A Friendship Tested by Faith

Stan Guthrie is an evangelical Christian. His good friend Yeheil Poupko is a rabbi and a Jewish scholar. For all intents and purposes, they've accepted each other's differences. But the issue of evangelism has threatened to drive them apart. The two friends share how they've reconciled such a deep and passionate issue.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, the Barbershop guys on the week's news, and whatever else they want to talk about. But first, it's time for our weekly converstaion about matters of faith and spirituality, Faith Matters. Today, we want to talk about what may be one of the most sensitive interfaith issues. The question of whether to seek converts among those who do not wish to be converted. Now, we know that in this country, people change religions all the time. But the conflict between Christian evangelism and Jewish identity has deep roots, as well as profound theological and historical importance for both groups.

The issues surfaced most recently when the New York Times published a paid advertisement last month signed by dozens of evangelical leaders, that expressed respect for the Jewish people, but affirmed the importance of continuing to seek converts among Jews. One of the signers was Stan Guthrie, a managing editor of Christianity Today, who also penned a column on the same subject. That sparked a rather intense email exchange between himself and a Chicago rabbi. And we are joined today by both of them, Stan Guthrie of Christianity Today. Also with us is Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, a Judaic scholar at the Jewish United Fund of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. And I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Rabbi YEHIEL POUPKO (Judaic Scholar, Jewish United Fund of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago): It's good to be here.

Mr. STAN GUTHRIE (Managing Editor, Christianity Today): Very glad to be here.

MARTIN: And I have to say that there is - I don't think there is any way we can truly capture the richness of the dialogue between the two of you, which is why we are posting it on our website, but let's try. Rabbi, we'll start with you. You wrote that the purpose of this conversation is not agreement. The basis of interfaith conversation must be mutual, sacred rejection. A clear understanding of the irreconcilable differences between the faith communities. First of all, what did you mean, and secondly, what persuaded you to start this dialogue with Stan? Did you really think you could change his mind?

Rabbi POUPKO: Well, let me begin with your second question. I did not believe that I could change Stan's mind, but I think it's very important when someone says they want me and my people, to disappear, to understand that we are not about the business of disappearing, and that is what the conversion of the Jews means. The basis of interfaith dialogue is not agreement. America is the greatest civilization on earth, and it is possible here to have profound disagreements, and for our streets not to turn into Baghdad and Bosnia. In order to respect someone, one has to know them in their otherness and in their difference.

MARTIN: Mr. Guthrie, you wrote, an integral element of my Christian belief, is the command given by Jesus himself to make disciples of all nations, starting in Jerusalem. Why starting in Jerusalem? Why concentrate on those of the Jewish faith? For example, as Rabbi said, why not people of no faith or atheists?

Mr. GUTHRIE: Well, there's many elements to an answer for that, but I, first of all, say that Jesus was a Jew, his first disciples were Jews. The large ingathering in the Jesus movement was from Jews from around the world, and that Jewish people have the scriptures, they have the law, and they were blessed to be a blessing to the entire world. And so, obviously, God has not given up on them in any way, shape or form, and Jesus wants us to continue to spread his word to all peoples, and so obviously, according to scripture and according to his command, it does begin with the Jews.

MARTIN: Rabbi, what about Mr. Guthrie's point that if - let's say if one were to become aware of a life-saving gift, let's say the gift of curing cancer, how could one not share it? How do you respond to that?

Rabbi POUPKO: Everybody has a right to be loved the way they want to be loved. And it is true that evangelicals are different from classic Christians of the past 2,000 years. Classically, Christianity wanted to convert us, because they had nothing but contempt for our low station in life, because we had not only rejected Jesus, but we were accused of the most heinous of crimes, killing him. Contemporary evangelicals want to convert us because they love us. I understand that. But we all have a right to be loved, the way we in fact want to be loved. The problem with Stan Guthrie and evangelicals, who want to give us something life-saving, is that it freezes us in the first century. Two thousand years have happened since Paul said to the Jews first. I do not want to be a character or an actor, in Stan Guthrie's drama. I am entirely unto myself, as a Jew.

MARTIN: Mr. Guthrie, what about Rabbi's point that, that which you seek leads to the obliteration of his core, of his very self, and that of his community?

Mr. GUTHRIE: I would say those are hard words, and I appreciate him saying them because as he said, I think an airing of our differences is very healthy, and that helps us move our dialogue forward. But I would say, we're not trying to take anything away from the Jewish people. We're trying to add something, we're trying to help them to see their Messiah, who they're looking for. And, you know, as I told him before, it would be much easier for everybody concerned, if we just kept our mouths shut, and we just let it go at that, and just hope for the best. But, you know, we're trying to be faithful to God, and we're trying to show love to our Jewish friends.

And one of the things I really appreciate about Rabbi Poupko, is that he has awakened in me a desire to understand the history of Christian anti-semitism. He's awakened in me a history to see the Jewish people on their own terms, and I really appreciate that, and, yeah, I promise you Rabbi Poupko, that I'm going to do my best to see things your way and to show you the respect that you deserve, and that you think that we Christian evangelicals were not giving you. I do appreciate that very much, but I still do believe as an evangelical Christian that an integral part of my faith, is sharing the gospel with every man, woman, and child in this world, and that includes the Jewish people.

MARTIN: Rabbi, what has this dialogue meant to you?

Rabbi POUPKO: Well, Stan Guthrie is a man whose views and faith, I believe are important for American society. I believe society is best when it's grounded in faith in the one God, and the belief that all human beings are created in the image of the one God. On the other hand, what it has also reminded me, is the fact that some elements of Christianity continue to ignore the experience of the past 2,000 years. Now, Stan Guthrie is saying something a little bit different than what he wrote in his article. I have no problem with what he says, which essentially means all humanity needs Christ. Included in all humanity are Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and Muslims. But that isn't what the ad said, and it isn't what his article said. The theme of some evangelicals, and of Stan Guthrie in the article in the ad, is to the Jews first. We are being singled out. And when we, the Jewish people, are singled out for special theological treatment by Christianity, Jewish history invariably turns into Auschwitz.

MARTIN: That's - you don't believe there's any way to intervene in that history. You really do believe that's inevitable?

Rabbi POUPKO: For 2,000 years, the contempt of the Jews was taught. Now, the Holocaust is too great an event to be attributed exclusively to Christianity...

MARTIN: And you don't believe there's any way to un-teach that, that one - if one can teach hate, you can't teach love?

Rabbi POUPKO: I do not believe that you can teach that when people needs Jesus in a very special way, and then continue to respect them. There is something innately and fundamentally missing, exclusively in the Jew, out of whose flesh came Jesus, when he or she doesn't have Jesus. And in that sense, we end up being lower in God's economy than any other people, who doesn't have Jesus. There's no way out of that.

MARTIN: Mr. Guthrie, Rabbi says there's now way out of that. That the words with which we began are in his view, the only ones, which is - this is irreconcilable. The only way to have mutual respect is to keep one's distance. Mr. Guthrie?

Mr. GUTHRIE: Well, I would say that I respectfully disagree. I mean, I do believe that - I don't believe I've changed anything from what - what I'm saying now from what I wrote before. All I would say is that we need to continue to show respect for the Jewish people. I'm sorry. I'm deeply sorry that Christians have not always done that. And I do believe that we can build a better future together, and - but that involves a - really, as he said, sharing our beliefs that we don't agree with, but thank God, we do live in a free society where we can talk these things out, where we can tell him what we believe, he can tell us what he believes, and we can move forward. And as I told the Rabbi, my respect and admiration for him, and the Jewish people is not dependent on whether they received Jesus Christ as their savior, but it - that is something that I - you know, to be true to myself and to be true to my faith, that is something I want and I'm going to be honest about that, but I deeply respect how he's shown me how to look at it more historically and more theologically from his point of view, so that I can, you know, hopefully respect him even more than I did, and I think as we continue to develop our friendship, that we will be able to do that.

MARTIN: We'll just pause for one second, just say, if you're just joining us, I am speaking with Stan Guthrie of Christianity Today and Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, a scholar of the Jewish United Fund of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago about a dialogue the two have been having about conversion, and the conflict between Christian evangelism and Jewish identity. Rabbi, what about you? Stan has told us what he feels he has learned. Is there something that you have learned?

Rabbi POUPKO: I think that the Jewish community's conversation with evangelical Christianity is just beginning. Some 50 years ago, we came into the room, and we sat down with the Roman Catholics. They knew, given everything that had happened, that they had to do some peacemaking with us, but they still held on to the belief that we needed Christ, and they were going to work at bringing Jesus Christ to us, but then a strange thing happened. Over the past five decades, the Roman Catholics got to know us, and they became our friends, and they understood that in our life of Torah and fulfillment of God's commandments, the mitzvot, God was in our presence, and you cannot very well evangelize someone with whom you had lunch the day before.

And so the Roman Catholics said, yes, everyone needs Jesus Christ, and the Jews are included in everyone, but given all that's happened; maybe that one is lowdown on the priority list, maybe that one will be saved for God to do in His own time, and I have a sense that we are beginning to head down the same path with the Evangelicals. I have many Evangelicals who, five years ago, would have attempted to proselytize me, who now witness Christ to me, just through their own lives, and we are good friends, and I witness to them my Judaism through my own life, and I think that is where I hope we are headed with the Evangelicals.

MARTIN: Stan Guthrie, do you feel you can live your faith fully in that way through witnessing, through providing a witness to your life, as opposed to actively seeking to convert? Do you think that is possible, theologically for you, and spiritually for you?

Mr. GUTHRIE: I think it is not possible to fully obey the command to follow Christ, and keep our mouths shut. I do believe that there are various ways that we can witness to Christ's goodness and beauty in our own lives. We witness through word, deed, and sign, and so there may be times when we do need to be quiet, and to listen more, and then there are times when we need to open our mouths, and we need sensitivity, and experience, and a heart of love to know when those different times will be, but no, I do not think we should ever concede that, well, we'll not say anything about Jesus Christ, because He is the center of our lives, He is the creator of the universe, and He loves all people.

MARTIN: As I said, we are scratching the surface here, and which is why we will post a link to this very rich dialog on our website, npr.org/tellmemore. Stan Guthrie is the managing editor of Special Projects for Christianity Today Magazine. He joined us in Weekly Illinois, and Rabbi Yehiel Poupko is a Judaic scholar at the Jewish United Fund of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. He joined us from Chicago, and I thank you both so much for speaking with us today.

Mr. GUTHRIE: My pleasure, thank you.

Rabbi POUPKO: Thank you.

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