Rabbi Barry H. Block
Sermon given at Trinity Baptist Church on July 25, 2004
What an honor, to be here this morning with Rev. Charlie Johnson, with Jana, and with so many friends, here at Trinity Baptist Church. Earlier this morning, I was privileged to participate in Bible study, with Carolyn and Bill Thornton. We all can be grateful for the way that they have served our city, even as you can thank God that they continue to serve your church and all of our community.
Trinity Baptist Church and Temple Beth-El enjoy a rare and very special history and relationship, dating back to the founding of this Church and the special closeness between Buckner Fanning and both of my distinguished predecessors, Rabbi David Jacobson, of blessed memory, and Rabbi Samuel Stahl. I well remember the day, during the dark summer of 1996, when Buckner addressed a packed Temple Beth-El on a Friday night. That summer, the Southern Baptist Convention had declared that Baptists should “target” Jews for conversion to Christianity. Buckner came to proclaim that such directed proselytism is not the Baptist way, is not his way, and is not the Trinity Baptist Church way.
I suppose that all of us, throughout the city, were quaking in our boots, as y’all went looking for a new Pastor. What would the change mean for our city. God knows, we’ll always love Buckner. But what a difference Charlie Johnson has made, even in the short time he has already been here. I have an inkling of the new vitality that Charlie has brought to your Church, while maintaining so much that has always made Trinity special. I can tell you, as his colleague in the community, that Charlie is a most effective spokesman for the causes of peace and justice, love and mercy, throughout our city. In our neighborhood, we’re all most grateful for what y’all are fixing to do to that abandoned Albertson’s up on the corner. Charlie is the one who dreamed of this pulpit exchange, which began with his inspiring message to our congregation in January. What blessings Charlie Johnson and Trinity Baptist bring to our community.
Sam and Lynn Stahl, Toni and I already treasure a new and magnificent friendship with Jana and Charlie. In fact, both Toni and I are embarrassed by her absence here this morning. Some time ago, without thinking, we said that Toni would accompany our young children to the birthday party of the son of dear friends today. I knew I would be here this morning, but I must be perfectly honest and tell you Sunday morning is not the time reserved for family worship in our household!
I am going to be honest with you this morning. That’s the kind of relationship we share between our congregations. I know that Charlie would not have invited me to be here, if he did not want me to tell the truth. Any less would dishonor the God we all worship, and would bring disrepute on this holy place.
The truth is that, as blessed as we have been at Temple Beth-El and Trinity Baptist Church, the broad sweep of Jewish-Christian history is not nearly so positive. Frequently, I will remind folks that, for over 1000 years, the Jewish people lived essentially either under Christian dominion or under Muslim rule. I ask: which was more congenial to the Jews? The true answer, hard as it is to believe in today’s environment, is that Jews fared much better in Muslim countries than in Christian lands.
Across the centuries, Jews were expelled from almost every country in Christian Europe. We all know about the Spanish Inquisition, but many people are unaware that Jews were forced out of the British Islands for centuries, not to mention large parts of such seemingly civilized countries as France and Italy. Making matters worse, the persecution of the Jewish people was often based on the Christian faith itself. Don’t get me wrong. I understand that Christianity, properly understood and honestly taught, is not, at root, anti-Semitic. Unfortunately, though, in too many places, and on too many occasions, the very existence of Judaism has been treated as an affront to Jesus himself. Across the centuries, countless Christians have been offended by the notion that the remnant of Jesus’ own people would not worship him. Passion plays stirred up anti-Jewish violence, by making the claim that Jews murdered Jesus, without recalling that Jesus and his apostles were also Jews. While the Holocaust itself was perpetrated by Nazis, who were at least as Pagan as they were Christian, Hitler found fertile ground in the anti-Semitic history of Christian Europe.
Zionism, too, found its origins in European Christian anti-Semitism. To be sure, Jews had prayed for the return to Zion for 2000 years, ever since the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in the year 70. And yet, mass Jewish resettlement of the Holy Land was no more than a dream and a prayer until the turn of the twentieth century, when a man named Theodor Herzl founded modern Zionism. A thoroughly assimilated Jew from Vienna, Herzl had believed that Jews had found their Promised Land in modern Europe. After centuries of expulsions, being treated as foreigners in the lands of their births, 19th Century Jews were suddenly considered to be citizens of the European countries in which they lived. What could be better than that?
The most progressive nation in modern Europe was France. There, a Jew could even be an officer in the Armed Forces. Previously, the only military service open to Jews in Christian Europe was when they were pressed into service as canon fodder on the front lines. Herzl went to France, to cover the trial of a French Jewish military officer, Lt. Dreyfus, who was falsely accused of treason. There, Herzl saw how quickly the French reverted to their anti-Semitic ways, eager to convict a Jew on clearly trumped-up charges, and quickly reaching the conclusion that all French Jews were disloyal.
Herzl was dismayed. He came to believe that Christian Europe would never change. The only redemption for the Jews, he thought, was to establish their own nation. Then, the Jewish people would be sovereign, with a seat in the council of nations, able to relate to other peoples as the separate nations they apparently were.
In fact, Herzl believed his dream so strongly, that at one point he thought the Jewish State could be anywhere. He negotiated with the British, urging them to cede their colony of Uganda to the Jews. Thankfully, Herzl’s political Zionism had rivals, and his dream of a Jewish Uganda never came close to fruition.
Ahad Ha-Am was one Zionist who knew that the Jewish State could only be in the Holy Land. In fact, Ahad Ha-Am wasn’t sure there should be a Jewish State at all. He advocated mass Jewish immigration to Palestine, with the hope of rejuvenating the Jewish people and Jewish culture on Jewish soil. Hebrew had not been a spoken language in some 2000 years. Ahad Ha-Am dreamed of a modern Hebrew language, poetry, literature, music, and the like. His Cultural Zionism continues to impact modern Israel today.
Other Zionists, such as David Ben-Gurion, were socialists. These Eastern European Jews were inspired by Karl Marx and the idea of the equality of all humanity. Moreover, Jews had always been prohibited from owning or working the land in Christian Europe, the only way truly to make a living. Ben-Gurion and others like him dreamed of participating in collective farming, working the land for themselves in a utopian world of equality. Nevertheless, because of this anti-Semitic history of the Christian lands where those socialist revolutions began, Jews were denied participation in those new societies, which were hardly the utopias of which Marx had dreamed. Ben-Gurion, his predecessors and his partners, went to Palestine, to work ancient Jewish soil, to make the desert bloom, to build egalitarian societies, and work toward the day when their own utopian society would spread throughout the world.
Religious Zionists, led by Ha-Rav Kook, were another influential group in the early 20th Century. Orthodox Judaism had long taught that only God could return the Jewish people to Zion, with the coming of the Messiah. Ha-Rav Kook taught that God intended for Jews to take the first step toward redemption, which only God could ultimately fulfill.
None of these early Zionists imagined a Jewish Palestine all for themselves. Every one of them realized that Arabs were living there, and that some accommodation would need to be made. Land was purchased from Arabs. Title to land was obtained legally. At the beginning, things were fine. Indeed, Jews and Arabs had lived side-by-side, in peace, in Palestine, for centuries. And yet, as the numbers of Jewish immigrants increased, Arabs understandably became nervous. Violence increased. Self-defense necessarily became part of the Zionist vision. Let us not forget, though, that, in 1947, the United Nations did not merely create a Jewish State. Instead, a partition plan was proposed. Palestine was to be divided into two nations, one Jewish, the other Arab. The Jews accepted the deal. The Arabs declared war.
Terrible things happened in the War of 1948. Some Arabs left their land in Palestine, temporarily, they thought, for their own safety, believing that an Arab victory would be swift and sure. Other Arabs were forced from their homes violently. War is always terrible, and Israeli actions in the 1948 War were not pure. Still other Arabs remained in Israel, particularly in the northern part of the country, and have lived as citizens of Israel, relatively peacefully, ever since.
Much has happened since 1948. Sadly, one can have the idea that Jews and Arabs have always been at war. Frequently, folks will say that the conflict is centuries old, going all the way back to Isaac and Ishmael. Well, as they say, “it ain’t necessarily so.” This conflict may now be a century old, but it does not stretch back millennia. Things don’t have to be as they are.
Extremists, among Jews and among Arabs, would have Arabs and Israelis fighting forever. Too many Arabs, including Palestinian leaders like Yassir Arafat, will never be satisfied, until there is no Jewish State whatsoever between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Too many Jews will not feel secure until there are no Arabs on that same territory.
The people of Israel need your help. Though I can not speak for them, I would say that the Palestinian people need your help, too.
These days, official Christian attitudes toward Israel tend to fall into two categories. There are those who call themselves “Christian Zionists.” Like extremist Jews, they will not be satisfied until Israel is fully sovereign over all land between the river and the sea. Many of these so-called Christian Zionists harbor millennial theologies, found laughable by most responsible Christian theologians. Apparently, they believe that ultimate Christian redemption will not come until all Jews are living in Israel. From what I understand, Jews don’t ultimately fare too well in that particular apocalyptic vision. Many of these “Christian Zionists” speak of Palestinians, and of Muslims generally, as though they were sub-human. Sermons have been given from at least one major supposedly pro-Israel pulpit in our city, demeaning the very names of Allah and Mohammed. While I am no Christian, I am mystified by how such preaching can exemplify Christian love.
Unfortunately, the alternative in Christian America seems to be very bleak. Perhaps because they receive biased and incomplete information from their missions among Christians in Palestinian territories, many American Christians are anti-Israel. They view Israel as an imperialist state, wantonly oppressing the supposedly innocent Palestinian people. They make excuses for terrorism, and allow no latitude to a government protecting its own people. They excoriate Israeli actions, without voicing support for Israel’s right to exist as an independent state. They demand American action against Israel, without recognizing that Israel is an open democracy, where criticism of Israeli government activities can be read every day in the newspaper.
The world needs more churches like Trinity Baptist Church. The world needs more pastors like Charlie Johnson. You know, and your pastor knows, that Christians support Israel, for you recognize and do penance for the crimes committed against Jews and Judaism in the name of Christianity throughout the centuries. You know, and your pastor knows, that Christians support Israel, for you celebrate the flowering of Jewish culture in Jewish soil. You know, and your pastor knows, that Christians support Israel, for you share David Ben-Gurion’s vision of equality and a more perfect future. You know, and your pastor knows, that Christians support Israel, because like Ha-Rav Kook, you understand that we human being must work toward our own redemption, must be God’s partner in redeeming the world, with the faith that God will ultimately bring salvation to us all. And you know, and your pastor knows, that Christians support Israel out of love, the love of God, the love you know in your faith in Jesus, and the love within humanity, not just for the Jewish people, but for all people. You know, and your pastor knows, that supporting Israel does not require hating another people or maligning their religion. You know, and your pastor knows, that peace comes through righteousness and righteousness comes through love. You know, and your pastor knows, that God’s love is great enough to encompass us all, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, people of every faith and of no faith, Israelis and Palestinians and Americans, and people of every race and nation on this Earth.
You know, the members of Temple Beth-El know, your pastors and our Rabbis know that our love for one another can be a model for Christians and Jews throughout America. Let real Christian love and support for Israel start right here, at Trinity Baptist Church. Let our love, and our mutual support, change the world. Let our love be pleasing in the sight of God.