Sense and Nonsense: Religion in the News

Anyone can learn about religion by examining how the media report it. On August 17, 2004, for example, the Washington Post’s David Cho described a local convention of the 31-year-old San Francisco- based organization, Jews for Jesus.

Two photos and two headlines were included in the two-page article. The first headline read, “Conversion Outreach by Jews for Jesus Stirs Outrage.” The second read, “Jewish Leaders Rise Up against Evangelists.” High drama indeed! The larger photo showed a meeting at the Jewish Community Center in Northern Virginia. Scott Hillman distributes literature designed to “thwart” the Jews for Jesus campaign. Hillman’s organization is called Jews for Judaism. Whether Jews for Jesus have literature to thwart Jews for Judaism is not indicated.

The smaller photo reveals an affable Jews for Jesus spokesman, Ste-phen Katz, beside a Jews for Jesus sign. Thus, three out of four items prominently seen by the casual reader are against Jews for Jesus, and one is mildly for them.

The story in the headlines is not about what Jews for Jesus believe but about opposition to the organization itself.

High theological drama begins the article: “The ancient debate over Jesus’ claim to be the Jewish Messiah is being renewed in Washington this week.” Jews for Jesus planned to “blanket” the area’s places of public concourse to distribute literature to the Washington area’s estimated 220,000 Jewish citizens. Jews for Jesus think on a large scale: “Since 2001, Jews for Jesus has brought the Behold Your God campaign to 38 other metropolitan areas worldwide of 25,000 or more. So far, the effort has persuaded about 1,000 Jews and 2,900 non-Jews to put their faith in Jesus.” Plans are afoot for at least 28 more cities, including some in Israel.

The controversy owes something both to etiquette and to the amendments. Does and must freedom of speech and religion allow us to make an effort to convince someone of our position? This is not a new problem. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been involved in such activities with considerable court protection, so too the Mormons. Just why the Catholics or the Jews have not been more aggressive is rather a mystery.

Most people, of course, prefer to be left alone. Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington’s Ronald Halbert claimed that the Jews for Jesus endeavor is “offensive because Judaism is a long-established faith. Nobody wants to be annoyed by people challenging it.” Catholics in Latin America long took this same position against evangelicals converting Catholics. Islamic efforts to convert non-Muslims are aggressive. Muslims and Hindus disallow any advocacy of other faiths within their jurisdictions.

Halbert added, “The Jewish community is not opposed to Christians being able to spread their beliefs. But Jews cannot embrace Jesus and remain Jews. We settled that question 2,000 years ago.” This leaves unsaid whether Jews can seek converts among other faiths. Christians would hold theologically that a Jew who embraces Jesus becomes more a Jew. But the Jew who rejects Him certainly cannot be a Christian.

Whether the issue was completely “settled” 2,000 years ago may be queried. If Christ was the Messiah 2,000 years ago, He still is, whatever ancient decisions have been made. If He was not, He still is not. Each person, Jew or Christian, still must make a present-day decision.

Katz’s response is liberal: “Tolerance has become one of America’s top cultural values…. It’s a shame that there are people who seek to oppress views and oppose open discussion…. If something can stand up to an honest investigation, let it stand.”

“The ancient debate” is still news, calling for a decision in every soul, 2,000 years ago and now.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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