As ancient religious conflicts continued to spark violence in some parts of the world, nearly 1,000 religious leaders met here this week to celebrate the dramatic decline of Jewish-Christian hostility in America and to explore ways to produce further amity.
"The Christian world has not been ready to listen to Jews for 1,900 years. Now they are listening to us," Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, president of the Synagogue Council of America, told the Eighth National Workshop on Christian-Jewish Relations.
Roman Catholic Bishop James S. Malone, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Christians and Jews today "are united on a level more profound than any of the issues which divide us from time to time."
He called the gathering of some 1,000 people "a graced occasion for us to explore further the relationship of the Christian church and the Jewish people."
African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Philip Cousins, president of the National Council of Churches, said the interfaith gathering was "a down payment on the future . . . my attempt to witness to the cooperative spirit among Protestants, Catholics and Jews."
The presence here of these national heads of the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish religious communities was evidence of greater unity, said Eugene J. Fisher, who heads the Catholic bishops' Secretariat for Catholic-Jewish Relations.
The workshops were begun a decade ago and have been held every 12 to 18 months. While they have the support of major Christian and Jewish organizations, they operate as self-perpetuating units. The sessions attract professional church and synagogue personnel and lay persons involved in a range of interfaith efforts in their respective communities.
Most scholars in the field give major credit for the watershed change in Chrisstian-Jewish relations to a theological position adopted by the Second Vatican Council two decades ago.
The council adopted a statement formally absolving the Jews, as a people, from responsibility in the death of Jesus. This ancient charge that Jews were "Christ killers" has been at the root of holy wars, crusades, forced conversions and progroms through the centuries.
The action of the Roman Catholic Church in formally rejecting the deicide charge had a significant spillover effect throughout the entire Christian world.
But participants said problem areas still remain.
The Rev. John T. Pawlikowski of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago said "tremendous progress" has been made in eradicating the deicide charge from Christian teaching materials, but that the church's liturgy has not fully reflected the change.
Liturgy is particularly crucial, he said, "since it remains for many, many people the principal source of teaching on how Christians look on Jews and Jesus."
Christians "identify with Jesus and there's nothing wrong with that. But in identifying with Jesus do they see all Jews as bad guys?" he asked.
"As long as we continue to see Jesus as a kind of a loner, or give the impressions . . . that there were no Jews who shared Jesus' feeling that there was something wrong not only with the political situation [of His day] but with the religious situation as well," the Bible is being misrepresented.
Another area in which modern teachings on the deicide issue have not trickled down, said Pawlikowski, is in the Passion Plays, which purport to recreate in dramatic form Christ's life and death. "Millions of Americans continue to see these kinds of distorted presentations," which continue to lay the blame for Christ's death at the feet of the Jews, said Pawlikowski.
Pawlikowski called for more realistic views of Israel in Jewish-Christian dialogue. While asserting that recognition of Israel's "vulnerability as a political state" is a prerequisite forr any serious dialog, he called for a serious consideration of Israel's political and social realities in such talks.
"We must not allow ourselves to make the theological presuppositions found in Fundamentalist communities" -- the view of present-day Israel as fulfillment of ancient prophecies regarding the end of the world and Christ's return to earth. "We must not turn Israel into an unreal theological phenomenon that takes us away from realistic discussion of concrete realities," he said.
Bishop Malone said that "Roman Catholics have not yet come to grips with the implications of the Holocaust." In addition to problems of "revisionists" -- those who contend that the extermination of 6 million Jews by Hitler's forces never happened -- Catholics have yet to reckon with the "Christian tragedy . . . that Christians were numbered both among the executioners and the victims."
Christians and Jews, he said, "need above all to seek reconciliation with each other as sons and daughters of the one God."
Waxman called anti-Semitism "a major concern for Jews, and I am sure for Christians too. It must be condemned wherever it appears, as it appeared in the recent political campaign." Jewish leaders were universally critical of remarks of the Rev. Jesse Jackson during the Democratic primaries and of Jackson's failure to disavow the overtly anti-Semitic stance of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
Christian and Jewish leaders alike emphasized the need for cooperation on social and political problems -- though not always the same problems. Waxman and other Jewish leaders spoke eloquently against government-mandated prayers in public school classrooms. Malone noted the Catholic bishops' unqualified opposition to abortion, acknowledged that other faith groups did not agree totally and added, "We don't seek to make converts from Jews and Protestants."
There was no dissent from Cousins' remark that "the commonalities which we share transcend some of the differences that divide us."