Our Call to Bless Israelis and Palestinians

By Dr. David L. Johnston

Labib Madanat, Director of the Palestinian Bible Society, is a Palestinian who grew up in neighboring Jordan. While addressing a large gathering of evangelicals in Colorado Springs in the mid 1990s he said, “You pray for Israel, as well you should. But just remember that when you pray for Israel, she has two lungs. One is Israeli and the other is Palestinian.” In this tiny and crowded piece of real estate, with numbers of Palestinians and Israelis soon to be equal (six million apiece), one has to go back to God’s original promise to Abraham: “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3 NIV). Here we find God’s heart of love and compassion for all the nations. As Jesus told his disciples before ascending to heaven, “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone” (Mark 16:15 NLT).

Yet as simple as this call to pray for both peoples together may seem, this turns out to be tough for us American evangelicals to do – for two main reasons. One, politically, the United States was the first country to recognize the modern State of Israel in 1948 and has remained its most staunch ally over time. With its veto power on the Security Council, it has shielded Israel from dozens of UN resolutions - for instance, calling on it to withdraw from the Occupied Territories since 1967. Second, we inherited from the British an old and tenacious love affair with Christian Zionism. These deserve more background information.


The Roots of Christian Zionism

Already in Elizabethan England, Thomas Brightman, an Anglican priest, wrote a book of interpretation on Revelation (Apocalypsis Apocalypseos, or “The Revelation of Revelation”) in 1585, which was published after his death in 1607. In it, he called on the British church and government to find a way to restore the Jews to their original homeland, Palestine, and establish their own state once again.

In 1621, an influential Member of Parliament, Sir Henri Finch, published a pamphlet, The World’s Great Restauration [sic] or Calling of the Jews and (with them) all the Nations of the Earth, to the Faith of Christ. In it he spelled out more clearly Brightman’s innovative premillennial dispensationalist hermeneutic, that is, he interpreted Old and New Testaments in such a way as to support the idea that the Jews will be restored to their home in Palestine before the beginning of a literal reign of Jesus for one thousand years in Jerusalem (the “Millennium”). This was controversial in Christian circles because it had no precedent in church history (at least the part about the Jewish state), and because it was making political claims that King James considered threatening to his own authority—a fact that sent Finch to prison for a while.

The Christian Zionist movement slipped under the radar for the next century and a half, but, as is common with the last decade of every century, end-times speculations became rife. Add to this the fruit of the Great Awakening and tumult caused by the American and French Revolutions, and you have an explosive mixture at the end of the eighteenth century. Prophetic concern with the role of Israel and the calling of Britain to help its political restoration makes a dramatic comeback. Many prominent British clergymen, academics and politicians stand behind the newly formed London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews (LSPCJ) and its popular journal, The Jewish Expositor.

By far the most influential exponent of Christian Zionism, however, was the founder of the Plymouth Brethren movement, John Nelson Darby. A man of great spiritual depth, love for people, and a prolific writer gifted with unusual leadership skills, Darby left the Church of England to found a movement of home churches, which he helped to establish from the Americas to Africa, from Europe to Australia and New Zealand. Yet much more significant than the 1,500 fellowships he founded worldwide were his views on eschatology and his literal interpretation of Old Testament prophecies of Israel’s exiles returning to their land. This is especially important for American evangelicalism, for Darby came seven times to North America, finding receptive ears among the founders of Bible and Prophecy Conference movement in the late nineteenth century. Among the leaders he influenced were James Brooks, the Philadelphia Presbyterian, Dwight L. Moody in Chicago, and most significantly, C. I. Scofield, the creator of the Scofield Bible, whose commentary was to mold the next two or three generations on both sides of the Atlantic.

Donald E. Wagner, in his Anxious for Armageddon, points out the two salient innovations in Darby’s reading of the Bible (besides the premillennial dispensationalism, which was no longer new by then): 

  1. The Church would be replaced by Israel in the end times. Whereas the New Testament sees the Church comprising Jewish and Gentile believers as central to God’s kingdom purposes both here and in the its future installment (Eph. 3:1-6, for instance), Darby sees it differently:

    "The Church has sought to settle itself here; but it has no place on the earth . . [Though] making a most constructive parenthesis, it forms no part of the regular order of God’s earthly plans, but is merely an interruption of them to give a fuller character and meaning to them (the Jews) (quoted in Wagner, 90)."

  2. Darby puts forward a new doctrine, the “pre-tribulation rapture,” a mechanism that conveniently removes the Church from the earth, so that Christ reigns for one thousand years as the Messiah of the Jewish state. This has since been a central plank of dispensationalist theology.

