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Christian Zionism & Anti-Zionism

Christian Zionism & Anti-Zionism

"The events of the last few years have tended to obscure the origin of the ongoing struggle in the Middle East … Behind the big power conferences there are Israelis and Palestinians, two people who claim the same land, two people whose history in the twentieth century includes horror, war, resistance, and survival."

By 1974, Israel was boycotting a United Methodist panel on the Middle East held at the Church Center for the United Nations (located across the street from the UN headquarters in New York), alleging the program was biased towards Arabs. In 1975, Mainline Protestant officials did not mostly deplore the UN's declaration equating Zionism with "racism," although perhaps more out of concern for the UN than for Israel.

In 1976, the United Methodist Church adopted its first official stance on the Middle East, which noted Israeli Jews live with "insecurity," amid a "long history of oppression suffered by Jews," culminating with the Holocaust. It also cited Palestinian "suffering," including "arrests, tortures, and expulsions" by Israelis. It affirmed "self determination" for Jews and Palestinians, including a Palestinian state, while faulting the U.S. for ignoring Palestinian "aspirations." And it urged recognizing the Palestine Liberation Organization.

By the 1980s Mainline Churches were supporting pro-PLO advocacy groups in the U.S., including one headquartered in the Interchurch Center in New York. In the 1990s Mainline church voices were denouncing Jewish settlements urging reconsideration of U.S. aid for Israel." In 1997 a United Methodist "Volunteers- in- Mission" official denounced Israel's crackdown in response to Palestinian suicide bombers, accusing Israel of "ethnic cleansing, racism, and the creating of a Jerusalem for Jews only." Dallas Bishop William Oden, visiting the Middle East in early 2001, complained: "Israel is the only nation that buys arms from us from whom we do not require accountability."

By the start of the 21st century, liberal Protestantism had not only abandoned Christian Zionism, it was denouncing it as heresy. In 2008, the National Council of Churches released a special brochure called "Why We Should Be Concerned About Christian Zionism" to warn its 35 member denominations.

"The danger of this ideology is that it is a manipulation of Christian scripture and teaching," fretted the NCC's interfaith spokesman. "Unfortunately it has influence in American churches, to the point where many well-meaning Christians are swayed to support particularly destructive directions in U.S. foreign policy with regard to the Middle East." Not typically concerned about upholding orthodox theology, the NCC even claimed that Christian Zionists violate the "traditional teachings of the church."

An NCC news release summarized: "'Christian Zionism' is a dangerous movement that distorts the teachings of the Church, fosters fear and hatred of Muslims and non-Western Christians, and has negative consequences for Middle East Peace." It portrayed pro-Israel evangelicals as mindless zealots who are eager to precipitate the End Times, not to mention bigots and paranoid ignoramuses.

The NCC perspective is echoed in even more strident terms by infamously anti-Israel Church of England priest Stephen Sizer, whose book, Zion's Christian Soldiers, warns that, "In its worst forms, Christian Zionism uses the Bible to justify racial superiority, land expropriation, home demolitions, colonial settlements, the denial of international law and the dehumanization of Arabs."

Sizer further complained that Christian Zionism also "provides a biblical justification for U.s. intervention in the Middle East. It is deeply mistrustful of the United Nations and the European Community, and actively opposes the implementation of international law and the right of Palestinians to a sovereign state alongside Israel."

For Sizer, Christian Zionism seems like a plague: "It not only fuels Islamophobia but also anti-Semitism and Islamist retaliation against Christians." His charge that pro-Israel Christians incite "retaliation" against Christians echoes a small but growing sentiment among the Evangelical Left, both British and American, to oppose public critique of jihadist Islam in favor of accommodation.

"Why have Britain and America become the focus of so much hatred from the Islamic world?" Sizer further asked. "Why are our countries the target for Islamist terrorism – despite our commitment to the rule of international law, democracy and human rights?" For Sizer the reasons are clear: "The answers to these questions remain inexplicable unless we factor in what is now probably the most influential and destructive movement amongst Christians today – Christian Zionism."

