The Many and the Few

France is a Catholic country with a population of 66 million and a strong tradition of secularism. Around two percent of the population is Protestant and only one percent evangelical. It is against this backdrop that we seek to take the gospel to over 600,000 French Jews, whose community ranks as the third largest in the world, behind the USA and Israel. The need is great indeed.

The number of Messianic Jews in France is estimated to be between 500 and 600, less than 0.1% of the French Jewish population. Ninety-five percent of these Messianic Jews are integrated into normal evangelical Protestant churches or assemblies while remaining 5% are affiliated with a few small Messianic assemblies.

Tackling difficulties

As we seek to reach the Jewish community in France, we face a variety of challenges and difficulties.

We encounter the common but universal misconception which has developed over two thousand years of history, that when a Jewish person becomes a disciple of Messiah Jesus they betray their ancestry, their roots and their family.

Then there are the difficulties linked to the Shoah (Holocaust), particularly in the European and French context. During World War II, the French authorities and police handed thousands of Jews over to the Nazis. 76,000 died in deportation. Apart from the theological questions raised by the Shoah, the psychological impact remains.

We also have traditional biblical and theological differences between Judaism and Christianity to overcome. In my discussions with Jewish people, particularly with observant or believing Jews, I am increasingly struck by the tendency on their part to deny the radical reality of sin as revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures and as understood in evangelical Protestantism.

There are also difficulties to be tackled in relation to Post-Modernism. It is increasingly difficult to speak of the uniqueness of Jesus as the one and only way of salvation. This is true in relation to the various currents within present day Judaism, which tend to be universalistic and, in some cases, syncretistic.

Finally, there are ways of thinking that tend to be linked to Sephardic Judaism, the most influential current of Jewish religion in France and one of the greatest hindrances to Jewish evangelism. This Sephardic way of thinking tends to be emotional, psychological and anti-rational. The result is that many Sephardic Jews are very superstitious, and therefore open to New-Age ideas and Eastern mysticism.

Common ground

Despite the barriers, Patrick Cabanel’s recent work Jews and Protestants in France: Elective Affinities, 16th-21st Century, demonstrates that affinities exist between the Jewish and Protestant communities in France, not least because of a common history of persecution. For example, during the infamous Dreyfuss Case (1894-1906) – in which Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer was falsely charged with treason and exiled to Devil’s Island – French Protestants expressed solidarity with the Jewish community. Also, during the Second World War, the Protestant population of Chambon-sur-Lignon saved the lives of 5,000 Jews. This privileged position is an asset when promoting the gospel and also provide opportunities for witness.

In July, my wife Nelly and I attended LICRA’s Summer University in Le Havre. LICRA desires to make its concerns heard during next year’s presidential campaign in France and many well known politicians, intellectuals and newsmen attended the gathering. Most LICRA members are Jewish and I was the only pastor present.

At a workshop on ‘Culture and Racism’, the importance of the ‘Righteous Gentiles’ – non-Jews who helped Jewish people during the Holocaust – and their values was repeatedly mentioned. Afterwards, I thanked those leading the workshop for acknowledging the ‘righteous of the nations’. This gave me the opportunity to give a DVD of The Hiding Place, the story of Corrie Ten Boom, to the former director of France Culture, one of our best known national radio channels.

I also gave the DVD, along with Gert Koppel’s book The Hidden Child, to a young Jewish woman who specialises in the field of theatre and memory. She did her PhD under Elie Wiesel’s direction, and lectures on the subject at Boston and Harvard Universities in America, and the Sorbonne and the Elie Wiesel Institute in Paris, where I also attend lectures. She recently presented a stage play adapted from The Diary by Helen Berr, a French Jewish writer who died during deportation, at the world famous Avignon Festival.

She wrote to thank me for the DVD and the book, and indicated an interest in the possibility of us working together in some capacity. Imagine the impact if this gifted woman were to stage a play on the life of Corrie Ten Boom, or one of the French ‘Righteous Gentiles’! May the Lord himself open the doors!

This article was first published in the Winter Herald 2011

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