongers; therefore Catholicism is false, or at least vastly inferior to Protestantism, because of sin. Crusade, Inquisition, the sex scandal; therefore no one should be a Catholic, because it is a system of justified sin, through and through. Not to get onto another topic, but this is the schismatic Donatist and Montanist (and later, Puritan) error again: separate yourselves and be "pure" and start anew, from scratch. The lie in that is the myth that the ones separating are any different. They, too, have original sin and commit actual sins. They can't make themselves perfect simply by separating.

What alternate word would you suggest for someone like myself, who is a "Catholic convert"? The word itself is neutral (at least in a dictionary definition; abstractly separated from historical aspects). I should call myself "an RCIA Catholic"? Most people don't know what those letters stand for, so it just becomes a lot of effort explaining all that.

I love the Jews and the Old Testament. I think it is a marvelous thing to study and know more about.

I agree that the word "convert" should be avoided, where Jews are concerned, because justifiable emotional reactions based on sad history is understandable and should be worked around. Vatican II stresses this. We need to be very sensitive to what the other person "hears" and to take into account sociological aspects of meaning, beyond dictionary definitions.

But in general, I'm not so sure, because any term can be abused. I can't see ever agreeing to refuse to use the terms 
Christian andChristianity because they have horrid connotations to Jewish people. After all, (non-Christian) Jews (as surely you know) are just as offended by "messianic Jews" using the term "messianic Judaism" because for them this is dishonest: it is co-opting the term they use for their religious belief, to another religion that many of them detest, and for the reasons you have outlined.

So I don't see that you gain anything by doing that, even in the "public relations" / being sensitive to others sense, since both terms offend Jews. You're between a rock and a hard place. For heaven's sake, many Jews believe that one can't even be a "Jew" (in the larger sense of the word, as a "people" or whatever) and also be a Christian. They think that one ceases to be a Jew when one follows Jesus. You can't overcome that, either. Certainly you can't by mere change of terms. It's just there and has to be dealt with. I wish there were an easy answer, but there is not.

The discussion ought to go much deeper than semantics and being offended by words, in my opinion, to questions like:

Why do Christians have to be judged solely by the corrupt acts of some sinners who called themselves Christian, over 2000 years' time, and not by all the positive things, or at least taking those into consideration?


Why does every Christian have to bear the brunt of the Holocaust as if it were largely our fault when in fact, the figureheads were all pagans who despised Christians as well, and murdered several millions of us (especially Poles) alongside you?


Why does Pope Pius XII have to be lied about, when in fact he was one of the greatest heroes of World War II and rescuer of Jews?

Even the Holocaust should, it seems to me, be an area where Jews and Christians can have a common ground over against godless paganism and ruthless Naziism.

Jews will honor righteous Gentiles such as Oskar Schindler, but yet continue to persist in myths about Pope Pius XII that are the exact opposite of the truth. Many individual Jews have defended Pius, but the general perception is otherwise. And this is a shame, not just because it is an outright lie, but because what could be a tremendously positive, life-affirming, and bridge-building thing has been made the fodder for more unnecessary hurt, suspicion, and division.

It doesn't have to be. The truth is there to be found. If Christians were enemies of the Jews historically, they were not during WWII, and were the Jews' greatest friend, surpassing any secular or political groups, or people like FDR, who did relatively little.

As someone who is passionately interested in ecumenism, and particularly Jewish-Christian relations, those are some of the things I would bring up. Perhaps they are too sensitive and cannot be received. Perhaps I have already offended you (I have not the slightest intention of doing so; I'm simply being frank and honest: it's my cross to bear, I reckon, that I am always that way).

But in any relationship both sides ought to be accorded the freedom to be who they are, and not forced to be ashamed of their own heritage because it is not spotless and perfect. That's neither reasonable nor fair. Every individual also ought to be judged 
as an individual, and not stereotyped as part of a despised group. That is not an "un-Jewish" idea at all. Yet we Christians have been subjected to such an attitude very often by Jews.

understand why this is, because of the sad history, but it is our task to overcome it by better understanding, relationship, witness, and love. I feel that we can do that in part by telling the truth about good, positive things, such as the actual facts about Pope Pius XII and massive Catholic (and Protestant) efforts at saving Jewish lives during that horrible period.

Pope Paul II's great personal Jewish friend (I don't recall his name) understood this.
What a shame that it could not be a more prevalent attitude of Jews in their perceptions of Christians and Christianity.

Both sides have a huge amount of work to do to repair the big rift; that's for sure.

* * * * *

There is still the question of meaningful identifiers. We're all disciples of Jesus, hopefully. I became one in 1977, but I wasn't yet a Catholic, which is the point. So I have to have some way of saving 164 words when someone asks: "what denomination are you?" I say "Catholic" but then usually clarify to a relative stranger, "I used to be an evangelical Protestant." You can say, "I became a Catholic" or "I was received into the Catholic Church in February 1991." Nothing wrong with that, but we all tend to like quick titles to save time. "I'm a Catholic convert" is understood by most people as exactly what it is: a person who is 
now Catholic but was something else.

I have no problem with saying about myself: "I converted to Christ in 1977." I will usually say, however (much like your suggested usage), "I became a serious disciple of Jesus" or "committed Christian" in 1977. A Catholic doesn't say "I was saved in 1977" because that presupposes what we believe to be erroneous Protestant soteriological thinking. But I'll say "I converted to Catholicism in 1990."

I don't see why it should be an issue at all, except in the Jewish scenario where it has a very unfortnate historical connotation that I understand is offensive. It simply means "change". One can convert into the metric system or from American to Canadian currency. So I converted to Christ because I wasn't following Him as I should have been, before 1977. I converted to Catholicism because I didn't accept the Church's teachings before 1990.

Conversion to Christ as a disciple (or to God in a larger monotheistic sense) is, of course, a matter of the whole person. Conversion to Catholicism, on the other hand (assuming one is already a Protestant or Orthodox Christian or observant Jew or vaguely theist or nominally religious) is, therefore, relatively more so an intellectual matter of working through questions of comparative theology and ecclesiology.