Last week, the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago issued a statement to the Southern Baptist Convention regarding the denomination's plans to bring 100,000 missionaries to the Windy City next summer. "While we are confident that your volunteers would come with entirely peaceful intentions, a campaign of the nature and scope you envision could contribute to a climate conducive to hate crimes," the letter said. According to the Chicago Tribune, the statement was "prompted by the concerns of local Jewish leaders" who are already upset about the Southern Baptists' September campaign to pray specifically for the conversion of Jews during the Jewish High Holy Days. And, though Southern Baptist leaders have been careful to promise the missionaries will not target specific religious groups, many of the negative comments about the plan focus on targeted evangelism.
Targeted evangelism, particularly targeting Jews, has always been controversial. The archives of Christianity Today are filled with discussions of the topic. See, for example, Billy Graham's famous statement in a 1973 issue of CT that he "never felt called to single out the Jews" for evangelism and his reiteration of that stand in a speech before the American Jewish Committee four years later. Both thestatementand our coverage of Graham'sspeechare being republished today at ChristianityToday.com. We are also publishing one of our earliest editorials touching on the subject: "Christmas and the Modern Jew" from December 8, 1958. In that same issue, we ran an article by Rabbi Arthur Gilbert, then director of Interreligious Cooperation for the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, on the "Christian Approach to the Jew." Thirty-one years later, we turn again to a well-known rabbi to help evangelicals to understand the Jewish perspective on evangelism, both targeted and general. Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein is the president and founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (he also once held Rabbi Gilbert's position at the Anti-Defamation League), and has been instrumental in getting Jews and evangelicals to know each other better.
One is tempted to say to the Southern Baptist Convention, as Ronald Reagan used to admonish reporters, wagging his finger, "There you go again!" What, exactly, have they done? And why do I object so strenuously?
Once again the largest Protestant denomination in America has issued a call to their 15.9 million members targeting Jews for conversion. This time it was through their foreign mission board, which recently produced a guide urging the faithful to pray for the conversion of Jews during the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). This in turn follows an earlier resolution from their 1996 annual convention calling for Baptists to "direct [their] energies and resources" to evangelism among Jews.
You might suppose that I object to these efforts simply because I'm a Jew and an Orthodox Rabbi. But that is not it at all. On the contrary, I wholeheartedly support the right of Christians—or members of any other faith—to share their beliefs as they feel called. However, I consider such targeted evangelism as that described above to be a misguided and even tragic mistake in Jewish-Christian relations on three grounds, namely: history, methodology and attitude. Let's look at each in turn. Then let's consider another way to view the problem, a way that I think can preserve the rights, integrity and dignity of everyone involved.
Objection 1: History
Nothing happens in a historical vacuum. In fact, one of the great distinctives shared by all of us within the Judeo-Christian tradition is that we see God working in history. We see humanity as having a timeline, both a beginning and an ultimate destiny. This was something new in metaphysics. Virtually all other major religions arose in civilizations where time and human life were viewed as purely cyclical and history, in the strictest sense, had little meaning. Thomas Cahill articulates this beautifully in his recent book, The Gifts of the Jews. One could argue—I do so argue—that we thus have a special obligation to consider the history behind any matters of mutual significance to us, particularly spiritual matters where our real and imagined disagreements already loom so large.
Unfortunately, most of the history here is not pretty. If Christians and Jews really are part of one big family, it's a dysfunctional one, not a happy one. From the beginning, relations between Christians and their Jewish "cousins" have been tentative and tinged with distrust at best. At worst, they have been downright bloody, and Jews have more often than not been at the receiving end of the violence.
So whenever a Christian denomination issues a new call targeting Jews for conversion, it can't help raising the hackles of Jews who know their own history and how such clumsy but well-meaning attempts at evangelism frequently end. Long, bitter experience has taught them what can happen when Christians try to "love" them by sharing the message of Christ. All too often through the centuries, Jews have been "loved to death" in this fashion. Followers of Jesus have eventually turned on them when they refused to receive the Gospel and stubbornly clung to their traditional and—in the typical Christian view—outmoded beliefs.
