‘Redeeming Jesus’ Name’: A Jerusalem nun’s challenge to Christians

How do I experience and express my own identity in relation to others? How does one religious community relate to another? 

Personal, religious, and national identities are often expressed at the expense of those who are not members of our groups. Historically, most Christian theologians preached a theology that God had rejected the Jewish people because of our sins. When they had power, Christian leaders legislated against Jewish rights to dignity, property, and even sufficient livelihoods. This degradation reached is lowest point in the Shoah. While Nazi ideology cannot be identified with Christian faith, there is no doubt that the history of Christian anti-Judaism eased the way to Nazi antisemitism. Tracing this history comes naturally to Jews. In Israeli schools and in Jewish schools abroad, the terrible history of Christian anti-Judaism is often all that Jewish students are taught about Christianity. Jews often fear Christians, who are assumed to either want to kill or to convert Jews. 

Less known among Jews is the depth of moral reckoning expressed by Christian leaders in the last half century. Nostra Aetate (“In our time”) in October 1965 was the Catholic Church’s first clear rejection of antisemitism, followed by more detailed expressions of responsibility and remorse from the Catholic Church, as well as almost every major Christian denomination. There have been guides written for teaching and for preaching in order to avoid the moral and theological pitfalls of anti-Jewish expressions. In recent decades, Christians have extended a hand to Jews in friendship, respect, and the hope of mutual understanding. These changes on the Christian front, at a time of unprecedented Jewish successes and acquisition of positions of power, especially in Israel, means that Christians and Christianity no longer pose threats to Jewish identity. Still, there is much work to be done by both Jews and Christians to create a reality in which mutual antagonism and fear give way to true respect for the other. 

A new book titled Redeeming Jesus’ Name: Reflections of a Ninety-Year-Old Nun Living in Jerusalem represents Sister Maureena Fritz’s passionate insistence that Christians need to go much further in their understanding of Jesus and in their understanding of God if they want, as she does, to repent for the history of Christian abuse of Jews. The book is published in Sister Maureena’s 97th year, and in it she expresses her lifetime of struggle within and in debate with the Church which has been her home at least since she entered life as a nun in 1944 into the congregation of the Sisters of Sion. The author has lived in Jerusalem since 1978, where she subsequently became a citizen of Israel and devoted her life’s work to teaching Christians that their faith demands that they learn about Judaism from Jews. Maureena herself is a longtime member of a local synagogue, even as she remains devoted to her identity as a Catholic nun. In this book, she offers a model for both Christians and Jews to examine our own traditions with love and with sometimes harsh criticism in order to discern what it really means to worship God. 

A challenge to Christians and Jews

Sister Maureena begins by using Jewish interpretive tradition as a method to reinterpret Christian texts. Beginning with the midrashic interpretations of the early rabbis, Jews have long embraced the idea (new to many Christians) that biblical texts are open to multiple interpretations. For Maureena, this means that truth comes from dialogue between Scripture and human experience. Neither is authoritative on its own. Using this principle, Maureena channels the experiences of biblical characters (Eve, Abraham, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Batsheva, Moses, and Mary) to make an argument for the ways that God speaks to human beings from the struggles of their own everyday lives. For this Catholic nun, the struggle in her own life is to relate to God and to Jesus in a Church that taught so many people to despise the Jewish people – the very people who were chosen by God and who were the community of Jesus himself. 

Sister Maureena Fritz (credit: NDS)

The author devotes the bulk of the book to the argument that the (Catholic) Church statements against antisemitism are important, but insufficient. She shows that in each of the Gospels of the New Testament there are statements, often expressed as quotations from Jesus himself, that demean Jews and Judaism. She insists, as have many New Testament scholars, that Jesus was always a believing and practicing Jew, but she goes further. Sister Maureena insists that expressions of supersessionism (the idea that the Christian faith overrides and replaces Judaism) in the New Testament do not represent the teachings of Jesus in the past or the will of God today. 

The common Christian teaching (John 14:6) that the only way to God is through Christ implies that Christians are inherently superior to all others. The issues at hand are not simply historical questions or issues of biblical interpretation. For Sister Maureena, this Christian supremacy is “an obstacle to peace and a cause for violence.” These ethical and theological problems have driven Sister Maureena’s passion for her work in order for her to truly express her love of God. 

This reader did find a few points of disagreement with Sister Maureena’s interpretations. In this book, she assumes that New Testament texts that are more pro-Jewish are more authentic to the historical Jesus. She insists that it was the developing Church that became gradually less comfortable with the Jewish Jesus. While the last claim is certainly true, in the first Christian centuries there were also Christian voices that supported a robust Jewish practice within Judaism. The Sermon on the Mount, found only the Gospel of Matthew (written half a century after Jesus’ death), is among the most Jewish of all of the Gospel texts. Here Jesus is reported to have said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17). Did Jesus actually say these words, or were they included in this Gospel because Matthew was trying to convince Jews to join the Jesus movement? 

Elsewhere, examining the letters of Paul, Maureena claims that Paul invented replacement theology, but he was uncomfortable with it. I would suggest that Paul never wrote of a new faith replacing Judaism. Paul believed that Judaism (including not only Jewish practices but also proper faith in God) continued to represent God’s will. Novel to him was that “in Christ” the community was now to include gentiles whose faith (without the necessity of Jewish practices) brought them into a relationship to God, which was no less profound than that of Jews. 

Redeeming Jesus’ Name directly challenges Christians to consider the ways that Christian theology and even passages in the New Testament itself have supported Christian supremacy over Judaism, and offers a creative interpretation which may indeed “redeem Jesus’ name.” In addition, I believe that it also offers a model for Jews to consider the ways that our tradition, too, has supported violence against others. In fact, the recent rise in Jewish aggression against Christians in Jerusalem and Haifa, such as spitting at Christian clergy and in doorways of churches, as well as destruction of church property, finds its basis in Jewish texts and traditions. Still, for hundreds of years Jews lived all over the world and worked with Christian neighbors. Supported by rabbinic traditions of living with non-Jewish neighbors, Jews would never have dared to attack a Christian or damage a Christian holy place. Ironically, it is in Israel – where Jews are strong and free, where Christians are a small minority with no power over their Jewish neighbors – that some Jews express their arrogance and sense of superiority over their Christian neighbors. What kind of a Judaism are they representing? And what about the rest of us? Are we still so fearful of Christianity that we cannot imagine and teach about a Christianity that is ethical and theologically profound in order to respect our Christian neighbors? 

Sister Maureena Fritz courageously argues with her fellow Christians that proper behavior (a rejection of antisemitism) is not enough. In this book, she makes a convincing case for the idea that as long as Christian supersessionism is taught, the possibility of return to violent anti-Judaism is just beneath the surface. I believe that her challenge applies to Jews as well. If we have any hope of eradicating the violence of Jews against Christians, we need to challenge the permissive structure that lies beneath the surface of rhetoric about Jews loving other Jews, Jewish texts about treatment of others, or even Jewish liturgy about ridding the land of idolatry. Are we courageous enough to do this work? ■

Marcie Lenk lives in Jerusalem, where she is a scholar of Jewish and Christian texts.

  • Redeeming Jesus’ Name: Reflections of a Ninety-Year-Old Nun Living in Jerusalem
  • Maureena Fritz
  • Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2023
  • 172 pages; $26,  

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