Christian Evangelism and Judaism
The following e-mail exchange began after Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko, Judaic Scholar at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, read Stan Guthrie's "Foolish Things" column, "Why Evangelize the Jews? God's chosen people need Jesus as much as we do." Rabbi Poupko sent his initial response to David Neff, editor in chief of the CT media group.
On March 28 The New York Times published a statement entitled "The Gospel and the Jewish People: An Evangelical Statement," in an advertisement sponsored by the World Evangelical Alliance. The statement expresses respect for Jewish people, condemns anti-Semitism, and affirms Jewish evangelism and specialized ministries to Jews that are done without deception or coercion. Dozens of evangelical leaders signed the statement, including Stan Guthrie, who is managing editor of special projects for CT. The ad will also appear in CT, Charisma, and World.
Today, the second part of the exchange between Poupko and Guthrie is posted.
This article creates a teachable moment. The Jewish-evangelical relationship is in its nascent period. We are still learning how to talk with each other and how to engage in respectful, friendly conversation about ultimate matters. The purpose of this conversation is not agreement. The basis of interfaith conversation must be mutual sacred rejection, a clear understanding of the irreconcilable differences between the faith communities. As a Jew faithful to the covenant made by God with my fathers and mothers at Mount Sinai, I reject what is most sacred to the Christian. I am prepared to die for it, as have my ancestors before me. The Christian rejects what is most sacred to me, and is likewise prepared to die for it. Only after respectful mutual sacred rejection, can we identify those beliefs that we share in common. There is aught but the One God; God has created all of humanity in God's image; God has revealed the ways of justice, righteousness, holiness, and purity.
Christianity, as understood by the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Christianity, believes that all humanity needs Christ. I don't agree with that belief, but I am not going to instruct Christians on what to believe. The life of the Jewish community speaks for itself as witness. I don't want Christians to instruct me on what to believe. Nor do I have a problem with the Christian formulation, "All humanity needs Christ." Included in all humanity are Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Taoists, Confucians, secularists, and many more. However, for Stan Guthrie the Jews are not part of this formulation. We are singled out for particular treatment based on Romans 1:16:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile.
And therein lies the dilemma. "To the Jew first": first for the Good News, and first for the bad news. First for the gospel, and because of that, first for persecution and suffering. That is what "to the Jew first" has meant for 2,000 years.
"To the Jew first" has a career, like every biblical verse. It developed into the Christian belief that the Jews are lower in God's economy than any other people. We Jews who knew the Father first at Sinai should have been the first to acknowledge the "son" at Calvary. We out of whose very flesh came Jesus have been the lowest in God's economy amongst those who deny Jesus of Nazareth, because we should have been the first to affirm him. This is the essence of the 2,000-year-old adversos Iudaeos tradition, the classic Christian teaching of contempt for Judaism and the Jewish people that culminated in Auschwitz. I hasten to add, the Holocaust is too great an event to be attributed exclusively to Christianity. Yet the Holocaust would have been impossible without the 2,000-year Christian teaching of contempt for Judaism. It is not enough for Guthrie to declare:
Certainly the Holocaust and the church's horrific anti-Semitism have changed the context for evangelism. We have much for which to apologize. But we cannot apologize for the gospel.
Guthrie has no need of apologizing to the Jewish people. He is not guilty of mistreating us. However, when Guthrie identifies as a Christian he becomes heir to the entire received Christian tradition. As such, he must measure his use of the gospel with the way in which the gospel has been used in the past, and that of course means not to repeat the sins of the past.
A good beginning would be to read "The Chosen People Puzzle," published by Christianity Today, by Richard J. Mouw. Richard Mouw understands the ambiguities inherent in Romans 11. Guthrie, on the other hand seeks to shape daily events so they will have an impact on a larger, divine plan. He lays claim to the unknowable.
