Evangelism in a Pluralistic Society:
A Rabbinic Response

Rabbi Joseph Edelheit
Senior Rabbi, Temple Israel, Minneapolis (ret.)

2002 Covenant Conference
November 8, 2002

These comments were offered following Shirley Guthrie’s paper, “Evangelism in a Pluralistic Society: A Reformed Perspective.”

I am profoundly honored to share in your community’s reflections. I always acknowledge synchronicity; Einstein once said, “Coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous.” My participation in these significant conversations overlap the 64th anniversary of Kristlnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, November 9-10, 1938, the pogroms throughout Germany that mark the beginning of the Holocaust. That you have asked a rabbi to join you in these important intra-Presbyterian conversations represents a significant commitment to breaking the cycles of religious hatred and insularity, and I am duty bound to recognize the continued prophetic presence of the Reverend Tim Hart-Andersen whose invitation for my participation affirms this church’s role in witnessing God’s presence in an inter-religious community of equals.

Dr. Guthrie’s paper is a wonderful invitation for dialogue. His re-formulation of “authentic Christian evangelism” is both insightful and inclusive. He helps us understand that we must continue to do the work of theology in a “public” fashion, responding to what our common teacher, David Tracy, calls the “situation” of the world-of-our-being. Guthrie’s guidance may be considered risky in certain venues, but as one who represents at least a sample of non-Christians, I feel both comfortable and comforted by his demand that “there is no such thing as a right relationship with God that is not manifested in and confirmed by right relationships with others.” I feel that I am included in that “right relationship” and willing to listen carefully and respectfully to the story/witness of God’s grace as you experience it through the Christ.

Having affirmed this primary element of Dr. Guthrie’s proposition, and being mindful that as a respondent I have much less time, allow me to challenge the conversation with a move to praxis. I represent 30 years of a congregational rabbinate, a communal engagement with interfaith relations, and most recently a ministry among HIV/AIDS activists, thus any theology of evangelism must meet a standard of can we “walk our talk”.

Mindful that our dialogue is anchored in our shared commitment to scripture, allow me to suggest a common text from which my move to praxis can be better understood. Genesis 4:1-7, the first part of the Cain and Abel material, provides us with a fascinating example of a spiritual triangle, or using Guthrie’s idiom, “inauthentic” evangelism. Here is the very first example of serving God in different forms, in which one offering is accepted and the other rejected. The text provides no details, but suggests that Abel’s worship was from among “the choicest” while Cain’s was not.

The jealousy and arrogance implied in the text lead directly to the all-too-often competitive evangelical approaches of many faith communities. We have all experienced those who have no shame in expressing how their relationship with God, their worship, their theology, and their community is the “choicest” offering before God. The God with whom I have a relationship, with whom I am covenantly bound through Mitzvot, commandments, will not accept the offerings of those who claim that they already have God’s grace and blessing. When I re-read Cain and Abel, I push the text about God’s involvement in creating this first triangle of spiritual rejection. Why didn’t God accept both offerings, allowing for the differences, sparing these siblings the jealousy, anger, anguish and arrogance that fueled Cain’s horrific reaction?

Evangelism risks the same kind of spiritual triangles, where some offerings are acceptable and others rejected. In a world of increasingly polarized religious violence, we cannot accept religious communities’ abusive claim that they are sure about God’s authoritative acceptance or rejection of another. Let us share the obligation in warning each other of these all-too-human lapses, made so vivid in the description of Abel, the claim that some bring their “choicest” offering at the expense of what others bring.

Let me offer two practical but very complex and ambiguous applications from a pastoral turn to these questions. One is global and the other very particular. How will Presbyterians live their “authentic evangelical” identities in the presence of the exponentially expanding AIDS pandemic? As the transmission of the virus increasingly infects communities where Western faith communities are either minorities or non-existent, Christians (and Jews) will be confronted by faiths and religious cultures that actually conflict with our spiritual discourse. Will we be able to adapt to the urgency of need, when increasingly the claim on us will come from those who do not confess God as we do? Guthrie prophetically argues, “First, the goal of authentic evangelism is not to talk about our personal religious experience as such, but to talk about the God we have experienced.”

Projections now suggest that five countries representing 40% of the world’s population will bring the total infected to 75 million by 2010. These countries, Russia, Ethiopia, China, Nigeria and India, represent a plurality of non-Western, non-Christian communities. Can we move beyond even Guthrie’s corrective, and be willing and able to talk not about “the” God we have experienced, but merely “God,” allowing for the most universal, truly cosmic presence of a single creative and radically all-inclusive God? If we continue to struggle with the language of evangelism among Christian communities or between Jews and Christians, how then will we meet the challenge of the tens of millions who do not know the Christ and still have a claim on our common shared humanness?

The pastoral theologies we have used for the last 20 years of responding to AIDS here in America must be reconstructed as we collectively face the global pandemic without the inappropriate burdens and agendas of bringing the “good news of the Christ” to those who need our help. The God who calls Jews and Christians to witness a Divine presence in our countless communal ministries expects us to accept this challenge, to understand that in our post-Modern, post-Christian world this global pandemic provides no ambiguities; all offerings must be accepted.

A second, and more local but still very provocative pastoral challenge to an authentic Christian evangelism is the issue of interfaith marriage, specifically Jewish-Christian interfaith marriage. Where does the Presbyterian Church stand on this all-too-common social reality in America? When our children grow up together and we live out the inclusive witness of our faiths, always affirming the shared singularity of God, does it really matter when a Jew and Christian marry?

Given the alarmingly high rates of interfaith marriage and the immediate threat it poses for Jewish survival, I am prepared to risk my honored presence here this morning in order to challenge this community to put this topic on your agenda. What is an authentic Christian evangelical position regarding non-Christian life partners and the children born into those families? How are we preparing our students in seminary for such pastoral situations? Is an authentic Christian identity enhanced when pastors are willing to officiate at interfaith weddings with rabbis? Should the sacred dimensions of a Christian wedding service be adapted, even syncretized, in order for a Jew to participate in a church wedding? Most painfully, how is an authentic Christian evangelism experienced when we are asked to counsel a couple that have yet to decide the religious identity of children?

Let me be clear in my challenge in this dialogue: is an authentic Christian evangelism committed to the survival of the Jewish community? In a post-Holocaust world, the dialogue between Jews and Christians has tackled a myriad of issues, none of which is as risky as the now all-too-common pastoral challenge of interfaith marriage.

Taking this conversation toward praxis models the risk of witnessing any faith in this 21st-century global community, a time of radical ambiguity and a community of uncompromising diversity. May God bless all of us in our common strivings.