To Heal the World? | Book Review


Tikkun olamis Hebrew for “to heal the world.” It has become a popular catchphrase among leftwing American Jewish rabbis and social activists. According to them, it is an ancient teaching of Judaism, and therefore a religious foundation for their politics.

The only problem is that it isn’t. At least that’s what Jonathan Neumann concludes in To Heal the World. He argues that tikkun olamprovides a religious covering for a political ideology that has been arrived at via nonreligious means. And that political ideology is “social justice.”

Here’s how Neumann defines that political ideology:

“Social justice is a political philosophy that advocates the redistribution of income—and sometimes even wealth and other property—in order to achieve economic egalitarianism…. In more recent decades, social justice has also come to include an agenda of permissive social policies that leave lifestyle questions to the discretion of the individual and promote gender diversity; an approach to foreign and defense policy that emphasizes multilateral diplomacy over military strength; a preference for comprehensive alternatives to the use of fossil fuels and nuclear energy for the sake of the environment; and other attitudes and policies associated predominantly with today’s left-wing political parties…. Over the past several years, campus radicals have tried to impose even more extreme conceptions of social justice on their universities through protests over safe spaces and microaggressions, and increasingly perceive social justice through the prism of intersectionality, which portrays society as the Manichean struggle for justice by powerless victims against oppressive power-holders.”

Neumann rightly thinks this definition is noncontroversial: “your own experience ought to confirm it: just ask yourself what you think of when you hear the phrase ‘social justice,’ and which politicians you think are more likely to refer to it.”

To Heal the Worlddoesn’t offer a comprehensive critique of social-justice policies, although Neumann clearly sails on the starboard side of the political ship. Instead, the book deconstructs the notion that tikkun-olam-as-social-justice bears any necessary relationship to Judaism. Indeed, it argues that the social justice scheme promulgated by the Jewish left “corrupts Judaism and endangers Israel,” in the lapidary words of the subtitle.

Here’s how Neumann’s argument unfolds: After defining the problem in the book’s Introduction, chapters 1 and 2 describe, respectively, the emergence of the Jewish Left out of Reform Judaism and the increasing use of tikkun olamto describe its agenda. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European Jews began to experience increasing freedom from the legal restraints and social prejudices that had hitherto been placed on their communities by Christian states. In consequence, some of them began to shed the particularistic rituals of traditional Judaism and emphasize Judaism’s universalistic ethics, which looked surprisingly Kantian. In postwar America, this commitment to universalistic ethics came to be expressed as tikkun olam. The takeaway from Neumann’s historical narrative is twofold: First, Reform Judaism’s relationship to traditional Judaism was critical from the beginning. It sought at its inception to distance itself from Judaism as it had been practiced historically. Second, its universalizing mode rendered Jewish particularism highly problematic, including its longings for Zion.

In the early to mid-twentieth century, Reform Judaism rethought both these points, and sought to root its thinking in Tanakh (the Hebrew acronym for what Christians call the Old Testament), as well as to give qualified support to the nascent Jewish state. Chapters 3 through 7 examine the progressive Jewish use of the biblical narratives of creation, Abraham, Joseph, Exodus, and the prophets to underwrite their political ideology. In each case, Neumann shows that the tikkun olam/social justice readings of the relevant passages are problematic, both because they are bad textual readings (“eisegesis” rather than “exegesis”) and because they bear so little relationship to traditional Jewish interpretation. Whatever else they are, Neumann contends, they are problematic as Jewishreadings of the text.

Indeed, chapter 8 argues that the Jewish Left’s use of tikkun olamitself is problematic. The phrase is taken from the Aleynu, a prayer offered in Judaism’s three daily services. Tikkun olamdoesn’t appear in the Bible, its use in the Talmud and Midrash is rare and suggests something far less totalizing than social justice, and its appearance in the Kabbalah takes the concept in a different direction than where the Jewish Left goes with it. Recognizing these deficiencies, some progressive Jews have stopped using tikkun olamas an organizing concept altogether. The first paragraph of chapter 9 summarizes Neumann’s case against the Jewish Left to this point: “What the Bible says and what the Jewish social justice movement thinks it says diverge…. And tikkun olam itself has never meant what American Jews now understand the term to mean.”

That tension between social justice and traditional Judaism is the subject of chapter 10, “Social Justice vs. Israel.” Historically, Judaism is a particularistic religion, a “Chosen People” with a “Promised Land.” Given the Jewish Left’s historical roots in Reform Judaism, and given Reform Judaism’s tendency to universalism rather than particularism, it was almost inevitable that there would be a clash between the demands of “social justice” and the hopes for a renewed Jewish nation in Israel. After the Holocaust, that tension was tamped down for a time, but one doesn’t have to look too hard today to find leftwing Jewish critics of the entire Zionist project.

