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Jewish World Review Nov. 1, 1999/ 21 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Suzanne Fields

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Gay love -- MAYBE THERE'S SOMETHING in the (holy or not) water, or in the autumn air. Maybe the ghosts and goblins of Halloween are in full flight.

But strange things are happening among people with irreconcilable differences. They're meeting in conversation with open minds and a thoughtful reach for tolerant understanding.

In Lynchburg, Va., the Rev. Jerry Falwell and members of his congregation met with 200 visiting homosexual Christians from 30 states at Thomas Road Baptist Church in a reconciliatory mood to give a human face to their differences.

In Washington, D.C., in a rarefied intellectual atmosphere no less remarkable for its conflicting beliefs, a group of religious Christians and Jews sat down together at the Ethics and Public Policy Center to talk about the evangelical Christian commitment to convert the Jews to faith in the Christian messiah. The Ethics and Public Policy Center is a think-tank that examines religious issues in a political context.

Mr. Falwell preaches that Christians should "love the sinner but hate the sin'' and he chided his followers that many of them ignore the first half of that admonition. His outreach was a response to a request made by a former friend and colleague, the Rev. Mel White, a homosexual who runs Soulfest, an ecumenical homosexual group. Mr. White ghostwrote the Falwell autobiography in 1987. That was six years before he made his homosexuality public.

He persuaded the famous evangelist, pastor and Liberty University chancellor, that overwrought rhetoric against homosexuality may have contributed to the brutal murders of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming and Billy Jack Gaither in Alabama. Both were clubbed to death. Falwell noted that hatred of any kind can accelerate violence toward all, such as violence against children in school yards and evangelical Christians at prayer.

"If we are to have a real Christian witness to millions of gay and lesbian people,'' he said, "we have to use our language carefully.'' He apologized for his excessive rhetoric in the past and (shades of George W. Bush) stressed "compassionate conviction.'' For his part, Mel White promised to defend Jerry Falwell from homosexual attacks, recalling that someone put "a bag of urine with HIV'' in his Lynchburg mailbox.

It was a stunning acknowledgment laced with a certain bravery by both men, as well as by the men and women who gathered together to ask the L-rd's blessing
--- and the acceptance of each other.

The meeting of evangelical Christians and Jews in Washington was sparked by the publication of a small book by the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board called "Days of Awe: Prayer for the Jews.'' It offers Baptists helpful hints for converting Jews to the Christian faith with a little overwrought rhetoric of its own.

Christians are urged to befriend Jews and to assure them that their "Jewishness is valued,'' but to let them know as well that as Jewish people contemplating their own sinfulness, "there is nothing they can do to merit God's forgiveness.'' This reminds Jews of the Baptist leader who not so long ago said that "God didn't hear the prayers of the Jews.'' (He later apologized.)

Two Christian ministers, a Presbyterian and a Baptist, emphasized their belief in the "integral integrity'' of the book (with certain hyperbolic exceptions) and characterized it as gentle persuasion. They noted that the book warns Christians to avoid "any hint of superiority'' to Jews and to "repent of spiritual pride or arrogance with respect to the Jewish people.''

The two rabbis, one Orthodox and the other Conservative, explained how they were nevertheless theologically offended. For both Jews, who are not proselytizers, and evangelicals, who take seriously the Christian messiah's "great commission'' to go into the whole world and preach the Gospel, "first for the Jew, then for the Gentile,'' the issue is of profound and ultimately unresolvable significance.

Everyone was amiable, but the afternoon boiled down to the single insight that Jews and evangelical Christians are locked in a permanent paradigm that requires each to "offend'' the other. The best outcome is a "conscientious engagement'' with civility and good humor. It requires work, to be sure.

The Conservative rabbi remarked on progress in the modern world. We've come a long way from the time that rabbis would be murdered after meetings like this if they refused to convert. Jews walked away with a better understanding of the imperatives of the evangelical faith.

Elliott Abrams, a Jew who is president of the center, recited lines from Andrew Marvell's 17th century poem "To His Coy Mistress'' in which the poet, attempting to seduce his lady love, vows that if there were endless time he would endure her chaste refusal " 'til the conversion of the Jews.'' But alas: "I always hear time's winged chariot hurrying near.''

Some things can't wait.


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©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate