Moderate Baptists and Jews face each other today in some ways as Esau and Jacob faced each other after their rupture years earlier over the blessing of their father Isaac.
We are uncertain. We are not sure what to do. We are unclear about what steps to take.
During the past quarter century, the relationship between Southern Baptists and members of the Jewish community has hit rock bottom.
In 1980, a Southern Baptist Convention president said that “God Almighty does not hear the prayers of a Jew.”
In 2004, no Southern Baptist leaders acknowledged any anti-Semitism in the movie “The Passion.”
In between these markers, Southern Baptist Convention leaders have jettisoned a wonderful tradition of interfaith dialogue, passed a resolution which targeted Jews for evangelism, prioritized Jews for conversion during their high holy days, refused to participate in joint worship services after 9/11, and compared Jewish faith to a deadly tumor.
That, my Baptist friends, is more “Christian love” than any group ought to bear.
Moderate Baptists have no room for moral smugness. We have taken too few initiatives to fashion good will for the common good.
There are, however, a few exceptions. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia did host a dialogue on Baptist-Jewish relations. Some moderate churches have engaged in joint projects with synagogues. Many moderate ministers spoke clearly about the dangers of anti-Semitism in the movie “The Passion.”
Of course, we need to do much more.
In the era of rising religious conflict, thoughtful Baptists need to witness to the best of our tradition–advancing the separation of church and state, advocating democracy over theocracy, asserting civility over ideology, admitting the evil embedded in self-righteousness.
We would do well reclaim the centrality of Jesus, who taught us to love our neighbors, not as means toward conversion but because it is the right thing to do.
Know that good things are already emerging from this luncheon. Some ministers and rabbis are talking for the first time, forming new relationships. Some Baptists have committed themselves to interfaith initiatives by simply being here today.
Our luncheon is a step toward members of the Baptist and Jewish communities finding ways to fashion good will for the common good.
Like Esau and Jacob, we meet today. We need to bless one another. We need to foster good will for the common good.
Speaking several years ago about the extraordinary achievements and current tensions in Catholic-Jewish relations, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, wrote, “Jacob became Israel, and Jewish tradition traces Esau to Rome. The note of reconciliation in the biblical story perfectly describes the relationship between Israel and Rome–that is, between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church.”
Allow me to adapt his analogy and amend his language, substituting Baptist for Catholic:
“Surely we have reached one of those rare moments of blessedness when Jews and [Baptists] can, for the most part, accept their differences and enrich each other’s lives. The story of Esau and Jacob begins in conflict and ends in peace. They start as rivals but end, simply, as brothers.”
For now, let’s listen to an old story. Let’s listen to a local story. Let’s us hear about ways to write some new stories. Let’s determine that we will move forward together.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.