The Evangelical [Protestant] Churches in Austria and the Jews: 'Time to Turn' (October 28, 1998)

"Time to Turn"
The Evangelical [Protestant] Churches in Austria and the Jews

On November 4th, 1998, the General Synod of the Evangelical Church A.B. and H.B. [Augsburg and Helvetian Confessions] in Austria resolved to issue the following declaration. The reference in section I. of the present declaration to the preliminary comments of both the General Synod 1965 and the Evangelical Churches of the Helvetian Confession 1996, make clear that this resolution has a long and in different ways also difficult history.

Not least, the initiatives of the Coordination Committee for the 2nd European Ecumenical Assembly 1997 in Graz have at last given impetus to introduce the fruits of years of efforts within the Evangelical Churches of Austria towards a new relationship of these churches to Judaism's history since biblical times – also since the Reformation into our own days, again and again determined by explicit enmity against Jews – and to Jewish fellow citizens in our midst. It is clear that the result in the present declaration is still only the beginning of a learning process, which must be checked for its effectiveness by a practice following from it.

It is important that this text not only establishes the impossibility of a Christian-based enmity against Jews, as for instance already in 1965, but that renewed relations to the Jewish people now also obliges the Christian churches to enter into a relationship of learning and dialogue with it. Much is to be done in this regard within the evangelical churches in Austria. The following text mentions such tasks in detail. Ulrich Trinks

[Translator's note: The term Evangelische Kirche as proper noun has to be translated "Evangelical Church" though it actually means the "Protestant Church", or the two churches of the Reformation united as in Austria. It does not indicate North American evangelical Christianity. "Protestant" has been applied in translation of evangelische whenever it is used to modify other nouns.]

Declaration of the General Synod of the Evangelical Church A.B. and H.B. in Austria
[Augsburg and Helvetian Confessions]

I.

November 9th of this year will see the 60th anniversary of the 1938 pogrom against Jews. This event prompts us Protestant Christians and churches inAustriato again grapple with this century's dreadful history of the deliberate attempt to annihilate theEurope's Jews. The part played by Christians and churches and their shared responsibility for the suffering and misery of Jews can no longer be denied. The word of the General Synod of 1965 and the "Declaration of Principle of the Evangelical Church H.B." of 1996 are to be remembered.

II.

We realize with shame that our churches showed themselves inured by the fate of the Jews and countless other victims of persecution. This is all the more incomprehensible because Protestant Christians in their own history, especially in the Counter-Reformation, were themselves discriminated against and persecuted. The churches did not protest against visible injustice; they were silent and looked away; they did not "throw themselves into the spokes of the wheel" (Bonhoeffer).

Therefore, not only individual Christians but also our churches share in the guilt of the Holocaust/Shoah.

We remember with grief all victims of persecution who were divested of their civil rights and their human dignity, abandoned to an unrelenting pursuit and murdered in concentration camps.

III.

The General Synod asks the Jewish congregations [Israelitische Kultusgemeinden] and the Jews inAustriato receive the following assurance:

  • The Evangelical Churches know themselves obliged to always keep alive the memory of the Jewish people's history of suffering and of the Shoah.
  • The Evangelical Churches know themselves obliged to check the teaching, sermon, instruction, liturgy and practice of the church for any antisemitism and to also, through its media, stand up against prejudices.
  • The Evangelical Churches know themselves obliged to fight every social and personal antisemitism.
  • The Evangelical Churches want, in their relations to Jews and Jewish congregations, to walk a common way into a new future.

Therefore, we make an effort to reconsider and shape the relationship of Protestant Christians and Jews accordingly.

IV.

The evolution of antisemitism into the Shoah represents for us as Protestant churches and Protestant Christians a challenge that reaches down into the roots of our faith. The God of Christians is no other than the God of Israel who called Abraham to faith and chose the enslaved Israelites to be his people. We profess to the permanent election ofIsraelas God's people. "God did not terminate this covenant" (Martin Buber). It exists to the end of time.

We read God's word in John's Gospel: "Salvation is from the Jews" (John 4:22). God himself is the salvation which he gave to his people and which he expands over everyone in the Jew Jesus, whom we confess as the Christ. God "desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim. 2:4).

The quarrels in the New Testament about the meaning of Jesus and the gospel must not be misused in anti-Jewish ways. The fact that they were argued among Jews was suppressed by the gentile Christian community. The church felt itself chosen alone to be the people of God and claimed the rejection ofIsrael. Since then anti-Jewish excesses run all the way through the entire church history.

In this regard we as Protestant Christians are burdened by the late writings of Luther and their demand for expulsion and persecution of the Jews. We reject the contents of these writings.

The biological and political racism of the 19th and 20th centuries was able to make use of Christian anti-Judaism for its religious-ideological confirmation. Against this there was hardly any resistance in our churches. Rather, Protestant Christians and pastors also involved themselves in antisemitic propaganda. If the churches looked after persecuted Jews, it looked mainly after those who were baptized.

This, our burdened past, demands an about-turn which comprises the church's interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, its theology, teaching and practice.

V.

When we Christians read the Bible of both testaments as a unified whole, we have to listen carefully to the Jewish interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, of our Old Testament, knowing well that for Jews the New Testament is not Holy Scripture.

Differences in the understanding of Scripture can be tolerated in mutual respect. "The Biblical symbols of hope are an impulse for the common effort around the formation of a world of justice and peace." (Ecumenical Assembly Erfurt 1996).

It is to be considered that the New Testament – which proclaims Jesus Christ as the redeemer of the world – was written mainly by Jews.

Our Lord Jesus Christ was, according to origin, education and his faith in God, a Jew and has to be understood as a Jew.

According to the resolution of the Ecumenical Assembly inErfurt1996, the Christian proclamation must learn "to recognize Judaism as a living and diverse entity that existed already before Christianity and simultaneously with it. That forbids every triumphalist arrogance."

The "Declaration for the Meeting between Lutheran Christians and Jews" of 1990 calls for the realization that God himself sends his people. This missio dei teaches one to understand ones own possibilities and tasks. "God authorizes the mutual witnessing of faith in confidence of the free workings of God's spirit, because he decides about the effect of the faith-witness and about the eternal salvation of all people. He frees one from the compulsion to have to do everything oneself. Because of this realization Christians are obliged to witness and serve in respect for the conviction and the faith of their Jewish dialogue partners."

Because the covenant of God with his peopleIsraelexists in nothing but grace to the end of time, mission among Jews is theologically not justifiable and to be rejected as a church program. The dialog of Christians with Judaism, in which they are rooted, is to be fundamentally distinguished from a dialog of Christians with other religions.

VI.

50 years ago the State of Israel was founded. We wish it justice and peace. We hope and pray that this state finds a secure peace with its neighbors – in particular with the Palestinian people – in mutual respect of the right of residence, so that Jews, Christians and Muslims can live together peacefully.

We consciously join the recommendation of the Ecumenical Council of the Churches inAustriato observe the 17th of January, the day before the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, as a day of solidarity with Judaism and thereby include the Jewish people in intercession.

Vienna, on October 28, 1998