Indeed, the assumptions of tikkun olam/social justice Judaism problematizes the very existence of a Jewish identity, as chapter 11 makes clear. If the essence of Judaism is universalistic ethics, then why be Jewish at all? Judaism as such—its history, traditions, rituals, etc.—provide nothing more than illustrations of moral themes that can be derived from sources other than the Bible. And if the State of Israel itself constitutes an existential social-justice problem, why be a Jew at all?

For Neumann, tikkun olamundermines Jewish Peoplehood and forecasts the redundancy of the Jews: “Social justice has no need for Jews: by its logic, they need not concern themselves with perpetuating their people, need not limit themselves to Jewish partners, and need not raise their children to be Jewish. They need only work to repair the world—a pursuit that eventually involves their very dissolution into the rest of humanity.”

In chapter 12, Neumann suggests an alternative: “Jews can reimagine the possibility that their ancient heritage has something unique to say—something greater than a mere echo of the political and cultural fads of our time.” This is particularism for the sake of universalism, and it finds precedent deep in the Bible and Jewish tradition: “through your [i.e., Abraham’s] offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me” (Genesis 22:18).

As a Gentile and a Christian, I’m not sure what to make of Neumann’s final proposal. What fascinates me about To Heal the Worldis the parallel that leftwing Judaism and tikkun olamhas with liberal Protestantism and the “Social Gospel.” Neumann makes this parallel explicit, arguing that Reform Judaism drew a part of its inspiration from the Social Gospel movement. If so, that raises the question in my mind whether the relationship between the Social Gospel and traditional Christianity is as biblically and theologically problematic as the relationship between tikkun olamand traditional Judaism.

But that’s a question for another day and another book.

Book Reviewed
Jonathan Neumann, To Heal the World: How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel(New York: All Points Books, 2018).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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Why Missions Needs Missionaries | Influence Podcast


This past summer, thousands of Assemblies of God churchgoers went on short-term missions trips. These trips often do much good. They certainly change the people who go on them for the better. But is it a good idea to shift a church’s missions strategy to short-term missions?

Similarly, churches are increasingly supporting “social justice” causes such as anti-human trafficking initiatives and water well drilling as an important part of missions. Granted, these are great causes, but are they missions?

In today’s episode of the Influence Podcast, I talk with with Doug Clay and Greg Mundis about what missions is and why missions need long-term missionaries. Doug Clay is general superintendent of the Assemblies of God (USA), and Greg Mundis is executive director of Assemblies of God World Missions.

Translating the Great Commission


Produced by Barna Group in partnership with Seed Company, Translating the Great Commission examines aspects of Christian missions, including knowledge of the Great Commission, the definition of missions, the relationship of evangelism and social justice, and the role and value of Bible translation. As usual with Barna reports, Translating includes a mix of quantitative and qualitative research, together with expert Q&As and infographics. It offers a valuable snapshot of current opinion about these aspects of Christian missions.

Book Reviewed
Barna Group, Translating the Great Commission: What Spreading the Gospel Means to U.S. Christians in the 21st Century (Ventura, CA: Barna Group, 2018).

Monday’s Influence Online Articles


Today, over at InfluenceMagazine.com:

  • “Between 2001 and 2008,” Jerry Ireland writes, “missions budgets for evangelism and discipleship declined by almost 11 percent, while funds for relief and development work increased by nearly 9 percent.” My guess is that this trend continued in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Both Jerry and I believe that Pentecostal mission must include evangelism and compassion. However, discipleship has a missional priority. Jerry writes, “The most compassionate thing your church can do is support missionaries discipling local people to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16).”
  • In today’s #InfluencePodcast, Daniel Im and I talk about how new book, No Silver Bullets: 5 Small Shifts That Will Transform Your Ministry. Daniel argues that churches need to make five micro-shifts in ministry: (1) from destination to direction, (2) from output to input, (3) from sage to guide, (4) from form to function, and (5) from maturity to missionary. My review of the book will be up at InfluenceMagazine.com and here on Wednesday.
  • Chris Railey highlights the importance of church planting in the August-September issue of Influence magazine: “Church planters want to change the world, and the truth is, they are the Church’s best hope. The Assemblies of God is seeing incredible growth in the number of new churches. In fact, 2016 was the best church-planting year in our 103-year history, with 406 new churches opened. Church planters connect us to our pioneering roots; they represent the missional and Spirit-led work of expanding the kingdom of God that has always defined our movement.”

