Kurt Koch par Claude Truong-Ngoc décembre 2016.jpg
Profiles in Catholicism
Christianity and the Other


by Cardinal Kurt Koch 

Ben Gurion University of the Negev – Beer-Sheva, 6 November


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Ladies and Gentlemen,

When we speak about Christianity, we have to start with Jesus Christ. Jesus is his name, Christ the title that means in Greek ‘The Anointed One” which corresponds to ‘Messiah’. Christians believe that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel, the Son of God. But without doubt he was Jewish and raised according to the Jewish traditions of his time. Jesus was a Jew by faith, a Jew in his ethical rigour, in his love for the Torah, in his fondness for extended metaphors and parables, and in the apocalyptic urgency of his teaching. Jesus’ Jewishness is essential to Christianity. To Christians Jesus was the Messiah – itself a Jewish concept – whose coming had been foretold in Jewish scripture for centuries. Christians believe that it is Jewish history that Jesus fulfils. For Christians Jesus was there well before his actual coming, in the fervid longings of a people who had suffered exile, dispossession and, at the time of Jesus, occupation under the Romans. Jesus is also the Son of God but not in the sense of a human father and a son. Jesus is God’s Son in the sense that He is God made manifest in human form (cf. Jn 1:14). Jesus is God’s Son in that He was conceived by the Holy Spirit. In the New Testament an angel is announces to Mary, the earthly mother of Jesus: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (Lk 1:35).

The Essence of Christianity

Taking this into account, one can ask what is Christianity about? In the centre of this religion there is first of all not a set of doctrinal statements or rules nor a code of behaviour but a living person, Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. And what is the essence of Christianity? The centre of Christianity is the death and resurrection of Jesus. Everything else in the New Testament – whether it be a command to love others or to keep ourselves pure from sin or any other topic – stems from the death and resurrection of Jesus. Everything Jesus himself said and did revolved around this. If we take that away, Christianity has no foundation, no basis. Without a thorough appreciation of the centrality of the death of the crucified Jesus and his resurrection one will never truly learn how to live the Christian life. Christianity is possible only because Jesus died and was raised. Without his death there would be no forgiveness for the sins. And without his resurrection there would be no hope of eternal life. If Jesus had remained in his tomb one would have no reason to pay attention to anything he said. Furthermore, the death and resurrection is not just a historical event. It is much more. It is the pattern by which a Christian has to live. Being Christ–like means living a life that is characterized by death to sin and new life for God. Christians die to sin and are buried with Christ in baptism, then they are raised out of the water to live a new life with him (cf. Rom 6:4). As disciples of Christ Christians must follow him in the way of the cross, the way of sacrifice, the way of dying unto sin in obedience to the will of God. Every other moral command in the New Testament is simply spelling out how a crucified and resurrected person ought to live. Christians must be able to say with the Apostle Paul “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Crucified with him, and living a new life with him: that is the essence of being a Christian.

Who is the Other?

Being a Christian means that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is decisive about how to live and how to conduct a life according to the will of God. Thus, approaching the question who is the Other for Christians, first it should be understood who was the Other for Jesus. In the New Testament we find the following story:

“And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him ‘What is written in the law? How do you read?’ And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind: and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have answered right; do this, and you will live.” But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down the road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; the he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed mercy on him.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise’” (Lk 10:25-37).

This would mean that the neighbour, the Other One, is first of all a person in need who depends on the help of other people: the poor, the sick, the old and handicapped, the homeless, the prisoner, the beggar, the people at the margin of society. In the Torah one finds the two commandments to love God and to love the neighbour separately but Jesus binds both together: by loving the people in need through visible charitable deeds one is demonstrating that he is also loving God: in this sense “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). Another New Testament text demonstrates this insight very clearly; the framework is here the Last Judgement: “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and gave thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’” (Mt 25:31-40). This would mean that somebody who takes care of a person in need is taking care of Jesus himself. It is in the face of the needy one that one recognizes the features of Christ himself.

The story of the “Good Samaritan” who took care of the man who fell among robbers tells us also another thing: the Other One is the stranger. Taking into account that the Jews at the time of Jesus did not get along with the Samaritans and saw them as alien strangers with whom they should avoid any contact it is very surprising that precisely a Samaritan who helps the wounded man. People of the Jewish establishment like the priest and the Levite passed by and were not willing to help the victim because they feared becoming impure. But in this story an unwelcome and hated stranger becomes the neighbour, the Other One, and the person taking care of the afflicted man therefore fulfils the divine commandment.

Children of Abraham

In the Old Testament we learn about a stranger whom Abraham met and who became his guest. The reader of Genesis 18:1-15 in the Old Testament knows from the beginning of this story that the stranger is the Lord himself. Abraham took care of the stranger and he obtained from him the promises to have a son and to become a mighty nation. He believed in these promises and received his son Isaac though his wife Sarah were old, advanced in age. He can be seen as the “father of faith” because he relied exclusively on God’s word. He left his country, his kindred, and his father’s house to enter into the promised land and he received the message that of him will be made a great and blessed nation (cf. Gen 12:1-3). Having a deep faith means relying on God’s word alone and leaving all behind. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his only son according to the commandment of God (cf. Gen 22:2). This was a test of Abraham’s faith, he obeyed in all to the voice of the Almighty. So he was rewarded by him: “Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore” (Gen 22:16-17). Because Abraham trusted God fully, he became a model of faith, an example of obedience to the word of God. Therefore to be children of Abraham would mean to imitate his faith fixing ourselves in the promising word of God. Trusting in God alone and his word means to be “children of Abraham”.

Pope John Paul II called the Jews “our elder brothers in the faith of Abraham”. Christians and Jews are brothers, they have the same father and in a certain sense are raised in one family with the same traditions. The ways of brothers are the same ones during the first period of family life, but then everybody has different ways to go. The faith of our forefather Abraham in the one and unique God of Israel connects Jews and Christians, yet at the same time the Christian faith differs from other faiths by virtue of Jesus Christ, the son of God, whom Christians confess as Messiah come to the world to save all who belong to him. With the vocation of Abraham in the Bible the history of salvation starts as a family story, and God’s beloved people have famous biblical figures as points of identification. The God of Israel is first represented as God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as God of the forefathers. Christians and Jews have the same God of Israel, but the way of perceiving this God is quite different. For Christians the way to God cannot refrain from Jesus Christ, because he himself is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). For Jews God has revealed himself by his word given in the Torah and the way towards him consist in observing his commandments. Jesus is for Christians the word of God that “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). If we speak of our common father in faith Abraham we have to take into account that our faiths are different, although we believe in the same God.

In the New Testament Jesus states that the children of Abraham are doing the same as what Abraham did. In the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John (cf. 8:31-59) the Jews were particularly called “children of Abraham”; it seems to be an honourable expression for religious Jews who are taking serious God’s commandments. But there the figure of Abraham becomes relative to Jesus himself who claims to know God and to have seen Abraham. In John 8:58 Jesus states: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am”. This claim caused troubles among the Jews of the New Testament period because Jesus saw himself superior to Abraham. Also for Christians today the figure of Jesus Christ is more important than Abraham, because their whole destiny depends on the relationship to the only “Son of God”. They are baptized into Jesus Christ, into his death and resurrection (cf. Rom 6:3-4) and they hope to be saved by and through him. If Christians are to be called “children of Abraham”, it should be taken into account that they belong first and primarily to Jesus Christ, who believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as a Jew of his times. Therefore, Christians can only be called “children of Abraham” if they show the same behaviour as Abraham, the “father of faith”, who relied exclusively on God and his promising word.

The term “children of Abraham” is not central for the Christian faith though we share the faith of Abraham in the one and unique God. The faith of Abraham was also the faith of Jesus as Jew. He observed the commandments of the Torah and lived according to the religious traditions of his time. But the particular point of Christian faith is the belief in Jesus Christ as the word of God sent to our world to save all who belong to him. He is our “living Torah” that became flesh and through him God’s plan of salvation will be realized.

Christians and Jews

The figure of Abraham is important for Jews as well as for Christians but they see it under different perspectives. The God of Abraham is also the God of Jesus. Thus, Jews and Christians share the same faith in God, who is not an unreachable ruler of heavens: He is the God of the Covenant, the God of dialogue that turns to people as friends, speaks to them and with them. He loves his people and humankind, and He remains faithful to his love despite all human failures. He reaches out towards men, is committed in their history and listens to their cries and suffering. He is especially with the poor and the oppressed. He is a sympathetic and empathetic God, a God that shares in the suffering, but is not overwhelmed by it and remains the sovereign God of history, guiding everything and leading everything towards his final Kingdom. He lives both in heaven and among us human beings.