These theological ideas, however, would never have had much impact on the “real” world were it not for their adoption by the British political elites in the nineteenth century. Of these, Lord Shaftesbury was undoubtedly the most influential. Besides his devotion to the ideas of Darby he already was a defender of the poor and a leader of the Clapham Sect, which a few years before included the anti-slavery activist William Wilberforce. Shaftesbury published a landmark essay in 1839 (“State and Restauration [sic] of the Jews”), calling for a massive immigration of Jews to Palestine in order to set up their own state. His solution effectively welded British colonial imperialism with Darby’s dispensationalism:

Shaftesbury then submitted two pragmatic, political suggestions for Britain: (1) that Britain play the critical political role in allowing Jews to return to power and presence in ancient Palestine; (2) that the Church of England establish a bishopric and cathedral in Jerusalem (Wagner, 91).

Unsurprisingly, the British Foreign Office soon warmed up to the idea. The Bishopric was established during Shaftesbury’s lifetime, and his political slogan, “A country without a nation for a nation without a country” was picked up in the next generation by the founders of modern Zionism, Israel Zangwell and Theodor Herzl, with a slight change: “A land of no people for people with no land.” 

Characteristically, the Palestinians were less than “people.” They were the proverbial “fly in the ointment.”  So when Lord David Balfour, the evangelical Foreign Secretary during World War I, sent his famous memorandum to British Jew Lord Rothschild in effect promising Palestine to the Jews at a time when they comprised less than ten percent of the population, it was followed by the contradictory Sykes-Picot Agreement between the French, British (and Russians in the background), carving up the Middle East in such a way as to grant Palestinians more autonomy. Such ambivalence continues to plague western policies with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today.


Israel and the American Christian Right

Since so much has been written on this, we only need to present a brief synopsis here. In its early days, the State of Israel could count on the support of the Roman Catholic Church and the mainline Protestant churches aligned with the World Council of Churches (WCC) in the United States. Church leaders and theologians were bending over backwards to apologize for and repudiate Christendom’s age-old history of anti-Semitism in the wake of the Holocaust. A shift occurred in the late 1970s, however. First, Jerry Falwell’s founding of the Moral Majority in 1976 marked the beginning of evangelical forays into US politics. Evangelical political muscle grew rapidly as he, Pat Robertson and other evangelical leaders stood behind the election of Georgia governor and Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher, Jimmy Carter.

Despite this high-profile victory, the relationship between these leaders and the President soured the next year over the issue of Israel. Carter, who was adamant about applying his faith to the issue of human rights for all peoples, stated in a 1977 speech that Palestinians must be given their own “homeland,” if they were to enjoy their basic human rights alongside Israelis. Falwell, irked by this statement, only drew closer to the newly elected Likud Prime Minister of Israel, and in 1981 succeeded in garnering overwhelming evangelical support for the election of Ronald Reagan. Part of the election campaign was the much-noticed alliance of the Israel Lobby (AIPAC) and the Christian Right. Full-page advertisements appeared in all major US newspapers eliciting support for Israel: “We affirm as evangelicals our belief in the Promised Land for the Jewish people.... We would view with grave concern any effort to carve out of the Jewish homeland another nation or political entity.”

During his presidency, Reagan pronounced seven times the word “Armageddon” in relation to Israel and the neighboring Arab states. Evangelicals knew that his own dispensationalist views would guarantee his unwavering support for Israel and its aggressive policy of multiplying settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Significantly, at two White House briefings during the Reagan presidency on the special relationship between Israel and the United States only Christian Right evangelicals were invited.

The bonds between the Israel Lobby and the Christian Right were made even tighter in the aftermath of the 2001 September attacks. In the April 2002 “Washington Rally for Israel” on the Washington Mall, Jewish and Christian speakers, politicians and clergymen, addressed more than 100,000 people, urging them to close their ranks even more behind a beleaguered Israel. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was certainly applauded, but the most effusive cheers were reserved for Family Research Council spokesperson Janet Parshall, who proclaimed, “I stand before you today representing the National Religious Broadcasters . . . we represent millions of Christian broadcasters in this country. We stand with you [Israel] now and forever” (quoted by Donald E. Wagner in “Short Fuse to Apocalypse?” Sojourners, July 2003, online).

The annual Feast of Tabernacles celebration in Jerusalem is no doubt the high water mark of Israeli-Christian Right collaboration. Organized by the flagship Christian Zionist organization, the International Christian Embassy-Jerusalem, it draws more than 3,000 Christians from North America, Europe and South Africa, and always features prominent Israeli politicians thanking them for their support and underlying how crucial it is to the very survival of their state. Yet if you ask Palestinian Christian leaders in Israel or the West Bank how they feel about this show of blind loyalty to the nation that keeps them under its thumb, they can only express dismay. They feel betrayed by these foreign Christians who seem oblivious to their suffering –when they are not downright hostile to them. For all those in the Occupied Territories, Muslim or Christian (Gaza and the West Bank), the bitter fruit of 43 years of brutal military occupation has taken its toll. Yet, as Christians, we should perhaps mourn the fact that Christianity is dying in the land where it was born. The hardship of occupation has caused greater emigration among Christians than Muslims. Their percentage is now under one percent (it was close to 20 in 1948).  

(to be continued in a forthcoming post)