Please make sure to follow and like InfluenceInfluence magazine on Facebook, Twitter, and iTunes!

Review of ‘Courageous Compassion: Confronting Social Injustice God’s Way’ by Beth Grant #UPDATE


Unknown Beth Grant, Courageous Compassion: Confronting Social Injustice God’s Way (Springfield, MO: My Healthy Church, 2014). Paperback / Kindle

Rape is a shattering experience for the victim—physically, psychologically, and spiritually. When rape is institutionalized through sexual trafficking, this shattering experience is renewed daily, and the wounds fester, slowly killing a woman’s body, soul, and spirit. Unfortunately, it is estimated that 800,000 to 4,000,000 women and children are trafficked across international borders annually, with as many as 18,500 coming into the United States alone.

In Courageous Compassion, Beth Grant issues a clarion call to Christians to combat the horrific evil of sexual trafficking. Grant is co-director of Project Rescue, a ministry to victims of sexual trafficking that began in a red-light district of Mumbai, India, in 1997. In 2013, Project Rescue provided care for over 32,000 women and children victimized by sexual trafficking in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Moldova, Tajikistan, and Spain. She is also a member of the Faith Alliance Against Slavery and Trafficking and coeditor of Healing Hands, which is that organization’s training manual for caregivers to victims of sexual trafficking.

Courageous Compassion lays out a strategy for “confronting social injustice God’s way,” as the book’s subtitle puts it. “There is no value-free social response to human need and injustice,” Grant writes. “All human response to human need and injustice is inevitably influenced by the values and worldview of the person responding.” Consequently, “any initiative focused on the injustice of sexual slavery and the restoration of victims developed by a Christian organization or mission should reflect the person and message of Jesus Christ.”

For Grant, confronting the social injustice of sexual trafficking requires more than political efforts to legally abolish such slavery, as valuable as they are. Rather, Project Rescue aims to intervene in the lives of women who have been trafficked, restore them holistically (physically, psychologically, spiritually), and prevent their children from being exploited in turn. This strategy utilizes, prayer, evangelism, discipleship, medical care, job training, and cooperation with local churches to accomplish those ends.

Among some American Pentecostals—Grant is an ordained Assemblies of God minister—compassion ministries that seek to rectify the problems of social injustice are viewed with suspicion, as examples of a liberal “social gospel” that replaces evangelism and discipleship with political activism. Courageous Compassion allays those suspicions—and does so entirely—by presenting a holistic Pentecostal approach.

Who should read it Courageous Compassion? Christians interested in issues of social justice. Pastors whose churches send short-term missions teams to countries to work on compassion projects. Missionaries—both current and prospective—who need to see what holistic ministry looks like. And scholars who work at the intersection of theology, the Church’s mission, and social issues.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

(Full disclosure: I am a friend of Beth Grant, and I work for the Assemblies of God, which is the parent company of My Healthy Church.)

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page. Then buy the book! The Kindle version is available for download right now at the bargain price of 99 cents.

Review of ‘The Sacredness of Human Life’ by David P. Gushee


The Sacredness of Human Life David P. Gushee, The Sacredness of Human Life: Why an Ancient Biblical Vision Is Key to the World’s Future (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013). $35.00, 478 pages.

Many American churches (including my fellowship, the Assemblies of God) designate the third Sunday of January as Sanctity of Human Life Sunday. President Ronald Reagan established this tradition by executive proclamation in January 1984. It falls on the third Sunday of January, because that day is the closest to the January 22nd date of the Supreme Court decisions in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, which legalized abortion in all 50 states. Reagan’s proclamation encouraged Americans “to give thanks for the gift of life, and to reaffirm our commitment to the dignity of every human being and the sanctity of each human life,” which is a broad commitment. However, its preceding paragraphs dealt solely with abortion. Unsurprisingly, then, the day has been affirmed by pro-life presidents (Reagan and both Bushes) but ignored by pro-choice presidents (Clinton and Obama).

The use of “sanctity of life” terminology by pro-lifers creates a dilemma for “social justice”—i.e., progressive—Christians. On the one hand, they too are anti-abortion. On the other hand, they believe that “sanctity of life”—i.e., conservative—evangelicals, who are uniformly anti-abortion, are insufficiently pro-life on other issues, such as the death penalty, health and welfare, nuclear weapons, torture, war, and women’s rights. Using “sanctity of life” terminology seems to align “social justice” Christians with conservative evangelical politics and thus to alienate them from other progressives, both of which outcomes are undesirable to them. Hence, “social justice” Christians have tended to shy away from “sanctity of life” terminology.

