For many years, I hosted the Middle East nations at the Presidential Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. During that time, I met and became friends with attendees from a dozen countries in that region and many invited me to visit them. I accepted most of the invitations and on my first trip spent three weeks in Kuwait and a week each in Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, and Morocco. God gave me favor with numerous leaders of those nations and I had the opportunity to have substantive conversations about Jesus with them.
There are a multitude of wonderful events and conversations to report from that and subsequent visits, but for this article, I want to concentrate on two men. They were very senior political leaders of Palestine and Israel and while they knew much about each other, had never met face to face. To my knowledge that is still true today. Both had a lifetime of experience with the Jewish/Palestinian conflict and had lived through and participated in several of the Middle East wars. As I write about my interactions with them, I have changed their names and official positions in order to guard their identities. I am confident they would be uncomfortable if the content of our conversations became public.
One evening while having dinner with an official of the PLO, (Palestine Liberation Organization) he told me five or six stories about Jewish atrocities. One of those happened when Israeli’s Arab neighbors attacked it during the “Six-Day War” in 1967, also known as the “Third Arab-Israeli war.” Fadi was near the “Damascus Gate” on the first day of that war and saw an Israeli tank coming down the street. The driver saw a Palestinian boy around six years old, walking alone and he swerved up onto the sidewalk and ran over the boy. Then the driver went forward and back several times and when he moved on, there was nothing but a blood spot on the sidewalk. He and his wife were weeping as he recalled that experience. His hatred of the Jews was palpable. There were several other stories but that will suffice to illustrate how much animosity there is between the Israeli’s and the Palestinians. By the way, he accepted my invitation to attend the President’s Prayer Breakfast the following year. I met with him in Washington after that breakfast and he was exceedingly open to speak about Jesus.
The morning after that dinner with “Fadi Habib” and his wife Melita, I was having breakfast with “Aron Goldberg” and his wife in their lovely home in Jerusalem. He is a highly visible and respected official in the Israeli Cabinet. After a few minutes of small talk, our conversation turned to a recent newspaper article about a Palestinian threat and this led him to share an equal number of stories about the Palestinian atrocities. He told me that he was the first person to arrive on the scene after the attack on an elementary school by a terrorist group. They had thrown explosives in several windows and doors with seventy children being killed. He said there were body parts everywhere with not one child’s body being intact. As he gave more details about the scene, Melita started to weep but Aron was stoic. This was not the first time he had seen the results of a terrorist attack. He said for reasons of self-preservation, he had learned to control his emotions without denying his feelings.
This led to a lengthy discussion about the multitude of terrorist attacks that Israel had endured since 1948. At the appropriate time, I told him about my dinner the night before and that I had heard the same kind of stories from the other side and that I believe both of you are telling me the truth. The memories of atrocities seemed to have been passed from generation to generation with extreme distrust and hatred being the result.
I asked him if there were anything he could conceive of that would create a breakthrough in the relationship between Palestinian and Jew. I suggested that he not let thoughts or comments like; “We tried that” or “That would never work” keep him from letting his mind process the possibilities. He paused for several seconds as if he were thinking deeply and then said; “I can’t think of anything, too many people have died.” I told him in my opinion; the only possible answer is the reconciling love of Jesus. He responded very quickly, and said; “I don’t have anything against Jesus, just some Christians.” I replied just as quickly and said; “I can understand that but Aron, Jesus wasn’t a Christian.” His immediate response was; “What did you say,” as if he was bewildered by that statement. Then he looked at the ceiling and repeated it over and over again; “Jesus wasn’t a Christian,” Wow, Jesus wasn’t a Christian, then to his wife, “Leah, Jesus wasn’t a Christian.” I think he must have said that seven or eight times. It was a moment I shall never forget and I found myself saying, Aron, I am stunned at why that impacted you like it did. However, I will acknowledge that most “Christians” would also be shocked if I said it to them. Nevertheless, it’s a historical fact that “Jesus wasn’t a Christian,” and while it sounds bizarre, on reflection it is indisputable. Jesus was a Jew and his followers were not even called “Christians” until forty years after He left the earth, so He couldn’t have been a “Christian.” It is a well-documented fact that His followers were first called Christian’s while Paul and Barnabas were in Antioch. (Acts 11:26 – 43AD) I am certain that Aron knew intellectually that Jesus was a Jew, but in tennis terms, Christian’s have Jesus on their side of the net and since he would never consider becoming a Christian, he was unable to consider the claims of Jesus. For that moment in time, I took down the net and this allowed him to process the life of Jesus in a new way.
I asked, do you think Jesus was a real person or a fictitious character. Obviously you don’t think He is divine or the Messiah but do you believe He was a historical figure? His answer was quick and very matter of fact, “Of course I believe he lived, he was born six miles from my house,” as he pointed towards Bethlehem. I said, “What is your candid opinion about that man that was born six miles from your house?” He said, “I think He was a good Rabbi (teacher) and a man of peace.” Formerly my response would have been that He couldn’t be a good teacher if he lied to us. You know, the “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord proposition that was popularized by C.S. Lewis in his book, “Mere Christianity.” I suppose that is useful in some situations but I found myself saying, “You know I also think He was a great teacher.” We really do, don’t we, but our belief is that He is more than a teacher and in fact, he is the Son of God. Nevertheless, can’t we give a person permission to think of him as a good teacher as a place to start, that is what I did.
Anon, you’ve said that you believe he was a good teacher; could I press you to define that a bit more. How would you compare Jesus to the great moral, ethical, and spiritual teachers of history? I know you will consider Moses but don’t forget, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. He thought for a moment, then said, “Jesus was probably the greatest teacher who ever lived.” Since we were in total agreement on this, I told him that the teaching of Jesus had changed my life and also added a few thoughts about being His disciple. Then I said, since by your own self-definition you believe he was the greatest teacher that ever lived, how much do you know about what He taught? He said, “practically nothing” then he laughed out loud and said”; that doesn’t’ make any sense, does it.” I said, no it doesn’t, I bet you could tell me something that Plato taught. He said you’re right I probably should know more about what Jesus taught. Then he asked, “What do you think I should do.”
I proposed that he start with Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian who wrote a book called, “The Antiquities of the Jews.” Josephus lived just a few years after Jesus and was a Jewish scholar and one of Israel greatest historians. He studied with the Sadducees, Pharisees and the Essenes but eventually aligned himself with the Pharisees. I told Anon that his book reports a bit about Jesus, but there is a better option. Jesus had a best friend and he wrote a book about Him. I would get that book and read it. He seemed sincere when he asked, “What is the name of that book” and I answered that it is the book of John in the New Testament. He said, “oh yes I’ve heard about that but I have never read it.” So I encouraged him to read the book that the best friend of Jesus wrote and evaluate the teachings of Jesus for himself.
I went on to say that you will have a hard time believing many of the things that John reports about Jesus but at least you will know what his best friend says He taught. He said he would start reading the John’s book so he could at least know something of what the greatest teacher in history taught. I am not able to report how the Holy Spirit used the words of Scripture in Aron’s life because I never saw him again. I’m confident however that since he did commit to read the book of John, that God’s Holy Spirit will speak to him. I pray that Aron allowed the Holy Spirit to open his heart to Jesus, but of course, his response is between himself and God.
This like many of the conversations I have had through the years did not result in some closure that I am aware of. However, my intent in writing about it was simply to recount a memorable conversation and how the Lord allowed me to be a witness for Jesus.