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Holy Names Sister’s new book examines relationship of Christianity with
by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff
(From the June 15, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)
According to a May 4 news article from the Reuters News Service, Roman Catholic and Jewish leaders ended a three-day conference by signing a joint statement in which they said they were “determined to engage our leadership and laity in dialogue and cooperation.”
Holy Names Sister Mary C. Boys of Union Theological Seminary in New York City has written an important book that can be of great assistance in such a dialogue. This significant work, which will do much to promote Christian-Jewish understanding, is titled Has God Only One Blessing?
The book begins with a reference to the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau, the sons of Isaac and Rebekah. Jacob finagles away his twin (and elder) brother’s birthright, and in his dismay at losing it, Esau cries, “Has God only one blessing?” That is the question Sister Mary addresses in this carefully written work.
Through the centuries, Christians have accepted the idea that as they have become the descendants of Jacob, the Jews came out second best, as Esau did. She meticulously lays out the premise that Jews and Christians share in God’s blessing, and that Christians can know who they are much more clearly if they know the background from which their religion came.
“We need a new understanding,” Sister Mary writes, “that the Christian church, Ecclesia, and the Jewish church, Synagoga, stand side by side.”
Sister Mary presents the case for this new understanding in a clear and insightful way. The book benefits from the wealth of research that’s been done in the areas of Christian Biblical, liturgical and systematic theology, especially in recent years.
The picture that emerges, even as it acknowledges the limitations of early historical data, is one that strives to be as accurate as possible. Buttressing the work are extensive footnotes and an extensive bibliography.
The followers of Jesus lived side by side with the Jews in the beginning, since they themselves were Jews. However, their message was more favorably received in the Gentile community, and as more Gentiles joined the new way, the group struggled for an identity.
One way to bolster their identity was to put themselves over and above the Jews. Christians were a minority in the beginning, and some communities were very insecure. Some of the teaching and preaching done by Christian leaders in the early centuries contains bitter words of hatred against the Jews, with the purpose of bolstering Christian resolve and thereby strengthening their communities.
But the teaching and preaching had another effect. Sister Mary shows how arguments against the Jews, blatant in many cases, contributed to the anti-Semitism that led others to think of them as undeserving and even not quite human. While those teachings were not primarily responsible for the Holocaust, they helped shaped the atmosphere and attitude that gave rise to it.
This mindset continues to be evident among Aryan Nations’ members in the Pacific Northwest who leave no doubt as to their feelings on white Christian supremacy. But even among less strident Christian groups, the anti-Jewish attitude will surface, as was made evident in recent news reports about a B.C. comic strip and a New York Knicks’ Bible study group.
Sister Mary asks all Christians, especially those who teach and who shape liturgy, with the task of becoming re-educated on the issues of justice in preaching and teaching about the Jewish religion. She devotes the final section of her book as to the ways this can be done.
The book is not one that will find a place near an ordinary reader’s easy chair. This work is for serious readers, for scholars and educators, especially those engaged in Christian-Jewish dialogue.
Taking time to become aware of the complexity and nuances of Judaism and Christianity over a period of two millennia can seem daunting. However, Sister Mary’s skill as a writer and her ability as a teacher is equal to the task. She has organized and defined her material so that readers have a good grasp of material from one chapter to the next. The effort to read Has God Only One Blessing? will be greatly rewarded with a deeper appreciation and greater sensitivity to the Jewish-Christian relationship.
Some Christians may find their faith challenged by Sister Mary’s work, but that is not the author’s intent. The doctrine of Jesus Christ as risen Savior stands firm as the foundation of Christianity. Christianity did not supplant Judaism; it grew out of it. Even though they are different, the two religions share a common background and a mutual respect is in order. Sister Mary’s plea is that Christians “discover the right way in which we might understand the people from whom we came and with whom we are linked to the God of Abraham and Sarah so that we ourselves might walk our journey of faith in a more trustworthy fashion.”
Sister Mary teaches theology and is author of a number of scholarly works. She herself has worked in the area of Christian-Jewish dialogue for over 20 years and brings that background to her work. In the preface, Sister Mary thanks Holy Names Sister Sheila McEvoy of Spokane for her assistance with the book.
She is also deeply grateful to Holy Names Sister Paula Mary Turnbull of Holy Names Art Studio in Spokane for the new sculptures of Ecclesia and Synagoga.
Has God Only One Blessing? is a Stimulus Book published in softcover at $29.95 by Paulist Press, 997 Macarthur Blvd., Mahwah, NJ 07430.
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