David P. Gushee is distinguished university professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University in Atlanta, Georgia, as well as a progressive evangelical from the Baptist tradition. In The Sacredness of Human Life, Gushee diffuses the progressives’ dilemma by outlining the history and applicability of a “sacredness of life” ethic. By exchanging the word sacredness for sanctity, Gushee offers a theological ground for a progressive Christian ethic of life that distinguishes it from conservative Christian politics.

Framing Gushee’s book in terms of this dilemma does not detract from its value for all Christian readers, however—including conservative evangelicals. What Gushee offers in this book is not, first and foremost, a brief for progressive Christian ethics, although it includes that too (chapter 10, especially). It is, rather, the archaeological excavation of an idea—the sacredness of human life—through various layers of Christian history.

In successive chapters, Gushee shows how Christians built a sacredness-of-life ethic on the foundations of Jewish and Christian Scriptures (chapters 2 and 3, respectively). In early Christianity, this “moral vision” included opposition to war, abortion, infanticide, torture, and the Roman arena; as well as affirmation of peace, piety, impartiality, and help for the poor (chapter 4). The conversion of Constantine to Christianity in A.D. 312, which symbolized the cooption of the Church by the State, blurred this moral vision (chapter 5). This resulted in a “Christendom divided against itself,” which Gushee illustrates through three vignettes: Francis of Assisi vs. the Crusades, Bartolome de Las Casas vs. La Conquista, and Baptist Richard Overton’s advocacy of religious freedom vs. Christendom’s systematic persecution of Jews (chapter 6). As the Enlightenment dawned, philosophers such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant retained much of the substance of this Christian ethic, even as they shifted the grounding of that ethic from biblical revelation to autonomous reason (chapter 7). But as Friedrich Nietzsche argued, “When one gives up Christian belief one therefore deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality.” Gushee outlines Nietzsche’s systematic deconstruction of Christian morality, especially its emphasis on the sacredness of life (chapter 8). The costs of the loss of that Christian moral vision were staggering. Chapter 9 uses the Nazis as an example of the catastrophic consequences of—quoting J. A. S. Greenville—“a contempt for the sacredness of life” (chapter 9).

Only after completing this archaeological excavation does Gushee outline the progressive implications of a sacredness-of-life ethic: anti-abortion, worried about biotechnological innovations, anti-death penalty, pro-human rights, anti-nuclear weapons, and pro-women’s rights (chapter 10). Had this chapter been earlier in the book, I—a politically conservative evangelical—might have dismissed it as a progressive Christian talking the standard progressive line. By placing it near the end of the book, however, Gushee forced me to look again at these issues, but in a brighter historical light. Given the misuse of political power, the depredations of war, and the abuse of capital punishment—especially in the twentieth century, but also during the era of Christendom—Christians need to cast a far more critical eye on the state’s power to kill. This doesn’t commit Christians to pacifism, however. Gushee does not seem to be one; I certainly am not.

Moreover, Gushee is quite right that “life” issues need to encompass the quality of life. Though his discussion of women’s rights occupies a mere five pages of the book (pages 382-387), Gushee argues persuasively (to my mind, anyway) that “the sacredness of life in the twenty-first century requires full engagement with global women’s rights issues. Citing Half the Sky by husband-and-wife team Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Gushee highlights “three primary areas”: “sex trafficking/forced prostitution, gender-based violence against women, and maternal mortality.” One of the difficulties for conservative evangelical readers is that talk of women’s rights is usually associated with a pro-choice position on abortion. To this, I can only second Gushee’s plea: “Surely Christians can demonstrate the intelligence to separate issues that are intrinsically distinct from one another.” I certainly hope so.

As in all books of this length and depth of learning, readers will find themselves disagreeing with this or that factual assertion, biblical interpretation, or ethical conclusion. I certainly did. You will too. But I agree with and was profoundly challenged by its fundamental insight that “God has consecrated each and every human being—without exception and in all circumstances—as a unique, incalculably precious being of elevated status and dignity.” This “moral reality” entails the “moral task” of “adopting a posture of reverence” and “accepting responsibility for the sacred gift that is a human life.”

Next Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, keep both the reality and the task in mind, not only regarding the child in the womb, but also regarding your neighbor…and even your enemy.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.