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Theological absolutes do not negate rejection of anti-Semitism, Sibley says

DALLAS (BP)–Jewish people are right to object to charges that they are responsible for the death of Jesus 2,000 years ago, according to Southern Baptists’ coordinator of Jewish ministries. Jim Sibley of Dallas stands strongly against all forms of anti-Semitism as contrary to the teachings of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, and an assault on the revelation of Holy Scripture.

He has observed a rising tide of anti-Semitism around the world and praises efforts of Southern Baptists in calling on governmental and religious leaders to oppose all forms of bigotry, hatred or persecution. Sibley joined with Southern Baptist messengers last June in Phoenix in denouncing “despicable acts of violence and harassment against the Jewish people” through a resolution that received unanimous support.

Now that several high-profile Jewish organizations are accusing movie producer Mel Gibson of encouraging anti-Semitic activity through “The Passion,” Sibley believes terms are being misapplied. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and an ad hoc committee formed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) claim the movie contains elements that would promote anti-Semitism, depicting Jews as the ones responsible for the suffering and crucifixion, or “deicide,” of Jesus.

“When you ask who is responsible for the death of Jesus, the question has several right answers,” Sibley explained. Among the possible answers he finds legitimate are:

— the Father — He sent the Son to die.

— the Son — He said, “No man takes my life from me. I lay it down.”

— the Holy Spirit who led Jesus to the cross.

— all of us because it was our sin that nailed Him to the cross.

To be true to the biblical narratives, Sibley believes it also could be said that the leadership of the Jewish nation in collusion with Roman leaders were responsible for his death.

All such answers are theologically and/or historically accurate, he said. “The New Testament is clear that the leadership of the Jewish people was complicit. However, at the same time, all of the early believers were Jewish,” he reminded. “So it’s hard to see how that’s anti-Semitic.”

Sibley also observed that liberal critics “feel no compunction at all about holding contemporary American Protestants responsible for Crusades and inquisitions that happened centuries ago in Europe.”

On the one hand, Sibley thinks it is wrong to rewrite history by changing Scripture to lessen the offense that modern-day readers might infer. “On the other hand, it’s wrong to hold people hundreds of years later guilty for things that happened long before.”

As for critics finding fault with Gibson’s script, Sibley accepts the conclusion of Southern Baptists who viewed a rough cut of the movie during a screening in Dallas, that the events portrayed accurately reflect the emphasis of Holy Scripture as found in John 3:16: “God so love the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him will not die.”

To those at the screening, it would be a severe misrepresentation to emphasize the historically accurate depiction of first-century Jewish leaders calling for the death of Christ over what one pastor described as “the most moving theme of the entire presentation.” The pastor added, “Gibson portrayed Jesus as crawling and laying himself down on the cross. It was an incredible demonstration of the love of God and heart of Jesus to give Himself for a sacrifice.”

Sibley said he understands why modern Jews might be suspicious of a film dealing with the sufferings of Jesus. “Often anti-Semites have used some of that history in a twisted way to make their own applications and justify their own actions. However wrongly they might have used it doesn’t change the Scripture. It’s still there.”

A key point from Sibley’s perspective is whether the critics believe it is acceptable to share one’s faith in Christ. Referring to the Anti-Defamation League and the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — two groups with leaders objecting to Gibson’s film — Sibley said, “They do not want Christians to evangelize Jewish people.”

Sibley speaks from experience as a missionary serving under the auspices of the SBC’s North American Mission Board. The same USCCB committee issued a pronouncement a year ago that “campaigns that target Jews for conversion to Christianity are no longer theologically acceptable in the Catholic Church.”

And when the ADF and American Jewish Committee were invited to a dialogue with Southern Baptists several years ago, Sibley received a strong retort. “The two groups demanded that Southern Baptists must deny Jews need Jesus to be saved,” he recalled. “They also asked us to declare that any Jew who believes in Jesus is no longer Jewish.”

To Sibley, it’s the difference in holding to the absolutes of Scripture and viewing dialogue as a process of theological negotiation. “They would tell you that Judaism is more about actions and not beliefs,” Sibley said, “and that we should be willing to alter our doctrines. But for Southern Baptists, theology is not negotiable. We believe in absolutes.”

Not all Jewish people find the ADF to be an accurate spokesman for their perspective, Sibley added.

“If Southern Baptists somewhat naively believe ADF represents the Jewish community and we are getting Jewish people all upset” when Scripture is accurately portrayed in a movie or when Christians share their faith with Jews, Sibley wants them to know not all Jewish people around the world embrace the objections of such groups. “These people are condemning us because they are approaching the subject from either a thoroughly secular mindset or from a theologically liberal perspective,” he said.

Sibley said he believes the accusations of anti-Semitism are designed to thwart the film’s success and provide a cause to generate donations to ADL.

“Anything they can say about this movie that will keep people from viewing it, especially Jewish people, so much the better. They are looking for things that they can use for fundraising. If they can be the white knights to rescue the Jewish people from this latest threat of ‘anti-Semitism’ it helps their fundraising.”

If anti-Semitism is the real target of organized campaigns prompting wide media coverage, Sibley wonders why the same organizations withheld their praise for Southern Baptists when they addressed the issue in June.

“The ADL was all over us when we passed a resolution affirming the need of Jewish people for the Gospel,” Sibley said, “but when we passed a resolution opposing anti-Semitism they did not mention it.

“When we disagreed with the Catholic bishops’ statement that Jews should not be evangelized they were all over us,” Sibley added. “That pattern suggests to me that they are much more concerned with fighting conservative evangelicals than they are in fighting anti-Semitism.”

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter