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Ethnic Quakerism, Universal Messiah

I visited a friend’s synagogue this Saturday. She was delivering the Jewish equivalent of a sermon as part of the service that morning, and she invited me to attend. I’m glad I did. I had never participated in a Jewish religious service before, and it was an eye-opening experience for me as a Christian to be in the midst of the people from whom my Messiah emerged.

Before I say more, I feel I need to acknowledge that I have no idea what I’m talking about when it comes to modern Judaism. Like many Christians, I’ve read the Old Testament – the Torah, Writings and Prophets – as an integral part of my Christian faith, but my tradition has radically reinterpreted the ancient Hebrew scriptures. To read the Torah as a practitioner of Judaism must be a very different thing from my own experience of the text as a follower of Jesus Messiah.

That being said, from my perspective as a Christian, attending this Jewish service made me feel in touch with the Old Testament heritage in an entirely different way than I had experienced before. In a Christian context, we talk about Israel all the time, but we generally mean it in a universal, spiritual sense. For Christians, Israel is the historical and present-day community of those who have put their trust in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Since the coming of Messiah Jesus, the concept of Israel has been expanded to include all people, regardless of ethnic background, who place their trust in Jesus and live in the power of his resurrection.

For those gathered for worship at the synagogue this weekend, the idea of Israel seemed much more specific. When they prayed for Israel, they seemed to be praying for the ethnically/religiously Jewish people in diaspora and for the modern-day state of Israel. The service included a prayer thanking God for “making me a Jew.” I took this prayer as literal, as in, “thank you, God, for creating me as a member of this holy ethnic group.” This is a far cry from the spiritualized conceptions that I as a Christian have about what Israel means.

This is challenging for me. The Christian tradition emphasizes the universal, multi-ethnic gospel – a revolutionary message that invites people from all languages, cultures and ethnicities to participate as members of the same body in Messiah. As a Quaker, I belong to a subset of Christianity that especially emphasizes the universal saving light of Jesus, God’s power to draw people from any background into the spiritual Israel. For me as a Christian, and especially as a Quaker, it is the living presence of Jesus Messiah within each person, not cultural/ethnic/religious heritage, that makes positive transformation possible.

My very brief encounter with Judaism leads me to wonder what role historical, cultural and ethnic specificity has to play in God’s plan of cosmic redemption. Does God want to act through specific ethnic groups, traditions and nations in particular ways? Do the Jewish people have a different calling in Messiah than, say, the Osage, Welsh or Bantu? What is the value of emphasizing a particular ethnic heritage in our religious life? What are the dangers?

This is all very alive to me right now, since I am increasingly aware of the extent to which Quakerism is itself an ethnic heritage. Jews have been around a lot longer than Quakers, yet Friends take part in many of the same culturally-specific religious practices that Jews do. We retell the stories of our history. We remind ourselves why we do things differently from the peoples around us. We rehearse again and again God’s special purpose for us as a community, a faithful remnant in a world that is often hostile to the witness that God has called us to uphold.

Is there value in preserving the ethnic community of Quakerism? Is there something specific that God wants to do through us that would not be possible if we were simply absorbed into the wider culture? Can we embrace this ethnic specificity while at the same time being radically open to those around us? How can we as Quakers invite others to experience the good news of Jesus without letting Quakerism present a stumbling block? Is it possible to be both a peculiar people as well as an open, inclusive, invitational one?

It feels like there must be a balance in here somewhere. Through the experience of the Hebrew people, culminating in Jesus, we have seen that God loves to use very specific and particular people and communities to bless the world. How can we as Friends be a blessing, neither renouncing the unique heritage that God has given us, nor clinging so tightly to our ways that we fail to allow the whole world to be blessed through us?