March 27, 2008
The phrase “Christian Zionist” does not fall easily on Jewish ears. It was therefore with both caution and curiosity last Friday night that I welcomed the Rev. Robert Stearns, a key national leader of Christians United for Israel, to the pulpit of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston.
Several months ago, a handful of our members, part of a small delegation from the Community Relations Committee of the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, attended a CUFI rally in Cranford. Merle Kalishman, former TBA president and current CRC chair, told me that she was profoundly moved, the last emotion she was expecting. She, like the others, returned with a strong sense that the CUFI activists had no interest other than the well-being of the State of Israel, that there was no hidden agenda, and that this was a movement we needed to explore.
While I was dubious about the first two points I agreed on the third, and after a great deal of communication, arrangements were finally made for him to speak under joint TBA and CRC auspices on the evening of Good Friday.
His opening remarks could not have been more blunt: “Let’s talk about the 600-pound gorilla in the room. I am not here to convert you.” Stearns certainly had our attention.
Evangelical Christians like him, Stearns explained, read the Bible literally. When the Bible speaks of Israel and the Israelites, Evangelicals consider that a specific reference to the modern-day State of Israel and the Jewish people. For believers like Stearns, therefore, support of the State of Israel and the Jewish people is a theological mandate and one Stearns embraces joyously. His knowledge of Judaism is profound; he seems to have a personal relationship with every major political leader in Israel. His Hebrew, if accented, is excellent.
Someone asked a question on all our minds: “As a Christian, how can you not want to convert us?” Stearns had clearly fielded this question before. “Of course I would love to see you become Christians,” he said, “but I would never seek to convert you.” He explained that Evangelicals view Christians and Jews alike as having a specific role in God’s plan. Besides, he simply has “too much respect” for the Jewish people ever to suggest that any individual Jew should become something else.
Stearns’ sense of kinship with the Jewish people is palpable. He spoke of the historical ills done to Jews in the name of Christianity — the Inquisition, the blood libel, and religious acquiescence in the Holocaust, for a start. He said he was from a generation of Christians that insists on making amends for the sins of its spiritual ancestors. He vigorously declared that the evangelical Christian and Jewish worlds are drawn together by a common enemy — “radical Islamic fascism” — though he took care to separate that from the majority, the many “millions of peace-loving Muslims in the world,” and noted his own efforts at dialogue with the Muslim community.
Stearns words rang with sincerity and truth. I think everyone present — including many who showed up intending to take him on — left with the sense that we have a real ally and Israel has a real friend here.
The core of Stearns’ message was simple: We have a commonality of interests. Though the motivation may be different, Jews and Evangelicals are both ohavei Tzion, lovers of Zion, and there should be no impediment to their working together on Israel’s behalf. When someone asked the inevitable “end of days” question, Stearns had a ready reply: “When the Messiah comes, the first question we will ask is if he is coming for the first time or the second time. Only then,” he said, laughing, “will we find out which of us is right.”
There is an enormous segment of the Christian world that cares deeply about Israel, as Israel, and not merely as a means of salvation or for converting the Jews. They show this caring in many substantial ways: Every year, through CUFI, 5,000 of them descend on Washington for a day of lobbying on behalf of Israel — the same number that attend an AIPAC convention. Stearns’ own ministry, Eagles’ Wings, has organized an annual day of prayer for Israel in which, worldwide, 50,000 churches and 15 million people participate. Eagles’ Wings also recruits Christian college students to spend a month of study and training in Israel and then to return to campus to advocate and organize on Israel’s behalf.
The potential of evangelical support for Israel is staggering. The evangelical movement is the one segment of Christianity that is growing globally, especially in the Third World. Third World countries are often not Israel’s biggest supporters, but the growth of evangelical movements might change that.
Which is ultimately what makes all this so important. I was moved by Stearns’ visit, and I believe Israel has firm and committed friends in him and those he represents. Surely, there is more we want to know, but it is not too early to speculate that, with our collaboration, these Evangelicals may turn out to be among the best friends Israel has ever had.
Rabbi Clifford M. Kulwin is religious leader of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston.
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