Beyond charges of anti-semitism

Posted: Mar 19, 2002 12:00 AM
Reports of anti-Semitic remarks made three decades ago are in the news. The New York Times this past Sunday ran a long article criticizing Billy Graham's remarks to Richard Nixon, for which the evangelist has apologized. John Nash, subject of next week's Oscar frontrunner "A Beautiful Mind," wrote a slurring letter at a time when he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and, according to biographer Sylvia Nasar, "believed himself to be Job, a slave in chains, the emperor of Antarctica and a messiah." We should not overlook those long-ago incidents, but it's more important to deal with a current error of omission among many Christians. We often hear that that Christians and Jews should be friends, and that's certainly true -- but evangelicals rarely talk about how much Christians can and should learn from Judaism. A good starting point is Orthodox Judaism's emphasis on every-hour thanksgiving as a key to worship. Carrying out the injunction, "Thank the Lord for his goodness" (Deuteronomy 8:10), rabbis traditionally have emphasized training in short prayers that punctuate the day, with thanks offered upon hearing news, eating food, drinking wine or enjoying fragrant smells. Some Christians have tried to develop the same consistency in spiritual consciousness. Stonewall Jackson trained himself to thank God every time he took a drink of water. And yet, many Christian testimonies of conversion tend to emphasize a "moment of decision" rather than a lifetime of faithfulness. Billy Graham once observed that three-fourths of the new converts at his crusades do not stick; more Christians need to learn to measure evangelistic success by long-term faithfulness, not short-term fervor. Christians can also learn from Jews how to emphasize the importance of this life as well as the next. The Westminster Confession's famous catechism question from the 1640s is, "What is the chief end of man?" The answer is, "To glorify God and enjoy him forever." But a Christian tendency toward otherworldliness has led many to forget that "forever" begins right now. Judaism's emphasis on the satisfactions of marriage, family and lawful entertainment is worth emulating, because enjoying God now is a mark of trust. Some Christians make the mistake of not really knowing the Bible -- which means the Old as well as the New Testament. Some emphasize so much the preaching and teaching of one-fourth of the Bible -- the New Testament -- that the Old Testament's import is minimized. Some still unconsciously mimic the heresy of Marcion, who argued in A.D. 138 that Christians should not treat the Old Testament as authoritative, in part because God in the Old Testament seemed to him too strict in His law-giving and backing of battles. Marcion was excommunicated in A.D. 144 and his beliefs declared heretical, but that heresy keeps marching on among those who prefer the supposedly kinder and gentler God of the New Testament. And yet, Christians who cannot identify Old Testament warriors such as Joshua and Jepthah do not fully understand the import of Jesus, who believed in turning the other cheek to personal offenses but was ready to take physical action against Temple moneychangers and others who violated biblical principles. Overall, Christians should remember that Jesus and all of his apostles were Jews who celebrated Passover and then the Easter resurrection. Both holidays are fast approaching -- they come together because the Last Supper commemorated the time when God told Israelite slaves in Egypt to slaughter a lamb and smear its blood on their doorposts so the angel of death would pass over their homes. Easter shows how Christ's blood similarly protects believers from spiritual death. All of this has great personal application, of course, but also a current policy application more important than the long-ago remarks of John Nash or Billy Graham. Following the terrorist attacks six months ago, the Orthodox Jewish group Toward Tradition pleaded "for an alliance of Jews and Christians, united to defend our country by reviving the role of religion in public life." Christians can contribute to that broader revival by emphasizing a whole-bodied understanding of the Bible to which Jews as well as Christians can contribute.