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Christian vs Christian?
 
We speak on behalf of the Jewish people: past, present and future. It is forbidden to give land away! - Rabbi Shalom Gold - Founder, Alot Naaleh

2 July   |   2003   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon committed himself last month to start dismantling a number of illegal Jewish settlements and outposts on the West Bank as part of the ‘roadmap’ agreement with the Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, Jewish settlers felt alarmed by this seeming shift. After all, some settlers - who also are ultra-Zionist Israelis - believe that the Jewish State should control the entire Biblical Jewish homeland. Rabbi Shalom Gold, founder of Alot Naaleh, articulated this conviction when he stressed recently that ‘the passion of our time is Eretz Yisrael’.

But ultra-Zionist Israeli settlers are not the only group that holds such exclusivist and vociferous viewpoints! So do the fundamentalist Christian Evangelicals who make up the largest single religious grouping in the USA. In fact, this extremism in both the USA and Israel typifies at times an unsettling and dangerous congruence between America and Israel in what is perceived in some quarters as the war on ‘Islamic’ terror. But this convergence goes much deeper, since those Christians interpret the Bible in a literal fashion whereby Israel plays a crucial role in bringing the Second Coming of Christ. Their proponents, from Revd Jerry Falwell to Ed McAteer, have often stated that the Bible Belt in America represents Israel’s ‘safety belt’, and that the Bible does not contain the word of God, but is the word of God.

Why are those Evangelical Christians so passionately pro-Israel, and therefore so passionately against anything that enfeebles their own perception and scenario of Israel and the end of times? Well, many of those conservative Christians - for they carry many different names - believe that the Almighty has given much of what we call the Holy Land to Israel. They quote the Book of Genesis to prove that God made a promise of land to the seed of Abraham that became the Jewish people. God also promised, they add, that those who blessed Israel would be blessed and those who cursed Israel would be cursed too (Gen12 :1-3). Applying their theology on the current roadmap, they surmise that this peace plan is in fact the treaty mentioned in Daniel (Dan9 :27) where there will be peace for three and half years before there is a major apocalyptic war for another three and half years. This dispensationalist prophecy is known as Daniel’s 70 eras or ‘dispensations’, wherein each one equals seven years, and we are now entering the last era. Bluntly put, this means that the end of the world is drawing nigh and pressure is mounting to be counted amongst those who will be saved.

However, such evangelical support for Israel is not new. It has its roots in Christian Zionism, and an early Christian eschatology called ‘historical pre-millenarianism’ which holds that God covenanted the entire land of Judaea and Samaria to the Jews, and that Jesus would return to establish his millennial kingdom after the world has been evangelised into Christianity. In the19 th century, these ideas were developed by John Nelson Darby, an Anglican priest from Ireland, who converted a generation of evangelical clergy in Europe and America to his literal interpretation of Scripture. He believed that the true Church would be removed from history through an event called the ‘rapture’ ( 1Thess4 :16-17) when the nation of Israel will be restored as God’s primary instrument in history. The end of history, many American fundamentalist evangelicals maintain, will be the final battle of Armageddon (Rev16 :16) at the site of Megiddo in the Valley of Jezreel, northwest of Jerusalem. This is why Evangelical Christians in America support the Israeli Zionist settlers of the West Bank in their standpoint that Israel should annex the West Bank and ‘transfer’ Palestinians to Jordan.

Such groups, using the horrific atrocities of 11 September2001 , are no longer even remotely interested in addressing the underlying issue of the illegal occupation by Israel of Palestinian land. They believe the world is heading for a clash of religion-based civilisations - particularly between Christianity and Judaism on the one side, and Islam on the other. No wonder then that Revd Billy Graham’s son, Franklin, once described Islam as ‘a very evil and wicked religion’. With the demise of communism, the dualism of an apocalyptic battle between good and evil has now been projected onto Islam.

A paramount theological consideration for the [largely American] Christian constituencies who support this basic interpretation of Christian Zionism is the promise that God makes to Abraham: ‘The whole land of Canaan, where you are an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you’ (Gen17 :8). In fact, throughout the Old Testament where the theme of land is both recurrent and constant, the prophets dream of a restored and God-fearing people living peacefully, rooted in their own land, under divine deliverance.

If this form of Christian radicalism were solely circumscribed to the pews of some evangelical Churches, the repercussions would not be too serious! However, the danger lies in its growing impact on the foreign policy orientations of the US Bush Administration. If unchallenged by mainline Christians, it could well introduce a millenarian and Manichean view of the conflict and fuel tensions further in the Middle East. After all, the language used at times by some US political heavyweights empowers the concerns of those large numbers of Christians who do not discern the world starkly as ‘them’ versus ‘us’ - as ‘good Christians’ versus ‘bad Christians’, ‘good Christians and Jews’ versus ‘bad Muslims’, ‘bad Christians’ versus ‘good Jews’ or ‘good Christians’ versus ‘bad Muslims’.

Ostensibly, therefore, Christ’s second coming will not occur until the Jews are restored to Israel and some of them brought to believe in Christ. The battle of Armageddon and the end of the world as we know it must follow, but the prize will be Christ’s 1000-year reign of peace. The ingathering of the Jews to Israel in the early20 th century, the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the capture of Jerusalem by the Israelis in the Six-Day War of June 1967 were proofs of the unfolding of God’s plan. It therefore follows that there can be no Palestinian state in biblical Israel and that the Jewish settlements on the West Bank must not only remain but must be expanded too. All of Jerusalem must be Israel’s capital, rather than shared with a future Palestinian state, and the city’s holiest mosque - the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa - must one day yield to the biblically forecast building of the Third Temple. To the dispensationalist way of thinking, the logical end of all these biblical imperatives is that modern-day Israel must receive unconditional support - financial, political and military - as it battles its enemies for the right to an existence ordained by God.

Not surprisingly, many people disacquiesce with this theology! Gershom Gorenberg, Israeli author of The End of Days has often protested that Christian Zionists ‘do not love real Jewish people. They love us as characters in their story, in their play’. Writing in the Washington Post in October2002 , Gorenberg also warned that Christian Zionists are offering ‘support for hard-line policies that endanger Israel in the name of fundamentalist theology’. Yet, such Israeli Jewish voices do not dent the ardency of a Christian dispensationalism gone somewhat rampant. One such ardent backer is the Californian author of the best-selling Left Behind series of books. Tim LaHaye - with Jerry Jenkins - has taken the Old Testament prophets, and the Bible’s Book of Revelation with its hair-raising predictions about the prelude to Christ’s second coming, and imagined how the end of the world might come to pass in a contemporary form. LaHaye’s ‘pre-millennial’ form of dispensationalism presupposes a belief that there will be a ‘rapture’ before the battle of Armageddon and Christ’s second coming whereby those whom God chooses to reward with his protection from the horrors of the end-times will be whisked away to safety in heaven. LaHaye’s version of the ‘rapture’ is caused by an attack on Israel that takes place in the first book of the series, while his hero is on board a plane. Those left behind must suffer seven years of ‘tribulation’ under the rule of the antichrist. LaHaye’s antichrist is the United Nations whose evil cohorts are called peacemakers and whose headquarters are located in modern Babylon (Baghdad). Those left behind undergo various trials and adventures whilst battling the antichrist, before coming gradually to recognise Christ. The Jewish hero is a charismatic rabbi who has turned to Christ. The series scorns anyone who is fooled by the tricks of the antichrist - in particular his notions of world peace, multicultural understanding or disarmament.

Yet, there are also different strands of belief within the Evangelical tradition. In fact, another considerable rump of Evangelical Christianity believes that Israel has the right to the land, but it also has the duty to treat the ‘foreigner’ with justice (Ex23 :9). Besides, since God has given the land to Israel to secure peace, those Christians then suggest that Israel alone retains the right to do what it wishes, including negotiating territory in exchange for peace with the Palestinians.

So where does all this leave those numerous Christians across the world whose interpretations of Scripture are less crisp and dry, dramatic, confrontational or even perilous? After all, one irony of this political ‘alliance’ between Jews and Christians is that the majority of the Jews are meant to die in the battle of Armageddon and the remaining ones become Christian - a theme I do not believe would find extreme popularity with many Orthodox Jews, including settlers, in Mea She’arim or elsewhere in Israel! Besides, did Jesus not remind his followers in the Parable of the Ten Virgins to keep watch, since they could not know how he would return, admonishing them also not to emote or obsess about trying to figure out the exact time of his return (Mt25 :13)? Rather, he asked them to live faithful [Christocentric] lives.

The traditional Palestinian Christian churches [Orthodox, Catholic and mainline Evangelical] regard this trend in dispensationalist theology - an antipode to supercessionism or replacement theology - as menacing, anti-peace and even heretical. Some have also considered such views as colonialist and imperialist that emphasise a redundant idyllic and pre-modern vision. Indeed, many local Christians look at their faith through Jesus as one that primarily underscores justice in its wider and more inclusive ethos. And yet, this justice is severely wanting within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today, and it worries me that a moneyed and zealous evangelical rump is shifting what is a political process for peace between Israelis and Palestinians onto a religious domain. Admittedly, those Christians who disagree vehemently with such extreme theologies also lack the unlimited funds, limitless dedication, large numbers and vocal chords to outdo or outcry them. They should therefore do what they can do best: they should learn to challenge those theologies directly - as some are already doing - through their own exegesis and interpretation of Scripture. Only then might the likes of Rabbi Shalom Gold fail to galvanise his supporters and friends with utterances that are as much frightening as they are wrong! Only then too might those disciples of Christian theology understand that Jews, Christians and Muslims should co-exist in the Holy Land as manifestations of Divine favour. And only then might our region perhaps become a place more prone to peace and reconciliation, with justice as much as dignity and security, for all of God’s creation.

Power comes to its full strength in weakness ( 2Cor 12:9)

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2003   |   2 July

 

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