Scholars try to reconcile ‘problematic’ religious texts

Times Staff Writer

Speaking with mutual respect and sensitivity, prominent Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars and clergy from around the country met in Los Angeles this week to “wrestle” with what one rabbi described as the “dark side” of the three faith traditions.

Experts cited “problematic” passages from the Hebrew Scripture, the New Testament and the Koran that assert the superiority of one belief system over others.

As an example, the Rt. Rev. Alexei Smith, ecumenical and interreligous official of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, quoted from the Gospel of Mark: “Go into the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.”

Rabbi Reuven Firestone, director of the Institute for the Study of Jewish-Muslim Interrelations at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, mentioned a series of texts, including a verse from Deuteronomy: “For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: of all the peoples of the earth the Lord your God chose you to be His treasured people.”


And Muzammil H. Siddiqi, chairman of the Fiqh (Islamic Law) Council of North America, quoted from the Koran:

“You who believe, do not take the Jews and Christians as allies: they are allies only to each other. Anyone who takes them as an ally becomes one of them -- God does not guide such wrongdoers.”

In explaining the passage from the Gospel of Mark, Smith said that the troubling portion was appended a century after it was written -- when the four Gospels were compiled.

He said the longer ending, which added 12 verses, was written at a time when Christians either were questioning their faith in the resurrection of Jesus or defending it against skeptics and nonbelievers.

Siddiqi took up the quote from the Koran, found in Chapter 5, verse 51, explaining that the problem lies not in the text, but in its interpretation.

“Some extremists among Muslims use this text to say that Muslims should not trust non-Muslims,” he said. “Some Islam bashers use this text to claim that Islam is an unfriendly religion,” said Siddiqi, who is also chairman of the Shura Council of Southern California.

He said the verse was revealed to the prophet Muhammad after the Battle of Hadh, when Muslims of Medina were overwhelmed by a larger number of nonbelievers from Mecca. “After that, Muslims were very frightened,” he said. “Some, who were weak in their faith, said, ‘We are going to make alliance with Jewish people, in order to find protection there.’ Some said, ‘We are going to make alliance with Christians, so we’ll have protection there.’ ”

The idea behind the verse is not that Muslims should shun Jews and Christians, but that they should stand up on their own feet and do their best, he said.

Firestone addressed the references to the Israelites as God’s elect in the books of Deuteronomy, Exodus and Amos.

“Why did God favor Israel?” he asked. “Why did God make the oath to the Israelite ancestors? The answer to these questions is not provided clearly in the text.”

He believes the origin of “chosen-ness” stems from the structure of tribal religion in the ancient Middle East. “Each of Israel’s neighboring communities seems to have had its own ethnic or national God,” he said.

Firestone said that all monotheistic traditions are confronted with the problem of chosen-ness and that “we all need to work through this absolutely basic notion in each of our religious systems.”

Keynote speaker Mary C. Boys, a professor of practical theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York, said that though writers of the Gospels differ in their accounts of Jesus’ passion and crucifixion, all cite Jews as primarily responsible for his death.

She finds two texts especially troublesome -- one in which Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator, says, “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” and the crowd answers, “His blood be on us and our children!”

“This is troubling because Imperial Rome had far more to do with the death of Jesus than the Gospels reflect,” she said. “Even more troubling is the way in which early Christian teachers built upon this charge as the rivalry with Judaism widened and deepened.”

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, which co-sponsored the event with Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., said all people of faith need to “take ownership of their most difficult texts, wrestle with them -- not run away from them -- but confront them, where appropriate, set them in their proper historical context.

“After wrestling, I hope people can understand these texts in the appropriate contexts and realize that not all of them, but many of them, are bound by conditions of social milieu, of culture, of historical context.”

In some instances, he continued, people of faith need to say to themselves, “This is part of my sacred tradition, but I reject it. I find this text offensive. It goes against my own morality, and it goes against what I believe God expects of me in the world today.”

That calls for a great deal of theological introspection, education and courage, he said.

Called “Troubling Tradition: Wrestling With Problem Passages,” the program at the Luxe Hotel in Bel-Air on Monday and Tuesday was the second in a series of four international conferences initiated by the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding of Sacred Heart University.

“We want to foster serious theological and moral thinking about those aspects of our traditions . . . that are intolerant and delegitimizes the other and have been used by extremists to foster violence and hatred,” said Rabbi Eugene Korn, executive director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding. “It’s absolutely critical now because of the increase in religious violence and extreme hostility.”

The first conference was held last year in Connecticut. There will be conferences in Germany in 2008 and Jerusalem in 2009. The papers presented at the conferences will be published as a book and posted on the Internet.

Speakers at the Los Angeles conference also included Rabbi Elliott Dorff, rector and professor of philosophy at American Jewish University, and Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary.

Conservative Christian Ann Coulter’s recent comment about Jews needing to be “perfected” by converting to Christianity was mentioned only in passing.

“Panelists and presenters chose not to dignify her remarks with a response,” Diamond said.

Jerry D. Campbell, president of the Claremont School of Theology, summed up the event:

“God is challenging us to take the idea of troubling texts to the next level, to begin a new conversation across faiths and throughout the world, with the goal of realizing God’s own hope that all God’s creation may learn to live harmoniously together.”