The Southern Baptists are coming to Chicago! "What for?", you may ask. The answer is simple, and at the same time complicated. They are coming to evangelize Chicago, concentrating especially on the Jews of the city and its suburbs. In effect, the Southern Baptist Convention is sending 100,000 volunteers to our area this summer in order to persuade us to convert to that denomination. For centuries, actually since its inception, Christianity has sought the conversion of all peoples to that religion. However, in particular after the Holocaust, the spirit of dialogue and mutual understanding has prevailed in most of the Christian denominations. The recent declarations of Pope John Paul II about Jews and Judaism, as well as his trip to Israel, are a salient example of the prevailing spirit of cooperation, tolerance, and understanding of others, among Catholics.
The roads to the One God are many and at times very different, one from the other, While some Christian denominations are very tolerant of other ways of understanding God, and of the rituals observed by those who differ in their beliefs, others retain their conversionary zeal. The Southern Baptist Convention leaders maintain that they want to share "the Good News" with those who up to now have been obstinate and rejected Christianity. The claim is that only through baptism can an individual attain salvation.
They will be arriving soon in Chicago, knocking at doors, visiting youth centers, and talking to people about their faith. No doubt, they will be very kind and helpful, hoping to establish a link of confidence. Then the true message will be developed.
"Who is to fear?", you may ask. We know not to engage them in dialogue; we also are strong enough in our faith to resist these advances. True, but there is also a question mark. Some may not be sufficiently strong, or sufficiently aware of the objectives of the missionaries.
Jews have had a long history of exposure to forced conversions, when we were given the option either of death or baptism, or of expulsion or baptism. Some chose martyrdom, others converted, and still others were uprooted and dislocated their lives. Today, the argument is different, but still subtle. The premise among those who follow an intolerant creed, such as those in the Southern Baptist Convention, is that everyone else is in error. There is no dialogue possible. Movement is only possible in one direction, towards accepting their faith. This sheer imbalance makes contact with them totally repugnant.
And we also worry about those in our camp, in our fold, who are the weakest. They may have had a deficient Jewish education, if any, or a poor sense of identity with Judaism and the Jewish people. They may be ignorant of our rituals, of our beliefs, of the beauty of Jewish life and values, and eventually may be persuaded to peruse other doctrines. The volunteers from the Southern Baptist Convention, highly trained and zealously pursuing their objectives, will prey on the weaknesses of the former.
Should we worry? Of course we will. But ultimately, we know that this is a free country. Everyone is entitled to speak, to influence, to discuss, It is a time to look inwardly and make sure to ourselves that we know who we are, that we are what we want, and that our dear ones know it as well.
Rabbi Victor A. Mirelman
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