Two Faces of Evangelical Christianity
by Rabbi Joshua Stanton
An evangelical pastor saved my life. But not in the way you are probably thinking.
While a sophomore at Amherst College, I was trying to find my way. Without a clear path, I figured that philanthropy would be a nice occupation. But to be a philanthropist, I needed to make money and lots of it. So I set my sights on finance and began working towards a major in economics.
Even as I was pursuing a lucrative (and generous) future, I remained rooted in Judaism. I had been brought up in the Conservative movement and had long been active in my synagogue and, in college, the international Jewish campus organization Hillel. In time, I became co-president of the organization's Amherst chapter and began taking part in regular meetings with Amherst's director of religious life, the Rev. Dr. Paul Sorrentino.
Paul was not like most pastors I had met, or for that matter religious leaders of any sort. Although he spoke to me about his own beliefs and process of becoming reborn as a Christian, it was not with the intention of proselytizing. He did not want to preach all the time. Instead he wanted to listen. He heard of my ambitions and also saw my love of Judaism. So he planted a seed in my mind, telling me, "You know, you would make a wonderful rabbi, if that were something you were interested in."
I tried to ignore the idea, but was unable to. It made too much sense. If I wanted to be a philanthropist—and give especially much to Jewish organizations—then my passion was clearly for Judaism. Why take the long route and spend decades doing work I did not find meaningful when I could help my community directly by becoming a religious leader? I credit Paul for setting me on course to be a rabbi, a path I have since continued on as a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College.
Paul believed so deeply in the teachings of social justice in his Christian faith that he reached out to me and made sure that I did not ignore (or at least temporarily put aside) those same teachings in Judaism. He is the face of evangelical Christianity that I love. His profound commitment to Christianity causes him to do good in the world, one person at a time.
Yet there is a second, far more resented face to the tradition as well. In my mind, it is the face of Eric, the mailman who delivered letters to my childhood home in suburban Maryland. Every day, Eric would spread the gospel in an intrusive way. We could not retreat to our front doors without hearing him say, "One day, Israel will look up and have to find God." Even when I twisted my ankle in the front yard or got caught in a downpour on my way home, he would greet me with unwanted words. Neighbors would run and hide when they saw him coming. He was violating our personal space, and probably even the duties of his profession, using a position paid for with public funds to further his private agenda. His lack of sophistication did not fill us with faith in his cause so much as anger at his apparent disrespect.
When I think of evangelical Christianity, I see the faces of Paul and Eric. I hear their very different voices and very different messages. And I think about which is truly a man of faith. I thank God for the one who is.
Rabbi Joshua Stanton serves as an Assistant Rabbi at Temple B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, NJ. He is a co-founder of Tribe, a group for young Jewish professionals in New York, and serves as one of the representatives from the Central Conference of American Rabbis to the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises with the Vatican and other international religious bodies.