Baptists and Jews face each other today in some ways as Esau and Jacob faced each other after their rupture 22 years earlier over the blessing of their father Isaac.
We are somewhat suspicious. We cannot ignore one another. We are not sure what to do next, about what steps to take. Like Esau and Jacob, we need to meet and bless one another.
Writing in the Tennessean in December 1999, I said: “The relationship between national Jewish and Southern Baptist Convention leaders has deteriorated to the worst level in the post-World War II era. This is no small feat, considering the low-water mark set in 1980 when an SBC president uttered the famous quote: ‘God Almighty does not hear the prayers of a Jew.’
“But targeting Jews for conversion during their high holy days and reaching a dialogical impasse has fractured relationships, leaving Southern Baptists with another black eye.”
Five years later, Southern Baptist fundamentalists remain aloof and disdainful, refusing to participate in interfaith worship services after 9/11 and refusing to engage in interfaith dialogue. One fundamentalist leader even compared the Jewish religion a year ago to a “deadly tumor.”
Moderate Baptists have no room for moral smugness. We have taken too few initiatives to leaven the ethos for the common good. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia did host a dialogue on Baptist-Jewish relations. Some moderate churches have engaged in joint projects with synagogues. Some moderate ministers did speak clearly about the dangers of anti-Semitism in “The Passion,” a movie widely promoted by churches. Aside from these and a few others, our efforts have been too passive.
When the entire Nashville-religious community came together in 2002 for many weeks to read and explore Constantine’s Sword, a hard look at the roots of anti-Semitism in the Christian church, not a single Baptist congregation officially participated. And a good number of these churches would claim they are moderate churches.
The absence of moderate Baptists from the public square is simply unacceptable in the era of rising religious conflict and incivility. Thoughtful Baptists need to witness to the best of our tradition. We need to work together with the Jewish community for the common good, not as a means toward conversion but because it is the right thing to do.
Desiring a more constructive future, the Baptist Center for Ethics is hosting a luncheon in Birmingham on June 25 that we hope will foster a new era of good will between moderate Baptists and the Jewish community.
Our program includes Arnold Belzer, rabbi at Congregation Mickve Israel, in Savannah, Ga. He will speak generally about the early American interfaith roots and specifically about the 150-year constructive relationship between Congregation Mickve and the First Baptist Church of Savannah. This is a remarkable story about Baptists and Jews working together, which will give participants an historical foundation for a more positive future.
Jonathan Levine, national director for community services for the American Jewish Committee, will identify both those things that are harmful to Baptist-Jewish relationships and those things that are helpful. He will challenge us with a way forward.
Steve Jones, pastor of Southside Baptist Church, and Scott Hausman-Weiss, rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, will tell the story about the relationship between their houses of faith in Birmingham. They have shared space, studied sacred texts and said prayers together. Their story will offer a positive and practical model for others.
Our program also has another wrinkle to it. We have invited churches, organizations and educational institutions to sponsor tables and to invite their Jewish neighbors to attend as their guests.
Our quiet enlistment effort has exceeded our expectations. To date, 23 churches in seven states are sponsoring tables.
Samford University, the Christian Women’s Leadership Center, and Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary and Center for American and Jewish Studies have signed on.
The Alabama Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Florida, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Missouri, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina, Kentucky Baptist Fellowship and the Ecumenical Task Force of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship are also sponsoring tables.
Church sponsors in Birmingham include Baptist Church of the Covenant, Brookwood Baptist Church, Mountain Brook Baptist Church, Riverchase Baptist Church, Shades Crest Baptist Church and Southside Baptist Church.
Other Alabama churches are First Baptist Church, Auburn and Huntsville; First Baptist Church of Williams; Pintlala Baptist Church, Hope Hull; and University Baptist Church, Montevallo.
Georgia churches include First Baptist Columbus, Rome and Savannah, as well as Druid Hills Baptist Church in Atlanta.
Tennessee churches are First Baptist Chattanooga and Murfreesboro; Second Baptist Church, Memphis; and Immanuel Baptist Church, Nashville.
Other churches include Second Baptist Church, Little Rock; Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City; First Baptist Church, Greenville, S.C.; Wilshire Baptist Church, Dallas; and Trinity Baptist Church, San Antonio.
This level of commitment speaks to the sense of moral responsibility among thoughtful Baptist leaders for a constructive future of respect and mutuality with the Jewish community.
For now, we invite Baptists of good will to attend our luncheon.
We also ask readers of EthicsDaily.com to think about some words from Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, “The story of Esau and Jacob begins in conflict and ends in peace. They start as rivals but end, simply, as brothers.”
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.