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At the CCADD meeting on January 17th 2008, Canon Flora Winfield, who was due to speak about the Middle East, was at the last minute unable to come. Sir Hugh Beach valiantly stepped into the breach by volunteering to talk off the cuff about Christian Zionism. He had recently written a paper on this subject, so was able to extemporise a talk on the spur of the moment. This turned out to be a most interesting subject, with a lot of relevance to the Middle East and its problems, and Hugh’s talk stimulated a very illuminating discussion. His paper follows, with a short note of some of the main discussion points.’
Paul Rogers, the very shrewd and prescient professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University, has just brought out a book called ‘Towards Sustainable Security’. In the first chapter he talks about the aims of the al-Qaeda movement, some of which stretch well into the future, up to 50 or even 100 years ahead. He argues that America has similar long-term aims for the Middle East. One of them, obviously, is oil. But interestingly he puts that in second place after what he calls ‘the central place of Israel in US policy in the Middle East’. This is rooted, of course, in the strong support of the American Jewish lobby for the state of Israel since its founding in 1948, and then in the Cold War as a bulwark of Western interests against Soviet influence in Egypt and Syria. When the Cold War ended the support of the American Jewish community for Israel tended to decline, due to lack of sympathy with the hard-line policies of Sharon. But the Israel lobby benefited substantially from the increasing electoral and political influence of Christian Zionism. He goes on:
‘With a substantial minority of the American evangelical community of over 100 million people believing that the Jews of Israel have a God-given dispensation to prepare the way for the End Days and the second coming of Christ, support for Israel is a natural outcome. This is directly reflected, in turn, in support for the Republican Party …. While Christian Zionism may not maintain its current political significance in future administrations, it is likely to remain a major force in US politics, substantially aiding those who regard the enduring support for Israel as being fundamental to US interests in the Middle East.’
Note his use of the very strong word ‘fundamental’. Reverting to the Jewish lobby in a later chapter he says that support for Israel among Christian evangelicals extends way beyond the convinced Christian Zionists, although that group alone encompasses well over 20 million people:
‘In a poll conducted by Zogby (a much respected American pollster), 31% of those surveyed strongly believed or somewhat believed in the theme of Christian Zionism if defined as “the belief that Jews must have all of the promised land, including all of Jerusalem, to facilitate the second coming of the Messiah”. A separate Pew poll showed the 53% of those surveyed believed that Israel was given by God to the Jews and a CNN/Time poll indicated that 59% of those polled believed in the prophecies of the Book of Revelations’.
In such an environment, he says, ‘it makes political sense to present the American predicament as a fundamental conflict with the forces of radical Islam, the key point being to ensure that such a term embraces those movements seen to threaten Israel.’ This helps, perhaps to explain why Iran, for example, remains impaled upon the ‘Axis of Evil’. If so, and if the effect is as long-term as Paul Rogers believes, then this theology, which you and I presumably regard as a Christian heresy, has very long tentacles indeed.
Where does it come from? Apocalyptic thought foresees a future climax to history and tries to unlock the secrets concerning the timing, sequence of events and other details, leading to the end of history or Last Times (The roots of this probably lie in Persia and later spread to Assyria and Babylon. So it became familiar to Jewish writers during their captivity in those countries. There are traces of it to be found in Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Matthew 24, Thessalonians and of course the ‘Apocalypse’ itself (the Book of Revelation).
Christian Zionism holds that there is an essential continuity between Old and New Testaments and their peoples. The Puritans were the first to seize on this point. Keen to read the Bible in its original texts they were forced to seek out Rabbis, in Amsterdam, to teach them Hebrew. From them they also learned that God’s covenant with the Jews was eternal; that Palestine was their rightful home and that God would eventually ensure their return. (’Restorationism’) The same idea was picked up 200 years later in the 1830s by evangelical Christians and influenced such major figures as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Lord Shaftesbury. John Nelson Darby, an Irish Anglican who defected from the church and helped to form the Plymouth Brethren, did most to spread these ideas by regular trips to the United States around 1870. Darby added some ideas of his own: for example, that ‘born again’ Christians would be swept up to heaven prior to Jesus’ return. (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17) This event came to be called the ‘Rapture’. Perhaps the greatest advance in the popularity of this thinking came from the publication, by the American Congregational minister Cyrus I .Scofield, of the Schofield Study Bible in 1909. The Christian Zionism of its day had a great effect on David Lloyd George and Lord Balfour. Its theories coincided neatly with British imperial ambitions for a land bridge to India, and they came together in Balfour’s famous speech in 1919:
“For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country … The four great powers are committed to Zionism, and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit the ancient land.”
