Guidelines for Conversations between Evangelicals and Jews

This year was the 4th annual U.S. Jewish/Evangelical Encounter. One of the senior Evangelical participants Prof. Jay Phelan, formerly President and Dean of North Park Theological Seminary, posted his talk on his blog. The paper is long, I posted the relgious aspects and left out most of the political aspects; you can read the rest at his blog. Any thoughts and feedback for him? Any observations?

How Not to Criticize Israel: Guidelines for Conversations between Evangelicals and Jews
John E. Phelan, Jr. North Park Theological Seminary

Evangelical Christians have for years been dependable supporters of the state of Israel. Dispensationalist interpreters saw the reconstitution of the state in 1948 as a fulfillment of prophecy and a clear sign that the return of Jesus was at hand. Throughout the following decades Israel could count on Evangelicals to support the state in the voting booth as well as from the pulpit. This support, of course, was not new. Zionists found support for their cause in the late 19th and early 20th century from Christian students of prophecy who were convinced the fulfillment of God’s purposes required a Jewish state in their ancient homeland. In the early decades of the 20thcentury pastors, theologians, and Christian politicians enthusiastically promoted the cause of a Jewish homeland. In many circles to this day it is unthinkable for an Evangelical to criticize or question the state of Israel.

In recent years things have begun to change. Many Evangelicals have been sensitized to the sufferings and struggles of the Palestinians—particularly Palestinian Christians. At the same time, Dispensationalism has fallen into disfavor in many Evangelical circles. For many the state of Israel is no longer necessary for the fulfillment of prophecy and the Jews’ return to the land is no longer seen as a reason for celebration. Evangelical Christians committed to social justice have joined their colleagues in mainline Protestant churches in criticizing Israel over the plight of the Palestinians. Its Christian critics now frequently depict Israel as just one more oppressive colonial power in the Middle East. Supporting Israel has become as unthinkable for some Evangelicals as supporting cuts in government support of the poor!

Israel is a state like any other. It has had good leaders and poor ones. It has made wise decisions and foolish ones. It is as subject to criticism as Egypt, Iraq or the United States… Conversations between Evangelicals and Jews over the perceived failures of the state of Israel are fairly new. In what follows some principles of engagement are proposed that may enable those conversations to be helpful rather than hurtful.

Principle One: Evangelicals should not criticize the state of Israel by questioning the legitimacy of Judaism itself.

Some Evangelical criticism of Israel has come by way of a critique of so-called “Christian Zionism.” Such criticism is intended to break the hold that Dispensationalist thinkers have had on Evangelical conversations about Israel and Judaism. Unfortunately, when critics launch salvoes at the popular dispensationalist approaches to the interpretation of the Bible the Jews are caught in the crossfire. It is popular to argue against the Christian Zionists, for example, by suggesting that the Jews no longer have any right to the land of Israel in that Christians are now the sole heirs of all the promises to Abraham. Some have gone as far as to say this means the Palestinian Christians are the true heirs of the land of Israel—not the Jews (or the Muslims, for that matter).

In making their case against the Christian Zionists and for the Christian Palestinians these Evangelical critics of Israel have perhaps inadvertently launched an attack on Judaism itself. Their approach implies not only that Jews no longer have a right to the land of Israel, but also that they no longer have a right to interpret their own holy texts. Christians are now entrusted with the stewardship of the Jewish scriptures and their meaning. This amounts to a Christian colonization of Jewish texts and traditions. To many Jews this sounds like the Jews, not simply Israel, have no right to exist. This is not simply an attack on their homeland but on their core convictions about their identity and purpose as God’s people. Given the ugly history of Christian and Jewish relations such approaches sound a warning bell for even the most secular Jew!

Christian scholars have in recent years been engaged in serious discussions of “supersessionism” or “replacement” theories. In its crudest form supersessionism holds that the people of Israel have simply been superseded by the church of Jesus Christ and therefore have no claim on their own texts, traditions or future. This conversation is not a new one. The future of the people of Israel as Israel was an issue that deeply troubled the apostle Paul. Some argue that the entire book of Romans is dedicated to exploring this issue. When Paul discusses this directly in Romans 9-11 he begins by arguing “they are[note the present tense] Israelites. The adoption as God’s children, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the worship and the promises belongto them.” A bit later he insists, “God did not reject his people whom he foreknew.” He concludes his argument with the startling assertion: “All Israel will be saved.” It seems clear that Paul, at least, did not think that with the founding of the Christian church God’s promises to and love for Israel, as Israel had become passé. Paul, it seems to many of us, foresaw a future for Israel as Israel.

The upshot of all this is that Evangelicals would do well to avoid using theological arguments to criticize the state of Israel. Such theological arguments may be heard as at least indirect attacks on Jews and Judaism. This will, to say the least, not foster helpful conversations. It is certainly fair to criticize Israel where its actions are demonstrably unjust and contrary to its own laws and principles, but it is frankly anti-Jewish to criticize Israel by implying Jews, as Jews have no right to land or a future. Evangelical critics of Israel need to recognize how painfully this rings in Jewish ears. Evangelicals implying that Israel, as a Jewish state, has no right to exist will not improve the situation of the Palestinians.

Principle Two: Criticisms of the State of Israel must be grounded in an understanding of the history of the region and a fair assessment of its contemporary challenges.

The history of this region did not begin with the construction of the separation fence and wall or even with the foundation of the state in 1948. The conflicts between Israel’s Jews and their neighbors did not begin with the first Intifada. Israel’s critics need to remember that the Jews did not simply take the land in the war of independence but were promised a homeland by the Balfour Declaration of 1917. The British, anticipating the fall of the Ottoman Empire declared that they viewed “with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” The declaration became part of the peace treaty with Turkey after the war. Following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire with the help of the British, Arabs, long under the thumb of the Ottoman Empire and European colonial powers, established several large states in North Africa and the Middle East. The Jews, in spite of assurances from the British, faced a long and bitter struggle to see their promised homeland established.

Years ago the American Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a supporter of the creation of the state of Israel, argued that justice could only be relative in the Middle East…

Third Principle: Conversations between Evangelicals and Jews about Israel and Judaism must recognize and acknowledge foundational disagreements between and shared ignorance of one another.

Evangelicals should not assume they understand contemporary Jews and Judaism. They may know the Hebrew Scriptures well. They may be well versed on the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ day. They may imagine that because they understand Paul’s critiques of his Jewish contemporaries, that they understand and may critique their Jewish contemporaries. Such assumptions are fatal to dialogue. The key to any useful dialogue is to let the dialogue partner speak for him or herself! It is not for Evangelical Christians to tell Jews what they believe. Nor, of course, is it the place of Jews to tell Christians, evangelical or otherwise, what they believe. Dialogue always begins with listening. Evangelicals should let their Jewish partners tell their own stories and vice versa. In these conversations the differences will emerge and be acknowledged soon enough!

Careful listening will reveal that there are many religious, political, and theological differences within the respective Jewish and Evangelical communities! There are a variety of opinions within both camps regarding the politics and practices of the state of Israel. There are significant disagreements regarding how the texts and traditions of Judaism and Christianity are to be applied to living in the modern world. But whatever the differences, there is in many if not most Jews a fierce commitment to endurance the Jewish people. A bitter history of pogroms and the Holocaust has bound many Jews, both religious and secular, to the land of Israel. Here, if nowhere else, in a Jewish homeland, Jews can be safe to live as Jews and practice their traditions well, poorly, or not at all! For many Jews the state of Israel is an assurance of a Jewish future. Evangelicals cannot pretend to understand fully or appreciate what it means to the survivors of centuries of violence and hostility to find a safe home in the land of Israel.

Jews and Christians view differently the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. They view differently the role of Torah in the life of an individual and community. They regard the same texts as the authoritative word of God but read them through a very different set of lenses. Their sense of “peoplehood” is very different. Only if Evangelicals and Jews listen to one another and learn from one another over time will they begin to understand their varied convictions and commitments.

In spite of their many differences, Evangelical Christians and Jews still have a great deal in common and profound reasons to listen to and learn from one another. Evangelical Christians and Jews worship the same God—the God of the Jews—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is the God who calls all Jews and Christians, “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8b). And whatever their differences with Jews over Israel, Evangelical Christians who hold authoritative the words of the Apostle Paul should be concerned that the Jewish people have a future, believing the Jews beloved of God and that “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.”

Principle Four: Evangelicals should criticize Israel as friends of Israel.

Criticism from those hostile to the state of Israel and critical of its very existence are certainly less well received than that of critics committed to a just a safe future for Israel and its Jews. Any criticism that is not founded on Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state may sound like an attack on the very survival of the Jews. Criticism grounded in love is more easily borne that criticism rooted in hostility.

One response to “Guidelines for Conversations between Evangelicals and Jews

  1. This caught my eye, because as it happens, I just came back from meeting members of the Lutheran European Commission on Church and Judaism. No, Israel was not on the agenda, but the limits or terms of interfaith dialogue was very much part of our discussions.

    In such settings, I often mention R’ Soloveitchik’s Confrontation, and many Christian theologians are familiar with it. However, my interlocutor yesterday was unfamiliar with it, which did not prevent me from using it to raise some issues regarding how Jews should react to the Bavarian Evangelical Church’s recent revision of their bylaws regarding their understanding of Jews and Judaism. The danger of expecting tit for tat was very much in the air (acknowledged by them in the first place), and the Jewish position of viewing this as an internal Evangelical issue (also my position) was found very pleasing by them. This is doubtlessly the direct result of the German Lutheran church’s particular history during the Nazi period and their desire for rectifying that historic wrong after the war, continuing to this day.

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