• Journal of Lutheran Ethics (May 2007) focuses on Christian Zionism, with an article by Munib Younan.
• When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture by Paul Boyer (Belknap Press, 1992).
• Allies for Armageddon: The Rise of Christian Zionism by Victoria Clark (Yale University Press, 2007).
• Christians and a Land Called Holy by Charles P. Lutz and Robert O. Smith (Fortress Press, 2006).
• The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount by Gershom Gorenberg (Free Press, 2000; available from Amazon).
• American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism by Thomas S. Kidd (Princeton University Press, 2008).
• The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation by Barbara R. Rossing (Basic Books, 2005).
• On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend by Timothy P. Weber (Baker Academic, 2004).
Christian Zionists believe restoration of Israel and the Jewish temple is a key to God's salvation plan. The idea, say mainline Christian theologians, arises from a selective misreading of Scripture.
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We were tired, staring at the airport version of the news while waiting through a layover on the last leg of our journey. It was 2002 and I was returning with a group of ELCA Lutherans from Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. It had been my first trip to the region.
|Christian Zionists from the U.S. and around the world gathered in Jerusalem to march in a parade of support for Israel in October 2006.|
A headline flashed on the screen, reporting the latest sales figures for the Left Behind series of end-times thrillers. The 10th book had been published and sales of the series were in the tens of millions. The books aren’t just thrillers. They have an agenda of promoting particular evangelical perspectives on faith and politics. In relation to the Middle East, they promote a particular form of Christian Zionism.
One of my travel companions took issue with my disapproval. “It’s just another way of reading the Bible,” she exclaimed.
“You’re right,” I said. “The problem is that people are dying because of that way of reading the Bible. We just saw them.”
Crisis or opportunity?
Christian Zionism presents Lutherans with an opportunity to clarify their understandings of topics ranging from ways of reading Scripture to ways of engaging political questions.
The 2007 Churchwide Assembly voted in part to “acknowledge the Churchwide Strategy for Engagement in Israel and Palestine, including its call for ‘increased engagement with conservative Christians and a clearer and more forceful expression of Lutheran theology in the public debate.’”
The meeting point between religion and politics can sometimes feel dangerous. But it isn’t dangerous for us alone. While claiming that unconditional support of Israel’s military policies is “God’s foreign policy,” some Christian Zionist leaders have urged a preemptive nuclear strike on Iran. It’s the people of the Middle East — especially Jews, Muslims and Christians in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories — who daily bear this threat of perpetual warfare.
My engagement with these questions is a matter of biography and relationships. I was raised in an evangelical church steeped in the rapture theology underlying the Left Behind books. This particular theology — known as premillennial dispensationalism (see "Key terms") — dates from the 1800s. After campus ministry introduced me to the Lutheran tradition, I enrolled in an ELCA seminary. I also became acquainted with Lutherans from the Middle East, including Munib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land.
As these relationships deepened, I began to see how the theological and cultural content of mainstream American Christianity supported political positions that harmed Palestinian Christians. Reflecting deeply on Paul’s teaching about the body of Christ — “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26), I wondered why Christian Zionists paid so little attention to the witness of Palestinian Christians.
It’s about politics
Christian Zionism isn’t simply a collection of beliefs. A person isn’t a Christian Zionist only because they believe in the rapture or they happen to be a Christian who, with the majority of Americans, sympathizes with Israel.
Instead, Christian Zionism is best understood as political action, informed by specifically Christian commitments, to promote or preserve Jewish control over the geographic area now containing Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Political activity can take many forms, from hosting a pro-Israel rally at a church to circulating petitions to voting.
Not all Christian Zionists are motivated by end-times hopes. Indeed, many are keenly aware of the history of Jewish suffering at Christian hands, especially during the Holocaust. They often feel called by God to help further strengthen the State of Israel to provide a safeguard against future Jewish suffering.
Most Christian Zionists simply support what they perceive to be best for Israel. For Christian Zionists in the U.S., this approach aligns them with most aspects of current U.S. policy toward the Middle East.
For many Christian Zionists, seeking the best for Israel means rejecting any effort to promote an end to Israel’s conflicts with its Arab neighbors on anything but Israel’s terms. Some seek to prevent U.S. support for any negotiations that may lead to a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The latest group to form in this manner is Christians United for Israel, led by televangelist John Hagee.
Although most Christian Zionists seek to go along with how Israel pursues its self-interest, some aren’t content to go along. In late 2005, Ariel Sharon, then Israeli prime minister, ordered the removal of Israeli settlers from Gaza. He was incapacitated by a massive stroke in January 2006. The same day, evoking Joel 3:2, televangelist Pat Robertson pronounced: “Woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the E.U. [European Union], the United Nations or United States of America. God said, ‘This land belongs to me, you better leave it alone.’”