This is what happened in the case of the founder of Protestantism, Martin Luther, for example. In his earlier years, Luther was kind and loving to Jews, believing the reason they had not accepted Christianity was that it was presented to them through the eyes of Catholic tradition. Toward the end of his life, when he realized that despite his kind and loving approach the Jews nevertheless refused to convert, he asked, "What then shall we Christians do with this damned, rejected race of Jews?" His answers are still haunting us today:
First, their synagogues or churches should be set on fire . ...secondly, their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed . ...thirdly, they should be deprived of their prayerbooks and Talmuds . ...fourthly, their rabbis must be forbidden under threat of death to teach any more . ...fifthly, you ought not, you cannot, protect them, unless in the eyes of God you want to share all their abomination . ...sixthly, they ought to be stopped from usury . ...seventhly, we ought to drive the rascally lazybones out of our system. To sum up, dear princes and nobles who have Jews in your domains, if this advice of mine does not suit you, then find a better one so that you and we may all be free of this insufferable devilish burden—the Jews.
Indeed, just a few centuries later in Luther's birthplace, Germany, another solution to "the Jewish problem" was found. This, sadly but honestly, is the historical context in which all Christian outreach to Jews takes place. For evangelical believers not to heed the legacy of this history is unwise, to say the least. They may be unaware of the past or choose to forget it, but Jews, famously, will not. We cannot afford to. Calls for a targeted witness to our communities set off centuries-old alarm bells, and with good reason. Is it really being sensitive to our spiritual needs to ignore this fact?
Objection 2: Methodology
I depart from some of my Jewish friends on the subject of evangelism, because I heartily affirm the right of Christians to fulfill what they see as their Great Commission from the last chapter of Matthew: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20). Jews need to recognize that for serious Christians, following this final command of their Lord is a nonnegotiable. To surrender it would be to surrender their spiritual identity. And of all people, Jews should refrain from making such a demand. We know the cost of having it made on us.
But what kind of witnessing should we affirm here? Is there only one way to share your faith?
The obvious answer is that there are many ways to evangelize. Anyone who has tried a number of them will tell you that some are more effective than others. Sitting down with a close friend to share some deep personal thoughts about God is almost certainly going to be more productive than ringing the doorbell of a total stranger and reciting the Four Spiritual Laws from a smudgy tract. Admittedly there is a place even for door-to-door evangelism, if conducted properly, and we'll return to that topic. But here I'd like to focus on why most often, and especially with the Jewish community, door-to-door-style targeting is simply a poor strategy—counterproductive at best and deeply, pointlessly antagonizing at worst.
Targeted evangelism treats people as members of a group, not as individuals. It depends on broad generalizations and demographic breakdowns rather than genuine one-on-one relationships. If you want Jews even to hear what you have to say about Jesus, let alone respond positively, you would do better to deal with us as persons. Not to do so betrays a false and unloving attitude.
What's more, just as Jews should recognize the validity of evangelicals' mission, evangelicals should recognize that, with few exceptions, they will not find many Jews who agree with them on the central question about Jesus: Was he the messiah? We have our own reasons for arriving at a different answer to that question than Christians. While we don't expect agreement, we do hope for understanding and respect.
It behooves Christians to value the right of Jews to reject their view of Jesus, and to let them do so without turning away, or worse, turning against them. Forgive me for saying that even a rabbi can see this is not being true to the spirit of Christ. We should all honor free will and the right to choose, because we know God does.
Objection 3: Attitude
When targeted evangelism is such a dubious method, why do Christians keep resorting to it in their outreach to Jews? What attitude does this tendency reveal? Many in the Jewish community feel the answer is pure arrogance: Evangelicals are sure they know what's best for us, and they'll see that we get it whether we like it or not. I would prefer to think of it as stemming from ignorance, but either way I believe it is a mistake. It is arrogant to be so completely convinced of the rightness of your position that you can see only wrong in anyone else's. Whatever any of us think about God, surely we can summon enough humility to admit that the truth is not our exclusive domain. And it is ignorant for Christians who worship a Jewish savior to show little respect or understanding for the views of their spiritual elders and forebears.