A softer critique of Christian Zionism is offered by Evangelicals like Lynne Hybels, and groups like World Vision and Telos, who urge a "Pro-Israel. Pro-Palestine. Pro-Peace. Pro-Justice. Pro-Jesus:" agenda. This critique resents and often caricatures the ostensibly simplistic and unquestioning support that Christian Zionists give Israel. They understand that U.S. evangelicals' historically pro-Israel views explain much of America's alliance with Israel. And they clearly hope that persuading many evangelicals into a more neutralist stance, if not openly partial to Palestinians, could have significant geopolitical repercussions.

During the recent Gaza conflict, the head of Telos, Todd Deatherage expressed the therapeutic alternative to Christian Zionism and benignly blogged that a "ceasefire is needed immediately." Neither "acts of terrorism nor aggressive military campaigns" can displace the need for "addressing the fundamental issues underlying the years of violence," he noted, as "each side needs friends who will challenge them to do what is best for their own people, and, at the same time, who will encourage visionary leadership which realizes that the future of the two people is interconnected, that neither is going away, that the pain of grieving mothers is always the same, and that freedom and security for one people cannot be found at the expense of the other."

In a more polemical vein, a film of several years ago aimed at Evangelicals called "With God on Our Side" faulted Christian Zionism for Palestinian suffering, for U.S. military adventurism, and for impeding Christian witness and evangelism among Israel's Arab adversaries.

Articulating a hardliner line old style version of Liberation Theology, a United Methodist theologian, formerly Southern Baptist, Miguel De La Torre, complaining about Netanyahu's reelection, succinctly explained:

"My preferential option towards the Palestinians is because overall, they are the ones who are suffering economic and political oppression. As a liberation theologian, I must stand with Palestinians while remaining ready to also criticize their policies."

Last year, the Presbyterian Church (USA) before adopting anti-Israel divestment, published Zionism Unsettled, which faulted Christian Zionism because it "fuses religion with politics, distorts faith, and imperils peace in the Middle East." Further, "In its liberal Christian manifestations, Zionism serves as a 'price-tag' theology providing Christians with a vehicle of repentance for the guilt accrued during centuries of European Christian anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust." In fact, ""Israeli and American myths of origin are similar and derived from the same biblical sources," Zionism Unsettled noted that "the history and ideology of settler colonialism have been so central to the political history of the United States that it is not surprising the political and religious leadership in the US has been predisposed to uncritical support for the Zionist movement."

At least the liberal Protestant hostility to Christian Zionism, guided by Liberation Theology, is concise and relatively consistent. The more recent Evangelical Left critique is more situational and therapeutic, claiming to be concerned about evangelism, which liberal Protestants decidedly are not. Meanwhile, a neo-Anabaptist twist to the ongoing critique of Christian Zionism, which overlaps the liberal Protestant and Evangelical worlds, portrays it as an ideology of empire, war and domination, largely a particularly sinister manifestation of Constantinianism, with Israel the prong of American militarism.

None of these critiques of Christian Zionism really understand or seriously address the original 19th Century American Christian Zionism which, in rather simple terms, sought to restore a long displaced and tormented people to their ancient homeland, as an act of restorative justice, and for their ongoing protection from persecution, but also, more widely to create a new Zion that would model political and economic justice to the world as well as serve as an ongoing witness of God's faithful fulfillment of His promises.

Blackstone the Methodist and his earnest adherents, mostly Mainline Protestants working with Jewish colleagues in an early manifestation of interfaith collaboration, offered a vision of spiritual and moral beauty that the critics, whether harsh or therapeutic, cannot match.

Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and is a native of Arlington, Virginia. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988, when he wrote a study about denominational funding of pro-Marxist groups for his local congregation. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Virginia. Follow Mark on Twitter @markdtooley.