Messianic activism voices from two generations

SUSAN PERLMAN Once an Activist, Always an Activist

“I have a dream . . .” The stirring words of Martin Luther King, Jr. filled my thoughts. He spoke for African-Americans, for the poor and for the disenfranchised. Though I was none of these, I felt like he spoke for me, too, and I realized that I had to put my ideals into action. I was only a kid when that speech was given in the early ’60s, but somehow my Jewish DNA included a predisposition for a cause-oriented existence. Embracing activism was my only option.

That did not lessen when I became a follower of Y’shua. In the ’70s, it was not out of character for me and the other Jews for Jesus to spend hours marching outside the Soviet Consulate on Green Street in San Francisco alongside other Jews protesting the treatment of Soviet refuseniks and pleading, “Let my people go.” It was right for me as a follower of Y’shua to call attention to the plight of the Vietnamese “boat people.” I remember going to City Hall with a handmade placard and a position paper that I wrote. Whether it did any good or not, at least I tried.

And I keep on trying. I care about suffering in Darfur, about an Iran with nuclear capabilities, about green issues, and to some extent, I am involved in all those causes. Yet I choose to put most of my energy into the cause of Y’shua. I am convinced that we were made to be followers in his cause because he is the only one with the power to change our hearts, so that obedience to our holy and just God becomes the measure of how we live our lives.

TUVYA ZARETSKY In the Cause of Hope

Most of us in the original Jews for Jesus were already activists when we came to faith in Jesus. The years were 1968-1972, and we were in our early 20s. The Cold War with the former Soviet Union had shaped our uncertainty about the world’s future. The Vietnam conflict was teaching us the value of free speech and political activism. And as Jews, most of us empathized with the inhumane treatment of blacks in America and felt a need to speak up.

Let me back up. In 1964 I was still in high school. The Holocaust had ended not even twenty years earlier; I had experienced the sting of anti-Semitism from schoolmates and neighbors. So I didn’t hesitate to wear a button in protest against racism: a white “equal sign” on a black background. Later, in college, I participated in “teach-ins” to educate people about the Vietnam war, protesting the compulsory drafting of young men for military service. I was an activist—but no cause touched my life like coming to faith in Jesus.

When the God of Israel answered my prayers to know him, it produced a life-changing experience. I had found the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45-46), the cause for which I and my people had been created. It was fulfilling to be for something, instead of defining myself by what I was against. That’s what first motivated me to don a Jews for Jesus jacket and T-shirt. If we could engage people in a discussion through action, then I was willing to do it—for Messiah’s sake.

I think of evangelism as activism to spread the good news. It’s an activism rooted in hope and love, in a message that defines the true worth of all human beings—that Messiah died for our sins. That’s not just good news—it’s the best news.

JOSH COHEN Social Action Meets Evangelism
An Interview with a Messianic Jewish College Student

Havurah: Josh, do you consider yourself to be an activist?
Josh: I wouldn’t necessarily call myself an activist with a capital “A,” but I do have causes that I am passionate about. Homelessness is one example. My main commitment through my first two years at Wheaton has been with an evangelistic group called the Chicago Evangelism Team. Every Friday night we head to the north side of Chicago where many of the people we interact with are homeless. Just by doing evangelism, I get to see what homelessness in one neighborhood looks like, and to what extent we can and can’t offer them help.

So you are addressing both the social aspect and evangelism together?
Right. Maybe we’ll see some homeless guys on Clark Street. We’ll tell the people in our group to invite them to a meal. Sometimes they would rather sit at their spot and collect change, but a lot of times they’ll take you to their favorite burrito place or you’ll go into McDonald’s and get them a coffee. It shows that you take a personal interest in them, that you have compassion. If you’re going to talk about the gospel, it’s important to have the kind of credibility where they trust you enough to listen to what you’re saying.

Speaking of trust, some feel that we’ve got to earn a hearing from people first before we can share the
gospel with them.
There are great ways to build trust in a first-time conversation, to show that you’re not just spitting some dogmatic message at someone. But with people who you’re not going to see on a regular basis, the quintessential example is the stranger on an airplane. You have an opportunity to participate in God’s impacting that person’s life. God could be ready to do something amazing and you could be the one to be there when it happens. I don’t think that the need for trust and credibility should rule out public evangelism, on the streets or in other forums.

Yet some would say that unless you become friends with someone first before sharing the gospel, you’re just
“in their face.”
In the ancient world, religion wasn’t private at all. It’s only in more recent times that we’ve privatized God. Making public statements is a good thing because it causes people to think. Obviously, you don’t want to insult them needlessly or offend them without cause, but if people get angry, to a certain extent that’s good, because it’s better than just indifference. At least they’re thinking about something, even if they’re potentially responding in anger.

Many people are willing to “get out there” and engage strangers over social issues, yet the issue of the
gospel is viewed much differently.
The gospel is controversial and even polarizing. It’s fairly easy to crusade against something like AIDS or child slavery, because say what you will about moral relativism, most people will condemn oppression and exploitation. Whereas it’s potentially much more inflammatory to say to someone, “You’re a sinful person, you’re not headed to heaven, you’re distant from God.” That could be perceived as a personal attack. People don’t want to seem accusatory. I think the church sometimes has trouble making those kinds of proclamations, and at the same time wanting to show God’s love and mercy. Yet we need to do both.

Josh Cohen is a Jewish believer in Jesus and a student at Wheaton College in Illinois. Susan Perlman (first assistant to the executive director) and Tuvya Zaretsky (director of staff development) are two of the original founders of Jews for Jesus.


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