Jews and Christians believe that God created man in his own image after his likeness (Gen 1:26), so that therefore every human person possesses an infinite dignity which deserves absolute respect from his neighbour. The Bible affirms the sanctity and inviolable dignity of the human being – of every human being regardless of his or her cultural, national or religious belonging. This universalistic biblical view is one of the very foundations and sources of modern theory and policy of human rights. This common heritage gives a common responsibility to Jews and Christians for the defence and promotion of human rights and of human life in the world, and this is the best we can do for peace and freedom in the world. Against all nationalistic narrowness and materialistic depreciation of the person, we have to insist on the dignity and greatness of the human being. We have to stand against the immoralities and idolatries that harm and degrade human dignity. But the Bible is thoroughly realistic: it knows the misery of the human being. It knows that our world is no paradise and speaks therefore of paradise lost, of hard labour, guilt, suffering and death, of enmity between individuals and between nations, of poverty, injustice, lies, defamation and persecutions, of the experience of meaninglessness and hopelessness. The Bible and both our religious traditions do not leave us alone with these feelings, for they speak of hope due to salvation.

Between Christians and Jews deep and fundamental differences remain. But despite all remaining differences, we have a common mission. It is more important to note after all that our differences are not so extreme as to prevent us from bearing common witness to the God of the Covenant. Such common witness is particularly urgent in today’s world – a world that has become secular and profane, and often doubts the sense of life and history. It is our common task and mission to help people find sense, courage and hope. Jews can show the path to true happiness in life through the way of the Torah, the Ten Commandments, which, according to the Bible, are not to be seen as burdens and limitations but as guides and signposts to happiness and human fulfilment. Christians, however, can show the way to happiness by conducting a Christ-like life embedded in the mystery of his death and resurrection.

Current scientific and technological progress have raised new and difficult ethical questions. As Jews and Christians, we possess an immense human, religious and ethical potential against the great destructive potentials in our world – potentials which can nevertheless help to build up a new civilisation of life. We have therefore a common responsibility for the future in this century, as well as for the next generation. We should not only look back to the negative sides of our history; today we are called to look forward and initiate a new common history for the good of humankind. It is our deep conviction that Christians and Jews have embarked upon a new phase of their relationship. In the book of our common history, a new page has been opened. In our current situation, we can no longer afford to be apart from each other or fight with each other. As difficult as it may be, we must build bridges between us, or better: we must dare to walk on bridges that have existed as long as we have existed as Jews and Christians.

The Bible considers humans as dialogical beings in relation with God, and in relation with one another. Not without good reason has it been that Jewish thinkers like Martin Buber have ardently proposed the paradigm of dialogical thought to a civilization marked by individualism, and have inspired us to discern that it is in the countenance of the other, in confronting the otherness of the other, that we discover ourselves. Not only do we undertake dialogue, we are dialogue. Meanwhile “dialogue” has become a fashionable byword grown shabby by overuse. The word refers to ecumenical, interreligious, social, inner-church, and also to Jewish-Christian dialogue. Often such dialogue does not go beyond polite expressions of friendliness. That is still better than violent dispute. But is there not also the danger of minimization, of just tolerating each other, the risk of indifferentism, patchwork identity? In this sense one does not or cannot authentically bear and respect the otherness of the other. The Jewish-Christian dialogue cannot be of that kind. Jews and Christians, with all they have in common in their fundamental understandings, in the fundamental conceptions which are constitutive for their respective identities, are and remain different. These differences concern their religious convictions on the question of God and Christ, their notions of world redemption or otherwise. Therefore we should not approach the Jewish-Christian dialogue with naïve expectations of a harmonious understanding.

Yet, precisely when we do not simple–mindedly ignore our otherness, but rather bear with it, can we learn from each other. There is considerable ignorance on both sides, and ignorance is one of the roots of reciprocal prejudice. Ultimately, relations between Jews and Christians cannot be reduced to a simple formula and even less so can it be raised to a higher synthesis. Franz Rosenzweig for example has spoken of a mutual completion. An image for the dialogue is found in the interpretation of the prophet Zechariah by rabbinical theology. The prophet looks into the messianic future where the peoples are taken into the alliance with Israel. “On that day the Lord will be one and his name one” (14:9). According to rabbinical interpretation all of us, Jews and all peoples, will stand shoulder to shoulder. Only at the end of time shall the historically indissoluble relation between Israel and the Church find a solution. Until then though they may not be united in one another’s arms, neither should they turn their backs to each other. They should stand shoulder to shoulder as partners, and – in a world where the glimmer of hope has grown faint – together they must strive to radiate the light of hope without which no human being and no people can live. Young people especially need this common witness to the hope of peace in justice and solidarity. Never again contempt, hatred, oppression and persecution between races, between cultures and between religions! Jews and Christians together can maintain this hope. For they can testify from the bitter and painful lessons of history that – despite otherness and foreignness and despite historical guilt – conversion, reconciliation, brotherhood, peace and friendship are possible.