More troubling than either arrogance or ignorance is the specter of anti-Semitism. This ancient hatred is a terrifying daily occurrence for many Jews in some parts of the world—in the nations of the former Soviet Union, for example, where one recent survey found strong anti-Semitic attitudes in nearly half the populace. The vicious scapegoating is keeping pace with Russia's deepening economic woes. Many Jews are suffering all sorts of harassment and abuse as a result, in addition to the crushing poverty a number of older Jews are experiencing. Again, history has taught us what happens when we avert our eyes from such disturbing developments.
Even here in the more enlightened U.S., research shows that roughly 10 percent of the populace harbors anti-Semitic prejudices. Thus it is not entirely unreasonable to pose the question: Might some of the recent targeted evangelistic efforts aimed at Jews arise out of such attitudes, at least in part? Or might they perhaps spill over and lead to others adopting such attitudes? And knowing that this possibility always lurks in reality, and not merely in the minds of Jews, do sensitive Christians wish to associate themselves with crass methods of outreach that can smack of such bias?
Whether rooted in anti-Semitism or not, targeting Jews for conversion can represent another unwholesome attitude: That of regarding them as spiritual "trophies" to be bagged rather than human beings to be loved and ministered to. No one wants to be part of someone else's body count, even for the nominally noble purpose of reaching people for God. Christians who focus instead on meeting the pressing physical needs of poor, displaced or persecuted Jews may discover a much more potent way to demonstrate their love and concern, whether or not they have a chance to share their faith verbally.
The Third Way: Another View of the Problem
Clearly, while Jews and Christians can agree to share much—a love for God; a love for the Bible; a desire to restore morality, mercy, and justice to our troubled communities; a special commitment to the State of Israel as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy—our disagreements are also profound. Rather than focusing on where we disagree, though, I prefer to highlight what we have in common. And rather than getting bogged down in hopeless either/or conflicts over evangelism targeting Jews, I'd like to suggest a third alternative: Instead of targeting Jews for conversion (which I call proselytizing), why not simply include them in any overall outreach (which I call witnessing)?
What's the distinction? If a Christian goes down the street knocking on doors and sharing the message of Christ or passing out literature, and if Mr. Cohen or Mrs. Steinberg happens to answer the door, that's fine; that's witnessing. But if a Christian goes down that same street specifically looking for names like Cohen or Steinberg, that's targeted evangelism, and I think it's wrong. What's more, many Christian leaders agree. Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell, for example, have clearly and uncompromisingly repudiated targeted proselytizing while not budging one inch from their belief in Jesus as the exclusive path to salvation for all.
Unthinking proselytizing robs Jews of their dignity. It also betrays an insensitivity to history and a lack of basic human respect and civility. Christian witnessing may or not be welcomed by individual Jews, but it does at least have the virtue of treating them as individuals. It preserves the rights and dignity of everyone involved without asking them to compromise their most cherished values.
If Christians want to share their faith with Jews, they should start by being good friends and neighbors, and wherever possible, "good Samaritans." Evangelicals call this style of witnessing "lifestyle evangelism," and it seems to me a self-evidently superior form of outreach.
By looking at our differences with our hearts as well as our heads, and by Christians being better Christians, and Jews being better Jews, we will all better please the God whom we love and serve, and create a world more worthy of His divine presence.
Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, is a fourth-generation Orthodox rabbi.
See today's related stories from the CT archives, "Christmas and the Modern Jew" (Dec. 8, 1958), "Billy Graham: 'I have never felt called to single out the Jews' " (March 16, 1973), and "Graham Feted By American Jewish Committee" (Nov. 18, 1977).
The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews has an excellent Web site, with news releases, editorials, a persecution watch, and other areas, but it hasn't been updated in more than a year.
The Jews for Jesus Web site has a Frequently Asked Questions area, which includes the question "Why Emphasize Witnessing to Jews?"
In an article for Religion News Service, James Rudin, national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee, accused the Southern Baptists of "attempting to expropriate Judaism itself."
Meanwhile, Jeff Jacoby, columnist for the Boston Globe and a Jew, thanked the Baptists for praying for him.
See just a few of our earlier stories on the relationship between Christians and Jews:
"Jews Oppose Baptist Outreach" (Nov. 11, 1996)
"Is Jewish-Christian a Contradiction in Terms?" (April 7, 1997)
"The Return of the Jewish Church | In 1967, there were no Messianic Jewish congregations in the world. Today there are 350. Who are these believers?" (Sept. 7, 1998)
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