Our last dinner together in Jerusalem was jubilant, like the close of summer camp. New friends vowed to keep in touch. We embraced as cameras captured the fleeting moment. Our tour group eagerly anticipated the return home to friends and family even as we mourned the end of a highly informative, deeply transformative visit to the Holy Land.
This final meal was like so many others on our nine-day odyssey. The excellent company and food was surpassed only by stimulating content as we listened to expert analysis from Moshe Halbertal, professor of Jewish thought and philosophy at Hebrew University. While listening I struggled to synthesize everything I’d learned about Jewish history, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Jewish-Christian dialogue. We’d been well taught by a diverse spectrum of speakers invited by our sponsors, Christianity Today and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
And then, in a simple sentence from Halbertal, the synthesis happened.
“As Jews in Israel we don’t know how to be a majority,” he said.
He spoke in the context of thousands of years of Jewish history as a minority among often-hostile neighbors. Since the destruction of the temple in AD 70, Jews learned how to live by the laws of the land, keep their heads down, and wait for the Messiah after so many of them rejected Jesus. But now as Israel nears 70 years as a sovereign nation, Jews continue to debate how to operate a democracy. They occupy West Bank territory where Palestinian demographics ensure the Jews will once again be minorities in their own land. No one who addressed us in Israel could offer a solution to this existential dilemma, compounded by the growing influence of Islamic extremists and instability among Israel’s neighbors.
I heard Halbertal’s statement as a novice with Israeli affairs. But I understood it as a deeply interested participant in the current crisis of American evangelicalism. Because if Israeli Jews don’t know how to be a majority, then American evangelicals don’t know how to be a minority.
If Israeli Jews don’t know how to be a majority, then American evangelicals don’t know how to be a minority.
How to Survive in Exile
Israeli Jews may struggle to live as a majority, but the Hebrew Bible guides them in how to do so. And they have experience. In between slavery in Egypt and exile in Babylon, God led them into the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Maintaining their distinct identity was paramount. They were expressly forbidden in books such as Deuteronomy from intermarrying with these nations or adopting any of their religious practices (Deut. 7:1–5). The Hebrews were told that in order to obey God, they must not imitate their neighbors. Consequently, their life in the Promised Land would testify to all the world that Yahweh is Lord (Josh. 4:24).
They behaved like the nations, though, and ultimately this disobedience led to their exile. By the time Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon, God issued strikingly different counsel for the Jewish minority:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jer. 29:5–7)
Babylon would once again loom large in Jewish life and thought after the disaster of AD 70. The Babylonian Talmud guided Rabbinic Judaism for centuries in how Jews should live as minorities. The prophet Jeremiah’s words continued to resonate with such leaders as Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. Sacks says:
What Jeremiah was saying was that it is possible to survive in exile with your identity intact, your appetite for life undiminished, while contributing to the wider society and praying to God on its behalf. Jeremiah was introducing into history a highly consequential idea: the idea of a creative minority.
Not all Jews have embraced this identity as a “creative minority.” Some have simply adopted the culture’s values and lost their identity by assimilating. Others have employed violent means to resist their enemies and potential oppressors. Still more have removed themselves from the broader culture and retreated to private enclaves, as we see in some forms of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. You can see, then, why Halbertal says Israeli Jews must learn to be a majority. Minority status has fragmented Jews so they are alternately in danger of losing their distinctive identity, losing their peaceful soul, or losing their cultural influence.
American evangelicals have already lost all three.
Difference and Depth
We will not be distinctive, peaceful, and influential until we give up the pretension of ruling this country as a coercive majority. Just look at the cost of this delusion. Many of our spiritual leaders, political heroes, and entertainment sources embody the worst aspects of our crass, consumerist, sexualized, violent culture. Thus evangelicals have forsaken both our distinctive identity as disciples of Jesus and our love for neighbors in obedience to his commands (Matt. 5:44; 22:39).
We will not be distinctive, peaceful, and influential until we give up the pretension of ruling this country as a coercive majority.
In contrast to his commands for the Hebrews upon entering Canaan, God does not condition Christians to expect majority rule. We are “elect exiles” (1 Pet. 1:1) who rejoice amid trials because our faith is tested and found to be genuine (1 Pet. 1:6–7). Since we obey God, we do not conform to our previous lifestyle of sin (1 Pet. 1:14). We are a “holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9) while still “sojourners and exiles” (1 Pet 2:11). Confident in the Lord’s promise and following Jesus’s example we obey human rulers (1 Pet. 2:13). And because Jesus “bore our sins in his body on the tree,” we have died to sin, and we live to righteousness. “By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24).
As a holy people in exile, we see much in the majority that grieves us. We long for our neighbors to forsake their sin and turn to Christ for their temporal and eternal good. We pray for wise government leaders and the blessing of common grace. We even vote and lobby for just laws. We do not expect, however, that coercion is the primary way to accomplish good. In fact, history tells us the political process often distracts us from the work of the church to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and teach his disciples in every nation to observe everything he commanded (Matt. 28:19–20). Minorities like the early church did not win their neighbors through domination or duplication but through difference and depth.
Minorities like the early church did not win their neighbors through domination or duplication but through difference and depth.
