13 August 2020
We invited EPF PIN member Cliff Cutler to follow up on FOSNA’s #CounterCUFI: Invest in Justice campaign which EPF PIN endorsed. He reviews the tenets of Christian Zionism and sets out how we might take next steps in countering CUFI.
Domination or Liberation: Christian Zionism or the Jesus Movement?
I met liberation theologian Naim Ateek at Saint George’s Cathedral in East Jerusalem in 1996. The worship was in Arabic, but he translated his homily for the several of us who were visiting from the U.S. Afterwards he graciously invited us to join a small base community Bible Study. There he shared his fear of the evangelical influence of the Christian right. This struck me as odd. The Moral Majority had disbanded in 1989, some seven years before! The Christian right to my mind was in decline. I was wrong: a year later in 1997 Bibi Netanyahu keynoted a massive rally organized by Jerry Falwell protesting then-President Bill Clinton’s attempt to pressure Israel into withdrawing from settlements on the West Bank. Ten years after my first meeting with Naim Ateek, Texas mega-church televangelist John Hagee founded the Christian Zionist “Christians United for Israel” . An earlier organization, perhaps not as well known in the U.S., is the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem founded in 1980 as a world-wide arm of Christian Zionism.
While Christians United for Israel (CUFI) has sought to distinguish itself from the theology of dispensationalism, it has not quite managed to shake the connection. Senior Editor at Breitbart News, Joel Pollak, wrote an exclusive four days after President Trump relocated the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He quoted John Hagee who explained, “Christians believe that Jerusalem will be the capital city in the Eternal Kingdom ruled by Jesus Christ.” As if to make this clear, Pollak adds in parenthesis, “Religious sources tell Breitbart News that this belief is a tenant of dispensational theology…”
Many Christian Zionists are dispensational evangelicals who adopted a Christian version of Zionism in the 20th century following the wars of 1948, 1967, and 1973. They believe that the final dispensation, or era in God’s plan (the Millennial Reign of Christ), began with Israel returning to the land (1948) and capture of Jerusalem by the State of Israel (1967), as a result of the pre-emptive Israeli strike known as the Six-Day War. According to the pre-millennial view, Christ will return at the height of a climactic battle called Armageddon, to begin a 1000 year rule from the capital city Jerusalem. For these Christian Zionists, this second coming is the apex of God’s plan. With Israel’s return to the land and the unification of Jerusalem the stage is set. Nothing should stand in the way even if the Middle East be thrown into war. Jesus’ second coming is contingent upon the fulfillment of God’s promise to bless Israel with land, security, and prosperity. This second coming is that of a “Deus gloriosus” a victorious God whose rule resembles empire. The awaiting of an imperialistic Christ has distorted the ethics of Christian Zionists and eclipsed any concern for Palestinian justice. The fact that 4 million Palestinians living under occupation, and at least that many living as refugees or in exile (some of whom are Christian) are suffering losses is inconsequential to the Eternal Kingdom about to be won.
Christian Zionists see the 1948 war establishing Israel and the 1967 pre-emptive war, returning to Jerusalem, as literal fulfillments of Zechariah 8: 3 “3 Thus says the Lord: I will return to Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts shall be called the holy mountain.” (NRSV) For Christian Zionists this was a theologically ordained event worthy of Christian awe.
Christian Zionism is a public theology that supports Israel in all its actions. To do so is an act of blessing. Christian Zionists refer to Genesis 12: 1-3, “12 Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’” (NRSV)
For Christian Zionists the promise of the land is permanent and unconditional. They will not accept any peace that would weaken Israel’s hold on the land. The settler colonists of Israel came to stay. Settler colonialism asserts state sovereignty over occupied lands and typically seeks to cleanse as far as possible the indigenous population. Settler colonists foster the falsehood that the land was without people before their arrival while also ironically setting up defenses against the people whose land had been colonized (Both the United States and Israel among other countries are settler colonial states.). Christian Zionists believe they have a divine mandate to support the modern state of Israel, “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.” Christian Zionism fuses religion with politics, rather than places them in dialogue or in prophetic challenge. The removal of settlers for them is not blessed by God. Any criticism of the State of Israel is not only anti-Semitic but also against God’s will. Christian Zionists hold to a theological exceptionalism that sets Israel apart from the requirements of behavior expected of other nations.
Is the land a commodity for annexation or conquest? In a highly significant verse from the Book of Leviticus, God gave the land to Moses and his followers clearly not as a commodity. “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants” (Lev. 25: 23). There seems little warrant in the Bible for the modern State of Israel to claim a deed to ownership of the land.
Christian Zionists believe that the covenant with Abraham is still in effect. The “new covenant” of Christ exists concurrently. To criticize the modern State of Israel and its covenant with God is to engage in “replacement theology,” they would argue, a loaded term that suggests Gentiles replace the Jews. Clearly, God does not replace one race with another. But what if instead of replacement or concurrence, the covenant with God and God’s people is ongoing? One’s understanding of the covenant continues broadening and becoming more inclusive.
As a Christian one needs to ask who is this God with whom we make covenant? How has God revealed God’s self? Christian Theologian John R. Franke sought to answer this in a book Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth (2009). The significance of Christ, he argues, is the Trinity that reveals the plurality that has always been at the heart of God. He quotes approvingly Lamin Sanneh of Yale, “For all of us pluralism can be a rock of stumbling, but for God it is the cornerstone of the universal design.” (p. 88) “As finite creatures,” Franke goes on, “we must surrender the pretensions of a universal and timeless theology. And where we are unwilling to do this, we propagate forms of cultural, ethnic, and racial imperialism under the guise of theology and the Word of God.” (p. 99) This, I believe, is the error of Christian Zionism.
The inclusive love that is at the heart of God is not an assimilating love. God’s covenant is one that embraces diversity. Franke writes, “The Father, Son, and Spirit are one by virtue of their independent relationality, but this unity does not make them the same. They are one in the very midst of their difference.” (p. 61) As a Christian I believe this is the God with whom we are in covenantal relationship. This covenant seeks a harmonious relationship with the other. More than that, it is open to the voice of the other. Again in Leviticus one reads, “you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 19: 34).
Next Steps You Might Wish to Take
Know the Lord your God. Jesus does not come again as an imperial ruler who seeks to dominate God’s subjects as dispensational Christian Zionists would have us believe. Serving such a God sets us on the path of dominating and oppressing others. By contrast, as Episcopalians, we “center our lives on Jesus and following him into loving, liberating and life-giving relationship with God, each other and creation… In all things, we seek to be loving, liberating and life-giving—just like the God who formed all things in love; liberates us all from prisons of mind, body and spirit; and gives life so we can participate in the resurrection and healing of God’s world. TRY THIS: Begin your day by asking: How could my words, actions and heart reflect the loving, liberating, life-giving way of Jesus? Ask God to help you, especially at decision points. At day’s end, with genuine curiosity and zero judgment, ask: When did I see myself or others being loving, liberating or life-giving today? Where do I wish I’d seen or practiced Jesus’ Way?” For more on the Jesus Movement, check out this link.
Intersectionality. Because both the United States and Israel are settler colonial states that have commoditized the land so that it could be annexed, look for intersectionality. Intersectionality seeks to understand how connected systems and structures of power interact. Notice for instance how Black Lives Matter connects with Palestinian aspirations; or how Israeli control over Palestinian water resources mirrors the imposition of the Dakota Access oil pipeline through unceded lands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe bringing potential harm to their drinking water and sacred sites.
Value Diversity while Letting Go of Unearned Privilege. God’s covenant is not tribal but inclusive. Paul wrote to the Galatians saying, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3: 28). The Prophet Ezekiel delivered God’s message of diversity in the land, “You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who reside among you and have begotten children among you. They shall be to you as citizens of Israel… says the Lord God” Ez. 47: 21-23).
For further information critical of Christian Zionism, you may wish to explore this website. To turn your knowledge of Christian Zionism to action there Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA) offers “Confronting Christian Zionism: A Toolkit for Activists and Local Leaders”. There you will find resources for education, non-violent direct action, how to reach out to Representatives in Congress, worship materials, how to hold a Counter-CUFI event and much more. The US Campaign for Palestinian Rights offers resources around intersectionality here.