Whatever the history of Christian anti-Semitism, when most evangelicals read our favorite Old Testament narratives, we identify with the Jews. As the new Israel, we see ourselves in biblical Israel's best and worst moments.
But just because we Christians mentally inhabit these stories doesn't make them ours alone. The narratives will always belong first to a people whose ancestors suffered in medieval ghettos and 20th-century concentration camps, the children of Israel by DNA and (sometimes) piety. Because we share their sacred stories, we think we know them. But in real life, we discover significant differences.
In 2003, a delegation of Jewish leaders challenged me to listen to Jews before publishing articles about them. A Christianity Today essay had offended them. Out of that encounter, I developed a friendship with Rabbi Yehiel Poupko of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Over time, it became clear to us that we needed a national dialogue between evangelicals and Jews. Evangelicals needed to be able to speak more knowledgably about Jews and the modern State of Israel. And Jewish leaders, who are by and large unclear about the realities of American evangelicalism, could likewise know better how to relate across the divide that separates us. Both groups needed personal exposure, friendships, and phone numbers in order to listen before speaking about the other.
We recruited sympathetic evangelical and Jewish partners and convened an exploratory dialogue in Washington, D.C., in June 2009. We held a second conversation 12 months later. We look forward to meeting again in 2011.
What have we learned? If we make explicit the genuine and sometimes deep differences between us, and agree to disagree agreeably, we can begin to talk and even address the challenges of hypermodernity together.
There are obvious differences in how we read Scripture. Both communities read through the lens of tradition, but Jews are much more conscious of that tradition, while evangelical piety burns with Scripture's immediacy. Both communities understand their spiritualities through narrative. But evangelicals braid their communal story out of thousands of personal narratives of transformation, while the Jewish communal narrative grows from a history of misfortunes and the wisdom of the leaders who helped them build and rebuild their community.
There are also differences in how we approach ethics. Evangelicals have theology—principled statements of divine truth derived from Scripture. Jews have halakhah—the 613 biblical laws and the rules derived from them to guide every aspect of Jewish life. Confronted with some new ethical problem, evangelicals will reason from principles like life, love, and justice, while Jews will ask which of the many commands already given should guide them in the new situation.
Both communities feel fragile and threatened. Evangelicals sense the biblical foundations of society crumbling. They wonder if a future America can be friendly to family, religion, and (true) freedom. Jews also feel threatened. Their numbers are minuscule. They have a living memory of German genocide and Russian repression. Their place in their ancient homeland is endangered, and their American youth are intermarrying.
Feelings of endangerment make certain topics very sensitive; of those, Jewish evangelism and the State of Israel top the list. The first topic will be a perennial point of disagreement. In discussing Israel, on the other hand, Jews and evangelicals alike have agreed on two goals: a secure Jewish homeland in the Middle East, and an end to the suffering of uprooted Palestinians. What is unfair can be called unfair as long as the security of endangered Jews is emphatically affirmed.
George Bernard Shaw once called the English and the Americans two peoples separated by a common language. Jews and evangelicals are two peoples separated by a common revelation of the one God. The more we talk, the better we will understand each other—and ourselves.
David Neff is CT editor in chief. A version of this article appeared in the fall 2010 issue of Theology, News & Notes, published by Fuller Theological Seminary.
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Previous CT articles on evangelism and other religions include:
The Son and the Crescent | Bible translations that avoid the phrase "Son of God" are bearing dramatic fruit among Muslims. But that translation has some missionaries and scholars dismayed. (February 4, 2011)
Super Bowl Evangelism | Why Jesus did not say, "Market your neighbor as yourself." (February 3, 2011)
Putting Evangelism on Hold | Will the Global Faith Forum's "evangelistic model" of engaging Muslims and Jews catch on? (November 16, 2010)
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