Last week I saw a new movie—”Religulous.” Believe me, I would not have spent time or money on this film, but inasmuch as Bill Maher interviewed someone identified as an “ex-Jew for Jesus,” I felt responsible to see what, if anything, was said about our ministry.
On the positive side, Jews for Jesus was not an issue in the film; our name only came up as a title for one of the interviewees, who happens to be a former staff member. On the down side I could write quite a bit, but suffice it to say I found the movie dull and intellectually dishonest. Maher’s unvarnished attempt to paint anyone with any religious convictions as a ridiculous extremist inspired the mean-spirited title, “Religulous.”
I know something about this kind of stereotyping; over the last month and a half I’ve been caught in a media spotlight over the message I gave at Sarah Palin’s church in August. Multiple stories on television, hundreds of newspaper articles around the world and literally thousands of blogs have identified me—and the entire ministry of Jews for Jesus—as extremist. So I have titled this month’s RealTime article: “Extregelism.”
Our society is so shaped by mainstream media and popular opinion that many people have accepted outrageous and unfounded conclusions concerning evangelicals. I’m amazed that basic biblical doctrines of sin and judgment, so well understood by our Founding Fathers and passionately preached by great American churchmen such as Jonathan Edwards, are now labeled as dangerous extremes. Thus those who want to evangelize are considered extremists.
Some Christians believe that evangelism is misunderstood because believers take too prominent a stand in society. They suggest that we could be better received and our message understood more clearly if we would blend in more effectively.
I believe the opposite is true. I think people find it easy to believe false accusations regarding evangelism simply because they so rarely encounter it. Without evidence to the contrary, they can imagine evangelism to be whatever others (or they themselves) say it is.
This has been the case during our second Behold Your God campaign in Israel, in the Upper Galilee region of northern Israel. While we know there have long been communities of believers in this area, we are not aware of many efforts at forthright evangelism and proclamation in many of these smaller cities.
It certainly seems as though people in these cities have never witnessed anyone doing forthright evangelism before. When our missionaries and volunteers were handing out gospel tracts and offering Hebrew New Testaments in the downtown area of Kiryat Shemonah, the initial reaction of the crowds was absolute incredulity. They were shocked. An article in “The Jerusalem Post” quotes Chief Rabbi Tzfania Drori as saying, “I believe we have a right to prevent these people [Jews for Jesus] from entering our town and promulgating New Testaments and missionary literature; it is tantamount to a woman performing a striptease in the middle of a public place.” (Excerpted from the article, “Protests get Jews for Jesus radio ad pulled in North,” by Matthew Wagner in the October 5 edition of the “Jerusalem Post.”)
Anti-missionary reactionary Tovia Singer claimed, “Jews for Jesus are trying to do to us spiritually what Hamas is trying to do to us physically.” (Excerpted from an article titled, “‘Jews for Jesus’ Ad Blasted From Radio By Enraged Israelis,” by Malkah Fleisher in the October 6 edition of “Artuz Sheva.) Click here for full article.
Such incendiary remarks naturally proceed from those whose goal it is to prevent Jews from hearing the gospel. Singer’s accusation, though entirely false, is well rehearsed rhetoric; but Rabbi Drori doesn’t seem to have had as many occasions to fulminate, and his accusations, rather than striking fear, come across as somewhat ludicrous. Nevertheless he has a position and a following, so many are bound to take him seriously.
This kind of organized, “over the top” opposition has pressured the Israeli media—our radio spots were pulled off the air after only five hours. One newspaper chose not to run our ad after rabbis like Drori exerted similar pressure. Of course these cancellations led to the Jerusalem Post article, which might well have reached as many as would have heard our radio ads, and contained helpful statements such as Dan Sered’s quote: “All we are trying to do is share our faith. We just want to provide Israelis with an opportunity to know that Jesus died for our sins and rose on the third day. Most Israelis have never gotten the chance to hear about Jesus. If they do not want to hear that is fine. But if they are interested, why shouldn’t they be given the opportunity?” Click here for full article.
Our opposition has found it easy to polarize the Israeli population against us simply by labeling us as missionaries. To us the word has honor and implies a willingness to make ourselves available and vulnerable, that others might hear about Jesus. But to many Israelis, the term “missionary” is on a par with “terrorist,” and gives rise to anger and fear. If Israelis view missionary activity as extremist, it is not because they have witnessed missionary activity and found it to be coercive or otherwise frightening or dangerous. Rather, most have not seen or heard from missionaries who publically proclaim the gospel. The less familiar they are with evangelism or missionary activity, the easier it is for them to believe authorities who characterize it in the extreme negative. Absence does not make hearts grow fonder.
Thankfully we still have freedom of speech and can insist on our rights, not only in America but also in Israel and elsewhere. However, rights undefended soon become rights upended by those who regard religion as inappropriate or perhaps even dangerous when presented in public. In a society where the media and public opinion are so interdependent, freedom of speech is easily eroded. Going against public opinion is bound to offend, and people can be very foolish in their attempts to silence whatever offends them. It’s all too easy to lose your voice for the gospel in the public square. That is a real challenge that we’re facing in Israel right now. It is not yet clear whether the Israeli government or the police will protect our rights, as the law requires. This became apparent on October 7, when we had to call the police in Kiryat Shmoneh, a small town in the Upper Galilee region, to intervene in two locations where our campaigners were being threatened and assaulted. For details and photos, click here.
At the police station, we showed Major Gadi Hava a letter from a legal authority explaining our rights as Israeli citizens to proclaim the gospel. He replied, “This doesn’t mean anything to me. The only thing I’ll pay attention to is an order from a judge.” Our choice is either face arrest for telling people about the Lord Jesus or get a court order to continue to proclaim the gospel in Kiryat Shemonah.
Some believers in Israel may advise us to do neither, but rather maintain a low profile and avoid controversy. That may be the right thing for them, and I would not urge them to go against their conscience. But it is not the right thing for Jews for Jesus. We exist to make the Messiahship of Jesus an unavoidable issue to our Jewish people worldwide, and that includes Kiryat Shemonah. Though we are no braver than the next person, we must trust God to be faithful as we do our best to obey that calling.
I doubt that the Apostle Paul intended to cause riots when he preached in various cities as recorded in the book of Acts—but those riots didn’t cause him to shrink back. When Peter and John were arrested for preaching the gospel, and were brought before the legal authorities to answer for their actions, they said, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).
Israel is not a “rabbinocracy.” It is a democracy. It is important for evangelical Christians, many of who are in Israel right now for the Feast of Tabernacles, to use any influence they have to encourage religious freedom for Messianic Jews and everyone else in the Land. The battle being waged in Israel right now is also flaring up in other countries, including the United States. Societies that claim tolerance as one of the highest principles have found it very easy to show extreme intolerance towards those who seek to evangelize others.
Missionary activity, i.e. evangelism, is often described pejoratively as proselytizing. Just as the word “missionary” is akin to “terrorist” in the minds of many Israelis, so “proselytizing” is akin to “extreme intolerance” in the minds of many Americans. But what is proselytism? Webster’s Dictionary defines it as, “Making converts. To induce someone to convert to one’s faith or to recruit someone to join one’s party, institution or cause.” Whereas we don’t see ourselves as “inducing” or even “recruiting” people to believe in Jesus, we certainly want to make His message known, and we hope and pray the Holy Spirit will move hearts to receive that message.
In her article, “Is Proselytizing Bad for the Jews?” Ruth Rosen quotes from well-known Jewish commentator Hillel Halkin: “In a democratic society, non coercive proselytizing should be a perfectly acceptable activity. Jews often talk about Christian missionary work in their midst as if it posed a moral danger without realizing how self-demeaning this anxiety is… Jews must have little confidence in themselves indeed if they have to live in fear of Christian soul snatchers.” (From “Take it as a Compliment” “The New York Sun,” February 12, 2008.) An interesting side note: While most Jewish people today denounce proselytism, the earliest use of the word “proselyte” referred to converts to Judaism. Few Jewish people are interested in persuading others to become Jews, and so expect those of other religions to feel likewise. And because the tide of public opinion has risen against proselytism, equating it with extreme intolerance, many are unwilling to take a stand or to be seen as engaging in anything that might be characterized as such. Therefore overt efforts at evangelism are labeled “inappropriate” and/or “extreme.”
As long as God gives us life and breath, Jews for Jesus will not shrink back from forthright efforts to proclaim His gospel, whether or not we’re considered “extregelists” for doing so. After all, Jesus went to extreme lengths to make it possible for us to be reconciled to God. And He did say, “Blessed are you when they shall revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in Heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).
I’m so grateful that those prophets and those apostles were willing to withstand false accusations and misunderstanding in order to get out God’s salvation message. May God give us the grace to choose to be in their company. And when we are reviled, may we follow Yeshua’s admonition to “rejoice and be exceedingly glad.”