06 September 2010

RFIA Draft Paper on Christian Zionism

Is Christian Zionism Based On “Bad Theology”?
Judith Mendelsohn Rood & Paul W. Rood Biola University
The current criticism of Christian Zionism (hereafter CZ) comes from many quarters: secularists (both Jews and Gentiles), many religious Jews, Christian Arabists, and Islamists (Hamas cleric Ahmed al-Tamimi identified CZ as “the greatest danger to world truth, justice, and peace”). Ironically, Christians are among the most vociferous critics of CZ. An evangelical critic of Zionism, Hank Hanegraaff, writes "much of American Middle East policy is influenced by a huge voting bloc of evangelicals who are taught not to question Israel’s divine right to the land… fueled in part by bad theology.” Anglican theologian Stephen Sizer maintains that a distinctive theology embraced by many evangelical Christians, known as dispensational pre-millennialism, is foundational to CZ and a root cause of the deadlocked Israel-Palestinian Arab conflict. He writes, “bad theology is probably the reason why many Christians don’t seem to care …. they hope to be raptured to heaven and avoid suffering the consequences of the coming global holocaust” that the policies they support will ignite. This caricature is unfair to Christian supporters of Israel and an intentional distortion of dispensationalism. Evangelical Gary Burge has deployed theology to demolish any Jewish connection to Zion, an interpretation that Christian Arab Mitri Raheb vigorously challenges, emphasizing the importance of the land in Palestinian theology and Jewish and Church history. The fact that some people claim to find theological justification for bad political policies does not necessarily indicate bad theology; bad policy more often springs from bad interpretations of history and contemporary events, interpreted with bad applications of ethics and theology.
What is “dispensational theology”?
The distinctive theological tenets of dispensationalism include belief in the authority of the Bible and a philosophy of Providential history framed within respect for the prophetic writings in the Bible, in which the unique past, present and future role of the nation of Israel occupies a central role in God’s plan. The term itself seems to imply that what is distinctive about this theology is its division of human history into distinct “ages” or “dispensations” (most dispensationalists identify seven ages, or more, stretching from the Creation of man through the future millennial age). However, all Christian theologies hold to some division of history into different eras, and Christians holding to traditional orthodox doctrine also affirm the authority of Scripture and historical Providence as well as distinctive historical periods in biblical history. What is most distinctive about dispensationalism is its belief in a future literal fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, including the restoration of the Jewish nation in the Holy Land during the Millennial Age.
Other systems of theology hold that God’s covenant with Israel was transferred to the Christian Church, which became the new Israel at Pentecost. Sizer says “(CZ) errs most profoundly because it fails to appreciate the relationship between the Old and New Covenants and the ways in which the latter completes, fulfils and annuls the former.” In his view, the “bad theology” of dispensationalism, leads to blind support for the modern Jewish state of Israel and its “unjust” and “racist” policies. Sizer argues that the ethne, or People (Hebrew: ‘am) of Israel has no continuing theological significance during the Church Age, including no continuing or future role in providential history, nor a continuing valid connection to the land of Israel. Instead, in this view, there is no reason for the Jews to exist as a separate People of God because individual ethnic Jews, (like individual Gentiles), find fulfillment of their covenants and calling in Christ and His Church, in which they gain a new identity in Christ. Thus, they are no longer Jews, but Christians. This confusion of Israel as people with a territorial homeland, like the all the nations of the world, and Israel as a priesthood that leads them in the worship of God from Zion, as they did once and which they will do again, is a common error, an error which has led to Christian Anti-Semitism throughout the Church Age, the Age of the Nations.
Following the Holocaust, the Catholic Church articulated important theological statements concerning Israel and the Church in order to affirm that the Jewish People has a continuing significance in God’s plan. Similarly, some non-dispensational theologies give recognition to an enduring promise and blessing for Israel, believing the Kingdom of God as not fully realized until Christ’s future Second Advent when the redeemed from all of the nations, including the Jewish People, will be united in the Millennial Age. Other theological views are more explicit regarding Israel’s replacement, or fulfillment in Christ, and the “Kingdom of God” instituted in the Church, and completed progressively in history. In 1907, during the heyday of Progressivism, liberal theologian Walter Rauschenbusch spoke confidently of helping “to build the coming Messianic era of mankind” through a social gospel of the Kingdom. Similarly, many Jewish theologians, while rejecting the notion that God had replaced Israel with the Gentile Church, view the “Messianic Kingdom” as an activity of human progress, rather than the future accomplishment of Israel’s Messiah.
The wars and genocides of the twentieth century sobered many. Reinhold Niebuhr, a social gospel progressive of the 1920s who briefly flirted with Marxism, formulated his sober perspective of “Christian Realism” during WWII. While not embracing the dispensational system he commented favorably on its grounding in realism: “these various apocalyptic visions point to an interpretation of history in which there is no suggestion of a progressive triumph of good over evil, but rather a gradual sharpening of the distinction between good and evil.”

