31: Yechiel Eckstein

31: Yechiel Eckstein

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 31 •

Rabbi, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews

Thirty-five years ago, as a young Orthodox rabbi, I started the first Evangelical Christian-Jewish dialogues. Together with the Bible Chair at Wheaton College, which was Dr. Graham’s alma mater, and the Dean from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, we put together the first Evangelical-Jewish conference. More conferences followed, and before I knew it, it had become my career, my ministry, and my mission. Today we have 1.1 million Christian donors to our ministry. We raised $120 million from Christians, and we have offices of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews around the world. We work with all segments of the evangelical community, including Pentecostals, Charismatics, Fundamentalists, and Southern Baptists.

I see Dr. Graham’s greatness in terms of the Jewish community in two ways. First, he came to represent the face of a more open, moderate Evangelicalism not just to the Jewish community but to America and the world. As Dr. Graham receded from the public scene, his role as the face of Evangelicalism was taken over by other increasingly popular television evangelists who did not always share this message of inclusiveness. As a result, whatever positive impression of Evangelicalism that Jews and others had received from the image of Billy Graham was put into question by the some of the more strident fundamentalists and politically conservative Evangelicals. Billy Graham was overtaken by that change, and the image of Evangelicals in the public sphere and among the Jewish community became different.

Second, Dr. Graham was one of the first people, at least in America, to start to turn Evangelicals toward a favorable view of Israel. Billy Graham, who was Mr. Evangelical for the world and the Jewish community, was very friendly toward the nation of Israel. Later, as Evangelicalism embraced a more political role, championed by such figures as the Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell, the Christian Coalition’s Ralph Reed, and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Paige Patterson, it gave rise to the Christian Zionism of Pastor John Hagee. But I attribute the American evangelical movement’s turn toward support of Israel to the favorable place that Billy Graham gave the Jewish people. This was very similar to what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. achieved in terms of the stance of the African-American community toward Israel, noting that there’s an inherent closeness theologically and spiritually with Israel.

I’m not sure whether the Christian Zionism of the late nineteenth century would have emerged if Billy Graham had been anti-Israel, or anti-Jewish. He was pro-Israel in a deeply spiritual way, choosing not to get involved in the strong political activism that characterized Christian Zionism. But he opened the door for that next generation of Evangelicals to adopt a passionate embrace of the Jewish nation.

A few years ago, I brought a group of leaders to the White House just to talk about Israel. That would not have happened during Billy Graham’s time. But on the other hand, it might not have happened at all had he not in those earlier years pointed toward reconciliation with the Jewish people and Israel. It’s not that he gave pro-Israel sermons or anything like that. He would not have gone to the White House to plead, say, against F-16 fighter planes being sold to Israel’s adversary, Saudi Arabia, but on the other hand it was no secret that he was friendly to Israel.

Dr. Graham established a dialogue with the Jewish community, even though his commitment to evangelism was absolute. That was a unique quality that led to the dialogues that I was able to start. It is interesting that I started these dialogues at Wheaton College, where Dr. Graham went to school. Initially, the college was very circumspect about hosting interfaith Christian-Jewish dialogues. At the time, Wheaton officials did not even want the press to know about it. But they were open to it because Billy Graham was seen as a friend of the Jews and a friend of Israel.

Dr. Graham’s mission was not to develop a theology to deal with the conflict between the commitment to evangelize the world and the Jewish absolute commitment to remain as Jews. He just naturally knew this was possible, often insisting that you can’t be anti-Semitic and claim that you are a good Christian. Over the years, I have worked to develop my own theology that reconciles the Christian’s commitment to the Christian message with a respect that supports the decision of those who wish to embrace their own path. But I couldn’t have done this without the ground that Dr. Graham had already covered. He never compromised on his absolute commitment to Evangelical Christianity but somehow he was able to handle the delicate question that every reporter and news show asked him, about whether Jews are saved: If you believe that Christ died for our sins, what about the people in the Holocaust? Are they going to hell? He was the first who was able to be nonjudgmental but at the same time to be committed absolutely to his evangelical mission. This enabled him to be friends with the Jewish community.

Seen in this light, it was Dr. Graham who established a beachhead that led to further dialogue between Jews and Evangelicals over the past thirty years. There are others who have assumed much of that role, urging all believers to respect one another. But today there is no one who fills Billy Graham’s former role as the worldwide face of Evangelicalism.

As a leader in the Evangelical-Jewish movement for reconciliation, and Goodwill Ambassador for the State of Israel, I have spent thirty-five years trying to achieve many of the same goals that Dr. Graham has worked to accomplish. He was the father of that whole movement in America that has been able to bring faith into the public square uncompromisingly but in a sensitive, tolerant and modern way. I would have liked to work with him personally, but nevertheless, through his work I see the heart of this great man.

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