About 500 Baptists and Jews gathered for a Friday luncheon sponsored by the Baptist Center for Ethics encouraging “a new era” of improved relations between the two faiths.
Between markers of a 1980 comment by an SBC president that God does not hear Jewish prayers and controversy over anti-Semitism in “The Passion of the Christ,” BCE Executive Director Robert Parham said, “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 the Jewish faith to a deadly tumor.”
“That, my Baptist friends, is more ‘Christian love’ than any group ought to bear,” Parham said.
Describing Baptist-Jewish relations as “rock bottom,” Parham compared moderate Baptists and contemporary Jews to the Bible story of Jacob and Esau facing each other after years of estrangement. “We are uncertain. We are not sure what to do. We are unclear about what steps to take.”
In an era of religious conflict, Parham urged moderate Baptists to reclaim “the best of our tradition” in relating to people of other faiths. “We would do well to 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,” he said.
Rabbi Arnold Mark Belzer of Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah, Ga., described his congregation’s historic relationship with First Baptist Church of Savannah.
While most scholars date the modern interfaith movement to the World Parliament of Religions in 1893, Belzer said he believes it is actually rooted in Savannah, which has featured good will between religious communities since the 1700s.
Belzer characterized the relationship between Savannah’s Baptists and Jews as “a paradigm for how the Jewish community and the Christian community can live together as friends.”
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul wrote that the cross of Jesus is “stumbling block” for Jews. Two thousand years of church-sanctioned anti-Semitism hasn’t helped.
Scott Hausman-Weiss, associate rabbi at Temple Emmanu-el in Birmingham, Ala., said as a rabbinic student studying missionizing of Jews that he learned to identify Baptists as “the evil menace, so to speak.”
When he heard that his congregation would meet temporarily in a Baptist church during a 14-month renovation of the temple, Hausman-Weiss said, “I couldn’t believe it.”
The temple accepted Southside Baptist Church’s invitation because the sanctuary didn’t include a lot of Christian symbols. One small cross atop the organ case was draped during the Jewish services.
“The problem with the cross is not that it is ugly or ostentatious,” Hausman-Weiss said. “It is that for Jews it represents the complete and utter opposite of salvation.”
Jews associate the cross with “mayhem and murder and institutional hatred,” Hausman-Weiss said.
For that reason, everyone was surprised when one service the congregation forgot to cover the cross, because it was no longer offensive. The experience, Hausman-Weiss said, “proves that symbols and institutions are not eternally marred by their history.”
Steve Jones, pastor of Southside Baptist Church, said his church was criticized for opening its house of worship. One letter writer told Jones that Jews using the church would be “our chance to win them over.” Jones replied, “They were won over a long time ago.”
The space-sharing arrangement led to a number of joint studies and services that continue to today.
“We are unashamedly Christian, they are unashamedly Jewish, and we like each other,” Jones said. “We are not going to change them, but we will be changed because of our relationship with them. They are not going to change us, but they will be changed by their relationship with us.”
Jonathan Levine of the American Jewish Committee applauded the Baptist Center for Ethics for attempting to repair relations between Baptists and Jews, which he said have deteriorated since the 1980s.
“The kind of ongoing dialogues that we heard about earlier, one luncheon won’t do it,” Levine said. “One meeting, one joint Seder service won’t do it. There needs to be constant meeting.”
“My organization, the American Jewish Committee, is absolutely committed to re-engaging with moderate Baptists,” he said. “We want to, and we hope you want to.”
Such engagement does not take place in denominational headquarters, however, Levine said, but in local congregations. “We have to go out and do it, so let’s do it,” he said.
Levine said not all Jewish people agree with him, but he understands why many Christians feel they have a duty to evangelize people of other faiths.
“I’m not going to say don’t do mission work if mission work is one of the roots of your faith,” he said, “but I will say this: Do it honestly and above board. We are not very fond of Jews for Jesus or Messianic Jews, because we believe it is dishonest.”
“Frankly, if you don’t do any mission work in the Jewish community, that’s fine with us,” Levine said. “Do what you must do, but do it honestly.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com