How the Past Shapes Present Interreligious Encounters
History continually bears upon the present. Whenever we interact with others, the events and experiences of our past shape how we perceive and act moment by moment. Sometimes this history is beneficial and contributes to a more meaningful interaction; at other times this history colors our perception negatively and influences our interactions. This is especially true in interfaith engagement between communities with a shared history. Faithful Christian discipleship must not only attend to our own history but to our neighbor’s as well.
In the 2000-year history of Jewish-Christian interactions, the issues of identity, evangelism, and conversion have been heated and are disputed up to this present day. Centuries of anti-Semitism, violence, and most recently the Holocaust are deeply ingrained in the psyche of the Jewish community. As Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein explains, it is not unheard of for a Jew to perceive a “gospel invitation” to conversion as a form of arrogance that in some combative approaches harkens back to the inquisitions of fifteenth-century Spain.1
White American evangelicals, such as myself, are largely ignorant of just how deeply these past atrocities form an integral part of Jewish self-understanding and their perception of Christian forms of evangelism. Of prominence for us evangelicals from a fundamentalist background, on the other hand, is a minority mentality of a different sort. Fear of external assaults against the veracity of the Christian faith—as well as internal temptations to cower from fulfilling the Great Commission—feature prominently in the conscience of many evangelicals in my community. These communal histories create tensions and pose questions that must be carefully navigated as both communities seek fidelity to their distinct identities while engaging each other with humility, sensitivity, and conviction.
In this issue of Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue journal, writers from both communities discuss various aspects in the history of Jewish-Christian encounters, the pressing issues facing these relationships today, as well as new forms of constructive engagement for the future.
1Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, “Witnessing vs. Proselytizing: A Rabbi’s Perspective on Evangelism Targeting Jews, and His Alternative,” Christianity Today (web only), November 1, 1999, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1999/novemberweb-only/51.0d.html.