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Brothers or others?
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Brothers or others?

In classical rhetoric, it’s known as procatalepsis — that is, answering your audience’s objections before they can raise them (as in, “Right now you’re thinking I found this definition on Wikipedia. And what if I did?”).

If you stayed home during the Rev. Robert Stearns’ address at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston on Monday, you missed a bravura display of the technique. As a leading Christian Zionist, whose Eagles’ Wings ministry trains followers to become impassioned advocates for Israel, Stearns knows his Jewish audiences — and their suspicion about evangelical support for Israel.

“I know what you’re thinking: What’s it really all about?” said Stearns, whose shaven head and neat goatee make him look like a scale model of the once-famous wrestler Bill Goldberg. “You think the goal is ‘getting us all back to Israel…and then Jesus will return.’

“But if anyone knows how the End of Days will play out — then they’re probably selling you a book on a late-night infomercial,” he continued. In two decades of pro-Israel activism, he said, “I never heard any discussion [among movement leaders] of how we have to hurry up and get Jews to Israel because this is the formula to bring Jesus back.”

So it must be something else, he procatalepsized: He’s after converts, right?

Stearns acknowledged that as a Christian he believes that accepting Jesus is a “wonderful way to be and live.” But he delivered this pledge: “Evangelical Christian support for the Jewish people and Israel is unconditional.”

Those objections out of the way (I can think of a few more, but Stearns joked that he promised organizers he’d keep his speech under three hours) he pivoted to talk about the positive motivations for his Zionism. Part of that motivation is the “depth of gratitude” owed Jews by Christians, for demonstrating through our very perseverance that God keeps his promises. He’s also motivated by a sense of guilt over the atrocities carried out on Jews “in the name of Jesus, under the banner of Christianity.”

“We must bear the burden of teshuva, of repentance,” said Stearns, whose facility in Hebrew extended to the killer rendition of “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” he sang later on.

Finally, his work on behalf of Israel is based — “sadly,” he said — on a “common enemy”: presumably, radical Islam.

“The core foundations of Western civilization are under attack for Jews, for Christians, for moderate Muslims,” he said. “Israel is the front line in the battle for Western civilization.” Stearns pledged support of the movement for a nuclear-free Iran, and ended with this: “We are with you, unconditionally, wholeheartedly, unreservedly.”

That brought warm applause, and more than a few in the crowd of 200 rose to their feet. That must have been good news to the organizers, including the temple and the Community Relations Committee of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ in partnership with the Jewish Community Relations Councils of Central New Jersey and Northern NJ. The combined councils have been talking with Stearns about various joint activities. (Stearns is also northeast regional director for Christians United for Israel, a national coalition of pro-Israel evangelical churches.)

Stearns’ talk was arranged in large part to set the groundwork for more cooperation; earlier this year, the CRCs hosted a talk by Zev Chafetz, the Israeli-American journalist who wrote an approving book about Christian Zionism.

It’s a touchy embrace, they know: Many Jewish liberals see Evangelicals as the enemy when it comes to abortion, gay rights, and a host of other social issues. And there’s the theological gap. Never mind Stearns’ assurances; an influential blogger like the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg is typical of those who aren’t buying it: “I don’t want to be friends with someone who hopes that I will convert to Christianity and then die,” Goldberg (the blogger, not the wrestler) wrote just this week. “These hopes don’t conform to my understanding of what makes a reasonable and healthy friendship.”

(After Stearns’ talk, a woman buttonholed me by the coffee. “I don’t trust them,” she said. “I think they just need us to look after the Christian holy places in Israel.”)

But the hosts of Stearns’ talk seemed largely convinced of the Evangelicals’ sincerity, and insist there is no quid pro quo. And at a time when Israel seems under siege in the press, when radical Islam is on the ascent, and when the West seems indifferent when not actually hostile, they think it is crazy to reject the overtures of a global movement that is perhaps 600 million strong and growing.

“I know that most of the Jewish community is toward the left, whether it is on issues of marriage or pro-life, and evangelical Christians are more toward the right,” said Stearns. “But I don’t see what one has to do with the other…. Let’s keep the main thing the main thing, and focus on the things that unite us.”

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