Sep 18, 2009

The Limitations of Dialogue

David BricknerBy David Brickner

Two bits of news from the "dog days of summer" shed interesting light on the challenges of sharing the gospel with Jewish people, and the limitations of dialogue as a means to accomplish this priority.

The first is a serious dust up between the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and several Jewish groups, including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the National Council of Synagogues.

Seven years ago the USCCB's Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs — in coordination with the National Council of Synagogues — released a document titled, "Reflections on Covenant and Mission." This document categorically stated that,

"targeting Jews for conversion to Christianity is no longer theologically acceptable in the Catholic Church."
Jews for Jesus referred to this document, among others, as we described what we see as an ongoing "War on Jewish Evangelism."

This summer, the USCCB made a surprising retraction of their theological error by releasing another document titled, "A Note On Ambiguities Contained In Reflections On Covenant And Mission." The new document unequivocally repudiates much of the original, declaring that it was never authoritative or representative of the official teaching of the Catholic Church. It further affirms that,
"Jesus Christ in himself fulfills God's revelation begun with Abraham and that proclaiming this good news to all the world is at the heart of her mission. Reflections on Covenant and Mission, however, lacks such an affirmation and thus presents a diminished notion of evangelization. The long story of God's intervention in the history of Israel comes to its unsurpassable culmination in Jesus Christ, who is God become man…. we also believe that the fulfillment of the covenants, indeed, of all God's promises to Israel, is found only in Jesus Christ."
Jewish community leadership reacted swiftly with a letter and press release to express "serious concern." The Anti-Defamation League stated that the new document "engendered both uncertainty and considerable disappointment with respect to the position maintained by the Church and its spokespersons," with "invitations" to become Christian making Jewish participation in dialogue with the Church "untenable".

In other words, a Catholic "yes" to evangelism led to a Jewish "no" to dialogue.

The second bit of news came from Berlin, Germany, where the annual meeting of the International Council of Christians and Jews released a twelve-point document titled, "A Time for Recommitment: The Twelve Points of Berlin - A Call to Christian and Jewish Communities Worldwide."

It is notable that this conference was held in the same city where, just one year ago, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) issued the statement,” The Berlin Declaration on the Uniqueness of Christ and Jewish Evangelism in Europe Today 2008."

Whereas the WEA statement was positive and supportive of Jewish evangelism, the "Time for Recommitment" document is just the opposite. Point 2 calls for a commitment "to promote interreligious dialogue … by understanding dialogue as requiring trust and equality among all participants and rejecting any notion of convincing others to accept one's own beliefs." And under point 3, "…by opposing organized efforts at the conversion of Jews."

A Christian "no" to evangelism was accompanied by a Jewish "yes" to dialogue.

It is quite clear, to those who are willing to see, that Jewish community leaders only engage in "dialogue" when their partners agree to abstain from direct evangelism. The simple belief that Jewish people, like all people, need Jesus is enough to offend. Any and all efforts to tell the gospel to Jews is continually confronted by strong opposition, regardless of how respectful or low key those witnessing efforts might be.

Unfortunately, some Christians are still not ready to recognize how firmly and indelibly this line has been drawn. The notion that there is a non-offensive way to offer Jewish people the gospel makes some Christians wary of Jewish missions. They may wonder why the Jewish community finds us so objectionable, if we are sensitive in our witness.

The pastor of a mega-church recently asked me whether Jews for Jesus was "confrontational or relational" in our approach to Jewish evangelism. He was considering inviting me to speak in his church, and needed to know if I would fit in with his understanding and expectation of an appropriate witness to people of other religions. That pastor went on to explain that he believes our witness should be oriented toward dialogue — a respectful exchange of ideas and not an aggressive effort to convince and prove that ours is the only correct way.

If by dialogue people mean a style of interaction leading to a give and take exchange of viewpoints, then I can say that I am all in favor of dialogue. As John Stott points out,
"Jesus seldom if ever spoke in a declamatory, take-it-or-leave-it style. Instead, whether explicitly or implicitly, he was constantly addressing questions to his hearers' minds and consciences." (Christian Mission in the Modern World. IVP. p.61)
Yet Jesus never employed inter-religious dialogue as some commonly understand it today: that is, neither party makes any effort to persuade others of their viewpoint, but only looks to find common ground. David Hesselgrave points out that while the New Testament clearly indicates the apostle Paul, on numerous occasions, engaged in dialogue, "in each of these cases it is apparent that Paul's intention was to establish the truth of the gospel, not find common ground with his audience." (Paradigms in Conflict, Kregel p.107)

A dialogue is only as good as the honesty and transparency of those taking part. Each party's agenda should be acknowledged. It would be hard for any follower of Jesus engaged in dialogue with their Jewish friends to honestly say, "I have no interest in trying to persuade you that Jesus is the Messiah." To do so would not only be dishonest, but ultimately disobedient to the Lord Jesus. For Jewish leaders, religious dialogue is a platform from which to persuade Christians that it is unnecessary and even wrong to evangelize Jews. If both those agendas were out on the table, would the participants still want to move ahead? And if these agendas are kept under wraps, is it really interreligious dialogue after all?

Recently, I read a blog from conservative Jewish author David Klinghoffer, someone I have had my own "dialogue" with in the past. David is honest about his views on Jewish people believing in Jesus, but his views do not exactly invite dialogue in its true sense:
"For a Jew to accept Christianity — I'm not speaking of Gentiles here — is therefore a kind of suicide. It's not surprising to find, then, that Christian belief has acted as it has, down through the ages, as the most powerful of all acids on the existence of the Jewish people."
It is somewhat difficult to imagine having a meaningful spiritual conversation with a person who is convinced that to accept your point of view would be a form of suicide. Yet that is a real mindset for so many Jewish people. So, is dialogue a reasonable approach to people who hold views like those of David Klinghoffer, or the people from the Anti-Defamation League, or the members of the Council of Christians and Jews?

It is quite possible to have a respectful give and take with those whom we may have serious disagreements, but not if it means abandoning our responsibility to proclaim a winsome and persuasive case for the gospel. We cannot allow ourselves to be manipulated into silence, timidity or a sense of false guilt.

Back to the pastor who wanted to know whether Jews for Jesus was confrontational or relational in our approach. I answered "yes." Every time we proclaim the gospel publicly we are visibly positioned to confront those who might prefer to ignore us. By doing so, we make ourselves vulnerable to the rejection of those who oppose us, but we also make ourselves available to those who may be interested to hear more. Our efforts are not merely a matter of making declamatory statements. We engage people in conversation; we relate personally and, in fact, most of our missionaries' time is spent in one-to-one interactions that are very relational indeed.

It's not either/or — either present the truth of Christ as the only way of salvation or be relational and respectful. I believe we can and should be both. Pray with me that God will speak to the hearts of those Christians who are in a position to influence the church — whether they be pastors or educators or writers — about the necessity of clearly communicating the gospel to the Jewish people.