The Outstretched Hand
Last week, my family and I celebrated the first night of Passover in our current hometown—Lumberton, North Carolina (population: 22,000). We have lived here since 2009, when I took a position as an assistant professor of religion at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. We are the only Israelis in town and, as far as I know, the only Jews (though there was once a small community here). But it’s not as lonely as it might sound, thanks in large part to our Evangelical Christian neighbors.
Among the guests at our seder table this year were our landlord and his wife. They take their annual vacations in Israel, have bought a house in the Negev, and are so enthusiastic about the country that they are planning to retire there. Another guest was a restaurant owner who flies a big Israeli flag over his establishment. These people, I hasten to note, are not atypical. The mechanic at a nearby service station gives me a discount when he fixes my car; the clerk at the post office can scarcely contain her excitement when I bring her letters or packages addressed to Jerusalem; the cleaning man in my office sends yearly donations from his presumably not very large salary to assist Ethiopian Jews in Israel.
I know, from experience, how suspicious this makes some Jews, and the kinds of questions it leads them to ask. Does all of this support for Israel reflect a hidden agenda aiming at the conversion of Jews? Does the man cleaning my office yearn for the battle of Armageddon, in which people like me will die in great numbers? Is all of this identification with Israel a kind of anti-Semitism in disguise? I don’t think so. What in fact has happened is that a new type of Christianity has evolved in America in recent decades, and Jews ought to be aware of it.
I recently published a book on the religious Zionist rabbis’ approach to territorial compromise, the last chapter of which is devoted to the American Evangelical response to this issue. It focuses on the teachings of two prominent and influential pastors: John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel, and Hal Lindsey, the author of a large number of hugely popular books that have transformed the way Evangelicals look at Jews. In the eyes of these thinkers, the rise of the State of Israel and its victory in the Six-Day War represent clear signs of the imminent return of Jesus and the beginning of the End of Days. This belief, which is based upon a reading of the book of Revelation, is tied up with the anticipation of terrible apocalyptic warfare that will have to take place in the Holy Land prior to Jesus’ return.
Hagee’s and Lindsey’s interpretation of history and especially of current events, like Israel’s victory in 1967 and Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, has led them to conclude that this war—which will, of course, be a nuclear war—is about to take place, and soon. But what impact, one must ask, does this have on their behavior? Their firm conviction that we are just around the corner from a cataclysmic war would seem to make them eager to get the fighting started, and thereby hasten the advent of their Redeemer. But they are, in fact, doing just the opposite.
Christians United for Israel, the Evangelical lobby in Washington, does not encourage war and chaos in the Middle East, which is what you might expect from people eager to see Jesus return. Nor does it adopt a passive stance. It aims to prevent Iran from going nuclear.
Why? Why do Evangelicals act contrary to what would seem to be their own best interests? It is because they are very attentive to the divine promise that those who are seek the well-being of the Jews will be the recipients of God’s favor: “I will bless those who bless you,” He once said to Abraham, “and I will curse those who curse you.” (Genesis 12:2–3) In the end, the benefits they derive from promoting the welfare of the Jews mean more to them than the theoretical possibility that the Redeemer will return following a devastating war in the Middle East—an eventuality that they actively seek to prevent.
My daily interactions with my neighbors and, I should add, my students, as well as my research into Christian Zionism, have led me to the conclusion that a new type of Christianity has emerged, one that is not at all hostile to Jews and ardently wishes to promote the Jews’ well-being. We should set aside our old fears and accept this movement. Evangelicals are stretching out their hands to us. We should reach out to them, too.
Motti Inbari is an Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and the author of Messianic Religious Zionism Confronts Israeli Territorial Compromises.
just don't build a life around it either.
after all, Jews in galut have far too often developed a false sense of comfort and acquaintance with neighbors, only to be turned on.
Is that "stretching our their hands"? What does it say about their motives for supporting Jews and Israel? Does their motive matter?
I know these things because I am an evangelical Christian who moves in the very circles that Inbari talks about.
To answer LenMin, yes, almost all evangelicals believe that acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah is the only way to salvation (John Hagee endorses another theology, albeit a minority one). We don't apologize for this and I don't think the Jewish people should be upset by it. It's a point of theology, it's not personal. We're certainly not angry that Jews reject Jesus as Messiah, or that other religions hold doctrines contrary to ours. They are, after all, other religions.
One may say that pro-Israel and "pro-Jesus" beliefs are inherently contradictory, but I disagree. Would evangelicals be thrilled if every Jew acknowledged Jesus as Messiah tomorrow? Of course. Would we support any kind of coercion to that end? No. Will we begin withholding our support for Israel and the Jewish people if Jews don't convert? Never. We believe that there is an unbreakable covenant between God and the Jewish people and that this covenant, ipso facto, demands our honor. There is no hidden agenda. There is no secret plan to destroy the Jews.
I'm often surprised by the lack of understanding on this issue, and I'm encouraged that Inbari felt called to share his personal experiences among American evangelicals. I can promise any Jewish person reading this, what he experienced is not unusual at all.
Among Evangelicals, it is more the case of hatred/antipathy/hostility toward (infidel) Arabs/Muslims than love for Judaism.
Nevertheless, when I encounter these evangelicals lauding Israel and the Jews and expansion into the territories, I can't help feeling a bit like an oyster. There is a Hebrew saying, "kab'dehu ele Hashdehu," respect but suspect.
The Jewish person is therefore properly skeptical, but needs to be so on a case by case basis. Then there is the next layer: people may be individually nice, but church doctrines can still be hostile. For those Christian churches that do believe Jews will convert in the end (and pray for it), Jews intuitively understand that the intent is to "eliminate Jews as a people, nation and religion". Please note the word "eliminate" - no matter how polite Christianity has become, this eliminationist tendancy has not changed in 2,000 years, and unfortunately, history shows us how far it was taken. They even have a word for it: supercessionism or sometimes end of days conversion.
Now, as a faithful Jew, I really do not fear this end of day scenario (we have our own version of that), but I do worry about the constant supercessionism creating the "teaching of contempt" the Christian churches have had a hard time dispelling.
It is true that in the Christian scriptures there are some passages that sharply differentiate and distance Christian belief from the early antecedents of what has become modern rabbinical Judaism. Christianity is, in fact, a different religion, even though it shares with Judaism a reverence for the Jewish scriptures and common roots in the teachings of those scriptures. The fact that those differences exist does not provide a basis for Christians to hate Jews, but only to allow for respectful disagreement. It is unfortunate if some Christians, past and present, misunderstand this, but a misunderstanding of their scriptures it certainly is.
As for the eternal destiny of Jewish people or of anyone else who is not a Christian, Jesus did say that the only way to the Father was through him, but he also said that we are not to judge other people. The eternal destiny of each and every person is thus ultimately between themselves and God, and it is not for us to say who is or isn't going to heaven or hell. The truth is that we don't know what is inside a person's heart, so we really don't know. We each are to attend to ourselves and our own salvation. There are undeniably Evangelical Christians who think differently on this point, but again I would say that they misunderstand what the Christian scriptures teach.
Setting aside the questions of eternal destiny and of the relative validity and correctness of our different belief systems, because the promise of Gen. 12:2-3 pre-dates the covenant of Moses, a correct understanding of this from a Christian perspective would see it as being more of a civil rather than religious issue, applicable to people living in this world at this time rather than having anything to do with the world to come. Regardless of our different beliefs, this promise applies to all physical descendants of Abraham and is still in effect. Thus, we Christians should still honor it. This means that we Evangelical Christians that take the Jewish as well as the Christian scriptures seriously feel that we should seek the well-being and peace of the Jewish people, especially in their promised land. That does not necessarily mean that we need to grant whatever the current government is in Israel a blank check. Praying for the peace of Jerusalem does not mean that we must be indifferent to the peace of Gaza or Nablus or Ramallah. Again, some Evangelical Christians might disagree with this, but I still feel that they are misunderstanding their own scriptures.
Always remember this: For most left-wing Jews, - ie, non-religious Jews - their Judaism is expressed chiefly in the fact that they are not Christians. For such Jews, the more anti-Christian they are, the better the Jew they are. [Of course, they would not call themselves "anti-christian", even if their politics have exactly that result.] Many Jewish writers have noted that, growing up, all they knew about their religion was that they did not accept Jesus. In other words, their anti-Christian posture stems almost entirely from the total ignorance they have of their own religion. Religious Jews have a great deal of knowledge of their tradition, and thus have ways of bettering themselves from within. For the non-religious, their only avenue to the natural desire of self growth, is by knocking down The Other. It's important to remember that when one hears certain Jews worrying about Evangelicals.
One cannot quibble with Jerry Blaz's warning of respect but suspect. However, that warning can also be applied to ANY political group or organization, rendering it rather meaningless.
After all, Christ himself, was a Jew. He celebrated the Passover and other Jewish traditions. When he prophesied about the destruction of the Temple, he was simply alluding to the establishment of a new Temple -- one in which God resides in the heart of the individual. It is also important to remember that Christ prayed to "The Father."
We have clearly lost some of what was essentially "Christian" in the earliest years of the church and many of us are determined to find those lost traditions.
I wear a Star of David necklace regularly. I do so out of respect for our shared Abrahamic faith and out of respect for the Nation of Israel. My love for Israel is so strong that where it attacked and threatened with annihilation, I would volunteer to fight for it.
In fact, I am so upset by the current administration's weak-kneed support of Israel that I almost consider Bibi Netanyahu MY president. Many, many of us feel that way.
One last thing ... for us, there is no BLAME for Christ's death. It was pre-ordained. There was no other way for Christ to accomplish his mission. He had to die and be resurrected. There is no blame of Jews for "killing Christ" rather there has come to be an acknowledgement that everyone in Jerusalem in AD 33 were simply players on a stage fulfilling their assigned roles in the Will of God.
A Europe with outbreaks of horrific anti-semitism, was also a Europe that most of the time happily tolerated its Jewish minorities and even in places and times allowed them to prosper in Spain and Germany in ways that Jews of North Africa and the Middle East never experienced. As a child I moved around a lot and learned a lesson. "Makes friends quickly, enemies come naturally". No matter what I did I couldn't overcome the prejudices of places I moved to and people would hate me for no good reason, but I did have the option of making friends who would help me or not. Israel doesn't have to do anything to be hated, so I hope as a nation it tries its best to learn to make friends. It can, and it should.
> These Christians, who base their worldview on scripture, view the Jews as God's covenant people and seek to bless them as much as possible.
You bless us by helping us while in this world while we live, and then damn us to eternal Hell after we die?
Could you fail to see the contradiction?
The Southern Baptist Convention folks are by all accounts Evangelicals. They consider Jews to be heathens. Evidently, not all Evangelicals bless us.
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