What can we offer the world if in order to gain the world we’ve lost our souls? (Matt. 16:26).
“The response to a culture built on superficiality, which reduces the world to a shallow secularity, is depth,” Australian pastor Mark Sayers writes in his new book, Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience. “We need sources of life and sustenance not found in the adulation or respect of the public.”
There’s just one big problem with being a minority. If you don’t have friends in the majority, you might get wiped out.
Israel became less of a dream and more of a necessity after the Holocaust. Just 20 years later, many expected a second Holocaust if Israel had succumbed to its enemies in the Six-Day War. As I stood last month on the Golan Heights, separated by 40 miles of hell on earth from Damascus, I felt—even if I did not see—the comforting presence of Israel’s world-class military.
My Christian brothers and sisters to the northeast in Syria and Iraq do not enjoy that protection or the privilege of a U.S. passport. My enthusiasm for minority influence was tempered when reading the forthcoming book They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East by Mindy Belz, senior editor of World magazine. For centuries these beleaguered Christians endured just about every hardship. But then the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq and the civil war in Syria decimated their communities. At one point only 3 percent of Iraqis were Christians, but these Christians composed 30 percent of Iraq’s refugees. They were caught as a minority with no help from the U.S. military and no protection from the marauding Islamic State. Belz writes:
Mosul’s Christians had survived Persian conquest and Mongol invaders. They had endured the coming of the Arab armies, the early 20th-century massacres by the Ottoman Turks, and the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. But overnight they succumbed to the breakdown following an American-led war—a war launched to battle the kind of extremism that was now their undoing.
Like anyone else Iraq’s Christian minority had suffered under Hussein’s cruel rule. And they hoped for a better future following the U.S.-led invasion. Gradually their hopes, and ultimately their civilization and even their children’s lives, were dashed. Only one thing, for the time being, saved them from complete annihilation: American airstrikes aimed primarily to protect the vulnerable Yezidi minority, besieged by Islamic State without food or water.
This story has become far too common in the land of the Bible. How do Christians testify to Jesus as a minority when the majority has the will and means to kill them or at least chase them away? Israel learned its lesson in the Second World War and built themselves a nation and a strong military. They will not relinquish territory if they believe it will compromise their security. Belz reports that Christians in Iraq have reluctantly taken up arms next to their Muslim neighbors against Islamic State militants. What would you do if the alternative were the brutal death of everyone you loved?
How do Christians testify to Jesus as a minority when the majority has the will and means to kill them or at least chase them away?
“Religiously I am gone,” one of the most optimistic Iraqi Christians told Belz. “Ethnically I am cleansed. Culturally I am wiped out.”
This is the risk for any minority. That’s why church history after Acts mostly tells the tale of Christian majorities.
In Jerusalem today the tiny Armenian minority claims one quarter of the Old City. Armenia was the first nation to embrace Christianity under the influence of its king. For centuries Christianity continued to spread this way. Missionaries targeted rulers with the expectation that they would compel their subjects to follow suit in baptism. Given that Christianity is the world’s largest religion, you could say this strategy worked. At least until now.
Today, areas like Western Europe where this Christendom model sustained more than a millennium of Christian thought, practice, and exploration, the faith has been substantially weakened. Majorities no longer support Christian beliefs and values. Cathedrals and castles no longer stand as witnesses to the unbreakable bond between God and country.
Yet even with the unexpected return of minority vulnerability, elsewhere we see evidence of unprecedented vitality. In places such as China where Christianity remains a minority religion, the faith thrives as it never did in the paradigm of the established or colonial church. Even accounting for the Middle Eastern hardships, the future of the church looks bright. And it appears to be an international, multilingual minority.
Even accounting for the Middle Eastern hardships, the future of the church looks bright. And it appears to be an international, multilingual minority.
“Today Christianity is still the largest religion in the world, but its places of greatest growth, practice, and overall health are more from the fringes of global political and economic health,” writes Scott W. Sunquist, dean of the School of Intercultural Studies and professor of world Christianity at Fuller Theological Seminary, in his new book, The Unexpected Christian Century: The Reversal and Transformation of Global Christianity, 1900–2000.
“So it was from the beginning of Christian existence with the earliest followers of the homeless prophet, Jesus the Christ. As always, Christianity is centered on the person of Jesus, not in a culture, nation, city, or ethnic group.”
The choice before us now as Christians is stark. We are a minority. We must not pretend to be a majority. On the one hand, accepting this fact will enable to church to protect our distinctive testimony to the gospel. Never before has it been so clear to American evangelicals that to think and act like a majority corrodes our faith. For the assurance of military protection and political preference we must not forsake our witness to a Savior who died for his enemies.
On the other hand, accepting this minority status entails risks to our safety and security. It means we will work to the good of our neighbors even though we cannot expect them to respect or reinforce our values. We cannot merely dictate the common good but must seek allies where they can be found as we model a better way to human flourishing and proclaim the only path to eternal peace.
If we are distinctive, we will be peaceful, as Jesus is. And if the Lord wills, we will influence a world that idolizes power and popularity, as he does. Best of all, we will join in the spiritual vitality enjoyed by our marginalized brothers and sisters around the world.