In a recent essay in Mosaic Magazine, I called upon Jews and evangelical Christians to put aside their differences and stand together in support of Israel. Naturally I was delighted to receive positive feedback from four prominent experts, all of whom endorsed the core thesis of my argument. Yet I was sorely disappointed upon reading some of the readers’ comments that appeared below my essay, especially those from Jews espousing the very myths and fears about evangelicals that I hoped the essay would debunk. Each of them fixated on the menacing specter hidden inside the “Trojan Horse” of Christian Zionism:
As a Jew/Israeli, I like the political support for Israel. But I do find the undercurrent drive to convert us, in that political support, disgusting. Martin Luther at first liked us. But when we didn’t convert, he called on his followers to burn us. . . . Will they love us when we don’t convert?
If you want the truth, I don’t trust you. It’s as simple as that. . . . When your church stops preying on Jews to lead them into your faith and destroying ours, when you stop financing these missionary factories to wipe out our faith and our culture, then and only then might I start to believe you actually don’t have the age-old ulterior motive.
I dislike the idea I must agree with evangelicals, whose main purpose is to convert me, because they support Israel. . . . Sorry but why would I support or form a strategic alliance with someone who supports me only so far as it fits his purposes and, more than likely, would throw me under a bus if I didn’t?
These readers are clear: Christian Zionism is only tolerable insofar as it disclaims any belief that the Jewish people need Jesus. The dark history of Jewish-Christian relations is too tragic to allow for anything less. Do I blame these readers for feeling this way?
Honestly, not really. Because it’s true: many people claiming the name of Christ, including Martin Luther, have said and done things to Jews over the centuries that are unspeakable. Yet it’s also true that a fundamental tenet of Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity, is telling the world about the arrival of the Messiah. Regrettably, at least as far as some Jews are concerned, “the world” also includes the Jewish people. As an evangelical who affirms both the “Great Commission” and the right of the Jewish people to govern themselves in their ancient homeland (yes, it is possible to hold these two things in one’s head at the same time), I would submit to my Jewish friends that they needn’t fear. A few points:
- First and foremost, Christian Zionism is not dependent on proselytizing. That is to say, Christian support for Israel operates independently from dissemination of the gospel. They are two separate impulses, plain and simple. Furthermore, evangelicals aren’t going to “turn on the Jews” or pull back from supporting Israel if Jews refuse to believe in Jesus. Most Jewish people haven’t believed in Jesus for a very long time, and Christians aren’t exactly holding their breath in expectation that this is about to change. To answer the reader who asked, “Will they love us when we don’t convert?”: yes, we will.
- Evangelicals believe that no one can become a Christian unless they manifest genuine, un-coerced faith in Jesus Christ. Evangelicals can’t magically “baptize” Jews into the kingdom of God or trick them into faith by fast-talking salesmanship. God wants believers, not conned consumers. Evangelicals have no interest in saving anyone who doesn’t want to be saved. I promise we won’t be that surprised at your declining our invitation.
- On the other hand, the world is a marketplace of ideas where every human being should be able to accept whatever worldview he or she deems best. Creating arbitrary restrictions on the flow of ideas, as some of the commenters above appear to be doing, or trying to isolate the Jewish community from the claims of Christianity goes against the fundamental principles of liberty and intellectual freedom.
- Jews aren’t stupid. Their disproportionate impact on history demonstrates this fact beyond any doubt. Asserting that Jews somehow can’t handle exposure to Christian theology assumes a patronizing attitude that confident Jews will reject. Besides, prophesying the destruction of the Jewish people based on fears of Christian evangelism overestimates, I think, the persuasive power of the Christian narrative. So far our “missionary factories” haven’t worked all that well.
- Theological conversation with believing Christians stands to strengthen the faith of the vast majority of Jews who remain committed to Judaism. After all, the Jewish people have lived many centuries as a cohesive, self-perpetuating community among peoples and religions not their own. By contrast, relativism and universalism only stands to harm the long-term interests of the Jewish community. I would go so far as to say that the depressing results of the 2013 Pew Study are directly attributable to the fact that, in America especially, Jews see no boundary between their community and those around them. The melting pot has done its job. Secular Jewish parents find it more and more difficult to articulate what sets their family apart, or why their children should remain distinctively Jewish in the next generation. It doesn’t take a genius to correlate the rise of relativism and soft multiculturalism in American public life with the decline of robust Jewish identities.
To be clear, I’m certainly not calling for a crusade against Judaism. I’m simply telling Jewish people that they needn’t be worried about Christians “tricking” them into abandoning Judaism or Christians making their Zionism contingent on Jewish acceptance of Jesus. By the same token, Jews needn’t demand that Christians abandon a central part of their faith in order to be found acceptable advocates for Israel.
I conclude this short essay with a strong warning to my Christian brethren. We all know the biblical command to spread the gospel to every tongue and tribe. But if we want to tell the Jews, or any other people or group, about the message of Jesus, we must abide by ethical guidelines that will ensure the good name of our Lord and the dignity of those we aim to reach. The failure to observe such guidelines is in part to blame for the reprehensible behavior of Christians toward Jews throughout history. It’s certainly to blame for why so many Jews are suspicious of Christian intentions today. So, a few warnings to those American evangelicals whose well-meaning zealotry knows no bounds:
- Don’t assume that Jews need the gospel more than anyone else. All mankind stands in need of salvation – Jews and non-Jews alike – and our mission should be aimed at humanity writ large, not just the Jews. Targeting them alone and suggesting that they are somehow more in need of salvation than others is especially odious and redolent of the Inquisition.
- There should be no governmental coercion in matters of personal salvation. Though we may wish the state would better reflect the morals we as Christians hold dear, at no time should we call for forcing citizens to conform to our cosmology. Such a move would be more than unconscionable; it would go against every principle that our faith was founded upon.
- No means no. As citizens in a free country, Christians (and everyone else) should feel free to tell others about what they believe. But as soon as someone expresses lack of interest, Christians should – and must – stop immediately. Neither God nor your fellow countrymen will appreciate your cramming your beliefs down someone else’s throat.
- Clever tricks and dishonest salesmanship are unacceptable. Do I even need to explain this? There is absolutely no room for chicanery in the propagation of the gospel. It’s not a carnival product.
- Children must be left alone. Would you want missionaries from another religion indoctrinating your kids when you’re not around?
- All dealings with Jewish people must be conducted in an attitude of deep respect. Jews are human beings like anyone else, not objects or a means to an end. As I wrote at Mosaic, “Claiming to be pro-Israel abroad without showing ourselves to be pro-Jewish at home is more than just unfeeling; it’s downright contradictory.”
Unless you are prepared to befriend Jews based solely on their humanity and to continue that friendship even after they reject your faith, you probably shouldn’t bother mentioning Jesus at all. You’ll just make him, and the rest of us, look really bad.