Current Concerns About Christian Zionism
According to a 2005 survey commissioned by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, evangelical Protestants are significantly more likely to believe that “God gave the land of Israel to the Jews” (72%) and that “Israel fulfills the Biblical prophecy about Jesus’ second coming” (63%). Many critics of CZ object that any faith in the literal fulfillment of prophecy is dangerous in and of itself; that “anticipation of the inevitable”, makes apocalyptic catastrophe more likely.
Others see less reason for alarm, appreciating CZs’ participation in the ongoing dynamic process by which contending perspectives check and balance each other, keeping American foreign relations grounded in our core values. Walter Russell Mead comments that for most evangelical Protestants, the “preservation of the Jews and their return to Israel is seen as proof that God acts in history — a very reassuring thought for people concerned about the dangers of modern life.” Mead notes that while some CZs may have their political judgment disoriented by apocalyptic speculation, “there are many others for whom it means just the opposite…. (that) this God is still around, still faithful to his promises, and still guiding humanity through the dangers that surround us. To be pro-Israel is to be pro-hope.”
Well, if mainstream CZs are relatively benign, how dangerous are the most zealous? The political philosopher Erik Voegelin warned of the dangerous desire to actualize eschatological events, describing this as the attempt to “Immanentize the Eschaton” by transfiguring reality through esoteric deeds, rituals or violent practices. Dispensationalism’s eschatological seriousness has led some errant adherents to become infected with a pathology which overrules or even violates their faith in Divine prophetic fulfillment. A few extreme outliers may attempt to use their own power to implement policies or create conditions to initiate the apocalypse. Responsible religious leaders need to guard against this deceit and guide their congregations toward a rational and normative obedience to the moral law and the Gospel.
Today, the most visible of the CZ organizations, CUFI (Christians United for Israel) and the ICEJ (International Christian Embassy in Jersusalem), provide necessary advocacy to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, promote Israel as a liberal democracy and support Israel’s legitimate security needs. As Christians, they are motivated by a sense of shame about the Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, and indebtedness to the Jewish people for the faith of their Patriarchs, and their transmission of Holy Scripture to mankind. However, to varying degrees these organizations have lost the sober bearings of earlier Christian Zionists and normative dispensationalists, who accepted the brute reality that Israel (like all states, churches and people) is fallen, with a capacity to violate rights and commit acts of injustice – the very sins condemned by the Hebrew prophets -- and that such violations of God’s eternal moral law could never be justified by the necessity for prophetic fulfillment. Examples of our areas of concern are summarized below.
Territorial Compromise and Peace Negotiations
CZ media channels frequently send out dire warnings over any threatened loss of occupied territory. Strategic defense, civilian safety and security measures are factors for legitimate concern; it is another thing for some CZ leaders to view the territories currently under Israeli occupation as Jewish by right of divinely ordained conquest, causing them to view territorial compromise as unbiblical, opposing diplomatic negotiations that might lead to Palestinian self-government. Over the centuries, the three monotheistic faiths have battled over the sacred spaces in the Holy Land. Israeli fundamental law is committed to maintain the peaceful shared use of the holy sites, so some compromises over sacred geography must be acknowledged, rather than strenuously opposed by extreme CZ leaders.
Many dispensationalists have spoken out to guide their followers away from these dangerous positions. The full extent of the land promised to Abraham’s seed (Gen. 15:18), expounded further by the prophet Ezekiel (Ezek. 47:15-20), has never been under the control of a sovereign Jewish state. While the People of Israel is regathering and their homeland re-established, the territorial restoration of the Jewish nation, and their service to their King and Savior Jesus Christ, is a future eschatological event. The late Louis Goldberg, wrote in 1997, “all of the land which God has provided cannot be a current concern for negotiation. Some Israelis lay claim to the land now, but it will only be a reality when …. an entire generation of Israelis, in the midst of frightful pressures, call upon the Lord in their land…then, and only then, will Israel take title to all the land God promised through His prophet Ezekiel.”
Although most dispensationalists believe that in the last days Israel will enter into a peace treaty for seven years, later broken after 3 ½ years, marking the beginning of the catastrophic events of the Tribulation, they understand that no peace treaty made by men lasts forever, and many treaties are preferable to no treaty. No one can be sure this or that treaty is the end of days treaty mentioned in Daniel 9:27. Dispensationalist theologian, Arnold Fruchtenbaum, expressed a pragmatic view: “I am not against Israeli withdrawal from either the Gaza Strip or from segments of the West Bank. It may save Jewish lives….concerning the roadmap for peace … whatever peace is attained through human effort will be temporary at best.” The Israeli people and their government are in the best position to make pragmatic policy decisions concerning negotiations with the Palestinians, and their Christian friends should support their diplomatic efforts.
CZ and Compassionate Justice
Many CZ leaders view the humanitarian and political crisis of the Palestinian Arabs, as self-inflicted, and some would say, even divine retribution for their opposition to the State of Israel. Whatever truth may lie in this perspective, it is no excuse for indifference toward the suffering of innocents and failure to support programs for Palestinian education, development and reconciliation. CZ organizations fund West Bank Jewish settlements, ignoring projects that seek to strengthen civil society and public safety in the West Bank and Gaza. Fortunately, there are a few Christian organizations, like Seeds of Hope in Jericho, that empower Palestinians with education and micro-business projects that bring hope and healing to both Jews and Palestinians. CZ leaders have also failed to advocate for full religious and political rights for Christian Palestinians and Messianic Jews. Christians who want to show their love for the Jewish people should be willing to share about the One who loves us so much, and to defend the rights of those who do. Indeed, local Israeli Messianic and evangelical Arab congregations are among the groups most actively involved in reconciliation ministries.
Dr. Mark Bailey, President of Dallas Theological Seminary, considered the pre-eminent center of dispensationalist theology, notes that Ezekiel’s prophesy of Israel’s return is to a land with non-Jewish peoples, including their ancient Arab kin, “You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel.” (Ezekial 47:21-22). He urges, “We act most like Christ when we seek to bring God’s perspective and peace to a situation.”

