August 30, 2002
Of Proselytizing and Subway Tracts
-- Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez
As an inhabitant of a religiously vibrant city in a religiously vibrant nation, my "sightings" of religion in public life often come from the street. Lately my husband and I have been watching the tract war between Jews for Jesus and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York (JCRC) heat up once again. Tracts are forced upon us in New York's underground tunnels near the Port Authority, but we willingly take them home. As a person who finds public expressions of religiosity fascinating, I'm rarely uncomfortable accepting whatever people feel compelled to offer.
This latest batch struck me, both because of their usual earnestness and the rising tide of their back-and-forth paper dialog. More serious and troubling questions -- for Jews and Christians alike -- are at stake in this dialog than the flimsy, sometimes comic-book, formula of the tracts at first reveals.
The JCRC claims to respect the right to missionize but declares that Jews for Jesus and other similar organizations are engaging in "deceptive proselytizing" by "attempting to redefine Judaism in order to convert Jewish people." They are particularly concerned with the vulnerability of youth and consider Jewish terminology and practices adopted by these "Hebrew-Christians" to be a mere "veneer" masking their "actual goal of converting unsuspecting Jews to Christianity." These critiques are well founded and, as the JCRC notes, many prominent Christian organizations agree. The JCRC is convinced that Hebrew-Christian groups are "neither representing true Judaism, nor are they conveying true Christianity." They insist that a clear demarcation is the only basis upon which the communities can live and work side by side.
Hebrew-Christian groups want to remind us of another reality--the intimate and derivative relationship between the two religions. They focus on the positive: your scripture is our scripture, our Lord is a Jewish man, our church began in the synagogue. The Jews for Jesus response to the JCRC tract?: "[They're] right. This is not about Judaism. This is about Y'shua the Jewish Messiah." But their assertions are a shadow of the whole truth: we took over your sacred books and claimed a superior understanding of them; we engaged in violence against you in the name of the God of your ancestors; we have short memories. Their refusal to acknowledge these realities is very troubling.
Recently, the Bishops Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the Roman Catholic Church declared that the Jews are in a unique covenant with God and have a shared role in preparing for the coming Kingdom of God. Thus, for those who accept its authority, it is no longer "theologically appropriate" to target Jews for conversion. Indeed, despite the Catholic Church's long history of believing otherwise, or perhaps in repentance for it, the committee has declared that the Jews are saved, not on the basis of the work of Christ, but on the basis of their own eternal covenant with God. The Southern Baptists were quick to point out the irony. Jesus said, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt. 15:24) and early Christian controversy revolved around whether and how any missionizing to non-Jews should be undertaken.
Americans claim a right to our own beliefs, but harbor profound discomfort with missionizing of all types. Has a history of profound suffering, violence, and forced baptism at the hands of Christians precluded Christian missionizing of Jews and made it unacceptable to speak about the Jewish roots of Christianity? Discussion of the former has long been a feature of the historical study of Christianity, but when a modern, culturally bounded group attempts to revive the religion of Jewish Christianity, do they have a responsibility to acknowledge and discuss the complete history of Jewish-Christian relations?
All missionizing can feel threatening. Has the Jewish community earned the right to be protected from these threats? Or is the distribution and counter-distribution of tracts in the subways of New York merely the price of doing business in the religious marketplace that is America.
Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez is the new managing editor of Sightings. She is a Ph.D. candidate in the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School.