by Arielle Randle and Sam Rood | April 23 2021
In late 2020, Madison Cawthorn, a newly elected congressman from North Carolina, stated that he has shared his faith with Jewish people in hopes of them becoming Chistians1—provoking many to anger and to classify this behavior as antisemitic. When Cawthorn defended himself on Twitter, popular Jewish blog HeyAlma responded back on their website: “Madison, you aren’t being attacked for ‘sharing [your] faith with others,’ but for admitting you target Jews for conversion.”2
As Messianic Jews, we’re all too familiar with this conclusion. And while we think every Jewish person has the right to explore the claims of Jesus for themselves, no one should ever be talked to in a way that feels predatory or steeped in unconscious bias or antisemitic undertones. As Jews, we can’t ignore that this happens. We must call out antisemitism, provide education where ignorance is at play, and encourage all followers of Jesus to examine their motives and approaches to sharing their message.
The New Testament teaches: “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”3 Respecting Jewish people means acknowledging the real reasons why evangelism within Jewish communities can feel predatory. And instead of minimizing or delegitimizing these concerns, we need to face them in true conversation, however hard it may be.
Here are three places we can start:
Throughout history, Jewish people have faced contempt, persecution, forced conversion, and genocide—at the hands of those who called themselves Christians.
In his book Bad Religion, Ross Douthat proposes that there is a persistent attitude among Christians throughout history that he terms “Jew-envy, which objects to the unique role that the chosen people play in the history of salvation. Antisemitism has many taproots in the Christian world, but perhaps none is so potent as the resentment of Jewish chosenness and the desire to claim Israel’s unique birthright for one’s own.”4
A narrative of “Christian triumphalism”5 was notably played out in the 13th–15th centuries in Europe, where church and state were inseparable entities. Government officials would orchestrate theological debates to take place between clergy and rabbis with the goal of displaying a public Christian “win.”
These debates were rigged and not just because Jewish leaders were arguing with a government-limited vocabulary so as to tiptoe around perceived blasphemy. At the conclusion, the Jewish populace was forced to choose between conversion, deportation, or death. Talmuds and other Jewish holy books were often burned, synagogues were destroyed, and Jewish people murdered.
During the Holocaust, Nazis labeled themselves as “Christians.” The church didn’t step up to point out the blatant oxymoron represented by a “Christian” having such abhorrence for God’s people. And though some incredible Christian individuals and groups opposed the Third Reich and even risked their lives to help Jewish families hide or escape Nazi-occupied areas, overall, the church stood idly by. Today, with antisemitic violence on the rise, it remains understandably difficult for many Jewish people to differentiate between the evil actions of people who claim to be Christians and the true followers of the teachings of Jesus.
It can be tempting for both modern-day Christians and Jewish believers in Jesus to distance ourselves from the historical antisemitism of the Christian Church. We blame the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the pogroms on the Catholic Church or Eastern Orthodox Russian Empire. We blame St. Augustine and St. Chrysostom or Martin Luther for influencing anti-Jewish attitudes and actions in Christian Europe. But we can’t deny the enduring effects of that history. We need to wrestle with the reality that for thousands of years, efforts to “missionize” Jewish people were not grounded in genuine love and care for those communities, and more often than not, resulted in acts of violence towards Jewish people.
Given the historical context, it makes sense that Jewish people would be wary of any person or approach that shares the message of Jesus in a way that feels like it’s targeting them. “Targeting” implies zeroing in on a point of attack, and since Christianity has been weaponized throughout history, it’s easy to understand this reaction.
These reactions don’t mean it’s wrong for Jews and non-Jews to dialogue with each other about the claims of Jesus. What it does mean is that we can’t simply brush off Jewish sensitivities to evangelistic efforts in light of the past. It’s unacceptable to casually disregard Jewish anger or concern over Christian evangelistic efforts. This might even be categorized as “gaslighting”6—a form of psychological manipulation where a person or group makes someone question their perception of reality to carry on with their own agenda. Instead, we need to acknowledge that the antisemitic history of Jewish conversion still informs Jewish thinking today and affirms the legitimacy of emotions it triggers. To disarm the stigma of evangelism, we must make space for both the hurt of the past and the concerns of the present.
It’s very common to hear Bible teaching in churches or Christian academic study that refers to Jewish people only in the past tense, as if we ceased to exist after the Hebrew Scriptures were complete. Israel is spoken about romantically as a land that existed once upon a time, as opposed to a real place where many live today. Language like this makes Jewish people feel invisible, like we are subtly being erased from existing as modern people, and that Jewish culture and tradition only have value in as much as it serves as the prelude to Christianity. In some Christian circles, this is not a subtext. There is a blatant theology that once Jesus came, his followers replaced the Jewish people as the “true Israel” and all of God’s blessings and promises were now transferred to the Christian church.7
This type of rhetoric is usually not “targeted” at Jewish people, because it’s assuming we aren’t even in the room. But that doesn’t mean this rhetoric isn’t reaching the ears of Jewish people, whether it’s the thousands of Jewish people who visit Christian churches every year, or Jewish relatives of intermarried families, or Jewish classmates, coworkers, neighbors, or friends. This replacement theology is not only hurtful to the Jewish people who hear it and harmful to the non-Jews who absorb it, but it’s completely denounced by the very Scripture upon which it claims to be based.
