Friday, November 15, 2013

Messianic Conversion Battles

by Gary Berg-Cross

The Messianic community is in a bit of an uproar.  The spark was George W Bush’s talk at a fundraiser today for Messianic Jews sponsored by Messianic Jewish Bible Institute (MJBI) – headquarters of the apocalyptic cult Jews for Jesus”. The MJBI faith-driven, evangelical goal is “to bring Jewish people into a personal relationship of faith” with Jesus.  There’s the rub. The Jewish community does not believe that Jesus represents the true word of God. They have received that word and Yahweh’s speeches were done a while ago.  To the born-again Christian community this is an error correctable by simply getting Jews to recognize that Jesus really is the promised Messiah. Now of course Muslims believe that even Jesus was not the last word on this subject and well Mormons have introduced yet a more recent rendezvous with God and an updated Book.

Disparaging, assimilating and replacing other & older religions is often a core principle of religious faith. It is implied in commandments to put down other gods and shun practices.  It seems reasonable to believe that UR-born Abraham lived in an environment filled with
remnants of Sumerian mythology and religious practices.
The moon God Sin and his daughter Inanna were the patron deities of Ur and the names given to Abram’s family members seem to reflect homage to this Akkadian/Sumerian pantheon.  Some speculate that this is the reason God changes the names of Abram and Sarai after they enter into covenant with Him (YHWH). Sumerian myths had been integrated & blended into nearby Akkadian culture& the original Akkadian belief systems (which have been unfortunately mostly been lost to history).  It’s an understandable story of older (Sumerian) deities developing Akkadian counterparts.  Abraham claimed new contact with HIM/God and began a prophet’s job of converting people to his belief.  The ancient Hebrews continued in this line of faith selling and converting into modern times if you believe the argument made by Shlomo Sand in THE INVENTION OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE :

As summarized in Wikipedia, Professor Sand:

“began his work by looking for research studies about forcible exile of Jews from the area now bordered by modern Israel, and its surrounding regions. He was astonished that he could find no such literature, he says, given that the expulsion of Jews from the region is viewed as a constitutive event in Jewish history. The conclusion he came to from his subsequent investigation is that the expulsion simply didn't happen, that no one exiled the Jewish people from the region, and that the Diaspora is essentially a modern invention. He accounts for the appearance of millions of Jews around the Mediterranean and elsewhere as something that came about primarily through the religious conversion of local people, saying that Judaism, contrary to popular opinion, was very much a "converting religion" in former times. He holds that mass conversions were first brought about by the Hasmoneans under the influence of Hellenism, and continued until Christianity rose to dominance in the fourth century CE” 

...Judaism used to be a proselytizing religion like Christianity or Islam, and that
consequently many of today’s Jewish Israelis are descendants of converts, without an ancestral link to Eretz-Israel. Inversely, many of the Palestinians may just be the descendants of the large Jewish community who remained to toil the land, even after the destruction of the Temple and the suppression of the Bar Kochba revolt in the first and second centuries, respectively — and who gradually converted to Islam in the centuries after the Arab conquest.
(NYT Interview with Sand)

In more recent times there has been somewhat of a gentleman’s agreement, a respect of both views (but not others) between Jews and Christians not to poach too hard on tempting  conversion territory.  Well converting other religions is OK and well Mormons may not abide by this silent truce since they have gotten the true word more recently.  Who to poach on can make for some awkward confrontations. Indeed Humanists and Secularists are perhaps the enemy since they can see all religious groups as fair game for poaching.  Of course tactics for free thinkers may be as simple as starting a rational conversation and not beating the evangelical drum.

But for Born Againers it isn’t so simple.  Religious beliefs have consequences. Those who do not accept Jesus as Savior are going to lose their soul and wind up in hell! (yes the Sumerians had a place like that as well as an Eden). We have to save them like we saved the Native Americans. These unfortunate souls include a long list - non-Messianic Jews (which is the vast majority of Jews), Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, deists, atheists,
Nones, Secular Humanists etc.  It’s fair game to go after all who reject the idea that Jesus was the son of god and died to save humans from sin. Jews seem an easy target to some since they are only 1 prophet removed from the Truth to the groups like MJBI and to G. W. Bush.  Converting Jews is completely in line with his end of days religious beliefs - think about the Rapture and the apocalypse in order to hasten the second coming of Jesus Christ. It’s a matter of faith among the born-again Christian community. 

However with the truce broken more than isolated religion seems at stake here to non-Messianic Jews.  Converting the people of a strong faith, well chosen is offensive disrespectful.  The conversion of the Jews, and their restoration to Jerusalem, was apparently vigorously pursued by English evangelicals in Victorian times to fulfill Biblical prophecies.  Unpleasant biblical eschatology is a driving force behind the rabidly pro-Israel stance of the American Christian Right. The irony for Jews is that they love Israel from a biblical perspective, but sees Jews as going to hell unless saved. For a scholar like Shlomo Sands there is a tricky conversion story already in the Jew-Israel topic. He sees the claim that the large majority of current Jews are the ethnic offspring of the biblical Jews as a convenient Zionist myth.  
Even without motivating prophecy stories and mythic basis for religion and ethnic identity it is perhaps true that all efforts at conversion are also about what we identify with and whether it evolves and survives.  Rob Eshman expressed the Jewish survival concern this way in the Jewish Journal:
 "Bush … is helping to raise money for a group whose reason for being is to stop there being Jews. It sounds alarmist, but there it is. Success for the group Bush supports would mean no more Jews."

Yes, no more Sumerian religion or identity.  It's the same imperial mentality that's ravaged the holy land for ages driven by faith rather than an evolution of provable ideas or the tolerant but relativistic idea that everybody’s philosophical religious beliefs are their own, and by definition in modern times nobody’s philosophical religious beliefs are better than anyone else’s. Sure, we may be able to improve on naive relativism and imperial absolutism. That a longer conversation, but tolerance is good for everything but intolerance. Unfortunately we have lots on intolerance in these messianic battles.

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