While paying close attention to Israeli policy, Christian Zionists also often try to promote U.S. foreign policy. Christian Zionist commentator Michael Evans cites Genesis 12:3 as a “selfish reason” Christians should support Israel: “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.” Evans’ point is clear: “When we support Israel we are supporting the only nation that was created by an act of God,” and if we go against prophecy, “America will lose the blessing of God and America will tragically lose the war on terrorism.”
Some U.S. policymakers share this perspective. “We are Israel’s best friend in the world because of the character we have as a nation,” U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., once said from the Senate floor. “This is not a political battle at all. It is a contest over whether or not the word of God is true.”
Some evangelical Christians have questioned the way Christian Zionism often allows prophetic perspectives to inform approaches to policy. As Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, Calif., has said, “Evangelicals who are Christian Zionists want to see events unfold, but they aren’t so concerned about justice.”
It affects our relationships
A Zogby International poll of likely voters just before the 2006 midterm elections found that 31 percent of Americans agreed that “Israel must have all of the promised land, including Jerusalem, to facilitate the second coming of the messiah.”
The same question was asked in a poll of ELCA congregational leaders released earlier this year. The survey found that 6 percent agreed with this statement, 57 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed and 37 percent weren’t sure.
An even greater percentage (61 percent) disagreed with the notion that Genesis 12:3 — “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse” — could be applied to U.S. foreign policy toward the State of Israel.
Especially since Christian Zionist attitudes have some influence on U.S. policy, the movement has implications for Christian relationships with Jews and Muslims. The movement also affects North American Christian relationships with Arab Christians, including Palestinians.
Jews have long been aware of evangelical and fundamentalist support for Israel. Overall, Jewish response to this support has been ambivalent. Many suspect that Christian support is a cover for secret missionary efforts. Other Jews, however, have urged cooperation with Christian Zionists, saying Israel needs any friend it can get.
Christian Zionist solidarity with Israelis and other Jews sometimes implies that they stand against most of Israel’s neighbors, most of whom are Muslim. “If a line has to be drawn, then draw the line around both Christians and Jews,” CUFI’s Hagee has repeatedly said. “We are one. We are united. We are indivisible.”
Many Muslims in the U.S. and abroad feel they have been placed on the outside of that circle. In the context of the “war on terror,” being on the outside of that line can have deadly consequences.
Peter Pettit, director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding at Muhlenberg College, Allentown, Pa., has said, “To see Christian Zionists fashion a new hobgoblin out of ‘radical Islam’ … must lead those of us who know the legacy of Christian anti-Judaism to cry out for a more humane and discerning approach to those we see as our enemies.”
Many Palestinian Christians aren’t sure where they stand in relation to Hagee’s line. Palestinian Lutheran pastors are clear that they, as Palestinians, accept their lives as Christians living in a majority Muslim context. For some western Christians, however, it seems that if Palestinian Christians can’t be understood as suffering under Islamic oppression, they must have sided with Islam. Palestinian Christians thus forfeit North American Christian accompaniment and sympathy since they are on the non-Judeo-Christian side of the divide.
Sensing this type of rejection, Palestinian Christians have led the effort to criticize Christian Zionism. Lutheran bishop Younan in 2003 declared that Christian Zionism is a heresy. In 2006 he was one of the signers of Jerusalem Declaration on Christian Zionism issued by the Patriarch and Local Heads of Churches in Jerusalem. While criticizing the movement as “anti-justice, anti-peace, anti-reconciliation,” Younan provides a positive vision: “My Jesus is never the Jesus of the sword,” he said. “My Jesus is the Jesus of the cross.”
Politically motivated attacks on Islam call for a response from Lutherans in North America. This is especially the case when those attacks separate North American Lutherans from Lutherans seeking to preserve the faith in the land where Jesus walked. But Christian Zionism can be even more dehumanizing to both Jews and Muslims, especially when its political activity is motivated by Left Behind-style end-times scenarios.
As Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg has put it, many Christian Zionists see “Jews as actors in a Christian drama leading toward the end of days.” He insists that “real Zionism, as a Jewish movement, is … aimed at taking Jews out of the mythological realm and making them into normal actors in history. … So what’s called Christian Zionism is actually very distant from Zionism.”
Christians challenge Christ’s command to love our neighbors as we love ourselves if we base our future hope on an apocalyptic war that ensures the death of all non-Christians. When this is the case, Israelis and Palestinians are not neighbors to be loved, but pawns in a cosmic drama.
© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers