Sunday, June 24, 2007

Christians, Israel, and the Middle East

I recently read Paul Findley's "They Dare Speak Out." Findley was a congressman from rural Illinois from the late 60's until he was taken down by the Israeli lobby in 1982, defeated by a rising young politico named Richard Durbin, now one of the most prominent Dems in the United States Senate.

I've seen much ink spilled in the last month or so over the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War, but surprisingly (snicker, snicker) not too much discussion recalling a less auspicious anniversary--the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty. You can read Findley's recounting here.

My concern for now is not the events of that day forty years ago, but the continuing and on-going political cover evangelical Christians provide for Israel. Much support for the state of Israel comes from a genuine and heartfelt belief among conservative, bible-believing Christians that God made promises to the Jewish people that are tied up in a piece of real estate on the Mediterranean Sea. So where does this belief spring from?

First, many evangelicals believe the Bible teaches that God literally gave Jews the land of Israel forever. Speaking to a group of Israelis, Pat Robertson said: “Ladies and Gentleman, evangelical Christians support Israel because we believe that the words of Moses and the ancient prophets of Israel were inspired by God. We believe that the emergence of a Jewish state in the land promised by God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was ordained by God. We believe that God has a plan for this nation which He intends to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth.”

But those promised blessings and realities have found their fulfillment in Christ. The Promised Land was once the specific place of God’s primary redemptive work, but now the arena of redemption has moved from type to reality. Abraham was not merely an heir to the land, but of “the world” (Rom. 4:13). It is no longer merely a portion of the world that is to be redeemed, but all the nations (Matt. 28:19-20).

In Christ’s redemption and ultimate victory, it is the entire cosmos (“the land” in a new covenant perspective) that is being recreated and redeemed. The promise of renewal and restoration symbolized by the old covenant land promises has been expanded to encompass the entire world. According to Christ, it is no longer ethnic Jews who will inherit the Promised Land, but the “meek” who will inherit the entire earth (Matt. 5:5).

A second factor driving evangelical support for Israel is eschatology, or the understanding of “the last things.” Much of contemporary evangelicalism and modern fundamentalism has adopted a strand of pre-millennialism called dispensationalism. Pre-millennialism teaches that Christ will return bodily to earth in order to establish a worldwide kingdom centered in Jerusalem. A final judgment will take place one thousand years after Christ's return; hence, the return is pre-millennial.

Though there are a number of more complicated variants, most Dispensationalists also hue to the doctrine of a “pre-tribulational rapture”. They teach that before His bodily return, Christ will first return invisibly to "rapture" the church into heaven. This translation of the church into a heavenly state precedes the “Great Tribulation,” which according to Dispensationalists is a future event and is described in Matthew 24. It is only after this period of tribulation, also called the “days of vengeance” (Luke 21:22), that Christ will return bodily to set up a worldwide kingdom that will last a thousand years.

According to most evangelicals, the Great Tribulation will be a period of tremendous suffering and will also see the rise of the anti-Christ. The slaughter of Israeli Jews, especially during the latter half of this period, will take grand proportions. Dispensationalist theologian John Walvoord says that 2/3 of Israelis will be killed: “According to Zechariah's prophecy Zechariah 13:8, 9), two thirds of the children of Israel in the land will perish, but the one third that are left will be refined and be awaiting the deliverance of God at the second coming of Christ which is described in the next chapter of Zechariah.”

Gary North points to one psychological benefit of holding to a Dispensational hermeneutic—it’s adherents believe they can cheat death by effectively sacrificing Israeli Jews:

Therefore, in order for most of today's Christians to escape physical death, two-thirds of the Jews in Israel must perish, soon. This is the grim prophetic trade-off that fundamentalists rarely discuss publicly, but which is the central motivation in the movement's political support for the State of Israel.

It should be clear why they believe that Israel must be defended at all costs by the West. If Israel were removed militarily from history prior to the Rapture, then the strongest case for Christians' imminent escape from death would have to be abandoned. This would mean the indefinite delay of the Rapture. The fundamentalist movement thrives on the doctrine of the imminent Rapture, not the indefinitely postponed Rapture.

If North is correct, the survival of a Jewish state of Israel is necessary for its sacrificial role. There are a couple of implications.

