21 March 2008

Evangelicals and Israel

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”

Part One: Christian Zionism and Christian Arabism

To the American public, even before 9/11, the Arabs, with their supposed unlimited oil wealth and unfamiliar religion, are seen alternately as darlings or devils. On the other side, Israel and the Jews, seemingly besieged by genocidal regimes on all sides aimed at their destruction, are viewed as either victims or aggressors. Rarely do the public pronouncements of religious leaders of any persuasion help to clarify Middle Eastern politics for the American public. To foreign audiences, who do not understand denominational religions in the United States, pious but simplistic half-truths uttered by American clerics create profound fear and anger, mockery and disgust.

It is an undeniable political fact that “Evangelicals” have become a critical political factor in American elections. For that reason, the opinions and beliefs of those identifying themselves in that category have now become important to politicians and candidates running for office. Since the emergence of the Moral Majority in the ‘80s, the Israel-Arab conflict has increasingly become an unavoidable political issue for churchgoers. The history of the conflict has gone through many stages, and the thinking of liberal and conservative Christians in the United States has been affected by what has happened in the Middle East over the years.

The historic division between Christians for and against Israel has consolidated into two camps—so called “Christian Zionists” and those I prefer to call “Christian Arabists.” The politicization of the conflict in American politics has led to a booming multimedia industry designed to influence American policy in the Middle East. With an unlimited market, much material has been produced to fuel the debate, but remarkably little of it helps those who want to understand the conflict.

Even among academics, the dispute between Christian Zionists and Christian Arabists over the Arab-Israeli conflict is not as well understood as the vigorous Jewish debate over Zionism over the past century. However, their disputations have garnered a great deal of attention in the media and on the pulpit, with political consequences for Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab states.

It is important at this time to put the issue of Israel for Evangelicals in context. For moderate Evangelicals, the bitter mutual recriminations of both camps against one another have been confusing, distasteful, and harmful, resulting in the extreme polarization of the broader Christian community about proper U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Christian Zionists, sympathetic to the Jews as God’s Chosen People, have lobbied for pro-Israeli policies, while Christian Arabists, sympathetic to the historic Arab Christians in the Islamic Middle East and universal human rights, including the right of self-determination--have lobbied for the Palestinians. Following the Holocaust, Christians have eschewed anti-Semitism in the Church, and have feared the disappearance of Christians in the Middle East under the pressures of the Arab-Israel conflict. Against the background of the growth of secular nationalism in the twentieth century, Muslims, Jews and Christians in the U.S. and the Middle East had hoped that religious differences could be pacified through political liberalism and nationalism. By supporting Arab Nationalism, and later, specifically Palestinian Nationalism, Christians have sought to preserve common ground for Christians and Muslims against the twinned threats of political Islam and Western interventionism. With the end of the Cold War, Arab nationalism failed, and liberal democracy failed to take hold in the authoritarian Islamic world, reviving and fueling latent religious fundamentalism in both Israel and in the Muslim world. It is remarkable that although Jews and Christians, including Christian Arabists and Christian Zionists, and Muslims recognize the dangers of resurgent political Islam--the great Other whose growing strength threatens to engulf the entire region--their responses to this threat have been quite different and utterly flawed.

To Christian Zionists, Israel represents a society possessing affinities to the values to American democracy. Moreover, they perceive Israel as a strategic bulwark against the instabilities of the Middle Eastern state system. Combined with their faith in the literal truth revealed in the bible, fascination with biblical history and revulsion for anti-Semitism following the Holocaust, premillennial dispensationalist theology has, for Christian Zionists, framed the narrative of what God is doing in history. Yet now Christian Zionism has become the straw man of those who oppose Zionism, the national movement of the Jewish people. The foolish proclamations of Hagee, Falwell, and Robertson have disgraced the noble humanitarian impulses of Christian Zionism, allowing Israel's enemies to focus their attention on evangelicals rather than on themselves for the deplorable state of the Palestinians and the Arab world.