Was early Christian Zionism different?
Dispensationalism did not produce any heavyweight political ethicists or international relations theorists like Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Ramsey, or neo-Christian Realist Jean Bethke Elshtain. Nevertheless, dispensationalists are clearly more (though not entirely) futurist regarding the Kingdom of God and fundamentally in agreement with the pragmatism of the realists, who recognize as operating principles the need for deterrence and restraint of evil, activated by an ethic of compassionate justice for a suffering world.

The politicized form of CZ that has risen to prominence today differs greatly from the earliest CZ perspectives of a century ago. Proto-CZ emerged out of the Protestant Reformation, drawing from both Hebrew Scriptures (the Tanakh) and the early Church. These interpretations of prophecies focus on the regathering and restoration of the People of Israel to their ancient homeland, as well as the spiritual redemption of the nation which will enable them to practice their spiritual calling on behalf of all the nations of the world. As many recently published historical studies have documented, these early perspectives varied significantly, some focusing on the spiritual redemptionist aspect of large masses of individual Jews turning to faith in Jesus as Messiah; others focused on the restorationist miracle of Jewish preservation and their modern regathering in their ancient homeland. Most held to elements of both.
Political Zionism arose only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nearly all Jewish leaders opposed the movement, as did quite a few dispensationalist Christians. Support for political Zionism gradually emerged across a broad spectrum of Anglo-American Christians and Reformed Jews, largely motivated in response to the humanitarian crisis caused by the suffering of millions of displaced Jews expelled by rising forces of nationalism and anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe.

In 1878, Chicago businessman and dispensationalist William E. Blackstone, wrote a best-selling theological book, Jesus is Coming, outlining the Biblical prophecies concerning the restoration of national Israel as a preparation for Jesus’ second Messianic return. He did not become a CZ activist until ten years later, when he witnessed and compassionately responded to the mass expulsions of over two million poor, stateless Jews from the Russian Pale of Settlement.
In 1891, Blackstone drafted and circulated the historic “Blackstone Memorial Petition” proposing an international conference to establish a refuge for homeless Jews in Palestine. Signed by over 400 of America’s leading citizens, statesmen and religious leaders, the Petition addressed issues of humanitarian justice and natural-rights, opening with the words “What shall be done for the Russian Jews?” The Petition urged the European and American heads of state to convene an international conference addressing the following: expulsions and property seizures in Europe, immigration/emigration to Palestine, and territorial issues leading to “security and autonomy in self government”. It noted that the equitable resolution of these issues involved a bundle of competing rights and claims – but it contained no theological statement concerning prophetic fulfillment. The only religious connection was to acknowledge and seek to repair the long history of Jewish persecution in the Christian nations by appealing to an appreciation of their shared biblical heritage.

