Jews, Evangelicals Meet at Forum : Rabbi and Schuller Stress Cooperation Between Religions

In a meeting organizers called "a historic moment," the Rev. Robert H. Schuller joined Rabbi A. James Rudin in addressing the American Jewish Committee's Western Regional Conference Sunday evening in Newport Beach.

The religious leaders' after-dinner talks were titled "Conflict or Collaboration: Jews and Evangelical Christians in the United States," but each spent far more time discussing collaboration than conflict, as might be expected at a forum sponsored by an organization dedicated to the peaceful coexistence of diverse faiths.

Citing religious historian Martin E. Marty's observation that the "Evangelical-Jewish encounter (is) the single most significant religious trend in the United States," Rabbi Rudin, national director of the American Jewish Committee's Interreligious Affairs Department, characterized such encounters as "the new frontier." Rudin, a Reform rabbi, also made clear, however, that not all the problems between the faiths have been erased by recent efforts at interreligious diplomacy, and questions from the predominantly Jewish audience of about 225 at the Hotel Meridien in Newport Beach suggested that a certain nervousness about the Evangelical movement remains. (Evangelical Christians generally believe they are "saved" only by faith in Jesus Christ, and, although important, not by participating in the sacraments of the church or good works alone.)

Speaking first, Schuller, senior pastor of the 10,000-member Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, treated the audience to about 20 minutes of the oratory that has made his "Hour of Power" one of the most popular religious shows on television. Whispering, thundering, mugging and gesturing to the heavens, he described his high-profile "theology of self-esteem" and explained where it fits into the overall scheme of religious pluralism in America. As he spoke, faces in the audience looked alternately bemused, confused, entertained and impressed.

Explaining that he is "100% Holland Dutch" and has Jewish blood ("I think it was one of my Dutch great-grandfathers who was Jewish"), Schuller told the group about a revelation he had years earlier "that we shouldn't even use the terms Jews and Christians." Pointing to the historical roots of Christianity, he said, "Christianity, as far as I'm concerned, is a Jewish sect."

Schuller went on to define a couple of the areas in which he and members of "the other sects in Judaism--. . . Reform, Conservative, Orthodox or merely cultural"--share an interest. (Rabbi Rudin would later say that he doesn't agree with the notion that Christianity is merely a "Jewish sect.") The audience applauded, for instance, when Schuller stated his dedication to preserving the state of Israel and nodded in agreement when he expressed concern about the rise of terrorism in the world.

"Anti-Semitism, with its deep and horrific roots, is one of a variety of terroristic causes that should concern us," he said, going on to recall Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi's recent warning that he has terrorists planted in the United States and adding: "I happen to believe he's telling the truth, and I happen to believe they're planted in Orange County."

Schuller recalled that when he moved here 31 years ago, "Orange County was WASP territory, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. But it's not that way anymore. Thank God. Thank God it is pluralistic. I welcome that."

Returning to his theology of self-esteem, Schuller paid tribute to Jewish thinkers such as Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, Viktor Frankel and Erich Fromm, whose ideas contributed to Schuller's popular blend of psychology and religion. Summing things up, he said, "I contend that all of us in this room have the tradition, we have the heritage, (we have) the greatest message the world needs to hear, and that is that every human being is created in the image of God. That means you treat him with respect, treat him first class, not because he is this color skin, not because he is of this economic strata, not because he has this kind of political clout, not because he belongs to this religion, but because he is . . . a first-class creature, he is a human being."

Demeaning a Person Unethical

And, Schuller added, any action that demeans that human being is unethical. "No matter how it may further my ambitions, satisfy my lusts, meet my own personal goals . . . no matter how it releases my frustrations or advances my career, if in the process it demeans another human being and leaves him less proud of who he is, then I have committed a sin, nothing short of that."

Such a belief, Schuller said, is the essence of tolerance and religious pluralism. "That's why I'm thrilled with what I know about what you're doing," he told the group. "You are creating openness of communication and treating viewpoints with respect. That is the incarnation of an ethical system of communication that is based upon that one human value called self-esteem."

Schuller, who had a plane to catch, left immediately after his talk, but Rabbi Rudin picked up on the subject of the evening, lacing his talk with references to self-esteem.

Rudin pointed out that Jews and Evangelicals traditionally grow up in areas in which one group has little opportunity to learn about the other. He explained that skepticism and resistance arose among Jewish leaders when the American Jewish Committee began reaching out to the Evangelical Christian community. But he also pointed out that according to various polls, Evangelical churches are the fastest-growing movement in Christianity and reiterated the importance of fostering understanding between the faiths.

Not a 'Monolith'

One thing that some Jews may not realize, Rudin said, is that Evangelical Christianity is not "a monolith." Like Jews, Evangelicals believe in "a fiercely independent congregational life."

"The congregational rabbis who are here tonight will know what I mean . . . ," Rudin said. "No two (Jewish) congregations are alike. And no two Evangelical congregations are alike. There is no hierarchy in either of our traditions."

Rudin also said that when Jewish and evangelical leaders meet, they express a mutual belief in the separation of church and state: "We realize we both survive best when religion is voluntary . . . when government is neutral toward religion. We have both suffered inquisitions. . . . We both know that when there is an established religion, when government and religion are linked together, we especially suffer," Rudin said. (After the talk he conceded that there are still some differences in this area. Explaining that when he went to school, Jews and Catholics were asked to leave the classroom when the Protestants prayed, he said the American Jewish Committee is "opposed to any constitutional amendment to mandate prayer.")

Among other "commonalities," Jews and Evangelicals share "a very deep commitment to the Hebrew Bible," and both groups "are committed to human rights and religious liberty inside the Soviet Union, where both Christians and Jews are struggling for their rights," Rudin said.

But Jews and Evangelicals do "see things through different theological prisms," and thus there are still certain "problems," Rudin said.

Where "the tire really hits the road is in the whole area of mission and witness," Rudin continued. "We Jews, quite rightly . . . resent . . . Christian missionary activity aimed at us and at our children, where we are specifically singled out as candidates for conversion." (After the talk, Rudin explained that he was referring specifically to groups such as "Jews for Jesus." "They pose as, quote, 'completed Jews' or 'fulfilled Jews,' and it's nonsense. They are conversionist groups aimed at the Jewish people. . . . They're deceptive, and they use (duplicitous) methods.")

Some Unconvinced

Judging from the questions asked after the talk, some of the people gathered were not entirely convinced that the Evangelical movement doesn't pose a threat. One audience member, for instance, asked about anti-Semitism among Evangelicals. Rudin replied: "I think it is a mistake to label Evangelicals as crackers, red necks, Ku Klux Klan members or anti-Semites to a higher level than any other part of American society. I think they are not."

Another questioner asked about the widely reported rise of anti-Semitism in Midwestern farming communities. Rudin described the efforts the American Jewish Committee is making there--working with local Protestant and Catholic churches--to contend with certain groups, such as "the Posse Comitas and the Order," which, Rudin said, have rushed in to exploit the "economically vulnerable" farm communities. "Radical right groups are coming in to an economically vulnerable group," Rudin said, "people who are about to lose their land, and I think we Jews understand what it means to lose land, which is the most precious thing to farmers.

"The AJC is at the forefront of combatting the extremism and the anti-Semitism that's there in the Midwest. And interestingly enough, the first line of defense, the group that's most helpful to us, are the churches of that area--Evangelical, liberal Protestant and Roman Catholic."

"It's a unique moment," Rudin said of this era in American religious history. "History was made tonight. History will be made again tomorrow and the next day and the day after . . . and the American Jewish Committee . . . is there working in the trenches, to make sure that pluralism becomes a permanent part of our society."

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