Passing a billboard saying, “Return of Christ May 21st, 2011” in Los Angeles is very different than passing a billboard for the Red Bull Soapbox Race, also this past May 21st. The motto “Red Bull gives you wings” adds a practical dimension to the rapture. Alas, since the 21st was the Sabbath, and as an observant Jew, I did not attend either event. As a rabbi, the billboards sponsored by Harold Camping, owner the Christian Family Radio Network were troubling. While I honestly celebrated their strong connection to God, I lament the distancing between those Christians who believe that that particular day was the rapture and the other 92% of Americans, including myself, who believe in God. I have Christian friends, and even Christian family. I am glad to have been invited to Christmas dinners, though I am told that they are even better if you eat the ham. The pork hurdle may soon be remedied as scientists at Holland’s Eindhoven University are growing pig organs from cells cultured in a Petri dish – I keep meaning to contact them with an eye toward winning the contract for Kashrut certification. Christmas ham aside, the basic ethos of Judaism and Christianity are so similar that we in America are comfortable with the term “Judeo-Christian values”. We get along wonderfully, lately anyhow, and especially in this country, it feels odd to be suddenly left out.
To be blunt, Jews and Christians differ on the matter of Jesus, and among some Christians, the issue of the rapture. To be sure, these are not small things, but as long as the rapture was some far off idea it was easy to ignore, but all of a sudden it’s upon us. When my Christian friends remind me that Jesus was Jewish, I swell with pride. Spielberg, Madoff, Bernanke, part of the trinity; we’re everywhere! Even though in my circles Mel Gibson is dismissed as an anti-Semite, I found The Passion of the Christ compelling, though I was conscious of being the only one in the theater wearing a yalmaka and likely the only one at my particular screening who understood the entirely Aramaic script (it’s true, Mel did make some words up!). In fact, I appreciate trying to be saved. As we say in this town, it’s an honor just to be considered. My attitude resembles a story I was once told about the German sociologist-theologian Martain Buber. He was speaking to a group of Jewish and Christian scholars. He said to one group, “You think the Messiah has come before and will return.” And to the other group he said, “And you believe that the Messiah has not yet come, but will arrive soon.” Addressing the whole crowd he said, “Let’s not argue. When the Messiah arrives, we’ll simply ask him if anything looks familiar.” Whether he really said that or if it’s an apocryphal story I cannot say, but Buber’s wait and see attitude works for me. Maybe that is the issue with the billboards: Some of us don’t like to be rushed. Could I have a couple of thousand more years, please?
To be fair, the billboards did not just alienate rabbis, or even just Jews. The FamilyRadio.com and the WeCanKnow.com folks represent only a small fraction of Evangelicals. So it is likely that all the Atheists, Muslims, Buddhist, Catholics, Mormons, other Non-Evangelical Christians, and even the majority of Evangelicals who themselves distrusted the May 21st prediction of the rapture likewise have trouble with the billboards. Even Tim LaHaye, co-author of the Left Behind series, which depicts the rapture and subsequent period of judgment over twelve volumes, calls Camping’s prediction “ bizarre,” “dangerous,” and “100% wrong.”
To be fair, I felt exactly the same way when a fringe group of Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem took to the streets in yellow stars reminiscent of the Holocaust, protest against the secular government: “An organizer of Saturday’s protest in the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood told Israeli television that the actions of the authorities were like a “spiritual holocaust” (New York Times: 1/1/12). The volume of the fringes of religion still sound the loudest, but they don’t speak for the rest of us. They just make it embarrassing to be religious at all.
According to the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College, Evangelicals represent between 30-35% of Americans (perhaps as many as 100 million worldwide). What percent give credence to the May 21st prediction?
I am not sure, but selfishly I am excited by the seismic shift represented by another Evangelical, Pastor Rob Bell, the author of the new book “Love Wins”. One might say that Pastor Bell’s view is more Jewish than Camping’s. If Bell is right, God’s compassion is so great that He will not punish me for my particular way of believing in God. From this perspective, my being Jewish could be seen as a forgivable and honest mistake. Between these two Evangelical positions I selfishly much prefer Bell’s “love conquers all ” to Camping’s “hell on earth.” Faith that divides and chooses among us instead of uniting us has the potential to upset the pluralistic religious support we share, and in my view and in Bell’s, it is at odds with the ultimate teaching of God’s grace and love. Not to tell Evangelicals how to go about their business, but Pastor Bell’s approach. Why? Compared to hell, love is cooler.
The Judgment Day billboards had little impact on me, nor, my guess is, on the majority of those who drove by them. More people were excited about the soapbox race than concerned about about Judgment Day. I actually had to explain to people that the billboards are religious in nature and not promotional material for a remake of an awful Mario Van Peebles movie. Such is life in Hollywood. We are living in an age and place in which religions are so weak that they resemble entertainment.
The singer-songwriter Michael Franti says that, “God is too big for just one religion.” There is a Hassidic Tale that teaches that the Shechinah, God’s presence on Earth, needs to be rescued from the hands of those who claim to honor her. I think the moderate religious people of the diverse faiths of America need each other more than some can accept. It may take a collective approach to save God from those who lay claim to God the loudest.