A reporter once told me he was puzzled about my relationships with the Jewishcommunity. "You work closely with Jewish organizations dealing with religionand public life issues, yet you also lead a seminary that has a program inJewish evangelism. How do you resolve that contradiction?"
I explained that as an evangelical I have a nonnegotiable commitment toevangelism—and this includes witnessing to Jewish people about my firmconviction that Jesus is the promised Messiah. But I also oppose treatingJews as if they were only "targets" for evangelism.
We evangelicals have much to learn from Jews, not only about issues of publiclife, but also about deeply religious topics (seeReflections, p. 40). And we must work alongsidemembers of the Jewish community for justice and righteousness in the largersociety.
Witnessing to, learning from, cooperating with Jews: this is an importantagenda for evangelicals to pursue with the Jewish community. But it has notalways been easy for Christians to pursue all three tasks. Those strong onevangelism have often been weak on learning and cooperation; those eagerto nurture learning and cooperative relationships have often downplayed theevangelistic mandate.
Let's be clear about this: evangelism is a mandate. The Southern Baptistshave taken much criticism for their resolution a year ago on evangelizationof Jews (CT, July 15, 1996, p. 66;Nov. 11, 1996, p. 103); we can hope thatthis controversy will serve to inform the larger world that some of us reallydo believe we have an obligation to present the claims of the Christ tonon-Christians.
We need to keep reminding Jewish friends that if they are serious about havingbetter relations with evangelicals—which many of them are—they cannot demandthat we think and act like liberal Protestants or Roman Catholics. That isa price of admission that we cannot pay. We are evangel people.Our proclamation that Jesus is the promised Messiah cannot be silenced forthe sake of interreligious civility.
But faithfulness to the gospel also requires more than evangelism. CorrieTen Boom looms large in my gallery of special saints. Every other year orso I make a point of rereading her account of her efforts to protect Jewishpeople from the horrible designs of the Nazis. There can be no doubt thatshe wanted everyone—Jew and Gentile alike—to come to know Jesus. She knewthat the only truly safe "hiding place" was to be found in the Savior's embrace.But evangelism was not the sole motivation in her relations with Jews. Shewas willing to risk her life to work for their physical safety, even if thoseefforts did not afford opportunities to lead them to Christ.
Learning from Jews
We have much to learn from the Jewish people. For one thing, our relationshipswith Jewish brothers and sisters who have come to faith in Christ have beenprecious to many of us and have deepened our understanding of the gospel.Non-Christian Jews also have much to teach us about spiritual matters. AnyChristian who thinks otherwise should read Abraham Joshua Heschel on theprophets or the Sabbath, or the fiction of Chaim Potok. We cannot simplyclassify Judaism under "other religions." We share with Jewish people a commonspiritual heritage that is grounded in God's revelation to Moses and theHebrew prophets.
We must also learn about the suffering of the Jewish people. Evangelicalsneed to think more deeply about what it means to evangelize Jews after theHolocaust. Much has happened in Jewish-Christian relations since the NewTestament was written. The Christian record during that two thousand yearsof history is not an admirable one. Indeed, Christians have often committedatrocious deeds against Jews. I will never forget the tears of a Jewish friendas he told me about his childhood in a Midwest town when his classmates tauntedhim by chanting "Christ killer" as they followed him home from school.
Evangelicals need to weep with Jews as we hear their stories of suffering.And we must repent of our sins, even as we testify about the One who cameto save us while we were yet sinners. We cannot simply quote Paul—who wrotewhen the church was a minority religion struggling to clarify both continuitiesand differences with a Jewish majority—without recognizing that we do sofrom this side of Auschwitz.
When Jews, both religious and secular, complain that evangelistic effortsthreaten to destroy their very identity as a people, we must listen carefully.And we must recognize that our responses—however theologically appropriatethey may seem from a Christian perspective—will not be very convincing topeople who have vivid collective memories of forced "conversions." None ofthis cancels our obligation to evangelize, but it does highlight an obligationto avoid unnecessary offense and to understand the challenges we face.
Cooperation with Jews
Finally, we must cooperate with Jews in working for the health of society.One obvious threat to justice today was described succinctly several yearsago when the Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism denounced the"proliferation of racism and Jew-hatred in our world today"; this concernshould rank high on the agenda for evangelical-Jewish cooperation. We canalso work together in seeking creative resolutions to conflicts in the MiddleEast.
Evangelicals in the United States have a special obligation to show throughaction that we are committed to a pluralistic society. Regular referencesto America as "a Christian nation," however well-intended in debates withsecularists, are hurtful in our relationship with Judaism. We need to demonstratethat we are willing to work with Jews and others as cobelligerents in findinga common moral basis for promoting a good order in a pluralistic society.
Dialogue and cooperation with Jews have their own genuine value. They shouldnot be construed as mere "setups" for evangelism. But the connections toChristian witness are also very real. Evangelism is witnessing to the marvelousmessage of the God who has drawn near to us in Jesus Christ. If we want totell of the power of the gospel "to the Jew first" (Rom. 1:16) in our context,we may need to draw near to our Jewish friends, first of all, in order tolearn from them and work with them on matters of profound significance inour contemporary world.
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