I am an evangelical Christian with a life-long interest in the relationship between Christians and Jews. I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood and have been blessed with a long list of Jewish friends. I am certainly not a trained scholar—I read Hebrew slowly and Greek even more slowly—but I am a serious student of the Bible. Over a lifetime of Bible reading I have been impressed by the amount of space in the sacred text given to our father Abraham, his family, their relationship with God, and the attention paid to the details of their connection to a small strip of land along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
I am also privileged to be a friend of Marvin Wilson. Wilson described his book Our Father Abraham as “an exposition on what it means for today’s Church to be part of Abraham’s spiritual family.” I have often wondered what the church would look like if it were truly aware of its connection to Abraham’s family tree. I have spent much of my adult life studying the history of Jewish-Christian relations and trying to build these relationships within my circle of friends.
Had I organized my academic career more carefully I might be teaching the fine points of Jewish-Christian relations to students in ivy-covered buildings instead of sharing my accumulated insights with jet-lagged tourists while bumping along the highways and byways of Israel and Eastern Europe. However, I would not have wanted to miss my lifetime of unique adventures: leading over 65 tours to Israel since 1978; working on a plethora of projects with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (a great group of folks); serving for many years as the only evangelical on the Minnesota Council of Churches Jewish-Christian Relations Committee; lobbying on Capitol Hill with my dear friend Esther Levens and a variety of pro-Israel activists; bringing American Christians to Auschwitz on the March of the Living; serving as US Coordinator for Christian Friends of Yad Vashem and currently working with Christians United for Israel and serving as curator of the Jewish-Christian Library Center in suburban Minneapolis. My life has not been dull.
In his article about Jewish-Christian dialogue, Marvin Wilson lists five “guidelines or rules of thumb for evangelicals to consider in order to move the dialogue to a greater maturity and productivity.” In the light of these guidelines I have been considering some of my experiences in this field and will share a few insights that I have discovered.
A Long-Term Venture
Wilson’s first rule of thumb is that evangelical-Jewish dialogue is a long-term venture. I agree and try to remind newcomers to this field that nearly 2000 years of misunderstanding can’t be fixed while standing on one foot. Back in the 1990s I was involved with a dialogue between local Jewish leaders and evangelical Christians. We met quarterly to get to know each other. Most of the participants were willing to listen as well as speak but occasionally a pastor might attend who could only think in terms of giving a three-point sermon and expecting to have all the Jews agree with his logical presentation. Alas, this style of dialogue usually brought a cold chill into the room rather than the refreshing breeze of the Spirit. We need to study our own history before trying to sell our message to our Jewish friends.
A doctrine later known as “supersessionism” and sometimes referred to as “replacement theology” rose up early in church history and has complicated Jewish-Christian relations ever since. As the church moved away from Israel and its Jewish matrix, Christian theologians began to see Christianity not just as an extension, but as a replacement of Israel. This attitude developed in the time of the church fathers in the second through fourth centuries and can be seen in Justin Martyr, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Origen. In contrast to this, Isaiah tells us to “Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth” (Isa 51:1–2). The Christian church has neglected her relationship with our spiritual parents, Abraham and Sarah, and with their descendants and their worldview for so long that it has been nearly lost and mostly forgotten.
There have been several points in history when Christians endeavored to restore their connection to their Hebrew heritage. A fascinating account of various Christian efforts to discover their Hebraic heritage is found in Barbara Tuchman’s overview of Christian Zionism in Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour. This book traces the path of an interesting assortment of Christians who, for one reason or another, looked to the quarry from which they were hewn, to the olive tree into which they were grafted (Rom 11:17–21).
In both the Christian and the Jewish branches of the family, the lovers of Zion have been a rather eccentric crew. Tuchman comments on this phenomenon: “It is a curious fact that so many notable English eccentrics have been drawn irresistibly to the East. Perhaps it was because most of them, like T. E. Lawrence, the archetype, were voyaging on some private religious or metaphysical quest of their own and, like Disraeli’s Tancred, sought spiritual rebirth in the place where three great religions were conceived.”1 Or perhaps it is simply that those seeking God, however confused their motives, tended to search in the land where it all began.
As history continued, anti-Semitism became quite well entrenched in Christian thought. We modern Christians need to study this history in order to understand why Jews often fear Christians in positions of power. Most of today’s evangelical Christians have no intention to force their beliefs on others. Our biblical call is to persuade others, not pummel them into submission. However the Jewish community does have a basis for concern. We need to realize that the Jewish experience under Christian governments has not been positive. German Christians had the right to pray in schools in the 1930s. Unfortunately few who prayed had the wisdom or the courage to perceive and oppose the rise of Nazism. Too few asked themselves the questions: “Where am I?” and “What is happening to my Jewish neighbors?”
Evangelical Christians showed less interest in Jewish-Christian dialogue in the early post-war years. Evangelicals have generally been better at proclamation than at dialogue. There was a mixture of opinion in the evangelical world after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. Some believed that the restoration of Israel was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, while others questioned such a view. After the 1967 Six-Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem under Israeli control, more evangelicals became actively supportive of Israel. Organizations such as the International Christian Embassy, Jerusalem; Bridges for Peace; Christian Friends of Israel; and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews sprang up during the 1970s and 1980s. The movement, now often identified as Christian Zionism, became a popular cause in the evangelical world.
One of the serious efforts to bring evangelicals and Jews together for dialogue was initiated by our friend Dr. Marvin Wilson. Between 1975 and 1984 Marvin Wilson organized three gatherings that served to break new ground in this field. Today we have a new cast of characters who would profit greatly from this experience. In addition to public presentations of papers, I believe the current scene would benefit from some form of “round table” discussions between Jewish and evangelical leaders in a venue with enough privacy so the participants could discuss sensitive issues without an audience—the sort of discussion Jews refer to as talking “tachlis.”
I am concerned that many leaders in the pro-Israel Christian community today have little experience in actual dialogue with Jewish people. Often they bring large groups of Christians to travel in Israel and their main sources of Jewish friendships are limited to Israelis involved in the tourism industry. This often guarantees that some Christian leaders never have the benefit of constructive criticism from Jewish friends. I know that both Wilson and I are thankful today for the Jewish friends in our early years who were more concerned with honest communication and less concerned with the protection of our fragile egos.
Jewish-Christian Engagement in Twin Cities
I was born and have lived most of my life in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. Most local Christians are unaware of the fact that Minneapolis was referred to by one journalist as the “most anti-Semitic city in North America” in the 1930s through the early 1950s.2 Then a Christian scholar named G. Douglas Young came to Minneapolis to teach at Northwestern Bible College, an evangelical school. Young came to Minneapolis with a degree from Westminster Presbyterian Seminary and a PhD from Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Studies. The details concerning the horrors of the Holocaust were just beginning to seep into the United States at this time. But at Dropsie, with a mainly Jewish faculty and student body, more firsthand knowledge of the details of the Jewish experience in Nazi Europe was circulating. Young was increasingly shocked and grieved to learn not only of the tragedy of Hitler’s attempt to murder all the Jews of Europe, but also to face the disinterest of the American churches both during the war and afterward. Both his scholarly work and his life experiences were pushing him toward active Christian Zionism.
I listened to his radio program in the 1950s, which fed my growing interest in understanding how Jews and Christians—the two groups who cared about biblical issues—got so far apart. I began my search at the University of Minnesota in 1963 and have continued it into the present. I met Marvin Wilson in the 1970s. During that period of time I began working with several different Christian pro-Israel organizations. Along with friends from local churches—particularly Twin City Fellowship and Hope Presbyterian—I began organizing monthly meetings to host local Jewish speakers, show films about Israel and the Holocaust, lead tours to Israel and later to eastern Europe, discuss the growing collection of books relating to modern Israel and the study of anti-Semitism, and provide a venue for people who shared my interests to get to know each other.
An Inherited Commitment
My personal history in this field began during World War II when my grandmother and I developed an evening ritual, parking ourselves in front of the old Silvertone radio to listen carefully to the “war news.” Gram always read from the Bible, particularly from the prophet Jeremiah, often the portion that says,
This is what the LORD says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—the LORD Almighty is his name: “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,” declares the LORD, “will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me.” This is what the LORD says: “Only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below be searched out will I reject the descendants of Israel because of all they have done,” declares the LORD. (Jer 31:35–37)
Gram would say to me, “God has a covenant with the Jews that will last as long as the sun, the moon, and the stars. This is a terrible war but Hitler will be defeated and the Jews will be back in their ancient land. We must pray for that.”
She died in May of 1947, leaving behind her old Bible underlined at many of the points recording promises to restore Israel. So I was impressed, but not too surprised, when I came home from school a year later to find the Minneapolis Tribune headline shouting, “State of Israel Declared.” I thought, “Wow, Gram knew this was going to happen because she read the Bible.” That definitely affected my view of the Bible and world events—and set me on a path that led to life-long involvement with Israel and the Jewish people. The last time I looked, the sun, moon, and stars are still out there.
1Barbara W. Tuchman, Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour (New York: Random House, 2014), 233.
2Carey McWilliams, “Minneapolis: The Curious Twin,” Common Ground magazine, September 1946.