Can Guthrie explain why he is so sure that he and his fellow evangelicals will be the first Christians in 2,000 years, who when they say and practice "to the Jews first," will bring no harm to the Jewish people? There is a social, cultural, and psychological consequence "to the Jews first." Why cannot Guthrie look back at 2,000 years of Christian oppression of Judaism and the Jewish people, culminating in Auschwitz; and then ask a different set of questions: Why are the Jewish people still here? We know why the Christians are still here. That makes sense. For nearly two millennia Christianity wielded the sword of Constantine. It was one and the same with the great empires of Western civilization. It possessed temporal power. So Christianity has endured for perfectly obvious reasons. But why are the Jewish people still here? Why is Judaism still here? Indeed that is the miracle; that a homeless, tormented, exiled, wandering people, who in the year 1500 were reduced to a population of no more than 800,000 people, are still here. Had we, through our faithfulness, not witnessed to the One God through 2,000 years of suffering and into the inexpressible hell that was Auschwitz, Christianity itself would have disappeared. When Christendom engaged in apostasy, to pagan Nazism, it was we, the Jewish people alone, who gave witness in our very flesh to the One God.
So today maybe Guthrie should first pray, "Thank You, O Lord, for not allowing us to kill all the Jews. Thank You, O Lord, for giving us the Jewish people as witness to You, the One God."
Dear Stan: There are 1.2 billion Christians in this world. There are approximately 12 million Jews. We are the smallest of all those peoples whom you seek to bring to Christ. Hold onto your belief that all humanity needs Christ; through it many will come to know the One God. That is good. Continue your work with atheists, and all types of other religious groups. Give us a break for a few centuries. When you have succeeded with the others, come back to us; perhaps we'll talk then.
Thank you for honoring me with your refreshingly honest and thoughtful response. No columnist could ask for more. I agree that true dialogue can only proceed after we have made clear our differences. Like you, I am ready to die for my beliefs; and like you, I am in no way prepared to kill for them. But I hope you will understand that an integral element of my Christian belief is the command given by Jesus himself to make disciples of all nations, starting in Jerusalem.
And indeed I believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is Good News for Jewish people, too. When we say (quoting Paul, a Hebrew of Hebrews) that the gospel is "first for the Jew," we mean it as an honor to Jewish people, who, after all, were the first followers of Jesus. I have never seen in this wording an implied threat. The Jewish people are not lowest in God's economy; I see them as special, chosen people, worthy of honor and precious to God. As Paul said, you are the "natural branches."
I apologize for not writing about the Holocaust and the church's historic anti-Semitism with tears in my eyes. While I have an intellectual grasp of the horrors done at times in the name of Christ, my understanding comes at a distance and from a position of cultural power generally for Christians. Your understanding is much more personal and comes from a minority group that in some way sees itself as at least potentially vulnerable to future outbreaks of hatred. I wish I felt this as keenly as you do, but I promise you, I do feel shame and remorse for the actions of Christians in the past.
I would like to tell you that evangelical Christians today love the Jewish people, whether or not you receive Jesus as your Savior. I believe this to be so; I know this respect and admiration are true of my own attitude. Certainly in the past it has not always been so of evangelical Christians. In today's world, however, I believe we are Israel's best friends, for several reasons. But I can understand why you might await further evidence. Sadly, human beings have shown a propensity to abuse power in the name of religion, or irreligion, and far too rarely have we Christians fought against that universal tendency. You are right to ask for deeds that match our professions of repentance, and I believe we are up to the task, by God's grace.
I believe both Jews and Christians are here by God's gracious hand. We have much to learn from one another, and I trust we will continue to do so. I hope also that you will forgive us if we take a tentative step beyond "sacred rejection" and share what is most precious to us with you, our honored Jewish friends.
Whatever our ethnicity or history, we all need the redemption available only in the Jewish teacher from Nazareth. I thank God for blessing the world with the tenacious presence of the Jewish people, and I thank them for the gift of the Holy Scriptures, and most especially for Jesus.
Since you are an associate, colleague, and friend of David Neff, please know that I know that you mean only good. The great paradox that we the Jewish people live with today, put quite simply for rhetorical purposes, is that the mainline Protestants are friends of our faith identity in that they don't seek to convert us, and not as much of our national identity as realized in the State of Israel. Evangelicals are friends of our national identity, and not as much of our faith identity. if your conviction comes true then we disappear. David Neff will tell you that I have said in public, to Jewish audiences, on several occasions that the effort to bring the "Good News" to us and to convert us to Christianity over the past 2,000 years was born out of contempt for us. And, as difficult as it is for Jews to hear, the fact is that the evangelical Christian wants to bring us the Good News out of love for us. I know that. But surely every person has a basic right to be loved the way they want to be loved.
I've learned from my friend David Neff that often times evangelicals will turn to Roman Catholics who are, like them, orthodox Christians, in order to seek their thinking and their learning on certain critical issues. Thus, if I'm not mistaken, evangelicals learned certain things about abortion and about stem-cell research from Roman Catholic thinking. There is much scholarship on the meaning of that surely famous verse and phraseto the Jews first." Not only is there much Roman Catholic theology written on the meaning of this verse, there is evangelical scholarship on this verse as well. And not all such scholarship holds that the meaning of this verse is that the first obligation of preaching the "Good News" is to preach the "Good News" to the Jews first. Now we have a problem here. I have read this scholarship and surely when I read it I'm not a disinterested and dispassionate observer. Quite the opposite! Therefore I don't want to cross the line and enter into your faith and tell you what to believe. However, given the career of that verse, I can ask you to take a look at other orthodox Christian ways of reading this verse. On the one hand the church has asserted the primacy of Christ's universal salvific work. On the other hand, not a few thinkers and princes of the church have said and written that there is no need to proselytize the Jews because we have authentic revelation, and in fact that is implicit in the Vatican II documents on the Jews. Now these Catholic theologians have never resolved the inherent contradiction between these two principles. Some Catholic thinkers hold to the following formulation: All humanity needs Christ; the Jews are part of all humanity. But perhaps in the scheduling of priorities, given all that has happened between Christianity and the Jewish people and given the array of tasks that face Christians today, perhaps bringing the Good News to the Jews will take place at a later time, at a time possibly known only to God. The point of all this is that there is much theological ferment in Catholic and some evangelical circles about this issue.
You want me to trust your love. That is a problem. You are not stapled to your words or your love. Origen, Chrysostom, Eusebius, Augustine, and Aquinas are people who would have never plucked a white hair off the head of an old Jew. They are people who would have walked into the gas chambers with us. But their words did not remain within the province of spiritual and intellectual elites. Now it took some time for bad things to happen, but when you preach and teach over and over again for nearly 2,000 years, "to the Jews first," the message is very clear. So the question is, How can you be so sure so soon after the end of this two-thousand-year period that the audience upon which your writings and words will fall, in the years and decades to come, how can you be so sure that those people will a thousand years from now, be any different from those who heard the words of the Church Fathers?
Now let's take this a step further. The predictions made by Christianity about the Jews in the past 2,000 years have not come true. In Judaism we distinguish between normative and narrative texts in the Torah. What are the criteria that you use to separate perfectly regular New Testament language from that which is normative? Furthermore, why to the Jews first? Furthermore, why to the Jews first now? If the apostles and then Paul and then the early church regularly changed tactics, strategies, and convictions as they sought to bring the Good News in the first, second, and third centuries to Jews, Gentiles, Greco-Roman pagans, Greco-Roman cultural pagans, and to a whole host of people belonging to an array of mystery and Eastern religions, why aren't you able, after 2,000 years of experience with "the Jews first," to rethink, not fundamental belief, but tactics and scheduling? Or, to put it another way, as I said in my initial note to you, it is the Jewish endurance over the past 2,000 years that testifies to the One God. What lessons might that contain for you? What lessons about our sanctity, our enduring sanctity as a people, do you derive from the German murder of 6 million Jews in the bosom of Christendom? Learned lessons must go beyond apologies. Indeed no apology is needed from you. You never hurt a Jewish person. You would never hurt a Jewish person. If they ever came to get my grandchildren and me, I know I could call you on the phone and at peril to your own family life you would give me refuge. The challenge for the Christian is what are the faith lessons to be derived from this?