Against the background of the massacre of Jews in Russia, Armenians and Syriac Christians and the displacement of thousands of Greek Orthodox Christians and Muslims in the wake of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, nineteenth century American missionary efforts among Jews, Christians, and Muslims overlapped with the humanitarian, liberal age of secularization worldwide. Arab nationalism, centered upon the modernization of the Arabic language, became the means by which Palestinian Jews, Muslims, and Christians initially sought to create new identities as former subjects of the Ottoman Empire. In short order various Western political ideologies streamed into Arab Nationalism, paralleling the development of political Zionism in the period 1890-1948.

Jewish and Christian support for the establishment of Israel was almost universal only after World War II: when the Arabs were linked in the popular mind with the Turks. The alliance of the Palestinian Arab Muslim Brotherhood with the Nazis during the Second World War did nothing to change that impression, nor did the fact of Soviet patronage of the Arab socialist liberation movements during the Cold War.

The perception of Israel as a defenseless refuge threatened by hate-filled Muslims changed in 1967, when the Arabs were trounced in the Six Day War. That victory created in the popular mind in America a feeling of pride at the vitality of the reborn Jewish nation. However, in the years following that victory, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza put large numbers of Palestinian Christians and Muslims under Israeli military rule. As the injustices suffered by the Palestinians began to be known, relationships between American Christians involved in educational and humanitarian organizations with Arab Christians led to a more nuanced understanding of the historical complexities of the Arab-Israel conflict and the draconian Israeli policies relating to the Arabs and their heritage in Palestine.

Sympathy for the sufferings of the Palestinians soon evolved into antipathy for Israel, particularly among newly politicized Evangelicals, many of them from Fundamentalist, premillennialist backgrounds. Those with experience in the Middle East, particularly those who had studied in the great Protestant colleges established in the Middle East in the nineteenth century, like the American Universities of Beirut and Cairo, where they were exposed to the ideologies of Arab and Palestinian Nationalism which had attracted many Arab Christians in the Middle East, and soon identified with secular national movements in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Palestine.

Rather than dealing with the real issues of just government facing the Islamic world, Christian Arabists and Christian Zionists have attacked one another, seeking to justify their political positions theologically. The result has been that they have limited their relevance to resolving the real humanitarian, geostrategic and political challenges facing Americans, Israelis, Arabs, and the rest of the world in the Middle East. The current battle between Christian Arabists and Christian Zionists is really about Evangelical power in the American political system, not achieving a just and fair political settlement for the Palestinians and Israelis. The issue is votes, Christian Zionists joining Jews in lobbying for Israel in the United States. The truth is that just as Jewish Americans are not united in their support for Israel’s policies, as anyone familiar with Jewish life in the U.S. can attest, neither are the so-called Christian Zionists. Indeed, Christian Zionists are viewed with a considerable degree of suspicion by Jewish Zionists, who fear Christian evangelism. Thoughtful Evangelicals, especially those who are informed adherents to premillennial dispensationalism as a matter of theological doctrine, are chastened politically by their negative view of human nature and their suspicions about idea of human progress—political or cultural—and any scheme to manipulate prophecy by becoming politically involved in the historic struggle over Jewish and Palestinian self-determination.

Tarred by the press as extremists, the beliefs of premillennial dispensationalist evangelicals are seen as particularly pernicious by anti-Zionist Christians because they claim to be a part of the evangelical movement, a movement that many of its leaders wish to understand as a righteous movement for social justice, universal morality, and political engagement on behalf of the poor and oppressed. While it is unfortunately true that some Christian Zionists see things in terms of black and white, there are many more, among them seminarians, college and university professors and students, professionals, and writers who hold much more balanced and constrained views of Israel in this age, the Dispensation of the Nations, that has lasted from Pentecost and will end with the Rapture.

The very mention of the Apocalypse is frightening to many Christians, and of course, foolishness to non-Christians, who scorn literal interpretations of biblical literature. Many Jews and Christians over the millennia have chosen to understand the future judgment of the world allegorically at best or as dangerous folly at worst. Dispensationalists, however, like Jewish and Muslim literalists, accept these biblical teachings as trustworthy warnings, with thanks that the Almighty continues to restrain His wrath until the terrible day when He will
judge the nations.

No comments:

Post a Comment