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The Politics of Proselytization

A pluralistic religious landscape means proclaiming the Good News to persons of other faiths requires considerable finesse.

Evangelizing persons of other faiths, or even committed atheists, agnostics, or freethinkers, is tricky business in our pluralistic and increasingly politicized religious landscape. In Western cultures where tolerance is preeminent among public virtues, such efforts are generally met with scorn, chastisement, and much journalistic gnashing of teeth. In other parts of the world, interfaith gospelers are subject to far worse than a tongue-lashing from the cultural gatekeepers. Such activity may win them spots in jail, or cost them and their families their livelihood, if not their lives.

Recently we have dipped our editorial toes into the chaotic waters of interfaith relations, whether they take the form of a dialog, as touched on in Richard Mouw's piece, or conversion-seeking proclamation, as argued for in Stan Guthrie's recent editorial on evangelizing the Jews. Having read both pieces, it's clear that Mouw shares the evangelistic imperative born of love highlighted by Guthrie, and that Guthrie shares Mouw's firm belief that whatever the form of interfaith communication, it should be marked by "convicted civility," a term Mouw borrows from venerable church historian and cultural commentator Martin Marty.

With regard to the issue of evangelizing the Jews, I'm also pleased that in response to the World Evangelical Alliance's recent statement that ran in The New York Times, "The Gospel and the Jewish People: An Evangelical Statement," we've decided to host an exchange between Stan Guthrie and Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko, Judaic Scholar at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, on the very topic of Christian Evangelism and Judaism. Outside of this exchange, WEA's ad has generated very little public comment, except for this critical response from the Anti-Defamation League, and an angry article in The Jerusalem Post.

Yet the kerfuffle surrounding a recent public statement on Christian-Jewish relations from Christianity's largest global communion, namely Pope Benedict's revision of the Good Friday prayer for the Jews, has not abated. For those who have not followed the story, here's the portion of the prayer judged offensive by some:

Let us pray for the Jews. May the Lord our God enlighten their hearts so that they may acknowledge Jesus Christ, the savior of all men...Almighty and everlasting God, you who want all men to be saved and to reach the awareness of the truth, graciously grant that, with the fullness of peoples entering into your church, all Israel may be saved.

Several weeks on from Good Friday, the news is still abuzz today with reports of:

1) Continuing critique from those who thought the revision offensive: Agenzia Italia, AFP, Anti-Defamation League.

2) Vatican response and attempts to mend relations with Jews: Catholic World News, United Press International, Catholic News Agency, JTA, AFP, The Times, Reuters, Catholic News Service.

3) Indications of how this situation is shaping the Pope's upcoming visit to the U.S.: New York Times, Zenit, Catholic News Service.

As the world gets smaller, the challenge of interfaith relations only gets bigger, and the need of wisdom greater still...especially for those who are, by definition, gospel people.

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