The New Testament makes it clear: “The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.”8 No one has replaced the Jewish people in God’s covenant, and we are still very much a part of His plan for restoration. Judaism is not a fossilized religion preserving a pre-Christian faith but a faith and culture in it’s own right. Rabbis, commentators, philosophers, and theologians forged a Jewish tradition that not only survived, but thrived in the midst of persecution and oppression. Our people have found a way to adapt to the world around us for hundreds of years and make invaluable contributions to humanity. From the philosophy of Maimonides, to the physics of Albert Einstein, and to the innovations of modern Israel, the Jewish people have left their mark on the world since ancient times. None of this is coincidence—the incredible survival of the Jewish people is one of the most compelling pieces of evidence for God’s existence and confirmation to the whole world that He keeps His promises.
If Jesus had taught that Jewishness was to be done away with, it would have, in fact, disqualified him from being who he claimed to be, and no one, Jewish or not, should then follow him. Jesus was a teacher of the Torah, and the leaders of Judaism in the first century acknowledged him as a peer, calling him “Rabbi.”9 He practiced Jewish faith and customs according to the cultural norms of his day, participating in many extra-Biblical traditions and synagogue rituals.10 His message pointed people to the heart of Jewish faith—redemption as it always has been offered: by faith in the God of Israel and His Messiah.
If people are evangelizing Jews with an expectation that they will stop being Jewish, that’s blatantly antisemitic. When people think that their way of life is superior or more sophisticated than another culture, and want to bring people into that way of life, that’s not sharing Jesus—that’s colonialism. Throughout history, the colonialistic strategy of cultural imperialism, wherein a minority is wiped out through a slow but intentional process of absorption and homogenization, has taken many forms. This is the subtle and also deadly agenda of “missionary” efforts aimed not at sharing the message of Jesus, but at recruiting Jewish people away from their heritage and culture.
Today, this may look like people evangelizing under a pretense of wanting to share Jesus, when what they really want to share is a pre-packaged cultural, political, and societal set of behaviors that have little to do with heartfelt beliefs. The Jesus included in that package is almost always stripped of his Middle Eastern ethnicity and Jewish identity. This begs the question: If Jesus has been stripped of his Jewish identity, why wouldn’t a Jewish person expect that same thing to happen to them as his follower?
This is why when a Jewish person is encouraged to leave their community in favor of joining a Christian one, it rings an alarm bell. Assimilation is a powerful and dangerous force that our people have resisted for thousands of years—it’s a valid concern.11 Over the centuries, some have seen resistance to assimilation as one of the key objectives of Judaism, with faith in Jesus rolled into a rejected cultural package. It stands to reason that evangelistic efforts focused on reaching Jewish people are often interpreted as a threat to our very existence.
Despite concerns of Jewish assimilation, most Jewish demographers now recognize that the diversity of the American Jewish community has actually led to its growth rather than its collapse. In fact, Leonard Saxe, a demographer at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, reports that “the American Jewish community is not only growing, but is more diverse and resilient than ever.”12
The hard line of who is part of the Jewish community has given way to a more inclusive and expansive vision of Jewish identity. In this new framework, a Jewish faith in Jesus has much to add to the mosaic of Jewish life today, including the strengthened allyship against injustice and antisemtism. In fact, there are already communities around the globe—Ashkanazi, Sephardic, Israeli, Russian, Ethiopian, and more—living out diverse Jewish heritage and faith in Jesus in beautiful harmony. Thankfully, some Christians, both throughout history and today, have rightly understood and affirmed that, and how crucial it is for people to discover and express their faith in Jesus in cultural forms that are appropriate for their communities. They’ve recognized and called out that any motivation for missions as imperialism, colonialism, or other forms of triumphalism is wrong, and that the goal should never be to force people to assimilate from their culture to a foreign one.
Any vision for sharing Jesus with anyone of any culture should be to see the vision that the New Testament paints: “A great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.”13
It would be a heartbreaking act of antisemitism if people stopped sharing the message of the hope they’ve found in Jesus with some people, solely because they are Jewish. Every Jewish person should have the right to explore the claims of Jesus, gain insights from his teachings, and decide to reject or embrace him as the Jewish Messiah if they are convinced one way or another by the evidence.
Sharing the message of Jesus is challenging and complicated, but it’s vital for people to be able to share their deeply held beliefs with one another. We have to resist the pull of an echo chamber where we only talk about one another, and not to one another.
If we choose to share our faith with others, we should always do so out of the same love for our neighbors that is the heart of Jewish practice and which Jesus exemplified. Paul, an early Jewish follower of Jesus, illustrated it when he said, “My sorrow is great and the anguish in my heart unending. For I would pray that I myself were cursed, banished from Messiah for the sake of my people—my own flesh and blood.”14
We should always strive to find the most sensitive, wise, and appropriate way to communicate what we believe to others. After all, wrestling with the complicated, messy, and important things instead of avoiding them has been the key to thriving Jewish life throughout the ages.
2. “Is Trying to Convert Jews to Christianity Antisemitic,” Hey Alma, November 17, 2020.
3. 1 Peter 3:15 (emphasis added).
4. Ross Douthat, Bad Religion (New York: Free Press, 2012), 247.
8. Romans 11:29.
9. John 3:2.
10. Luke 4:16–21.
13. Revelation 7:9.
14. Romans 9:2–3, Tree of Live Version.