First, there will be little evangelism of Jews. Hence Pat Robertson or John Hagee will hobnob with Israelis and never mention Christ’s work, for if Israeli Jews were converted en masse to Christianity, they would then be Raptured, too, leaving only Arabs behind. Such a scenario would make the immediate fulfillment of prophecy impossible because there would be no Jews left to persecute. So instead of evangelizing, many fundamentalists opt instead to send money to organizations whose goal is to return Jews to Israel.

Second, as North says, if Israel were militarily removed from the land it would mean an indefinite delay of the Rapture. The result is untrammeled support for Israeli policy. Some go even further and see the displacement of non-Jewish inhabitants of the land as legitimate, something of a replay of the conquest commanded by God during the days of Joshua.

When Findley first wrote “They Dare Speak Out,” evangelical support for Israel was strong. If anything, it has gotten stronger. According to a recent Zogby poll, 31% of Americans and 40% of Protestants believe that "Israel must have all of the promised land, including Jerusalem, to facilitate the second coming of the messiah." Zogby's poll would have been more informative had he separated Protestants from self-described Evangelicals.

If evangelicals believe that all of the promised land belongs to Israel by God’s promise and that it is the key to facilitating the return of Christ, they will obviously feel compelled to support the policies of Israel. One of America’s most prominent Baptist leaders, Richard Land, puts it this way: “God blesses those that bless the Jews and curses those who curse the Jews. Consequently, we believe America needs to bless the Jews and Israel because if we bless the Jews and support Israel, God blesses us. And if we don't, God curses us.”

Dispensational theology has entered the American bloodstream through the religious media and books such as the Left Behind series. But it shows up in other strange places, too.

In a speech to the Knesset in 1994, Bill Clinton sounded like Dr. Land, asserting that abandoning Israel would be an unforgivable sin and that according to the will of God the land of the bible should continue as the possession of Israel in perpetuity. He also committed the United States to supporting that aim and goal.

Here is a snippet of the speech that can be read in its entirety here:

The truth is that the only time my wife and I ever came to Israel before today was 13 years ago with my pastor on a religious mission. I was then out of office. I was the youngest former governor in the history of the United States. No one thought I would ever be here -- perhaps my mother; no one else.

We visited the holy sites. I relived the history of the Bible, of your Scriptures and mine. And I formed a bond with my pastor. Later, when he became desperately ill, he said I thought I might one day become President. And he said, more bluntly than the Prime Minister did, "If you abandon Israel, God will never forgive you." He said it is God's will that Israel, the biblical home of the people of Israel, continue forever and ever.

So I say to you tonight, my friends, one of our Presidents, John Kennedy, reminded us that here on Earth, God's will must truly be our own. It is for us to make the homecoming; for us to chose life; for us to work for peace. But until we achieve a comprehensive peace in the Middle East and then after we achieve comprehensive peace in the Middle East, know this -- your journey is our journey, and America will stand with you now and always.

What are some of the consequences of this Israel-centric view of the complexities and vagaries of Middle Eastern geopolitics? Look at two events from just the past week.

After meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Washington, President Bush pledged to increase US military aid to Israel over the course of the next decade. Since the Camp David Accords, Israel has received $3 billion from the United States. Despite our turning Israel into the penultimate regional military power, there is a demand for more. More financial support, diplomatic cover, and even military action on Israel's behalf are demanded.

A more serious matter was a resolution passed by Congress last week, calling on the United Nations Security Council to "charge Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with violating the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the United Nations Charter because of his calls for the destruction of the State of Israel."

The measure past by a tally of 411-2, and demonstrated again the clout wielded on Capitol Hill by the Israeli Lobby. Interestingly, the motivation for the resolution is the claim that Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be "wiped off the map” in a speech last year.

In fact, the quotation was a mistranslation, indeed a fabrication, of what was actually said, but that doesn’t matter, because as a post-modern imperial power we simply choose to make our own reality. That only two members of the House, Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, voted against this piece of nonsense is demonstrative of the hypocrisy of the “antiwar” Democrats. It also reveals the depth of the foreign policy consensus where the Middle East and Israel are concerned.

My point is not that 411 members of the House are Dispensationalists or Christians, for that matter. Most are not. Rather, I am asserting that ideas have consequences and theology has outward manifestations. Is the fruit produced by Dispensationalism and Christian Zionism good fruit, or is the tree rotten?


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