The United Church of Christ has adopted a theological statement affirming God's continuing covenant with Judaism and asserting that "Christianity is not to be understood as the successor religion to Judaism."
Last week the 1.7 million-member denomination became the second Protestant body in the past month to formally take this position on the sensitive issue that has plagued interreligious relations for generations. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) affirmed last month a study paper that takes a similar stance.
Christianity's centuries-old view that it is a successor religion to Judaism and that Jews must forsake their past and convert to Christianity to be saved has given rise to unending tension between the two faiths marked by a bloody history of pogroms, forced conversions and other forms of persecution.
The Old Testament records the covenant God made with the Jews to keep them as a chosen people. Christianity's denial of that covenant "throughout much of its history," says the UCC statement, "has often led to outright rejection of the Jewish people and to theologically and humanly intolerable violence."
Christians must "ask for God's forgiveness, through our Lord Jesus Christ" for this history, the statement continues.
The document, adopted with little dissent, bids Christians "to turn from this path of rejection and persecution to affirm that Judaism has not been superseded by Christianity; that Christianity is not to be understood as the successor religion to Judaism."
It added: "God's covenant with the Jewish people has not been abrogated. God has not rejected the Jewish people; God is faithful in keeping covenant."
The UCC statement, unlike the Presbyterian one, does not deal with the thorny religio-political present-day controversy over the status of the land of Israel. Some Jews justify efforts to expel Arabs from Israel on the grounds God gave the land to Jews in perpetuity.
The original draft of the Presbyterian statement affirming "the continuity and irrevocability of God's promise of land to the people of Israel," quickly ran into trouble in the denomination with strong Middle East missionary interests.
After extensive debate, led in part by the Rev. Benjamin Weir, former hostage who was a longtime missionary in Lebanon, the statement was changed to: "The State of Israel is a geopolitical entity and is not to be validated theologically."
The paper was also downgraded from a position paper to a study document.
The statements by the two mainline Protestant churches are in harmony with developing theological studies on Christian Jewish relations.
In 1965, the Roman Catholic Church issued its landmark document, Nostre Aetate, denouncing anti-Semitism and repudiating the long-held belief that the Jewish people collectively were responsible for the death of Jesus Christ.
Nostre Aetate also addressed the question of God's continuing covenant with the Jews. "God does not repent of the gifts he made nor of the calls he issues," the document said.
Pope John Paul II elaborated the church's view further a year ago in his historic visit to a Rome synagogue in which he said, "The covenant between God and the Jews is irrevocable."
The UCC statement was adopted at the church's 16th general synod in Cleveland, which also celebrated its founding 30 years ago in the same city. The denomination was formed by a merger of the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church.
In other actions, the nearly 800 delegates postponed for two years making a decision on moving its headquarters out of New York City.
They also summoned the 6,400 local congregations of the church across the country to vigorous response to the AIDS crisis. Delegates called for setting up programs for prevention of the disease and "compassionate ministries for AIDS patients, their families and providers of medical care."