Robert McAfee Brown, "The Coming of Messiah: From Divergence to Convergence?" in Michael D. Ryan, ed., Human Responses to the Holocaust: Perpetrators and Victims, Bystanders and Resisters, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1981, pp. 205-223

Abstract by Jerry Darring


The messianic question is a difficult one to raise in Jewish-Christian dialogue, but Brown does so for two reasons. The first is that it is a question always with us: "We are locked into a common destiny here whether we like it or not: the point of our greatest divergence from one another (the identity of the Messiah) is also the point at which we are closest to one another (the asking of the messianic question)" (207). The second is that the state of the question has changed, and Brown offers four signposts of change within the Christian community.

1) There is a new modesty in the statement of the Christian claim. The triumphalism that used to be present in the way the Christian claim was presented has been muted and increasingly put to rest, so that Christian victory statements are increasingly difficult for us to make. "The Holocaust has not only muted the assurance of those claims, but has transformed their former style of proclamation into a species of blasphemy" (209). Reflecting on the writings of Elie Wiesel, Brown has concluded that "If Jews must say, 'The world is evil; why does the Messiah not come?' then Christians must say, 'The Messiah has come; why is the world so evil?" (211). Both problems "spring from a common conviction that history should not be the way it is, and both believe that a messianic claim should be part of a way of dealing with the problem" (211).

2) Reflection about the Messiah is being done in a new way. Christology has traditionally been done "from above," that is, with an emphasis on Jesus as a triumphant divine being. Latin American theologians have presented us with an alternative: Christology from below, in which reflection begins with Jesus as a human being, living at a given time and place. The Jesus that emerges is different from the one Christians and Jews are accustomed to, for he is a worker living among the poor and raising problems for the rich. There are also the beginnings of a greater examination of the Jewishness of Jesus.

3) The messianic image of the suffering servant could be a point of convergence between Christians and Jews. "I believe that if any post-Holocaust theology is possible, the God thereby affirmed cannot be a God who is removed from, or protected from, or aloof to, engagement within the evil that there received its quintessential expression. To return to Irving Greenberg's searing and unforgettable image, a theology in the presence of burning children will not only have to empower us to stamp out the fires; it will also have to affirm that wherever God is, God must be in the midst of those fires, and not somewhere else, sharing in the suffering, and reminding us that the fires must be stamped out not just for now, but in such a way that they can never again be rekindled" (219-220).

4) There is a messianic image that is common to both Christianity and Judaism, "the image that asserts that the Messianic age is ushered in by our doing Messianic deeds" (221). Jesus, after all, did not demand messianic affirmation but messianic deeds, and in fact, the doing of messianic deeds is the only true messianic affirmation.