Miners, Jews and Evangelical Christians

Miners, Jews and Evangelical Christians

A minor miracle occurred this week: 33 Chilean coal miners were rescued after being trapped underground since August 5 – including 17 days without being able to get word to the surface that they had survived the initial mine collapse.

As the men emerged from the earth on Tuesday, they were wearing t-shirts reading “gracias, Seňor” – “thank the Lord.”

The shirts were a gift from an organization called the Jesus Film Project, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ International, based in Orlando, Florida.

Jesus Film Project had distributed the shirts to the miners by contacting the family of Jose Henriquez, an evangelical Christian preacher and one of the 33 men trapped in the mine.

Henriquez had helped keep the men in good spirits during the ordeal.

On the back of the shirts was a verse from Psalm 95: “In G1d’s hand are the depths of the earth; the peaks of the mountains are G1d’s.”

The dramatic rescue of the Chilean coal miners demonstrates how a good story can captivate a global audience from Santiago to Malawi.

It also shows the reach and influence of evangelical Christianity – once, Latin America was the exclusive domain of the Roman Catholic Church.

No longer – today, the evangelical movement can get its branded t-shirts to the epicenter of the global news cycle in time to be featured on everyone’s tv, laptop, or smart phone.

The story of the miners and the way they turned to G1d in their ordeal evokes the so-called “coal miners’ prayer” of the original union prayer book of the reform movement.

What’s more, Psalm 95 is found in the opening passages of the Shabbat service recited by Jewish congregations around the globe for centuries.

Beginning in the 1990s and especially with the ascension to the presidency of evangelical Christian George w. Bush, the American Jewish community has encountered evangelical Christian support for Israel.

It is an unfamiliar phenomenon, puzzling or even alarming to many of us.

Evangelical support manifests itself in financial donations, political support for Israel in American policy, and moral and charitable support for Israeli Jews and offers of similar support for the American Jewish community.

Right here in St. Louis, within a month of the end of Israel’s 2006 Lebanon War, some 250 evangelical Christians gathered in Clayton to express solidarity and donated $23,700 for Israeli families injured or dislocated by the fighting.

Political groups like Christians United for Israel promise unconditional support for Israel on Capitol Hill.

According to Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the group has given 100 million dollars to charitable causes in Israel in the last 12 months alone.

This week’s Torah portion, lekh l’kha, is not the beginning of the book, but it is the beginning of the Jewish narrative.

In the magnificent opening verse of our portion, G1d abruptly speaks to Abram (who will soon become known as Abraham), telling him, “lekh l’kha” – get yourself up, from your native land, and from your father’s house, and your birthplace, to the land that I will show you.”

G1d then apparently broke into song, as the verses take on a poetic cast – “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and you shall be a blessing.

I will bless those that bless you, and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”

It can be astonishing just how literally some Christians take those verses.

Visitors to Jerusalem during the Festival of Sukkot will be treated to the spectacle of groups of Christian visitors from countries as far flung as Denmark, Colombia, and Japan marching in the municipal parade, invoking G1d’s blessing on their countries through blessing the stock of Abraham.

The American Jewish community is deeply ambivalent about Evangelical Christian support and alliances.

We have reacted in one of two basic modes: (1) eeek! And (2) “we need all the friends we can get.”

There are a few variations on eek! Mode:

Eek, they’re only out to convert us (or our children); and/or

Eeek, they only want to provoke Armegeddon with Israel’s rab neighbors and/or global Jihad; and/or

Eek, the evangelical social agenda is in many ways directly across the political line of scrimmage from the Jewish one, particularly the reform Jewish agenda – school prayer, abortion, legal protection for members of the LGBT community… the list of fights goes on and on.

On the other hand, the idea that “with enemies like these, we need all the friends we can get” has its proponents in the Jewish community, too, among a fairly broad political and denominational range.

In Israel, there is no ambivalence about evangelical Christian support.

Israel does not perceive itself as having the luxury of questioning what little international support it does have.

(Some wag said that Jews are democrats, Israelis are republicans.)

So what’s this got to do with lekh l’kha?

Well, we are surrounded tonight by tangible evidence of our congregation’s commitment to interfaith dialogue.

Not to mention, we are surrounded by proof of just how important the fruits of interfaith dialogue and understanding or at least respect and trust can be.

But some of those “eek!” responses have their merits.

Therefore, we, the American Jewish community should neither write off evangelicals nor accept support too freely.

We should engage in dialogue – and we at Temple Emanuel are well positioned to do so at the local level.

There are at least three motivations for evangelical support for Jewish causes.

I’m going to label these –first, eschatological; second, patriotic; and third, spiritual.

On a scale of 1 to 3, with 1 being worst and 3 being best, these are… first, eschatological; second, patriotic; and third, spiritual.

Eschatological means having to do with the end of days, final, climactic battles between good and evil, the arrival of the Messiah, and a day of judgment.

Most of the mode of Jewish response that I labeled “eek!” is due to a perception of support that is motivated by eschatological concerns: that the Christians only want us to convert, whether out of their own sincere imperative to spread the gospel or whether something darker, hoping to provoke an Armegeddon that will result in the final coming of the Messiah – who they believe to be Jesus.

Such concern is justifiable.

There is indeed an amount of evangelical support that comes from eschatological world views.

But the great thing about theology is that we can change it as often as we change our socks.

The pride and joy of Liberty University, founded by moral majority leader Jerry Falwell is its debate team, which routinely competes against teams of undergraduates from Ivy League colleges, the Stanfords and Carnegie Mellons of the country.

Liberty U’s debate program proves that however staunch they may be in their beliefs, evangelical Christians are capable of intellectual inquiry.

Besides, if evangelicals are motivated by a desire to proselytize, that’s a great question to bring to the table for interfaith discussion – when is proselytizing acceptable and when not?

The second motivation for evangelical support for Israel is the patriotic motivation.

Evangelicals are likely to be highly loyal to the United States (because, ironically, they’ve benefited from the separation of church and state just as Jews have).

Evangelicals are aware of the close alliance between the United States and the state of Israel, the democratic nature of Israeli society, and common values of our two nations.

They want what’s best for the security and welfare of the United States, and therefore they want what’s best for Israel.

This, too, reveals some fairly rich soil for the seeds of interfaith dialogue.

The evangelical community is criticized, in some cases quite rightly, for supporting only the right wing of the Israeli political spectrum, and for attempting to block any attempt to relinquish Israeli sovereignty over land conquered in 1967.

It’s worth having a discussion with what might be called the AIPAC wing of Christian Zionism, over Israel’s long-term security interests.

It’s also worth noticing that there’s little legitimate daylight between our communities over the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the dangerous ravings of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Finally, there is the third motivation, the spiritual motivation.

Evangelical Christians take Genesis 12:3 very seriously, and for some, maybe even the majority of evangelicals, the desire to attain G1d’s blessing by blessing the Israelites is the entire motivation.

Quite amazingly, there is no hidden agenda, just a sincere desire to obtain G1d’s blessing.

There is a vast acreage here of common ground waiting to be discovered.

Israeli-American essayist, political analyst, and gadfly Ze’ev Chafetz writes in his book, A Match Made in Heaven: “For now, they are not the enemy but the enemy of the enemy and they want to be accepted and appreciated.

In return, they are offering wartime alliance and full partnership in a Judeo-Christian America.

It is an offer the Jews of America should consider while it is still on the table.”

We have every reason to be concerned about Chafetz’s implicit characterization of “the enemy,” and about a Judeo-Christian America in an era of increasing American Muslim presence.

Still, his point is valid.

The experience of the Chilean miners shows that there are risks in maintaining our aloof posture.

Evangelical Christianity is a global force, smart, confident, assertive, adaptable, and fast.

The American Jewish community has much to gain by taking a closer look, by seeing it is not a monolith, and by opening channels of dialogue toward a more mutually respectful and beneficial partnership where possible.

Keyn y’hi ratzon.

So may it be G1d’s will.

Gracias, Senor; Sermon, 2010 Oct 15, 7th Cheshvan 5771, Temple Emanuel, St. Louis, MO

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