Jewish World Review Nov. 1, 1999/ 21 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760
MAYBE THERE'S SOMETHING in the (holy or not) water, or in the autumn air. Maybe the ghosts
and goblins of Halloween are in full flight.
But strange things are happening among people with irreconcilable differences. They're
meeting in conversation with open minds and a thoughtful reach for tolerant understanding.
In Lynchburg, Va., the Rev. Jerry Falwell and members of his congregation met with 200
visiting homosexual Christians from 30 states at Thomas Road Baptist Church in a
reconciliatory mood to give a human face to their differences.
In Washington, D.C., in a rarefied intellectual atmosphere no less remarkable for its
conflicting beliefs, a group of religious Christians and Jews sat down together at the Ethics
and Public Policy Center to talk about the evangelical Christian commitment to convert the
Jews to faith in the Christian messiah. The Ethics and Public Policy Center is a think-tank that examines
religious issues in a political context.
Mr. Falwell preaches that Christians should "love the sinner but hate the sin'' and he chided
his followers that many of them ignore the first half of that admonition. His outreach was a
response to a request made by a former friend and colleague, the Rev. Mel White, a
homosexual who runs Soulfest, an ecumenical homosexual group. Mr. White ghostwrote the
Falwell autobiography in 1987. That was six years before he made his homosexuality public.
He persuaded the famous evangelist, pastor and Liberty University chancellor, that
overwrought rhetoric against homosexuality may have contributed to the brutal murders of
Matthew Shepard in Wyoming and Billy Jack Gaither in Alabama. Both were clubbed to
death. Falwell noted that hatred of any kind can accelerate violence toward all, such as
violence against children in school yards and evangelical Christians at prayer.
"If we are to have a real Christian witness to millions of gay and lesbian people,'' he said,
"we have to use our language carefully.'' He apologized for his excessive rhetoric in the past
and (shades of George W. Bush) stressed "compassionate conviction.'' For his part, Mel
White promised to defend Jerry Falwell from homosexual attacks, recalling that someone put
"a bag of urine with HIV'' in his Lynchburg mailbox.
It was a stunning acknowledgment laced with a certain bravery by both men, as well as by
the men and women who gathered together to ask the L-rd's blessing
--- and the acceptance
of each other.
The meeting of evangelical Christians and Jews in Washington was sparked by the
publication of a small book by the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board
called "Days of Awe: Prayer for the Jews.'' It offers Baptists helpful hints for converting
Jews to the Christian faith with a little overwrought rhetoric of its own.
Christians are urged to befriend Jews and to assure them that their "Jewishness is valued,''
but to let them know as well that as Jewish people contemplating their own sinfulness, "there
is nothing they can do to merit God's forgiveness.'' This reminds Jews of the Baptist leader
who not so long ago said that "God didn't hear the prayers of the Jews.'' (He later
Two Christian ministers, a Presbyterian and a Baptist, emphasized their belief in the "integral
integrity'' of the book (with certain hyperbolic exceptions) and characterized it as gentle
persuasion. They noted that the book warns Christians to avoid "any hint of superiority'' to
Jews and to "repent of spiritual pride or arrogance with respect to the Jewish people.''
The two rabbis, one Orthodox and the other Conservative, explained how they were
nevertheless theologically offended. For both Jews, who are not proselytizers, and
evangelicals, who take seriously the Christian messiah's "great commission'' to go into the whole world and
preach the Gospel, "first for the Jew, then for the Gentile,'' the issue is of profound and
ultimately unresolvable significance.
Everyone was amiable, but the afternoon boiled down to the single insight that Jews and
evangelical Christians are locked in a permanent paradigm that requires each to "offend'' the
other. The best outcome is a "conscientious engagement'' with civility and good humor. It
requires work, to be sure.
The Conservative rabbi remarked on progress in the modern world. We've come a long way
from the time that rabbis would be murdered after meetings like this if they refused to
convert. Jews walked away with a better understanding of the imperatives of the evangelical
Elliott Abrams, a Jew who is president of the center, recited lines from Andrew Marvell's
17th century poem "To His Coy Mistress'' in which the poet, attempting to seduce his lady
love, vows that if there were endless time he would endure her chaste refusal " 'til the
conversion of the Jews.'' But alas: "I always hear time's winged chariot hurrying near.''
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©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate