07 December 2023, The Tablet

The importance of dialogue between Christians and Jews especially when times are challenging

by Nathan Eddy

The importance of dialogue between Christians and Jews especially when times are challenging

In November Pope Francis received in private audience a delegation from the Conference of Rabbis of Europe.
Independent Photo Agency/Alamy

Chanukkah has begun, and Advent well underway, but repercussions from the 7 October attack on Israel and ensuing war in Gaza are still being felt deeply in the UK. It is fair to say, in fact, that the Jewish community in the UK is still in shock and mourning following the horror and brutality of the Hamas attacks, even two months on. There is ongoing concern for the welfare of the hostages and growing concern internationally and from UK religious leaders about the number of reported deaths of innocent people caught in the crossfire in Gaza. 

As many readers of The Tablet will be aware, tensions in the UK are running high as the conflict continues. Numbers of recorded incidences of antisemitic or Islamophobic hate are surging;  the Community Security Trust, which monitors antisemitism, is recording the highest levels of anti-Jewish hate since they started keeping records in 1984. These include assaults, direct threats, vitriol on social media and an incredibly hostile atmosphere for Jewish students at many UK universities. 

Clearly, one strand of what is needed in the UK is a shared resolve to stand with ordinary people who are the victims of antisemitism, Islamophobia, or any other kind of faith-based hatred and racism. At a minimum, Christians need to do all they can to make sure that our streets and neighbourhoods are safe places for all people. 

Beyond this, what is the place of dialogue in this challenging moment? When tensions are so high is dialogue between Jews, Christians, and Muslims even possible? What can dialogue mean when people on both sides of a violent conflict are grieving, angry, and, as a result, isolated from one another?

Pope Francis spoke directly to this when addressing a delegation of the Conference of European Rabbis at the Vatican last month, 6 November. He called for compassion, justice, and dialogue in relation to the Israel-Hamas war; he also strongly condemned antisemitism and called for peace in the region. 

My attention was caught by his words on the importance of what he called “the art of dialogue”. Even in this crisis, Pope Francis said, we are called to “encounter, listening and fraternal exchange”. For me, this resonated with my belief that dialogue is not just something extra we can do, like the icing on the cake for middle-class people of faith, dialogue is far more fundamental; it is at the root of being human in the first place: 

“Human beings, who have a social nature and who live in contact with others, find their fulfilment in the weaving of social relationships. In this sense, humanity is not only capable of dialogue but is dialogue itself. Poised between heaven and earth, it is only in dialogue with the transcendent One and with our brothers and sisters who accompany us that we can understand and mature.” 

The pope went on to note the specific imperative for Christians to dialogue with Jews, given the historic and theological links between the two communities: “The dialogue with Judaism is particularly important for us Christians, because we have Jewish roots. Jesus was born and lived as a Jew; he himself is the first guarantor of the Jewish heritage at the centre of Christianity and we who are Christians need you, dear brothers. We need Judaism to understand ourselves better.”

In addressing the Jewish leaders present, the pope drew from an eminent Jewish thinker of the 20th century, Martin Buber. For Martin Buber, dialogue is not what merely characterises civil society; it is what makes us human in the first place. In his famous work I and Thou, first published in 1923, Buber argues that we are not fully human, not fully an “I” until we recognise a “Thou” across from us. It is not enough simply to recognise objects external to ourselves, what Buber called an “I-it” relationship. That relationship implies an element of control on our part over the other. Unless we accept the other as a free and equal counterpart, we remain underdeveloped as individuals. Our own humanity is thus at stake in dialogue. It is fitting that in 2015, the 50th anniversary year of Buber’s passing, the International Council of Christians and Jews presented the Pope with a signed copy of Buber’s important work. 

Dialogue, then, is far more than learned and sober discussion of theological themes or political debates. Of course, it can be this; but dialogue is also saying good morning to someone on your street. Dialogue is speaking to someone new at church about their week, or a colleague of another faith simply about how they are doing. Dialogue is not just for experts – it is for everyone. Dialogue is the basic concern for another person that helps us grow in understanding and compassion. Until we can recognise one another and the humanity within each of us we cannot explore the deeper theological topics; until we establish trust we cannot grapple with the most difficult of conversations. 

The pope is right, I think, to stress dialogue in times of crisis like our own. That being said, I am sure he would agree that we need to be pragmatic and even cautious about our dialogue partners. We need to take care of whom we allow access to booking space in our churches and those whom we share platforms with. In particular, there is a danger, in our age, that the church can be manipulated and used to foster hate.

But dialogue itself remains important in times like ours when finding common ground can be challenging. In November Cardinal Vincent Nichols welcomed a gathering of more than 60 Rabbis and Christian clergy at a CCJ conference. Although the group of leaders didn’t agree on everything, we were all committed to respectful and loving dialogue – and, more than this, to dialogue in the midst of a crisis, which is no mean feat. It is this that gives me hope for the future.

Dr Nathan Eddy is Co-Director of the Council of Christians and Jews.

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