The principles laid out by Blackstone were remarkably similar to those of the Balfour Declaration and League of Nation’s Mandate for Palestine three decades later. This is why Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, leader of the American Zionist Movement, asked William Blackstone to reissue his Memorial Petition in 1916, believing it incorporated the principles upon which a just and humanitarian Jewish homeland movement could be founded. Brandeis hailed “that document, ante-dating as it did Theodore Herzl’s own participation in the Zionist movement, is destined to become of historical significance” and called Blackstone “the true founder of Zionism.”
Early Christian Zionism and the Arabs
Other early dispensationalists were similarly grounded in realism, clearly appreciating the rights and hopes of the Arabs in Mandatory Palestine (in this period it was the Jewish residents of Palestine who were called “Palestinians”. After 1948, the usage shifted as they became “Israelis” and their Arab neighbors in Israel and the places they were scattered began to be called “Palestinians”.) Jewish Christian Rev. Sabbtai Rohold, founder of the evangelical Haifa Mission in 1920, wrote: “I believe with all my heart and soul in the absolute, full restoration of the Jew, and I believe also at the present time in the partial return of the Jew to Palestine, but there are many difficulties…. Modern Zionism is the result of anti-Semitism, but six hundred thousand Arabs cannot be brushed aside…. As for the great plans and pretenses, good offices, and the sympathy of the nations, that is beautiful; but let me tell you, and I repeat it emphatically, that the undercurrents are too many.” Rohold was adamant that his Haifa Mission school, Jewish immigrant shelter, and medical clinic would maintain warm and supportive relations with his Moslem and Christian Arab neighbors. In Rohold’s school, Jewish immigrants would learn Arabic first, and then Hebrew. His Hebrew congregation would celebrate the Biblical feasts and also join with the Christian Arab congregation for Christmas Eve and Easter Morning worship. The clinic and school staff were a mixture of Arabs and Jews. Rohold pursued his pragmatic program of humanitarian refuge, reconciliation and gospel witness through each difficult day and week from 1921, through the Arab riots of 1929 and the ensuing years of violent resistance to Jewish immigration, up until his death in 1931.
Bible scholar David L. Cooper, whose classic works of dispensational theology shaped several generations of theologians and Christian Zionists, wrote in 1939 on the growing tensions between Arab and Jew in Palestine: “Those who know God and His Word have a sympathy and love for every race, tribe, tongue, and people. Especially so, the Arabic people because they too are descendants of Abraham. …These people have a right to live in the land because of the history of the past one thousand years…. To them this is their home.… The birthright of every individual coming into the world grants him an opportunity to live and pursue peace and happiness…No man or group of men are able…to harmonize the conflicting claims of the Jews and Arabs in Palestine…Thus with ill-will toward none, but with the kindliest feelings toward all parties concerned, we shall pray very earnestly to God to have His will in this matter and to unravel the difficulty for the advancement of His cause among men.”
Blackstone, Rohold and Cooper were among the most widely known dispensational Bible teachers in America, yet their pragmatic foreign policy and international relations views were remarkably consistent with those expressed a generation later by the Christian Realist and Zionist Reinhold Niebuhr. The more liberal Niebuhr scorned the prophetic literalism of evangelical revivalists, stating “we feel as embarrassed as anti-Zionist religious Jews when messianic claims are used to substantiate the right of the Jews to the particular homeland in Palestine”. Nevertheless, he shared with other early CZs a case for Zionism framed in the language of justice. Niebuhr’s clear response to the anti-Semitism of Europe and the racial policies of the Nazi’s, was to affirm that “many Christians are pro-Zionist in the sense that they believe that a homeless people require a homeland”. Ten years after its dramatic establishment, Niebuhr wrote, “History is full of strange configurations. Among them is the thrilling emergence of the State of Israel.” Dispensationalists viewed these events as fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Nevertheless, their faith did not fundamentally overrule their profound pragmatic realism nor deter them from following an ethic of compassionate justice.
Tony Maalouf presents a scholarly interpretation of the interwoven history and Biblical prophecies concerning the shared destiny and blessing of the Jewish and Arab peoples in his book Arabs in the Shadow of Israel. Maalouf, an evangelical Arab theologian, and self-described progressive dispensationalist, views the current divide between many evangelical CZs and anti-Zionists as “a crisis of interpretation of history and theology.” Maalouf counsels Christians to prioritize “the redemptive mandate over the political agendas…and invest in the spiritual awakening predicted among both the Arabs and the Jews. Removing unwarranted biases against Arabs, which neither Bible nor history sustains, would play a healing role in the Middle East conflict”.
The crisis of contemporary Christian Zionism is not “bad theology”, but “bad praxis”. The faithful Gospel witness and ethic of compassionate justice demonstrated by the early Christian “lovers of Zion” is a model that can restore this movement to be a pragmatic, constructive and healing partner.

1 comment:

  1. This draft doesn't include footnotes. For those, go to jmendelsohnrood google website via my fb page.