The full doctrine is known technically as ‘futurist premillennialist dispensationalism’. Its key features include:
- a literal interpretation of scripture;
- the view of certain key biblical texts as having a future fulfillment;
- a sequence of events during the ‘Last Days’ that leads to a type of
- a highly pessimistic view of history and of humanity.
The prophetic count-down includes the rise of a mysterious figure called the Antichrist; the development of a coalition of nations who will follow this demonic leader; and an attack on Israel which will lead to a final battle of Armageddon. The revived Jewish state will become God’s primary instrument to thwart the power of this evil coalition and the Antichrist. Just as Israel is about to be attacked the true believers in Christ will be removed from history in the ‘Rapture’ (1 Thessalonians 4:17. Then we … shall be caught up … in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord). Jesus would then return to defeat the Antichrist at Armageddon and establish the Millennial Kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital. Being biblical literalists, most premillennial thinkers see the modern state of Israel as the community God will use in this End Time scenario. Its establishment in 1948 and the capture of Jerusalem and the West Bank are the fulfillment of prophetic texts and a sign that Jesus will soon return.
Underlying this theology is one crucial point which represents a radical departure from the basic doctrines of Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant theology. There are two distinct Covenants and Covenant people: the Jew and the Christian. In this system disproportionate emphasis is placed on the Covenant with Abraham and Israel. The Covenant with Jesus and the Church are superseded and made functionally irrelevant, or as Darby puts it ‘a mere parenthesis’. The church is literally on the sidelines in this system. With the return of Jesus the true believers or the ‘saved’ will be translated out of history.
Apart from sidelining the church there are three other obvious theological errors in this way of thinking.
Christian Zionists also profess themselves to be eager for the series of wars which, they believe, will presage Jesus’ return. This clearly has important, not to say dangerous ramifications for the whole of the Middle East, since a build up of military capability and subsequently wars themselves are welcomed. Christian Zionists in America thought judgement day was near during the Israeli attacks on Lebanon in 2006, and lobbied to delay a ceasefire. They actively support the continued massive military aid which helps to pay for the Israeli Defence Force and keep it as the superior power in the region. It is this force which maintains the occupation of the Occupied Territories. While this continues, there can be no justice for the Palestinian people and therefore no peace with Israel’s neighbours.
Christian Zionism has become significantly more prominent in the last 20 years, since the establishment of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, and in particular since 11 September 2001. The main annual focus for the work of the International Christian Embassy is the Feast of Tabernacles, a week-long event coinciding with the Jewish festival of Succot. The week offers seminars and teaching, worship and public demonstrations, and is welcomed by Israeli ministers. In October 2007 a record attendance of over 7,000 Christian pilgrims from 90 nations took part in the Jerusalem March. Ignoring a rabbinic ban on Jewish participation, some 30,000 Israelis joined the Christian pilgrims, watched by tens of thousands of on-lookers.
Scripture, and the way it is used are at the heart of this discussion. To give you an idea of how it works for Christian Zionists I have looked up in the Scofield Study Bible the section on Revelation 19:17. The verse reads as follows:
‘And I saw an angel standing in the sun; and he cried with a loud voice, saying to all the fowls that fly in the midst of heaven, Come and gather yourselves together unto the supper of the great God;’
This sounds straightforward enough, a text that might well have appealed to Saint Francis. But not for Scofield. He picks up on the word ‘Come’ and glosses it as follows:
‘Armageddon (the ancient hill and valley of Megiddo, west of Jordan in the plain of Jezreel) is the appointed place for the beginning of the great battle in which the Lord, at His coming in glory, will deliver the Jewish remnant besieged by the Gentile world-powers under the Beast and False Prophet Revelation 16:13-16; Zechariah 12:1-9. Apparently the besieging hosts, whose approach to Jerusalem is described in Isaiah 10:28-32 alarmed by the signs which precede the Lord's coming Matthew 24:29,30 have fallen back to Megiddo, after the events of Zechariah 14:2 where their destruction begins; a destruction consummated in Moab and the plains of Idumea Isaiah 63:1-6. This battle is the first event in "the day of Jehovah" Isaiah 2:12 and is the fulfilment of the smiting-stone prophecy of Daniel 2:35.’
I wonder what you make of this? I cannot get my mind around it. I can see how a biblical author could write history - as he or she saw it - together with commentary and predictions related to their own time which could indeed be proved right. I can see how a poet, like the author of the Book of Job or a psalmist, could be inspired to write passages of enduring beauty and truth - as indeed did the classical Greek authors who were roughly their contemporaries. What I simply cannot grasp is how a job lot of cherry-picked gobbets, like those conjured up by Scofield, can be woven together to make up a precise narrative of events still in the future, each one bearing a meaning that cannot possibly have been intended by the original author. This seems to me to be, quite frankly, blasphemous. The only exception, about which I feel vaguely uneasy, is God’s Covenant with Abram. (Genesis 15:18). This was repeated to Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Joshua. Its meaning is quite unambiguous. It is explicitly open ended and the authors clearly intended it to be so. From the Christian point of view we are faced with a straight challenge: is the return of the Jews to Palestine to be read as the direct action of God in space and time? Or is it nothing of the kind?
To finish with here are four quotations. The first is from the Book of Acts 1:6,7 describing Jesus’s last appearance on earth:
‘So when they had come together they asked him, “Lord will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”’ (It is the classic millennialist question.) ‘He said to them “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the father has fixed by his own authority”’
He did not even try to be polite or diplomatic. In his farewell remarks to his friends he was forthright to the point of bluntness. ‘Forget it!’
The next quotation comes from Michael Freund, former director of communications for Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2006 he wrote:
‘Thank God for Christian Zionists. Like it or not the future of the relationship between Israel and the US may very well hinge far less on America’s Jews than on its Christians’.
If this is true, then God help all of us. But there are other views.
Nicholas Guyatt is an English-born history lecturer, educated at Cambridge and Princeton and now at Simon Fraser University in Canada. In his book called ‘Have a Nice Doomsday’ he has clearly done excellent research on the subject. As the abstract puts it:
‘The popular imagination, perhaps, has the apocalyptos mixed up with the neocons, the pro-Israel lobby and the Republican Party machine: an aggressively on-message, uncannily univocal regiment of media manipulators. But the ones Guyatt meets tend to be far more flaky than that. They can’t keep appointments or present a media-friendly face to a journalist. You get the feeling that they operate in a closed system, where the only people they can really talk to are already caught up in the machinery of apocalyptic prophecy.’
So I very much hope that Nicholas Guyatt is right. And there growing evidence that he is. In a recent article the New York Times columnist Frank Rich foresees the demise of the ‘values czars’ because the ‘white evangelical Christians and a new generation of evangelical leaders have tacked a different course’. (International Herald Tribune, 29 October 2007). He says:
‘A CBS poll this month parallels what the New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick found in his examination of evangelicals for Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. Like most other Americans, they are more interested in hearing from presidential candidates about the war in Iraq and health care than about any other issues. Abortion and same-sex marriage landed at the bottom of that list.’
If he is correct, and the religious right have lost their influence even on issues like abortion and gay marriage (not to mention euthanasia, stem cell research, GM crops and their hatred of Rudy Giuliani) then perhaps there is hope that their ability to affect policy on Israel and Palestine may be waning in parallel. Let’s hope so.
Questions and Discussion