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Watch the Jews!

Watch the Jews!

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Watch the Jews!

April 2, 2007    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando {0648}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

In every one of Walker Percy’s novels a character points to the Jews as a sign in history.

To take just one example, in his novel “The Second Coming,” the character Will Barrett says: “Who said we could get along without the Jews? Watch the Jews, their mysterious comings and goings and stayings! The Jews are a sign! When the Jews pull out, the Gentiles begin to act like the crazy Jutes and Celts and Angles and redneck Saxons they are. They go back to the woods.”

A Catholic, the late Walter Percy wrote novels that are not only highly entertaining, but also profoundly critical of modern culture from a Christian perspective. The Christian perspective through which Percy viewed this world is one that is anchored in its Jewish roots. Indeed, he is not only critical of the world, but also of a Christianity that is forgetful of its dependence upon God’s revelation to the Jews.

How are the Jews a sign? They are a sign by their stubborn and persistent particularity. The Jews are a particular people formed by a covenant with a particular God who calls them to live a particular kind of life according to particular commandments. The Jews’ God is different from all the other gods of the world.

Christians are always tempted to forget that the triune God revealed in Jesus Christ is Yahweh, that Jesus was a Jew, that the church is grafted into the covenant with Israel, and that the Christian life is a practice of holiness revealed first to the Jews. Whenever the church assumes that it has superseded the Jews, it declines toward Gentile paganism — or goes back to the woods, as Percy said.

The theologian John Milbank says that one of the characteristics of postmodernity is the erasure of boundaries — the boundaries between nature and culture, between the public and private spheres of life, between politics and economics, between male and female, etc. In a sense, the erasure of boundaries is characteristic of Christianity itself (see Galatians 3:28). Yet Milbank observes that against this postmodern cultural background exists Judaism, which is by definition the religion of boundaries. Milbank asks the question whether the witness of the church in a postmodern culture ought to be one of acknowledging the boundaries the church has learned from the Jews. In other words, should the witness of the church to the postmodern culture be an integration of gospel and law that tells the culture that it “overstresses the passing beyond boundaries at the expense of the virtue of boundaries?” (“The Strange New Word of the Gospel,” Braaten and Jenson, Ed., Eerdmans, 2002.)

It is worth considering whether the crises experienced by mainline Protestant churches in contemporary Western societies — the theological fuzziness and antinomianism and cultural accommodation — do not boil down to the churches’ forgetfulness of their Jewish origins.

Early in its life the Christian church was tempted to reject its tether to Judaism. Marcion, in the second century, rejected the idea that the Father of Jesus Christ was the Jewish God, and he said the church should adopt the New Testament as a substitute for the Old Testament as its Scripture.

Even though the ancient church did make a wrong theological move in embracing supercessionism, the idea that the church had superseded Israel, it affirmed the Scriptures of the Jews as its own Scriptures. The embrace of the Old Testament as its Scripture was a pivotal decision in the history of the church. That decision laid the foundation for the rejection of supercessionism today. More importantly, it binds the church today to a responsibility to interpret its identity and mission according to the particular revelation of God that was given first to the Jews, rather than to an image of God as the reflection of the cultures of the Gentiles. It reminds the church that, while it fulfills its universal mission, it ought not forget that it is called to be, like the Jews, a particular people bound to a particular God who has revealed the divine character and purpose in history.

Watch the Jews!


This article relates to Christian Tradition.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.